FRAMED (texts by Maggie Cardelus, Maria Anna Potocka, Antonio Somaini, Bernice Steinbaum, Paola Ugolini)

These words speak of births, deaths, awards and illness, stardom and tragedy. We are under threat by our own bodies and minds that at any moment can betray us, as well as by a myriad of unwieldy external forces that have the power to raise us or sink us, the greatest power lying in the hands of the media. At the heart of mediatic power is the photograph, cunningly able to weave its web of magic and desire over even the most resistant of critics.

We are led by the artists to unmask the forces at work in the image and see these women for who they are, individuals at times strong, at times weak, at times fortunate, at times not, who in one phase of their lives sought to be a part of the brave new media world, but for one reason or another, abandoned that dream. The carefully and shrewdly constructed photographs of Hollywood studios have a quality of permanence, as though somehow protected from the cruelties that hang over the ordinary person. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Each star’s photo is accompanied by a text, whose cold indifference you can almost hear as a narrational voice-over giving us a glimpse into their real lives. It takes but a second to unmask the lure of the image and see it shrivel up in our minds like the portrait of Dorian Gray, and we find ourselves facing our own vulnerability and ephemerality.

The elaborately presented, oval images connect to western memorializing traditions. The artists want us to accept these women as people no different from us, somehow related to us, who were drawn into an elaborate forcefield of power and interest that rendered them even more vulnerable. In order to emphasise their similar but different status, the domestic frames are blown out of scale and polished, serialized, nodes in a system as merciless as a grid, as merciless as a machine. These stars, as fate would have it, very quickly learned how suddenly the system will return their images to the mantelpiece.

Framed is the word reinvented by Iaia Filiberti and Debora Hirsch to define the stop of the artistic career of those actresses.

FRAMED BOOK (texts by Maggie Cardelus, Antonio Somaini)

(...) What is a star? Or better, what was a star within that classical Hollywood cinema which between the 1920s and the 1950s had generated a real star system? Writing in 1957 from a country, France, which at that time was witnessing the blossoming of the stardom of Brigitte Bardot, Edgar Morin presents his answer from the vantage point of what he calls “an ethnography of nonprimitive societies” : an ethnography which aimed at unveiling and analyzing the archaic which is still woven within the texture of Western modernity. “The star – writes Morin – is on the border between the aesthetic and the magic. She overcomes the skepticism of the spectator-consciousness, which always knows that it is participating in an illusion” . Starting from the theses he had presented a year before in his The Cinema, or the Imaginary Man , Morin considers the phenomenon of the stars as emblematic of that coexistence of the modern and the archaic in which lies the power of cinema. A modern divinity, the star is at the same time a product, a construct, meticulously crafted and planned in all its manifestations, and a cult object. It is both the focal center of a cinema conceived as entertainment industry, and the symptom of a persistent need for magic which haunts modern society.

At the time that Morin was writing The Stars, the star cult proliferated in a variety of forms that accompanied and reinforced what viewers saw at the movies. The film star – whose life was obsessively followed and literally consumed by a public who needed to project itself and identify with the star’s exemplary life of romance and excess – radiated his or her glow through print and television, gossip columns and advertising. The images of these carefully constructed intermedial divinities meandered through and infiltrated a wide range of channels that pulled them off the screen and brought them closer to their public. One of these material channels, thousands of miles away from Hollywood, were small, collectible photo portrait-cards that circulated during the 1950s and 1960s in Italy, a country then thriving in its post-war economic boom. This is where Iaia Filiberti and Debora Hirsch's Framed finds its starting point, in the accidental rediscovery of an old tin box full of well-worn star cards.

 (...)

“Collect the photos to make a complete artist series”. “With these orginal photos you will make the best collection of stars in cinema history”. “Send us 100 loose photos for verification. We will send them back to you with a magnificent 290mm soccer ball”. “18. Claire Kelly in the film Ask any girl (MGM)”. “29. Rhonda Fleming in the film Gun Glory (MGM)”… These texts written on the backs of the cards show the ways in which the Hollywood myth insinuated itself into the very fabric of the everyday. The myth here finds a foothold in the rituals of collecting and card trading, and were even given away at the supermarket as discount points: 100 star cards would win you a soccer ball, a mother’s dream for a son’s dream. Printed in the thousands, the star cards assumed a trade value that could be exchanged between collectors, used to play games, or traded in for other merchandise. The star cards, miniaturized, made manageable (handled, swapped, ordered) and given specific trade value, gave the collector the illusion of ownership and power. More importantly, perhaps, they maintained, even enriched the aura of divine stardom. Their accummulation and circulation offered their owners the opportunity to cultivate an “infinite time of rêverie” , that like a continuous daydream created a sense that this world of small and governable images would acquiesce and divulge the secrets of their universe.

The cards rediscovered by Filiberti and Hirsch had moved through different spaces of exchange in the post-war years in Italy to be collected by one person into the unified space of a vintage Japanese camphor tin, a serendipitous choice when one takes note that in the first half of this century 80% of all camphor produced went into the production of film and celluloid, and like the Hollywood monopoly on film stars, Japan had the monopoly on camphor. The artists chose to carry these images into various other spaces over the next two years, choosing to abandon the disarray and intimacy of the tin box.

For their first project, they chose to ignore the varied sources of the cards and selected 100 images from the camphor box, enlarged and cropped them into 25cm x 16cm ovals, set them behind thick oval plexiglass, and hung on the wall, each framed by a large adhesive frame shaped like the ones we see in the book. The images were organized on the walls in a grid and we were informed, with accompanying text handouts (similar to the ones we find later in the book), of the various facts of their lives and were forced to recognize that these women were only ordinary human beings with dreams themselves and plenty of failures. Some of the installation’s defining words were order, silence, memory, vulnerability, homage, and untouchability. Walking through the space of this paper and plexiglass cemetery we saw a progression of tombs that made one think of the unfulfilled ambitions of these actresses, or perhaps of their rejection of a system that they found intolerable. On the one hand we were asked, through the texts, to get close to the real lives of the women behind the star image, while on the other hand their new scale and fixed placement behind 2.5 cm of plexiglass denied us the quality of the original print, as well as the accessibility and intimate manageability of the trading cards. We were shut out from the rêverie and promise of knowledge provided by the materiality of the miniature and given instead real knowledge of the women’s lives. It is as though the act of giving up the secrets of the stars made the photos give up their scale, tactility, intimacy, and magic.

Filiberti and Hirsch then continued to work on their project and for a time set aside the tin box and returned to the films in which their 100 stars were cast as leading ladies. The artists chose one film segment per star and edited the 100 segments together into an approx. 30 min video sequence, each segment accompanied by an edited version of the original text. It seemed like the artists had carefully selected the segments like scholars examining the prophesy books, to identify for each star the precise moment that foretold her impending fall from stardom. Here the stars were reclaimed for the present in a compelling operation of returning them to the screen where, as viewers, we were teased by their 20 seconds of magic but not allowed to fully indulge because we were again constrained to participate in the drama of their biographies as real people and made hyper-aware of their performances as career swan songs.

Filiberti and Hirsch continued to develop Framed by returning again to the original material and recontextualizing it into another form, this book. Our divas are now returned to print on paper and we are given a new set of conditions in which to examine the images. Like the trading cards we can feel a sense of ownership and like the trading cards we are allowed to return to them over and over again. We may choose to read or ignore their biographies. The book format allows us to easily examine the pictures because they are neither miniatures nor walled-in by 2.5cm of plexiglass nor disturbed by overlaid text. The images reassume all the compelling quality of the archaic, magical presence described by Morin, a presence deposited over time on the surface of the glamour shot. In the light of what we know of the film and installation versions of the work, these photographs aren’t obliged to foretell the future, nor are they inaccessible visual epitaphs organized in rows, but they stubbornly inhabit a liminal zone between life and death. We are poised in an uneasy balance between the magic of the image and the facts of the text and can lean one way or another depending on our inclination. The book form of this project is perhaps the format that most successfully re-evokes the tensions these women actually lived as they attempted to find a balance between their real lives and their careers as actresses.

Iaia Filiberti’s and Debora Hirsch's ongoing project Framed and the images of stars that emerged from the Hollywood golden age are inextricably, vitally, linked by the continuous shift between movement and stillness, life and death, and the power that this connection has to generate fascination. From the motion of the actual films to the stillness of the glamour shots, back to movement and stillness through their circulation in their intermedial forms during the following decades, these images start and stop up to the moment when Filiberti and Hirsch step in to reclaim the portrait cards and return them to circulation in a new context, the art world, that repositions the images in a new space of signification as the real lives and deaths of these stars come into play. Here we are asked to look at them as both stars and women in installation form, as a found-footage video, and now as a bound book, and each step of the way the passage from movement to stillness, from one form to another, demands a rereading, a reconsideration of how all the elements discussed thus far are held in a balance and how they express the complexity and contradictions inherent in the visual manifestations of the movie world. All this depended on 100 stars taking 100 round trips to Hollywood. Unlike real lives, the images continue to come back, pitting stillness against movement, and will continue to do so as we flip through the pages of this book.

 

Interview with Paola Ugolini

“Framed” is an English term that has a literal meaning of “set in a frame” (as a picture) and a slang meaning of “walled in” as in imprisoned;  Debora Hirsch and Iaia Filiberti use this same word to describe the sudden halt in the careers of one hundred Hollywood celebrities between the ‘20s and the close of the ‘50s.  The two artists have done an impressive job of recovering the forgotten lives of some women who, for a period of variable length during their lives experienced the thrill of success, the lure of celebrity, the seduction of power, and, often, the sorrow of oblivion and the demise.  Some of these beauties among the beautiful used their intelligence and remarkable will power and managed not to be consumed by the mechanisms of fame, reinventing another life for themselves, different but no less worthy of living, as mothers, or as business managers, UN ambassadors, or even as research scientists;  others, however, did not know how to overcome the shock of the demise, which usually occurred at an age between 30 and 35 years, ending up alone, destitute, or prey to dependencies on alcohol and drugs;  others, still, paid dearly for their decisions as independent women, in favour of pregnancies or weddings not approved by the producers, pounds in excess, lives too immoderate to then be credible on the screen in “the girl next door” roles; all too often these factors were decisive in putting an abrupt end to the career, women who were often talented but had dared to challenge the strict rules of the most efficient and heartless star systems in the world.  Hollywood is a magic name that can still today conjure up the most durable of American dreams, that of the celluloid that can transform a pretty girl into a planetary star, that can send you up in a shining bubble, over and above everyone else, but also, from one day to the next, can make mincemeat of you, if your face and figure no longer correspond to the canons that the dream-makers have constructed for you.

The two artists thoroughly researched their subject to dissect the hidden mechanisms that created the star’s personality, trying to show us these women for what they were: strong human beings, yet very fragile, often so consumed by the idea of their beauty and their role as to prefer physical death to oblivion; while a few were fortunate enough to live a satisfying life as wives and mothers, most were not.

Today these actresses, often forgotten after having tasted the thrill of fame, make their comeback in the medium-length film realized by the two artists; like a magnificent collage, the film brings back their faces captured at the peak of their youth and success—just a few seconds, but enough to sum up a life eternally frozen in the present that only cinema can give to each of its queens and to each of its victims.

Paola Ugolini– Am I mistaken, or does your exploration of these Hollywood stars and their broken careers actually have polemical-feminist overtones? These actresses who existed only for a brief and glorious moment, since in many cases they were already considered old at age thirty, are the proof of the inhumanity of the golden world of Hollywood, a dream factory run exclusively by men.

Iaia Filiberti– I’d describe “Framed” as a “political-sociological-psychological” work, in the sense that this project interested us for the extrapolation of categories of women, of which the actresses we took into consideration are the icons: some were brilliant performers, true stars, who were devastated by the ending of their careers; others had the strength to take a positive approach to that dramatic moment, managing to reinvent a different life for themselves.  One example stands for all: Errol Flynn’s ex-wife, who, unable to make a comeback after her husband’s death, managed to recycle herself as a successful businesswoman—she’s one of those who managed to transform themselves and to move on.  Others, instead, continued their career in television or in theatre, perhaps even accepting second-rated roles just to stay in the star system; others, who for fragility or because too sensitive—and I say this without any sort of moral judgment—could not cope and slipped into the tunnel of alcoholism, or drugs, or committed suicide.  Still others, even before the producers stopped calling them, sensed what was about to happen in time, and voluntarily retired from the scene, completely reversing their priorities.  Irene Dunne, for example, after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, dedicated herself body and soul to voluntary services, to the extent that at one point she was appointed delegate to the United Nations.  So, we extrapolated a broad array of lives that, starting from the golden world of Hollywood, in many cases became existences not so different from what any one of us could have.

Debora Hirsch– I consider this work an exploration of life’s course, too.  For me, the “Framed” women are completely different from the myths, like Marilyn Monroe; if I had to make a comparison from art history, two sculptors come to mind, Auguste Rodin and Medardo Rosso: the former, a skilful interpreter of classical sculpture, high-flown and eternal, and then Medardo Rosso, the opposite, who did busts of common people with their feelings, ephemeral, fragile—for me, the “Framed” are like Medardo Rosso’s sculptures, and the Hollywood myths, like Rodin’s.

IF– Talking about myths, I’d like to point out that when we decided to do “Framed”, all the female icons populating our collective imagination, such as Marilyn, were discarded, and then it was not at all easy to select the 100 actresses who could best represent the “Framed” project.

PU– Debora, talking about “life’s course”, one of your works is very interesting in this regard, where you represent your face frozen in various stages of life, from a rounded youth to a furrowed retirement age, so that growing old, fading beauty, and the efforts women make to keep it as long as possible all come under the sphere of your artistic research.

DH–  Life’s course, in effect, is an exploration that could also be applied to almost any human female category, but we chose precisely that of the actresses because it is easy to recover information about their lives, we can still see them in action while they perform in their films, frozen in a sort of eternal celluloid youth, while for other people who had different jobs, it is more complicated to investigate.  All this on a personal level gave us a lot of food for thought, because many of them, I think 30%, ended up suicides or alcoholics or completely addicted to drugs, or they died destitute and forgotten, and we, who studied their choices, their errors, found ourselves with a great deal to think about even in terms of our own lives ...

PU– Well, it was a sort of psychoanalytical investigation ...

DH– Yes, for me it was ...

IF–  For me too, in fact, personally, there were times that I felt such an intense emotional involvement that I had to force myself to take breaks, I was so deeply moved sometimes that I actually identified with the experiences of some actresses whom I felt were particularly close to me... I mean, I even had some sleepless nights ...

PU– So this work also represents, in addition to a deep intellectual and documentary inquiry, a strong emotional involvement...

DH–  Yes, and this contrast between the detachment of the final aesthetic result and all the involvement, the pathos that was behind it, is very important...

IF– In fact, if you noticed, in the technical descriptions that accompany each actress, and which, of course, are a super-distillation of their experience, Debora and I never wanted to pass a personal judgment, we never became prim little teachers with our red pens saying “we like this one, this one no, this one was a better actress, this one worse....”; we tried to be completely objective and to treat them all with the appropriate intellectual detachment, even though for some, as I mentioned, there was doubtlessly an emotional involvement ... precisely because we truly wanted to carry out an objective study, objective, but at the same time dense with pathos, and I can tell you that I am not ashamed to admit that I am very fond of some of these women.

PU– But tell me how you both met professionally.

DH– In Milan in 2003, we took part together in a big show of public art entitled “Cittazioni”, which was deployed in various locations, and that was when, a good 7 years before we started working together, we met each other...

IF– Since that show we stayed in touch, but in a very fluid way, each carried on with her own life on apparently parallel rails, until we ran into one another again at an opening, and as we were both getting a little bored, we went to a pub to drink an aperitif and since then started talking and practically have never stopped...

PU– Really nothing in life ever happens by chance, so how was the “Framed” project conceived? What took you from Milan to Hollywood, to black and white film, and to explore the lives of some of the most famous stars from the 1920s to the 1950s?

DH– Among the various working hypotheses we had under consideration, there was—and it stood above all the others—a tin box from the ‘50s that for us was the meeting with destiny...inside this container, which came to us from a past that was not even very remote, was a collection of small black and white photographs of Hollywood actresses from the ‘20s to the ‘50s, and these images fascinated us.

IF– The little box had been given to me some time ago by my companion’s mother, who was certain that I would make good use of it...

DH– I think that this legendary little box is a little bit magic, because one day, I dropped in at Iaia’s house just when she was looking at the little black and white photos of the actresses, and I was stunned by them, I began to ask myself who all these beautiful women, unknown to me, were, who had been languishing there for years, mixed together with famous faces like those of Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth..., and so, setting out with the names written in white in the margins of the images, we started a voyage back in time to find out about the lives of these women who for a brief moment glittered like stars.

IF–  In effect, the story is a little bit magic...it is the work that issued from me, not I who sought it out, there were also photos of men, of actors, but we immediately discarded them, just as we eliminated the legendary actresses.  These small black and white photos were given out in the 1950s with the packages of certain household products, or with boxes of pastry shop sweets, and they are the precursors of the Panini picture cards with images of football players or animals, they were pasted into albums, and the box I had been given probably contained the duplicates, the ones that were used for trading, like I’ll give you a Marilyn for two other less famous actresses ...

DH– I must say that right now, we’ve been left with a lingering curiosity about the male actors, I mean we’ve often wondered what kind of curve the lives of the male colleagues of our actresses followed, when the actresses were eliminated by the majors after reaching about age thirty, when they could no longer be considered objects of desire ... who knows, maybe an inquiry into the lives of the men could be a future development of this work ...

PU– Personally, I think that men have always been less slaves of beauty and of youth at all costs, even if they are actors...

IF– Of course, in fact, “Framed” is a work based on a crucial point:  beauty, as long as the figure and the face corresponded with a precise aesthetic ideal, the contract was renewed, otherwise the rescission was immediate and not appealable...

PU– In fact, it is certainly true that the appearance of a wrinkle marked the end of a career ... such a violent world ...

DH– Recently I saw a very interesting film, “Frost-Nixon”, in which towards the end, the ex-president of the most powerful nation in the world tells how difficult it is, after knowing and experiencing the thrill of power and success, to return to normal life, maybe spending your time on the golf course and not in the control room. I immediately made the connection with our “Framed” actresses, who, in fact, often unable to bear the greyness of normal life, preferred suicide.

IF– Indeed, it is no coincidence that to convey the sadness of the demise, we chose Hollywood, and that about 95% of our video is made from fragments of films produced by that dream industry that Hollywood was, and still is—the world’s most powerful and important, because, everybody knows, the longer the plunge, the greater the pain...

PU– This work of yours on the non-myths, on the curve of the rise and fall, on femininity as a cruel synonym for beauty and youth, seems so important for raising a feminine-feminist consciousness...

IF– The term feminist has been abused and I do not identify with it; it’s like going back to the 1970s, and although I’m grateful for the struggles led by our older sisters, thanks to which today we enjoy greater privileges compared to 50 years ago, I still prefer to speak of “female consciousness”, which retains its dignity and importance, even in heels.

DH– With this work we have created an imposing memorial, aesthetically appealing, but certainly not reassuring, a memorial to a world that is the “dark side of the Hollywood dream”, never explored before now so extensively. Or better, a memorial to human consciousness of the vulnerability and limit of its own existence...