“Eighty Sad Women” by Esme Chapman Jones

Sad boys are on the rise. Sad girls are old news, you might say. But not actually. Weakness can no longer be set against strength, nor can weakness simply be tagged as its own kind of power. That supposes that power is the only goal, and that we’re all fine with it attracting and consuming everything. It seems like everyone is trying to reframe their sadness to push against an idea of dominance, and really parse out how this called misery might be incredibly necessary.

In the media, and, especially, advertising, sadness and its sisters—aggression, apathy, pain—are shunted cultural currents. They are alluded to through sarcasm and irony and almost never addressed directly. Happiness is a given and sadness is a myth, and this is where Esme comes in.

“I am interested in the idea of mythology relative to both cinematic history and online culture; how our experience of the everyday is shaped by things we observe and participate in, second-hand, whether through film, digital media, photography, or the internet. Increasingly, there is a disconnect between the time/space reality of the everyday, and a heightened elaboration, or staging, of the subjects of cinema, film, and social media. I find that these distinctions between form are becoming gradually blurred as we encounter fictions or processes of myth that emerge out of the everyday.”

Eighty Sad Women consists of a slide show of 80 images projected in relative darkness from a Kodak Carousel—80 being the exact amount of slides able to fit into the device. The works are projected at 6-second intervals onto the wall of the space. When performed, Eighty Sad Women gestures towards a discussion of projection onto and out from the female body, which is where Esme and I focussed much of our discussion.


Esme: The first ‘sad women’ I found were Elaine and Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate. Within a ten second interval you see both Mrs. Robinson and her daughter’s distressed faces, and that’s where the whole thing began. It’s hard to say exactly what drew me to these images in particular, as the work I make is all interrelated to some degree. I have had an interest for some time in the process of abstracting or reducing images by separating them from their original context, and Eighty Sad Women began as an application of that.

This piece looks at a collective, yet narrow, cinematic history; how cinema mirrors real social history, but also how cinema shapes our perception of reality, namely, female stereotypes. At the same time, I wanted to create an overwhelming visceral experience separate from the actor playing the part, the reality of the remembered or documented event, and the experience of the cinema-going audience. As such, I have attempted to create an environment where all these women are unified through their basic emotion.

Natalia: I feel that what drew me to the project was just that idea of a “narrow cinematic history.” Although the eighty images can not be called comprehensive, the act of tracing this motif across such a wide range of films puts films in dialogue with each other that may never have been put in relation before, such as Zoolander and Contempt. It is a non-hierarchical space where all kinds of films are given equal weight. How do you feel about the connections the project has fostered?

E: I like that you picked up on me saying “a narrow cinematic history.” This history is my history; films I have seen at various stages in my life. I am fascinated by the process of finding connections between things that ostensibly don’t seem to have any. That’s what I mean when I talk about the processes of fiction and myth emerging from the everyday, because that’s what I get really inspired by.

In terms of the connections between individual films, I was surprised at how the film’s genre did not necessarily dictate the image I found. Some look quite dramatic and comical, others more dispassionate, and quite often they were not reflective of the ambiance of the film as a whole. I often experiment with narrative by attempting to remove narrative from pre-existing materials, or creating my own narrative by abstraction, as I feel that this reflects the warped way in which I absorb media. Perceptions and interpretations change drastically when perceived first-, second-, and third-hand, and sometimes it can be hard to filter out what is valuable and what is expendable.

N: Seeing as you are interested in the idea of narrative, I wonder if you have any thoughts about this continued narrative of the ‘sad woman’ across film as a whole. What your piece seems to be pointing to, among other things, is how the sad woman is a kind of trope or cliche around the idea of femininity. Do you feel that your incentive was to reclaim this image back from the lenses of predominantly male directors?

E: I think as one work, the images are very seductive. A lot of the shots are alluring and glamorous in the context of their films, but when taken out of the narrative of the film as whole, and put together with other visually similar images, the series draws attention to the perpetuated idea in mainstream cinema of women being weak and overly emotional. Also, these women are often of a so-called ‘standard beauty.’ They are overtly glamorous and, within their roles, they are often portrayed as morally ambiguous characters, or have very little character at all. This does not mean, however, that I think these films are without merit. I am drawing attention to something, particularly this presumed weakness, or standard model of beauty, but that doesn’t mean that I am not the victim, or indeed perpetrator, of it myself.

Hollywood is incredibly persuasive and, sometimes, especially when I was a bit younger, I would find myself following suit in terms of how I thought women should look and behave in certain situations. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where the fiction ends and reality begins in that sense. I draw attention to it in order to question it myself, in a way that is actually highly personal. I think that something related to this sentiment is put rather well in Christopher’s Isherwood’s book A Single Man where he says something along the lines of, When we admit our own prejudices we are far less likely to persecute instead of just trying to ignore it. When watching films as a woman, I am engaging in the male gaze and I need to recognise that. However, in terms of claiming back the gaze and reclaiming the image of femininity, I don’t think that was so much the intention of my work. I have recognised a disconnect between this kind of portrayal of women in cinema and the everyday reality of which I am highly critical, but the incentive, as with much of my practice, is to work through those ideas throughout the making process, and I was interested in exploring what these images did to me as a viewer and how I interacted with them.

N: These images are almost all dark and grainy. The images perform each women’s emotion, and this piece, projected in a dark room, re-inscribes that performance. Your relationship to found imagery is incredibly intimate, tactile, and alive.

E: Flare from the screen, skewed angles, discolouration, and dust have been left in, helping to create a separation from the original image while at the same time attempting to represent the immersive quality of cinema. This emergent aesthetic allows me and my work/practice to reflect on the ideas of memory in both the ideological and technological terms that come from using digital and analogue media. To some extent, this is an attempt to convert the digital, something considered ephemeral and non-physical, into something more tactile, back into the physical realm.
And everything is illuminated.

She has a bachelors degree in fine art from Central Saint Martin College of Art and Design, London. She lives and works in Copenhagen, Denmark. See more of her work at esmechapmanjones.com.


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