Two women are talking against a striking background of ancient ruins. There are shadows that crawl across a broken Roman pavement as the indolent sun continues to rise. The conversation is fragmented, insistently winding around the sense of something lost. The weather is splendid. There are no men around—neither dressed in togas nor performing any of the rituals of a lost Republic, as there is no Empire to defend. Just these two women with musical voices, whose age we cannot guess, passionately talking about something lost. This is how Anita Sieff begins her film On Public, and how she announces what would become a larger project, of subsequent and systematically shot short films. Together the series mourns a certain notion of community but also opens the doors for its possible reinvention—as if sometimes mourning could become the most effective form of celebration.
But let’s return to On Public, because this is the subject of the scintillating dialogue between the two women. One of them asks, “Why have you stopped it?” And the other responds, “Because it is not possible anymore.” Her answer negates, but her words and her expression are not of denial, but of joy. In this film, as is often the case in Sieff’s work, the topic of the conversation seems endlessly abstract. For the audience of the film, On Public will signify primarily the public dimension of interpersonal relationships, the res publica, or the very foundation of the public sphere as defined in modern times. When one of the two women laments the loss of public, she seems to argue that any dimension of public solidarity, of the very possibility of a community, has become lost or is already lost. The answers of Monica Samassa — the actress whose presence reoccurs in many of Sieff’s recent films—are always playful but equally endowed with a classical sobriety. For her there can be no more “public” —at least not in its traditional meaning. It is only after coming to terms with that fact that there could emerge a possibility to move somewhere else, far from the ruins.
Public is also—maybe primarily so, but never exclusively—the title of a project that Sieff conducted from 1996 to 2002 mostly in collaboration with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The project consisted of a series of talks and encounters among an ever-changing cast of characters who—by gathering around the notion of a gathering—invented an open form of exchange that would itself be a possible model for a community. Venice, which figures prominently in Sieff’s films, is the smallest of the truly cosmopolitan cities. It is nevertheless a city in which the dynamics of mass tourism and the progressive transformation of almost every urban space into some sort of commodity increasingly excludes any form of exchange outside of this new economy of spaces and people. Through Public, Sieff attempts to establish new social rituals in a city that seems to have been rapidly and irremediably forsaking them.
Since her early films such as Missed 1, Missed 2 and People Never Change, Sieff has always been concerned with recording and exploring the interactions between people—people who are never alone, or isolated, but who always find themselves in the very midst of cities. Although at first the urban settings—Venice and New York are recurring presences—seem to be mere backgrounds, Sieff soon reveals how they weigh upon those relationships. Missed 1 and Missed 2 are highly allegorical films about desire, and they recall Goethe’s celebrated Elective Affinities of 1809 in which a cast of characters are brought together with unpredictable results. Sieff presents us with combinations of people that come together like planets gravitating toward each other, attracted or repulsed according to their ever-changing position in an urban universe that threatens to over-determine them. The silence that looms over the first two films allows us to see the actors (Sieff always casts both professional and amateur actors in her films) almost as pure bodies. The camera evidences this fact by caressing them and exposing the warmth that the city exudes around them, like a silky blanket in shades of black and white. These early films were shot using a 16 millimeter camera, and the filmic quality—replaced by the rougher, jumpier quality of the video in Sieff’s later work—evokes a dream-like quality perfectly suited for an allegorical narrative.
That narrative first tells of two and three people, learning and unlearning the ways in which desire subjects their gazes and their bodies to each other and to the city. Sieff seems to be telling us that a film is a temporal constellation purely defined by looking and waiting. Then, in People Never Change, Sieff seems to thicken the narrative, as she constructs it as one would a collage of disparate segments that parody a number of well-established film and television conventions—film noir, music clips, soap opera. The overall sense of loss continues to prevail, but now the actors talk, performing what they seem to believe is an endlessly repeated ritual: to attract, to seduce, to repel. Video is ideally suited to reflect upon and recreate this equivocal situation, one marked by schisms and ultimately signed by frustration. As much as the inherent materiality and fabricated conventions of film seem to stand for desire and interpersonal relationships for Sieff, video, as deployed in her work, seems to vacate the possibility of a public dimensions.
It is only logical that Sieff would have, at this point, thoughts of abandoning film altogether and establishing instead a methodology that would permit her to perform these spontaneous rituals in real life. Public seems to have allowed her to do exactly that. Her return to film, after that long and ultimately frustrating experience, could certainly be read retrospectively as inevitable, a process framed by the very structure of desire and loss that her early films so implacably defined.
In the meantime it could even be said that the personal loss had in fact become collective loss—that the apparent “failure” of the expansive and overarching ambition of the artist’s project seems to be elicited precisely through the dialogue between those two elegiac women lost among the classical ruins of Adrian’s Villa near Rome. Sieff never takes herself too seriously, and in order to enact this moment of loss that is also a moment of profound recognition, she chooses to simultaneously parody and pay homage to the convention of classical tragedy. Her women—not her men—are heroic in that they stand against loss and still rejoice, walking away from the ruins without obliterating their inevitable presence, in true Nietzchean fashion.
Fashion would in fact become the point of departure for Sieff’s most recent Fashion Weather Forecast series, the first and last episodes of which are featured in the current program of the Film and Video Gallery (more installments will likely be coming in the future). Initially conceived as a pilot program for a potential TV series, Fashion Weather Forecast paradoxically makes blatant Sieff’s complete disregard and distrust for the conventions of television. Her Fashion Weather Forecast is in fact non-linear, utterly discursive, playful and gracefully endowed with humor and self-awareness. This time Monica Samassa—who is again the heroine and in this instance seems constantly distressed by her wardrobe decisions, her complex love life and the rapidly changing setting—comes forcefully across as a loving and memorable character, as if straight from a novel by Jane Austen rewritten by Samuel Beckett. The two episodes of the Fashion Weather Forecast are hilarious, in a truly philosophical manner. Even when facing the end of all times in the second installment, Monica lets no regret weigh down upon her determined optimism, her will to live. This series has allowed Sieff to freely juxtapose the languages of film and video, using one to reflect on the other, inevitably reminding us of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoires du Cinema. But Sieff’s perspective is always anchored in parody and defined by the worldview of Monica, an attractive woman approaching the inevitability of middle age, for which clothes have come to signify the possibility for endless metamorphosis.
The concluding image of the second episode may perhaps be taken for the perfect allegorical conclusion to the series: Monica, wonderfully undressed simultaneously self-absorbed and expansive, lies immersed in a glow, beyond conventional notions of beauty, radiating perpetual warmth.
Carlos Basualdo, 2008.