Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.BR.11.1.10 | PDF

Still Life

Dorothy Wood­man and Aloys Fleischmann

Artist Statement

I wait­ed until Al showed up for the shoot before I removed my pros­the­sis. While he set up the pho­tog­ra­phy equip­ment in my din­ing area, I dashed into the bed­room to wrest it out of the bra’s pock­et, my fin­gers absorb­ing its reflect­ed heat. I want­ed it to be warm, to retain mem­o­ries of my own body as we began, togeth­er, to arrange the still life for our shoot. And I had to fig­ure out how to car­ry it out into my din­ing area where we would take the pho­tographs. Now out­side my cloth­ing it had become strange­ly pub­lic. Just min­utes before it was a sim­u­lacrum, a half-sis­ter to the mound of tis­sue, blood and lymph next to it; now it sat on the Ikea cab­i­net, tip­ping awk­ward­ly on the pol­ished veneer.

Arrang­ing the fruit I had select­ed from stud­ied arrange­ments in the enor­mous store, we took turns slid­ing the pros­the­sis back and forth across the sur­face, squint­ing to deter­mine if its aes­thet­ic place had been locat­ed. All the while, despite our han­dling, it cooled, the ves­tiges of inti­ma­cy evap­o­rat­ing, and fell back into an anony­mous plas­tic­i­ty. Even though I irrev­er­ent­ly fling the lop­sided bra onto a chair at night, think­ing of sling­shots as I lob it, the jok­i­ness of the bed­room some­how couldn’t slide into the din­ing space now crowd­ed with Al’s pho­to­graph­ic equip­ment. The joke was between me and this body part, and now with its relo­ca­tion from body chest to din­ing chest, the seri­ous­ness of its new pub­lic pur­pose became a kind of alien­ation and free­dom at the same time.

This col­lab­o­ra­tion began as a project to dis­rupt and overde­ter­mine cur­rent sig­ni­fi­ca­tions of the breast. For­mer­ly stu­dents in the same doc­tor­al pro­gram, Al and I recon­nect­ed after many years when I con­tact­ed him about my quirky project. We would let the pros­the­sis be a proxy for that icon­ic, cul­tur­al­ly freight­ed body part that was now a dis­tant mem­o­ry for me, for indeed, pub­licly this man­u­fac­tured prod­uct func­tions very well as “my breast.” I want­ed, in our col­lab­o­ra­tion, to expe­ri­ence my/the pros­the­sis oth­er than a neg­a­tive (fak­ery, false con­scious­ness, a fem­i­nist cop-out) or a pos­i­tive (a fak­ery that enabled nor­mal­cy: the glanc­ing eye could be eas­i­ly tricked and so could I; in fact, I often tap my breasts to remind myself which one is “mine”). But, in mov­ing this translu­cent wob­bly, off-cen­tre shape here and then there, I just didn’t know what to make of it/me.

Yet, my asym­met­ri­cal body seemed odd­ly at ease as Al and I worked togeth­er. The dis­tance between half-sis­ters cre­at­ed a new set of rela­tion­ships. Their kin­ship had become expan­sive; the pros­the­sis had now become engaged in a whole new set of dis­cours­es. Why, then, can­not this be the case for flesh? How are the cre­mat­ed remains of the orig­i­nal, uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly expelled, now entan­gled with a mis­cel­lany of dust, still me and not/me? The pros­the­sis, up against my chest, fills up with the revenant of my his­to­ry. Bear­ing air and dust motes jos­tled by straw­ber­ries, haunt­ed, it can­not be extri­cat­ed from my body even as it is turned into an/Other. Yet, as an/Other, it wel­comes me into new kin­ships with myself, encour­ag­ing me to expe­ri­ence my body as intrin­si­cal­ly frag­ment­ed, proces­su­al, off-cen­tre, an assem­blage of parts that slip on and off, into and out of, mul­ti­ple sites of engagement.


A decade ago, Dorothy and I were walk­ing through the court­yard at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta. She’d just returned to our doc­tor­al pro­gram, and she had been telling me about her expe­ri­ence with can­cer. By then our con­ver­sa­tion had moved on to pol­lu­tion and glob­al warm­ing, and I made a wise­crack about us all dying of can­cer. I phys­i­cal­ly stum­bled, I recall, at the effort to stop the words that were pour­ing out of my mouth. Too late. If it reg­is­tered at all with Dorothy, I’m guess­ing she filed it under “faux pas” and moved on to the next top­ic. But I’ve always been like this—my casu­al ban­ter veers sud­den­ly into the mor­tal­i­ty it was meant to avoid. The last time I saw my uncle in law … the final time … he had devel­oped incred­i­bly aggres­sive lung can­cer, the prod­uct of work­ing in the New Mex­i­co desert while the army test­ed nuclear weapons. I made a joke about the end­ing of War and Peace. Read­ing it was on his buck­et list and, sad­ly, he was halfway through. “Every­one dies,” I quipped urbane­ly. My aunt jumped in to change the sub­ject: “Oh, well now you’ve giv­en the end­ing away,” she inter­ject­ed, her eyes wide. But I didn’t know the end­ing. I prob­a­bly nev­er will.

This wasn’t my first rodeo, so as we planned the shoot, I watched my lan­guage. I noticed I tend­ed to refer to the pros­the­sis as an “implant.” Because it was sil­i­cate? I’m inclined to think of pros­thet­ics as met­al rods with plas­tic cas­ings. Or per­haps it was a defense mech­a­nism, a way of hid­ing the grav­i­ty of Dorothy’s expe­ri­ence behind a glit­ter­ing wall of mass media cul­ture, where implants are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly treat­ed as a con­ces­sion made by sec­ond-rate tal­ents to their unso­phis­ti­cat­ed audi­ences and a cel­e­bra­tion of con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion by pow­er­ful women. This mar­ket­place log­ic leaves lit­tle room to think about implant­ed breasts and their illu­so­ry full­ness as a response to the fail­ure of biology—of meat—to main­tain the eter­nal geom­e­try of an ide­al­ized curve. Was I flee­ing the mor­tal­i­ty of the cold Lati­nate sound of pros­the­sis for the warmer vow­els of implant? This is not whim­sy: the verb-based root of pros­the­sis is “to add,” while the root of implant is “to plant” (also Lati­nate). The pros­the­sis lies atop the skin, the implant takes root under­neath and grows. I real­ized how often I had said “flesh out the con­cept” dur­ing the plan­ning phase—how many times my words had wished liv­ing tis­sue over Dorothy’s con­cept, and her prosthesis.

Roland Barthes pop­u­lar­ized the idea of studi­um and punc­tum. Pho­tog­ra­phers often take studi­um to mean a pleas­ant stan­dard com­po­si­tion, while punc­tum is that jar­ring pin­prick of con­trast that gives the pho­to its con­tem­pla­tive appeal. Yet con­trast was always part of stan­dard com­po­si­tion, and most like­ly always will be. If any­thing punc­tu­ates the clin­i­cal blue image for me, it’s that per­fect focus on the ser­i­al num­bers of Dorothy’s breast. It was dark, and I had to use a very wide aper­ture for the shot; I orig­i­nal­ly planned to edit two focal points togeth­er but chose to dis­card the for­ward-focused image. Or could punc­tum be less a punc­ture, and more the full frame uncan­ni­ness that comes out of imi­tat­ing a squared two-dimen­sion­al paint­ing with a cam­era whose rota­tion­al axis kept slip­ping into unwant­ed depths? (I should have brought my “heavy” tri­pod.) And, as we widen out fur­ther, as we take in the two peo­ple and all the appa­ra­tus in that late-after­noon din­ing room stu­dio, how do I name the dif­fi­cul­ty of show­ing in real time Dorothy’s pros­the­sis is still warm?