concept, make-up, set design and photography
Pathologizing feminine emotionality or depicting it as a biologically inevitable symptom of female madness, is a commonly used strategy to preserve patriarchal hegemony as well as an effective method to silence and discredit voices of (feminist) opposition and protest. But it is also a mechanism that comes into action in society’s dealing with almost any minority’s issues, especially in the discourses of Race and Gender.
Throughout history „female madness“ has been pathologized, one of the many fatal as well as probably most quoted and depicted cases being the one of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. The „tragic“ story of this „hysteric“ young woman is the epitome of a female figure deprived of thought, language and
sexuality. When Ophelia is „mad“, her voice is discredited and is deemed worthless in front of the court. Furthermore, as in „Much Ado About Nothing“, the word „nothing“ was used in Elizabethan era to refer to the female genitalia. In this sense, Ophelia becomes the beautiful and haunting incarnation of nothingness, intertwining female insanity with female sexuality and death.
„[Ophelia’s] liminal (and ventriloquized) presence in the play is in fact plausibly, if paradoxically, rendered by images of pure absence.“
(Remedios Perni, „At the Margins: Ophelia in Modern and Contemporary Photography“, in „The Afterlife of Ophelia“, 2012, S. 207)
Valerie Reding believes that female protest and feminist activism can take many different forms. Current mainstream liberal feminism, as it’s being virally spread through pop culture and numerous social media platforms, suggests that if we are not playing the role of the confident, optimistic and full of self-esteem but actually non-threatening feminist (in regards to racial and class issues), we are failing at our own collective empowerment. In opposition to these expectations of performance, the affirmation of vulnerability and emotionality can suddenly become powerful and subversive gestures of liberation in the fight for equality.
It is not self-pity nor a passive, self-centered, submissive and enduring resignation, but a deliberate demonstration of sadness and frustration that can give us the ability to free ourselves from the social pressure to succeed that is reinforced by the expectations of mainstream liberal feminism and reclaim agency over our body, our emotions, our identities and our life.
Queering the figure of Ophelia is a way of reacting to society’s attempts to pathologize our gender identities and sexualities as soon as they go astray and hence „threaten“ the culturally and socially established „norms“.
„[...] Ophelia has become a figure for those speaking from or about the margins. This other occupies a necessarily marginal space: a psychiatric hospital [...]; a common domestic environment [...]; a rural area [...]; a secluded brook or wilderness [...]. Furthermore, evinced as Ophelia’s body, the other manifests itself in a great variety of forms: the diluted, the vulnerable, the sexually ambiguous, the transitional, the altogether absent.“
(Remedios Perni, „At the Margins: Ophelia in Modern and Contemporary
Photography“, in „The Afterlife of Ophelia“, 2012, S. 208)
Deeply inspired by the works of Frida Kahlo and Ana Mendieta as well as the writings of Virginia Woolf, this playful mise-en-scène and the act of capturing the moment through photography, thus bringing the private into the public, are Valérie Reding's strategies to reclaim the image of the drowned and dead, yet beautiful, otherly body, to take it back from the male gaze by genderqueering the roles of the artist and his or her muse and to revaluate female madness and self-destruction as weapons and autonomous acts of protest to disrupt society’s systems of domination - not in opposition to the dominant forms of (political) protest such as demonstrations and occupations of public spaces, but rather as their valuable, complementary and absolutely necessary counterparts.