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The Great Invisible

by Leslie Thornton,  selected and interviewed by Pujan Karambeigi,  available 26.9.-10.10.17
Leslie Thornton, The Great Invisible, 2002-ongoing, film still, Courtesy: The Artist

You could describe The Great Invisible as a mystic performance: Following Isabelle Eberhardt’s path as she sets out to become the great 19th century adventurer/writer/explorer, Thornton’s film is a re-enactment of her moving to Algiers, dressed as a man. And as much as Eberhardt converts to Qadiriyya, a Sufi order of Islam, the film performs a mystic journey against the long tentacles of exotism.
In her combination of ‚documentary‘ footage, enacted ‚historical‘ staging and making-of-scenes, Leslie Thornton reflects about the status of images in their relation to technologies of representation: Performing against the fetish of the reliving. [read on]

Leslie Thornton, The Great Invisible, 2002-ongoing, film still, Courtesy: The Artist

Pujan Karambeigi: I would like to start this conversation by talking about what one might call the plot. I know that many scholars have (aptly) focused on your deconstruction and fragmentation of the narrative. However, in The Great Invisible the very story of Isabelle Eberhardt seems to be a crucial guideline: A woman breaking out of her patriarchal surroundings to become part of a hallucinatory experiment. Eberhardt joins the Qadiriyya, a Sufi order of Islam known for its mystic practices. What role does hallucination play in The Great Invisible?

Leslie Thornton: That is an interesting question; I’ll begin in another place and circle back to this topic. When I started the project, I had one agenda, but it’s changed very much in the remaining years, after I went to Algeria. When I was there, and the government stepped down, and the civil war broke out, that was the beginning of 1992. And I was shooting this narrative like a period piece, organized around this character, the subject, this historical figure, that I was fascinated by, but also didn’t care for too much. There was more of an interest in what surrounded her historically. If I was plotting anything, I’ll say it was more of a quest on my part in The Great Invisible, to deal with biography in a different way and history in a different way. I’m not going to tell a story that puts all the parts together. I’m going to drift across many possibilities that are suggested or documented, things that can contradict each other, and I try to do this in a number of ways, including having a number of different women’s voiceovers, or people I call the storytellers, including me.
And it was like a bit of an excuse to study this period of time. And definitely an excuse to look into Arab culture, not necessarily Islam, but Arab culture in both the title’s reference to lack, or invisibility, the invisibility of this world culture in the United States, on a popular culture level. There wasn’t an Arab World. Until terrorism comes onto the front page.

Leslie Thornton, The Great Invisible, 2002-ongoing, film still, Courtesy: The Artist

PK: If I may reiterate my question, because I think there’s something to it. I wasn’t implying you have a plot, or you used her plot, and what’s been told of her. What I meant is that in some sense The Great Invisible reflects her getting away from her patriarchal surroundings into the hallucinatory practices of the Qadiriyya.

LT: Yes, so now to try to answer your question – you are right, in a way. I was tracing a rejection of 19th Century Western rationalism and materiality. Eberhardt embraced mysticism. This woman struggled with a father – as you said – a patriarchal figure – but literally this particular man/creature/person, a Russian anarchist, posing as a pope in the Russian Orthodox Church. She goes from this into an orientalism. She wasn’t, I would say, quite the same kind of orientalist as so many of her literary and artistic peers. Her transformation happened in more subtle, complex, ways. Her aim was to find another way of being, one that felt true, a way of being that she could believe, and inhabit fully. Hallucination, is not the term I would use for mystical experience.
When I started this project I had imagined an extreme experience for the viewer. For the last 10 minutes of the work, there would be an inducement towards a trancelike state. This would happen through a relentless manipulation, with repetitive sound and image. The viewer would be faced with an unanticipated shift in form that would discourage customary ways of following a narrative. The familiarity of cinematic forms would drop away. I imagined wearing down resistance in the viewer, abandoning the familiar in favor of a disorientation, kind of “not knowing,” which is in part how I understand mystical practice to work. I wanted to point towards the ecstatic.
In Sufism it could be the case that one’s erudite, literate, and highly educated Master would instruct an initiate to stop reading books. To attain a mystical state, there must be a letting go of what is generally considered Knowledge, allowing another kind of “knowing” to come forward. The mind, the actual brain is altered. These are beginning steps to ecstasy – you are not worried, you are not in danger, and you enter into a kind of detached present, an arrestment or stopping of time.
And I’m not a mystic. But I was thinking about that it all along, as I was drawn to the particularity of her existence. I even thought, in another world, and time, and life, I could have been a mystic.

Leslie Thornton, The Great Invisible, 2002-ongoing, film still, Courtesy: The Artist

PK: How would you describe the process of re-engaging with Isabelle Eberhardt after your first encounter with her in There Was an Unseen Cloud (1988)? For instance, in Unseen Cloud, it seems to me that the work shows us the very limits of looking outside of us: We cannot know anything of Isabelle (nor Islam). Or rather, the film asked: Who am I to say anything about Orientalism?
Would you say it is a way of re-captivating that question of how far you can get in encountering something outside of yourself?

LT: Unseen Cloud was made very much as a surface, and it was meant to be on the surface. It relates most closely to my earlier work Adynata. As I embarked on The Great Invisible I had a very different attitude. I have a hard time with the puritanical, politically correct position, of designating who can say what about what. I felt that I could position myself as an outsider, but speak with responsibility and sensitivity about another culture, another way of existing that was not my own. For example, it is the case that when traveling in a North African country, one might visit an hamam with American and local friends, and with no thought of embarrassment, give each other a good thorough wash sitting in a room of nude women. And upon return to America, with the same friends this would not happen. How can it be comfortable in one place and not in the other? Because that is the case – it is ok there and not so ok here. So I get very impatient with Western academics who critique the attribution of a greater sensuality within one culture over another. As if to be sensual is a diminishment. Maybe what I’m calling sensuality is just a more comfortable relation to the body. To acknowledge attractive difference across cultures is not to diminish. Rather, to deny this difference is to diminish and to place oneself in a higher, though false, position.

Leslie Thornton, The Great Invisible, 2002-ongoing, film still, Courtesy: The Artist

PK: There is one particular story you tell in The Great Invisible: In 1991 you embarked with a ferry from Geneva to Algiers, almost a century after Isabelle Eberhardt went on that same journey. A day before you left you rented French military uniforms, the woolen symbols of imperialism. Already on the ferry, you realize that it might be a bad idea to bring these media of repression through customs. So, we watch you dismembering them: Taking the precious material apart and re-assembling it, rendering its origin and its use almost inconceivable. In fact, what remained were traces of colonialism, invisible to the customs control.
It seems to me that this ‘anecdote’ of dismembering and re-assembling carries a pertinent relation to your own moving image practice.

LT: Yes, we were outdoing Belgian deconstructive fashion!
Do you mean in the sense of taking something apart, and putting it together in a strange way that still holds up? I never thought about this anecdote as a metaphor, but you’re probably right about that.
I don’t like the notion of anti-story applied to my work; Rather, I would say I’m interested in storytelling, but in a dimensional form of what I call verticality in story. I’m interested in a continued expansion of form that we recognize as narrative-like. Certainly newer technologies such as VR and gaming will impact story, and some of that will rise above the commercial and entertainment level. I will stick to the vertically deep dimensional environment of the technologies I already know. I like the idea of a shift in form that is like a shift in key in music. It changes everything but it is all still connected, moving forward. It may be jarring. It wakes us, it heightens us. It’s like you are walking up a hill but then you are falling down a mountain.

Leslie Thornton is a pioneer of contemporary media aesthetics working in cinema, installation, and media contexts for over four decades. Thornton has been honored with the Maya Deren Award for Lifetime Achievement, and was a recipient of the first Alpert Award in Media. She has had retrospectives at MoMA, FemCine in Chile, Anthology Film Archives and BAM. Her work has been exhibited at dOCUMENTA, MoMA PS1, Centre Pompidou, The Whitney Biennial (2017, 2008, 1995, ), Winkleman Gallery, Raven Row, and Rodeo Galleries in London, and in film festivals including: New York Film Festival, BAFICI, Ambulante, Oberhausen, and Rotterdam. She is in the permanent collections of Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Centre Pompidou, MoMA, the Pacific Film Archives, the Walker Art Center, and Jeu de paume. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, and will be an Artist in Residence at CERN in 2018.