Dr Esther Teichmann is a German artist whose practice includes photography, film-making and writing. She is Head of Programme for the MRes and Critical and Historical Studies Coordinator at the RCA.
Teichmann explains that her work moves between autobiography and fiction in an attempt to explore the relationship between loss and desire, and the ‘bodies that we are closest to being the ones with most frightened of losing’. When asked about the frequent occurrence of bodies in her work she describes photography as being a way of holding onto somebody. She talks about her first photographic experience taking shots of her little sister who was as she says ‘disappearing before her eyes’ during a serious illness. Or when her partner died in an accident how she had taken photographs of him shortly before his death. She describes how a subject can just become an object.
The first two sentences of Teichmann’s PhD thesis, ‘Falling into Photography: On Loss Desire and the Photographic’, offer an insight into her work. She says:
Falling into Photography examines the relationship between loss, desire and the imaginary. Across writing, photographic works and film pieces, we move from real to imagined spaces, exploring the boundaries between autobiography and fiction within the alternate orphic worlds evoked. (1)
The ‘alternative orphic worlds’ refers to life and death – and perfectly illustrated by Teichmann’s image above.
Orphic referring to the Greek mythology of lovers Orpheus and Eurydice in which Eurydice died and immediately went to Hades (God of the dead). So upset was Orpheus that he went to the underworld and persuaded the Gods to allow him to enter and bring back Eurydice – but on one condition – he must not look back before she reaches the upper world. But he did turn prematurely as he did she fell back, finally dead, to the underworld. One moral of this story is the importance of trust.
Clearly using photography as a mirror into her life, when interviewed in 2013 she said:
I guess all of my work is always looking at the slippage between autobiography and fiction. And there is no such thing as autobiography in that we sort of mythologise ourselves and our lives and our childhoods and our pasts. We re-write them for ourselves to make them something that we can control or to make them something that is the way we want to see ourselves or the way we want to see our pasts.
So I think all the work comes from that place and always has. So the figures that I use in my work whether close family, close friends or lovers, in a sense they are all stand-ins for myself. So it is always autobiographical. (2)
Initially, I found Teichmann’s work inaccessible. The words I first used to describe it were autobiographical, melancholic, deep, personal, impenetrable, feminine, dreamlike, evocative, and erotic.
In order to gain some insight into her work, I (randomly) decided to focus on ‘The Heavy Sea’, a solo exhibition, held at the Transformer Station Gallery, Cleveland, Ohio in 2017. It featured photographs, painting, short films, music, essays, and a boat. In particular, I (again randomly) decided to study the written work ‘Like a Night Blooming Cerius’ by Carol Mavor which formed part of the exhibition.
‘Like a Night Blooming Cerius’
Teichmann’s work often incorporates writing and music by other artists. In this case, writing by Dr Carol Mavor (interestingly Mavor was one of Teichmann’s two PhD Supervisors). In turn, Mavor incorporates the work of several other authors into her writing. Mavor does so by three methods; firstly by referring to authors within the text itself, secondly by quoting actual text from other’s work and finally by referencing authors’ names in the margins. This third mechanism seems to achieve two objectives. The first formally acknowledges the authors’ work. The second objective is to give the reader access to their work thereby enabling the introduction of complex ideas into the piece with the use of few words. This clever device reminded me of pulling sub-routines into software code.
To understand Mavor’s ‘Like a night-blooming cereus’ I read the various external books incorporated into it. What follows is my interpretation of the story and my research notes.
Interpretation of Mavor’s Story
George McDonald’s 1882 fairy tale ‘The Day Boy and the Night Girl’ revolves around the upbringing of the boy Photogen, who only saw daylight and a girl Nycteris who only saw darkness. They ultimately escaped imprisonment, killed the wicked witch, and lived happily ever after.
Using the original story as a guiding structure Carol Maver modifies and embellishes it to become a fictional/autobiographical piece to accompany Teichmann’s ‘The Heavy Sea’ exhibition.
Mavor swaps the genders of the protagonists. Photogen becomes a girl – and assumes the role of Teichmann. Nycteris, the night girl, becomes a boy, presumably Teichmann’s lover. The matter of gender and sexuality is further confused by two explicit references to lesbianism – Albertine and Sappho.
The piece starts with the (auto)biographical description of Teichmann’s early life. Born and raised in Germany’s Black Forest, one of three daughters, Teichmann’s innocent (‘all clean’), idyllic (‘ice cream’) early life did involve cycling around the lakes surrounding her family home. Does being shaken by Bataille’s Simone whilst pleasured by Albertine imply lesbianism? And as she grew up perhaps the analogy of apples as eyes suggests awakening sexuality?
We are now introduced to Nycteris. In MacDonald’s story she (now he) was emotionally starved – Paul Celan’s ‘black milk’. I can’t follow the reference to ‘boarding school’ other than perhaps the real life Nycteris attended such as school. In any event he is described as pretty and sorrowful.
Mavor’s story now concludes with the description of their first meeting. In the original MacDonald story one night Nycteris (whilst on an illicit excursion from her room) stumbles across Photogen who had collapsed scared by the unfamiliar darkness. The fairy story tells of how she held him all night to allay his fears. At sunrise he abruptly left Nycteris.
Mavor’s version introduces the idea that Teichmann (Photogen) falls in love – ‘his soul was penetrated by light(ning)’. By referencing Canfield Fisher she introduces the idea of female sexual desire.
However by combining the ideas of ‘gaze’ and Sappho’s unattainable apple she is perhaps alluding to Teichmann’s central themes of loss and desire.
A night-blooming Cereus is a name given to flowering cacti that bloom at night. Some of these plants bloom only once a year and for one night only. It is also the name of a chapter in Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s book ‘The Brimming Cup’ (3) which I discuss in more detail later.
In George MacDonald’s 1882 fairytale ‘The Day Boy and the Night Girl’ (4) (also known as ‘The Romance of Photogen and Nycteris’) Photogen is the name of the Day Boy.
In Greek mythology, the Hesperides are the three nymphs of the evening. Teichmann is one of three sisters and presumably the middle girl.
Paragraphs (if that’s what I should call them) three, four and presumably five relate to Teichman’s life as a young person in the Black Forest and derive from an autobiographical piece within her PhD thesis (1, pp. 104).
In paragraph six Mavor refers to Teichmann as a ‘bicycle girl‘ perhaps meaning that she was then a young naive female. She then goes onto mention Bataille’s Simone, who features in the incredibly sexual 1928 novel ‘Story of the Eye’.
Albertine is a female character in a series of novels written by Proust. Her character is that of a lesbian lover.
If not, winter is the name of Anne Carson’s translation of the Greek poet Sappho, who lived on the island of Lesbos from around 630 BC. As Carson writes ‘It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music’ (5).
Nyeteris is the name of the Night Girl in George MacDonald’s 1882 fairytale.
In MacDonald’s fairytale, Vesper, a blind woman with black eyes, is the mother of Nyeteris. Mavor quotes from the play ‘Until they are as dark as vespers’ whereas MacDonald says ‘until they were as black as Vesper’s’. A vesper is a type of bat that inhabits many countries, including Kenya.
Does Mavor introduce the phrase ‘as black as apples‘ to symbolise sexuality (apple being the forbidden fruit)? Also in Greek mythology, the Hesperides (see previous) were tasked with looking after apples in ‘The Garden of the Hesperides’.
In MacDonald’s story, there is no specific reference to the location although Africa is mentioned. In Teichmann’s PhD, Taita is mentioned – being an area on the south-eastern coast of Kenya near Mombasa.
Paul Celan’s 1945 poem The Death Fugue describes life in a Nazi concentration camp. The first three lines are as follows:
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink (6)
My interpretation of black milk is the constant despair suffered by prisoners. Much like Nyeteris in MacDonald’s story.
The words ‘her soul was penetrated by light (ning)‘ refer to Dante’s ‘Devine Comedy’ (a comedy in this context being the ancient Greek/Roman meaning of a piece with a happy ending) which describes the afterlife’s journey through hell (the inferno) and purgatory to heaven (paradise). The poem concludes with a flash of understanding:
But already my desire and my will
Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed
By the love that moves the Sun and the other stars (7)
The reference to Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s book ‘The Brimming Cup’ introduces the idea of female sexual desire. Chapter seven describes the scene where family groups of Vermont farmers watch the annual blooming of a cereus cactus plant. The main female character, Marise, says:
A silence came into the room. No one coughed, or stirred, or scraped a chair-leg. It was as though a sound would have wounded the flower. All those human souls bowed themselves. Almost a light shone upon them . . . a phrase from Dante came to Marise’s mind . . . “la mia menta fu percossa da un fulgore . . .” [My soul was penetrated by lightning]
With a quick involuntary turn she looked at Marsh, fearing his mockery of her, “quoting the Paradiso, about Vermont farmers!” as though he could know, for all those sharp eyes of his, what was going on hidden in her mind! (3)
Annika Leung-Baruth’s essay ‘In search of a Moral Erotic Standard’ suggests that penetration should be seen in a female sexual context. She says:
‘But here I will also maintain that penetration and more specifically welcoming of penetration suggests erotic mutuality. The night-blooming cereus is, in fact, a manifestation of authentic female sexual experience. The exultancy with which the flower reveals its starry heart is phenomenalized as the very antithesis of female vulnerability, shame, or threatened integrity.’ (8)
(1) Teichmann, E., 2011. Falling Into Photography: On Loss Desire And The Photographic. PhD. Royal College of Art. Available at: <http://www.estherteichmann.com/pdf/FALLING_INTO_PHOTOGRAPHY-_ESTHER_TEICHMANN-_extract.pdf> [Accessed 13 June 2020].
(2) Teichmann, E., 2013. Interview With Esther Teichmann, Artist, Kennington, London, 21 September 2013. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7GmJyTFfTY&list=PLqwd-W-Mvl5WpXZhue8-mCstyrVrKPrPe&index=40> [Accessed 13 June 2020].
(3) Canfield Fisher, D., 1919. The Brimming Cup. 1st ed. [ebook] Project Gutenberg, p.Chapter VII. Available at: <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14957/14957-h/14957-h.htm#CHAPTER_VII> [Accessed 12 July 2020].
(4) MacDonald, G., 1882. The Day Boy And The Night Girl.
(5) Carson, A., 2003. If Not, Winter. Fragments Of Sappho. London: Virago Press, pp.41, 215.
(6) Celan, P., 2020. The Death Fugue. [online] Poets.org. Available at: <https://poets.org/poem/death-fugue> [Accessed 16 July 2020].
(7) Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-145, C.H. Sisson translation
(8) Leung-Baruth, A., 2005. The Enigma Of Good And Evil: The Moral Sentiment In Literature. [ebook] Hanover, NH, USA: Springer Science & Business Media, p.580. Available at: <https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=TTY7KxOs9csC&pg=PA580&lpg=PA580&dq=%22la+mia+menta+fu+percossa+da+un+fulgore%22&source=bl&ots=HnAdww27L1&sig=ACfU3U31P6kgAHYpr4y27b2IAd6JqzYyHQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi3-PmwitLqAhVKTRUIHeFTB0wQ6AEwBXoECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22la%20mia%20menta%20fu%20percossa%20da%20un%20fulgore%22&f=false> [Accessed 15 July 2020].