While Barbara Hammer’s work now fills the canon of avant-garde cinema, in a 1990 interview, the late artist spoke about the struggles she faced at the start of her career.
“My lesbian films were often rejected by avant-garde showcases across the country and in museums everywhere during the periods I was actively and expressly engaged in making lesbian representation,” Hammer said. “It wasn’t until I ‘depopulated’ my cinema, i.e., took the women out, that I began to get the invitations I had so long sought after.”
Carnal, experimental and joyous, Hammer’s films gave voice to taboo subjects and progressed lesbian representation in cinema, serving as a guiding light to generations of artists who came after her. These moving image pieces provide the bedrock of a comprehensive retrospective of the filmmaker, who died in March.
Screening at the Museum of the Moving Image through July 28, the series, “Barbara Hammer, Superdyke,” encapsulates the breadth of the filmmaker’s 50-year career and includes almost 40 works that survey themes central to her work.
“Barbara Hammer maintained a formal fluidity in her half-century-long practice effectively unparalleled by any living moving image maker,” stated guest curators KJ Relth, film programmer at UCLA Film & Television Archive, and Mark Toscano, preservationist at the Academy of Film Archive, in a description of the retrospective. “From her first Super 8 experiment, “Schizy” (1968), Hammer gave herself permission to fearlessly follow her instincts.”
The retrospective — which made its first appearance in Los Angeles, with the participation of Hammer, last year — includes the artist’s well-known films, such as the four-minute long short “Dyketactics” and her last-known piece, “Evidentiary Bodies.” Replete with examples of works on film and digital formats, the scope of the series not only accentuates Hammer’s prolific output and thematic fluidity, but also demonstrates her formal experimentation with film emulsion, computer technology, collage and more.
“Through her explicit and politically charged work of the 1970s to her material interactions and printing exercises of the 1980s and continuing with her seamless adoption of analog and digital video,” the curators said, “Hammer’s visual lyricism and sensuality dance invariably within each of her over 80 moving image works in a conscious, active (re)writing and (re)defining of a singular cinematic language.”
While much of Hammer’s work dealt directly with the human body and interior spaces, the filmmaker began making movies about landscapes and exteriors in the 1980s — a shift that Hammer described in Art Papers as expanding the “language from the interior, body-focused imagery to the world.”
“Women have been defined by their bodies and their domestic spaces for too long,” Hammer said. “I want to expand that projection. I wanted to walk the world with my camera, expressing physical concepts of ‘bent time,’ the curving of time at the edge of the universe as noted by physicists (‘Bent Time,’ 1984); architectural space as both two and three dimensional as well as experimental (‘Pools,’ 1981); and the fragile material nature of film (‘Endangered,’ 1988).”
Hammer later returned to corporeal subjects, and in 1992, she produced the first in a trilogy of historical documentaries, “Nitrate Kisses.” The film represented Hammer’s foray into full-length features and served to document, as Hammer stated, “a history we don’t have” of lesbian and gay couples. The work — along with her follow-up, “Tender Fictions” — is included in the retrospective alongside “Generations,” a collaborative film created with Joey Carducci that captures the waning days of Coney Island’s Astroland.
Closing out the retrospective is a program titled “It’s an Interlace: Five Videos by Barbara Hammer.” The films are presented courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, which was instrumental in preserving an extensive archive of Hammer’s work. A fitting final note, the program not only expresses how Hammer innovated and played with form over an extended period of time, but also how film and experimentation was central to the way she processed life and illness.
“It is a political act to work and speak as a lesbian artist in the dominant art world and to speak as an avant-garde artist to a lesbian and gay audience,” Hammer said about her films. “My presence and voice address both issues of homophobia [and] the need for an emerging community to explore a new imagination.”
Top Image: Still from Barbara Hammer's "Superdyke," 1975. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.