Artificer of Seams: The Digital Joinery of Dina Zoe Belluigi's unbridled

By Dr Deborah Seddon

And there, indeed, let him name
his name and tell them plainly he is Snug the Joiner
A Midsummer Night's Dream

The meaning of a wedding, for many contemporary couples, has shifted in both personal and social significance. No longer a necessary step to a 'respectable' physical and economic union, the decision to marry is now more likely to be the affirmation of an existing partnership than the initiation of a commitment. Yet the emotional impact of the conjugal rite remains, and for women raises the often vexed question of what it means to embody 'the bride' - to participate in transforming oneself, albeit knowingly and often willingly, into myth, fairytale, or figurine.

Dina Zoe Belluigi's unbridled is a body of work which explores the rituals, expectations, and anxieties surrounding the rites of marriage. Drawing directly from her own experience of marriage in 2004, Belluigi consciously situates her work within a tradition of women artists who have used the visual arts, particularly the genre of portraiture and self-portraiture, "to stage interventions into the representation of the female self". The works manifest a self-reflexive concern with embodiment and representation, particularly with regard to women, the female nude, and the woman as artist. Making extensive performative use of her own body, Belluigi fruitfully exploits the tensions at play in her being both the maker of the work and the object of the viewer's gaze. In so doing she explores the possibilities of the digital medium to bring together traditional fine art materials, photography, found objects and images, as well as extensive references to art history, myth, fairytale, and contemporary life.

Belluigi notes that in using the digital medium in her work she does not "quote a digital aesthetic, or that of photomontage. I'm treating it as a painter. I'm using different media as part of my pallet". Her position recognises and seeks to subvert the disparity between the viewer's response to a photograph as opposed to other fine art media. While a painting or drawing necessitates the recognition that the image is a construction, a photograph is often viewed as having a more immediate connection with reality. It looks 'real' and is often experienced as such. This distinction becomes even more pertinent when considered in the light of the representation of the female body in Western fine art practice and the mass media. Belluigi's digital images juxtapose photographs of herself with charcoal drawings, digitally manipulated images of architectural interiors, found objects and other materials that have been placed on a scanner. In orchestrating, and seeking to confront, the scrutiny and voyeurism these works invite, Belluigi seeks to interrogate the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. She notes that "my readings of the digital medium are specific to this project as so much is 'enacted' by my own body".

Belluigi's strategic use of the digital medium in this exhibition may be understood more fully by means of an analogy - to the figure of Snug the Joiner in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the play, as the artisans gather in the woods to assign the parts for their play-within-a-play, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, the carpenter, Snug the Joiner, is given the part of the lion. The lion's role in the drama is to frighten Thisbe off as she awaits her lover Pyramus. The lion's bloody mouth stains the mantle she drops in mid-flight, and on this evidence Pyramus, convinced Thisbe has been slain, kills himself. On discovering his body, Thisbe uses her lover's sword to join him in death. Although the story is well known, the artisans are afraid of the impact of their performance if the audience of the Athenian court, convinced the lion is real, take fright themselves. Thus they agree on a plan. Snug will appear in a lion costume that reveals half of his own face and before the play begins he will announce in a prologue that he indeed is not a lion, but Snug the Joiner.

Shakespeare's self-reflexive theatre often called attention to the notion of subjective embodiment: the use of an actor's own voice and body to communicate the text of the play. The humour created by the artisan's play-within-a-play stems from the fact of their lack of familiarity with accepted theatrical convention. On a more serious level, however, the artisan's concern to make plain their pretence is linked to their genuine vulnerability within a stratified society. As their discussion makes clear, the threat of retributive violence underlies their attempts to divide the real from its representation, and their intervention as outsiders to the tradition stands theatrical convention on its head.

The analogy to theatre is both useful and necessary to a consideration of unbridled because of the performative self-display in Belluigi's representations of the female body. Like Snug the Joiner, Belluigi makes it plain that she both is, and is not, the role she stages herself as playing. As both artist and artist's female model her deliberate acts of self-revelation enact a complex critique of the history of representation itself.

Patricia Parker observes that in the semantic networks of the Renaissance period the artisanal figure of "joinery" was employed in a variety of metaphorical ways. Highlighting the erotic play of the artisan's names in Shakespeare's comedy, she notes that the appellation given to Snug the Joiner works to link metaphorically a number of ideas: the craft of transforming separate pieces of wood into a new object, the union of marriage, the functioning of the body politic, and the writing of order in discourse. These are all joinings that can be botched and marred by improper couplings. The play-within-a-play produced by "the rude mechanicals" (3.2.10) parallels, in its disjointed content and linguistic marring, the disordered middle of A Midsummer Night's Dream itself - the dream-sequence in the woods, the temporary realignment of the Athenian couples, the joining of Bottom's body to the head of an ass, as well as his sexual union with Titania, the fairy queen. Parker suggests that as they attempt to "disfigure or present" (3.1.60-61) the story of Pyramus and Thisbe the "rude mechanicals" (3.2.10) evoke the notion of both the ungoverned and ungovernable, as well as the unshaped or unrefined. The improbable combinations created by the artisanal joinery of their performance enact a subversive critique of the closed constructions of power, authority, and order.

Parker's observations provide a useful means of articulating the central techniques of Belluigi's exhibition particularly when set against Freud's reading of Shakespeare's artisan player. In The Intrepretation of Dreams, Freud used "the lion in A Midsummer Night's Dream that concealed the figure of Snug the joiner" as a metaphor for the activity of dream-work - displacement, distortion and condensation. Freud asserted that the emotions that dreams evoke are real, just as real as the emotions of waking life. In dreams however, emotions have been detached from their original source and "soldered" to the ideational content of the dream. Dream-work's joinery is responsible for the strange amalgams and monstrous forms represented in dreams but, as Freud argued, inside the representation of the lion is the artisan: the soldering activity of dream-work which allows the unconscious to evade a censorship that will not allow the depiction of powerful emotions in their original form.

In a manner not dissimilar to dream-work, Belluigi uses the cutting, pasting, and manipulation techniques provided by the digital medium to solder together disparate ideational content. Disrupting conventional paradigms of viewer response, her works both disfigure and present the representation of the female body by means of a digital joinery that will not permit the seamless consumption of the female figure of the artist herself as 'real'. With her own marital union as her principal focus, Belluigi deploys a complex synthesis of various fine art media with the technology of the digital medium to probe, at the level of both form and content, the very notion of combination itself.

Such a concern is reflected in the title of the exhibition which yokes together two seemingly opposed ideas. unbridled connotes the sense of 'all restraints removed'. But embedded within, and thus contradicting, the adjective is the noun 'bride'. 'Bride' is a highly charged designation, bringing in its wake a network of associations, some positively joyous, some negatively oppressive. The exhibition's title makes reference to the practice during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of using what was called "a scold's bridle" as a punishment for vocally assertive women. The scold's bridle was a metal contraption designed to be worn over the head and face. It prevented speech by clamping down directly on the tongue. The ambiguity of the title thus draws attention both to unrestrained expression and to a history in which women have been literally and figuratively muted. For a contemporary woman, becoming bride and wife means an individual reckoning with and re-visioning of what these roles have meant for women in the past.

In almost every culture the ritual of the wedding ceremony itself is an act which turns an intimate relationship inside out. As private pledge translates to public promise, the bride and groom become everyone and no one, replicas of inherited ideals. This paradoxical embodiment is suggested by the various substitutions at work in Figurines, which is, as Belluigi comments, "the only piece directly relating to the marriage ceremony. By choosing to use wedding-cake figurines as stand-ins for myself and my partner, I suggest not only that the event is modelled around a commodified structure, but also that weddings, in their public display of a private relationship, can create a sense of a missed encounter for those for whom it is most important".

On first encountering the series of digital prints in Figurines the viewer is unsure. The figures have been blurred and enlarged for display and the effect is disconcerting. Are these photographs of real people? In their hazy magnification, the tiny plastic models are robbed of all the details and fissures of particularity. The brides in white dresses, alongside their grooms in dark suits, seem just about to be absorbed into the looming darkness behind them. Their somewhat different stances highlight only a disturbing lack of specificity. As Figurines suggests, the very performativity of the marriage rite contains a central paradox - in the moment of pledging union to one chosen person, the unique quality of this bond, and of individual identity itself, is suppressed.

In After Degas and Mannequin, Belluigi once again uses digital manipulation to both magnify and obscure the figures displayed in her digital prints. The figurine of the ballerina in After Degas is the type usually found in music boxes or on little girls' birthday cakes. Evoking the distance and nostalgia of childhood memories the blurred little ballerina, as an object of feminine beauty, nevertheless remains enchanting. But the sister-piece, Mannequin, calls the seductiveness of feminine poise into question by suggesting, in the defamiliarised display of a tool used in figure drawing, the manipulation and distortion of the human figure itself in representation.

This is a concern which recurs. The works of unbridled consistently stage the notion of role-playing and the associated vulnerabilities of self-display. Many of the works are mounted in box frames with a deep recession in reference to museum presentation. The inversions of scale are carried throughout the exhibition as Belluigi contrasts the constraints of posture, gesture, and poise with the notion of a subjectivity which may be embodied but is not only contained within the body.

To this end one of the organising metaphor of the works is that of the bell jar, which is echoed in shape and theme. En-closure, one of the most powerfully affective works of the exhibition, presents the artist in nine photographic images, posed at different points of the compass in various stages of dress and undress, and under the image of a bell jar. The frozen poses and the various outfits suggest the futile circularity of engendered role-playing as an individual woman attempts to find an identity and a direction by espousing a 'look'. En-closure draws attention to the existence of the body as a social object and to the repertoire of images produced by culture through which women mediate the experience of their own embodied selves.

The bell jar's primary function was within botanical and zoological experiments, such as those investigating the effects of oxygen deprivation. It also functioned within Victorian kitsch, as a means by which precious objects were protected from dust. In Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, the title works as an extended metaphor to figure the claustrophobia and alienation felt by a young female patient in a psychiatric hospital. But the novel also suggests that society itself acts like a bell jar where diverse human subjectivities must comply with enforced societal norms. Those who do not conform will be excluded, and in her disjuncture from society, the protagonist experiences her inner world as the oppressively isolating space of the bell jar.

In En-closure, Belluigi draws on the scientific and social history of the bell jar. She makes direct reference to Plath's novel in her attention to the experience of watching, judging, and measuring the female subject. The photographic display of the female figure invokes, but does not exactly square with, the representations of women the viewer is accustomed to consuming from either traditional fine art images or the mass media. The particular 'reality' of the female figure's body thus acts as the hook which invites a concentration of visual judgement from both the male and female viewer alike, perhaps even self-comparison from the female viewer. But this gaze is complicated by a digital joinery which forces the viewer to mediate the photographic images of the female figure through the drawn objects of the bell jars. In order simply to understand the photographs as "real" the viewer needs to refuse to see the imaginary glass, which literally interrupts the gaze. The drawn elements of the piece give the work a fictive quality and prompt a recognition that this is a representation of psychic space. The specimen beneath each bell jar is the artist, who is both provoking and confronting the viewer's experience.

All the works of unbridled urge the viewer towards a self-reflexive participation in the act of looking itself. In the series of photographic prints entitled Views I do not get to see, the bell jar shape is evoked by an enlarged black and white photograph of a woman's breast. In this print, the image of the breast is directly juxtaposed with a photographic image of the human eye. The series focuses on the development of sexual intimacy and explores the activity of looking at one's own body as a way of attempting to know the self - particularly the ways in which the self appears to an other. To produce the series Belluigi took close-ups of her body using "the camera as a surrogate for my partner, himself a photographer. In these hit-and-miss sessions I take reams of photographs and often find only one or two images that are recognisable". The photographs evoke both the tenderness of erotic union and a definite sense of the uncanny. The attempt by the artist to see herself through the eyes of her lover records a sense that, for all our self-scrutiny, we can never really know how our bodies appear to others. In the same way, an individual may imagine, but can never directly access, the other's particular embodied existence.

The processes of sexual intimacy examined in Views I do not get to see - erotic discovery, vulnerability, and curiosity - are writ large in Prima Nota. This work focuses on the cultural fetishisation of the wedding night as a deflowering of the putative virgin-bride. Prima Nota is a Latin term used of the night of consummation, and the legal language denoting the completion of the marriage is at odds with the emotional power of the image itself. Belluigi has posed herself hovering in a blood-red dress over an architectural drawing of the de-sanctified chapel where she was married. The image evokes the Sleeping Beauty of fairytale, or Snow White, asleep in her glass coffin. But the provocative manner in which the night dress has been positioned, to expose the female figure's pubis, hints at the collapsing of the sacred and the profane. This notion is enhanced by the suggestive correspondence between the aisle in the architectural floor plan and the interior sanctum of the female figure.

When questioned as to her reaction to the inevitable appropriation by the male gaze that her self-exposure in this work invites, Belluigi argues: "if the artist is conscious of straddling that line they hope to make the viewer aware, to make the debate alive in the room. You run a risk, but the viewer's response is orchestrated to some extent". As her comments indicate, Belluigi's Prima Nota partakes of a tradition in which women artists deliberately seek to use their representations of the female self to provoke a self-reflexive attitude in the viewer of their work. As Marsha Meskimmon observes: "These images are very near to re-appropriation at all points; the fact that the women's bodies are dangerously close to 'objects' is exactly the point of their production and they risk being misread in order to make their point all the more forcefully. They question the very boundary between subject and object in women's representations". As Belluigi herself suggests, such a strategy is "a gamble". But, as Catherine Lumby has argued, a viable feminist approach to images of women "needs to recognise, develop and enhance women's abilities to negotiate images. Which must surely begin, not with a campaign to reinforce the idea that images are demeaning and degrading to women, but with a campaign to show what the diversity of women can, and regularly do, make of images and themselves".

What Belluigi makes of images and of herself in unbridled can be understood through attention to the references her works make to art history itself. Throughout the exhibition she seeks to interrogate the representation of the body in Western art and one of her strategies is to present images of a contemporary woman "posed as something else". In Prima Nota, the pose of the female figure is the reverse of Andrea Mantegna's The Dead Christ (1465). The association with sacrifice, martyrdom, and religious ecstasy that such a reference invokes is replayed in Making the dress I. Here the artist positions herself in the pose depicted in Mantega's St Sebastian (c. 1455-60). Intersecting Belluigi's charcoal drawing of her body, digitally scanned pins and needles pierce the flesh of the female figure, their incisions repeating exactly the positions of the arrows and blades penetrating the body of the martyred saint. Her halo is an ordinary foam-rubber pin cushion. The black humour evoked by these contradictory elements comments wryly on the conventional notion of 'the price of beauty'. The figure exposes the emotional conflict and tensions involved in preparation for a wedding and invokes a baleful sense of emotional panic and pain.

Making the dress II repeats this display of cruelty and oppression. In this work Belluigi's digital joinery exposes the brutality latent in a dressmaker's doll. The charcoal drawing of a headless, armless female torso is fused to the frame of the dressmaker's stand. Not only is the charcoal evocation of human flesh at odds with the scanned actuality of the metal stand but the two images are forced into a composite relation that suggests the societal violence perpetuated on women's bodies. Crammed into the metal basket of the frame, the grievously amputated female figure repeats only to call into question the nostalgic ideals of beauty ascribed to the ruins of Greek and Roman statues. In these two 'sister' images Belluigi's disquiet with the bridling of the woman for marriage come starkly to the fore. The images are all the more powerful when set against the erotic tenderness of other works in the exhibition.

In examining the ritual of creating the bride's wedding apparel, Belluigi utilises the posture of St. Sebastian, and those of statues from antiquity, as a kind of costume. Her deliberate use of posture as costume is particularly striking in the five works of the Eve Series which make extensive use of the history of the female nude in representation. While the artist appears 'naked' in these photographic images, the postures assumed by her body illustrate that she is in fact dressed - in the poses traditionally assumed by the female nude. As Meskimmon remarks: "the forms in which the female nude finds representation are highly stylised and have little to do with images of particular (individual) women's bodies. They are more often meant to be universal metaphors for masculine desire, creativity and culture". In discussing her work for the Eve Series, Belluigi recalls the difficulty involved in holding the poses depicted in paintings of Eve: "I often had to contort my body to imitate positions that are uncomfortable and unnatural to keep, creating an interesting dialogue with myself as both muted model and artist".

Belluigi asserts that she deliberately chose Eve because of her place within Judeo-Christian culture. As a character, Eve has been deployed to construct the notion of the femininity as inherently flawed. Because of her disobedience God punished Eve, and all women after her, with the labour pains of childbirth. Her subordination to Adam's will after the Fall became a means of designating the same role to married woman. In Untitled I from the Eve Series Belluigi has posed herself as Eve in the 1528 rendition of the Biblical figure by Lucas Cranach. She has placed the female figure in a garden scene which is far more structured than typical depictions of Eden. This work echoes the concern in the exhibition with enclosure and calls to mind the role of wife as that of displayed object. However, as the entire image has been digitally reconstituted from fragments of other images by the artist herself, there can be no simple reading of these suggestions. The series of gardening tools, which Belluigi has individually chosen and placed beneath the female figure, draw attention to the fact that Eve is "the gardener-artist-creator instead of Adam". The tools, which include a pair of pliers, a pruning knife, a small spade, a roll of twine, shears, a scythe, and an axe, spawn myriad associations from myth, fairytale, and literature. But, in perhaps the most deftly assertive statement of the exhibition, the artist's display of her tool kit playfully mimics the regimented presentation of the editing icons on a computer toolbar - the operations of copying, cutting, and pasting that brought her images into existence. It is here that Belluigi most explicitly names her own name, and attests to her craft as the digital joiner of the piece.

The Eve Series fluently expresses a new agency for women in negotiating their own representation. Each of these works presents variations on a theme as Belluigi poses the Eve-like doll of her own body within digitally reconstructed architectural spaces of her own making. In Untitled II, the Eve figure is taken from Hans Grieg's 1510 reproduction. The female figure in this work seems to stand awkwardly in the house she is exploring, a tottering doll who out-sizes the space she inhabits. Untitled III recalls the pose of the melancholic Eve from Jan van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece (1432). Like Alice in Wonderland, who gradually learns to shrink or grow herself at will in order to continue her journey, this female figure dwarfs the interior into which she is placed, far taller than the door through which she might move.

One of the most striking aspects of the Eve Series is the colour scheme, which repeatedly sets the pink flesh of the female figures against the grey splendour of the interiors. "Pinkness, softness, malleability and disorder are the signs of the feminine body within the symbolic order, they evoke a multiplicity of cultural associations from Barbie dolls to Barbara Cartland". But Belluigi's playful works suggest that what is malleable here is not the female herself but representations of gender and the body in visual art. The pink flesh of the posed female figures is part of the visual wit of these works, which seek to engage the viewer in a dialogue with their forms. As Belluigi notes, the photographic images interrogate the viewer directly: "Why would I consciously position myself in these ways? Would I do this to another woman? Why am I borrowing from other male artists? In a painting of these postures the viewer suspends disbelief; in a photograph they become absurd".

The architectural spaces of the Eve Series repeat the image of the bell jar and the breast, and thus suggest that the houses themselves are constructions of feminine space. But these richly patterned and ordered interiors contradict any stereotypical notions of femininity. None of these female nudes seek a complicit return of the viewer's gaze. Instead they direct their attention to the interiors the artist herself has created and over which, as the gaze of the Eve in Untitled IV undoubtedly suggests, she has dominion. Untitled IV and Untitled V most persuasively suggest the positioning of the female figure within a magnificent liminal space: a room which is a threshold to further, and as yet uninhabited, rooms.

Belluigi's repeated reference in the Eve Series to the manner in which little girls 'play house' with their own dolls allows a broader understanding of these architectural interiors. They suggest a location within what D.W. Winnicott calls "potential space". In his writing on the nature of child's play, Winnicott distinguishes the "potential space" of play from both the inner psychic world and external reality. He suggests that "playing has a place and a time. It is not inside by any use of the word," that is, it is not to be found within what is understood as the "me". "Nor is it outside, that is to say, it is not a part of the repudiated world, the not-me, that which the individual has decided to recognise (with whatever difficulty and even pain) as truly external". Winnicott sees a direct development from the play of childhood to cultural experiences. He argues that "the place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the [transitional] object). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play".

Belluigi herself makes explicit the connection between cultural experience and play in a video piece entitled Hoola in which two projections run simultaneously. In both projections the hoola-hoop functions as a ridiculously over-sized wedding ring. Belluigi describes her difficult experience in making the piece: "I am uncomfortably exposed in lingerie given to me at my 'hen party' as I try to do what is expected and natural to some - hoola with my wedding ring". Hoola is a child's game, usually associated with young girls, and in the video pieces, the elevated vantage point and use of shadow are influenced by the girl at play in De Chiricio's Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914). In the first projection, the new 'bride' attempts to play with her ring, but the endless repetitions of the scene suggest that the task is a continual and exhausting re-negotiation. Set against this however, is the notion of child's play, and the idea that formative activities are gradually mastered. The butterflies on the lingerie also suggest hope, in their reference to Psyche, one of the only female mythological figures successful in love. The second projection echoes the action of the first but shows only a close-up shadow of the female figure's movement.

The symbol of the wedding ring is repeated in the Ring Series - five charcoal and pastel drawings which depict the instruments jewellers use to measure fingers for wedding rings. The shapes created by the jewellers' tools are evocative of the contours of small creatures that curl inwards to protect themselves - armadillos, possums, or centipedes. Hence these works present an uncanny visual encoding of the wedding ring tools themselves as bodies which enfold or unfold. The melancholy contours of these drawings, as well as the ephemeral medium, suggest both the lingering effect and the transience of intimacy, the rhythms of connection and disconnection, within a long-term love affair. These processes are enacted in images that denote the bodily actions of embracing and unfurling, curling within or opening out to the attention of another.

The associations with both myth and religion provoked by Broken Vessels suggest that representations of the body may take many forms. This work is a grouping of 12 separate prints, each one is a digitally scanned piece of broken crockery, collected from the artist's garden. Belluigi describes these pieces as "once precious, now discarded remnants of other women's lives in this space". The fragments have been magnified so as to draw attention to the cracks and delicate patterns on their eroded surfaces. The flowers suggest a distant echo of Eve or the designs on small off-cuts of fabric. Thus, like a visual quilt of associations, the reconstituted pieces of Broken Vessels register all manner of feminine activity. The individually mounted collection of fragments makes explicit reference to the digital activity of the exhibition itself - the gathering and re-assembling of disparate parts in order to make anew.

The final work of the exhibition is a self-portrait: a charcoal drawing that has been extensively worked by the techniques of both sanding and erasure. The pose and form of this work makes direct reference to Edgar Degas's portrait of Princess Metternich: one of the first fine art works to utilise a photograph to generate a painting. Degas references this link to photography by blurring the face of the female figure. In Belluigi's self-portrait, also drawn from a photograph, her face has been drawn and then erased. The obscured eyes are inaccessible to the identificatory gaze. The faint trace of the mouth recalls the concern with silencing and bridling. But the artist's pose is both frank and unapologetic as she grasps her paintbrushes, the tips of which have also been blurred, in a powerful hand. Her hair now cropped, she confronts the viewer with a stance that suggests strength, self-sufficiency, and the steady refusal of appropriation. The blurred elements of the piece therefore comment eloquently on the metamorphic potential in being and becoming. While the work recalls both history, and the tradition in which the artist works, this is an image that speaks to the present and the future.

In her concern not only with how the body is represented, but in how it is experienced individually, and in relation to a loved other, Belluigi's exhibition participates in the recent shift within feminist enquiry, one which is moving away from a primary concern with "the 'patriarchal' way that women are 'looked at' to the ways women negotiate 'images of women' and make something of themselves". This move registers new attention to "how the body itself is experienced discursively and psychically". As unbridled explores Belluigi's preparation for marriage, the fear of being confined, silenced, and judged evoked by the works is set against the hope of being unrestrained, heard, and truly seen. Against the rich but troubled legacy of the visual past is set the possibility of a new direction: images of the female body which recognise the authorial agency of women themselves in their own representation. At play within the liminal spaces of works which allow a productive interchange of the "me" with the "not-me," Belluigi's re-visioning of the female figure enacts a creative re-inhabitation both of visual art space and the female body in art.