The Stories We Tell: Narrative and Authorship in Dina Zoe Belluigi's unbridled

By Dr Samantha Vice

In life, as much as art, we tell stories. In fact, some philosophers and psychologists have argued that the self is constituted by the stories we tell about ourselves. If this is the case, writing one's autobiography with borrowed and restricted plot-lines threatens to restrain self-expression and self-creation. unbridled is Dina Belluigi's attempt to re-imagine and re-write one of the stories by which women have been governed, that of marriage, and in the process to enrich the limited store of narratives available to the female self.

In both form and content, Belluigi's works confront these old stories and gesture towards new ones. The works in unbridled are arranged roughly in the form of a narrative: the movement from the anxieties of the unmarried woman, through the preparations for the wedding, to an uneasy and intimate life as a wife. The choice of genre is itself significant here. As an established genre, self-portraiture was an attempt to capture an essential self and to fix it in order to give it some representative power and permanence. In this tradition, women were seldom afforded the chance for self-representation and the images offered to them by others were restrictive. For these reasons, the mere existence of Belluigi's self-representations, which reject the possibility of limiting the self to any of those available roles, is symbolically powerful. The self in these works is explored and expressed though the performance of possibilities, an acknowledgement that no final representation is possible.

The performances and tentative identities of unbridled are thus the result of a woman trying to write her own story into and within a male-dominated tradition while also raising for reflection that tradition's complicity in the silencing of women's voices. The exhibition uses the symbols of this heritage then, firstly, because no self can be created ex nihilo - out of nothing, by some fiat of will; and secondly, because one of Belluigi's aims is to explore the tradition itself. unbridled attempts an unrestrained interpretation of the standard story of marriage, one that is both personally resonant and generally representative of the lives of women, past and present.

The formal features of the work contribute to this dialogue between tradition and self-expression. The deeply-recessed box frames in which most works appear remind us of museum displays, an effect of containment and preservation that is picked up by the repeated images of bell-jars and rooms. The dangers - artistic and personal - of being 'fixed' by the very engagement with such a stultifying tradition are subtly avoided by Belluigi's choice of medium. A large part of the exhibition is made up of digital prints and involves the digital construction of her own and found images. While the aesthetic is not noticeably digital, the process of digital construction is crucial for the writing of Belluigi's fluid autobiography. Authorship and control over reality and appearance; the blurring of boundaries between documentary 'facts' and the imaginary elements, which occurs in any narrative, however careful; the manipulation of existing images for personal use - all these elements of the digital medium support the artist's purposes and subtly influence the relation between viewer and work.

The photograph, for example, is taken to be verification that a particular event occurred at a determinable time and place. What the digital prints offer, however, is a intermingling of past and present, fact and fiction. This distortion of reality serves a two-fold purpose: it gives Belluigi control from within the artistic tradition, and allows the interrogation of the limited real-life stories and identities afforded women. In these digital works, too, the personal story takes on an impersonal aspect: Belluigi is not just herself, but the 'first wife', Eve; not just a particular woman, but any woman attempting to write her own story within an inherited, and not always welcome, plot.

Because of these features, the digital medium offers great opportunity for disruptive engagement with convention. In the Eve Series, for instance, Belluigi places herself in art-historical poses of Eves against the distorted dimensions of minutely detailed backdrops. The series moves from the formal estate gardens and exterior of a mansion, through various uneasy interior spaces. Images of tools displayed in the first work suggest Eve, rather than Adam, as the original controller of destiny. In her decision to eat the apple, Eve moved us from the innocence of the Garden to the possibility of experience and knowledge, but also to the injustices of the civilised world, portrayed in the tremendously 'worked' and controlled backdrops of the series. Humanity's reaction to that achievement, the bridling of the desires and authorship of women, is clearly assessed: The artificiality of pose and backdrop gives a faintly absurd result, a clear verdict on women's roles in the traditional stories.

In a more personal and darker vein, Belluigi, in vibrant red nightdress, reclines in readiness for her husband on the architectural plans of the desanctified chapel in which she was married, in Prima Nota. The reference to Mantegna's The Dead Christ (1465) (the figure here reversed), coupled with the chapel, suggest both the extinction of the self and the rebirth into a new role of wife. All these images, so clearly manipulated and staged, show Belluigi's uneasy accommodation of tradition into her contemporary position of woman and wife.

The tensions of conforming to ideal images of woman are explored throughout the exhibition. The ideal bodies of After Degas and Mannequin are later transformed into real bodies, solid and immediate. In En-closure, Belluigi places herself under bell-jars, ready for inspection in her many roles, well-trained and impassive. Hints of violence emerge in Making the dress I, in which Belluigi, in the contorted pose of Mantegna's St. Sebastian (c. 1455), is pierced by dressmakers' pins, her halo a surprising pin-cushion. 'Making the dress II' places another realistically fleshy body on top of the dressmaker's dummy, awkwardly bringing together the ideal and the real, while exposing the artificial, faintly threatening, mechanisms of the former. Not just the body, of course, but personality and identity come under pressure too. In Broken Vessels, a cool, decorative series of digital scans depicting flattened shards of crockery from the garden of Belluigi's house, anxieties of disintegration and abandonment are delicately suggested, while restrained by the flattened, artificial dimensions of the images.

Other works explore these anxieties in a more immediate and personal medium. The presence of the real woman, both as artist and particular individual, is felt in the smudged marks of the charcoal medium in the Ring Series. Here, the linked rings used by jewellers to measure the wedding finger suggest both continuity and confinement. The image of the ring is repeated in the video piece, Hoola, in which the anxieties attending the choice to marry are explored through performance. Wearing lingerie decorated with butterflies, the symbol of that notoriously troublesome woman, Psyche, Belluigi attempts uncomfortably to hoola-hoop. While the reference to the child's game is playful, Belluigi's clear lack of experience, the exhausting repetitions, long shadows and elevated view calls to mind De Chirico's disturbing Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914). While the wedding ring signifies infinity and unity, the ring of the hoola-hoop warns of the dangers of endless negotiations and balances. Losing control over one's self-definition in this game is an obvious threat. My Name, showing the blurring of Belluigi's maiden name, is a reflection on the potential loss of identity as two people are entwined in marriage. The charcoal self-portrait continues this theme, now referencing the history of photography: It is a reworking of Degas' portrait of Princess Metternich, itself a painting from a photograph. The surprising blurring of the face, an effect of the original photograph, relates it to My Name, while contributing to the exhibition's concern with the relation between identity and medium.

It is noteworthy that the other essential party to a marriage, the husband, enters the narrative explicitly in only two works. The first is Figurines, in which the husband is as idealised as the woman, the individual lost in the blurred and enlarged photographic images. It is in the second work that he is most present, however, although he is not directly represented at all. Significantly, Belluigi's partner is himself a photographer, and the deeply personal photographs of Views I do not get to see uses the camera as his surrogate, as Belluigi explores her body from a perspective normally unavailable from the subject position. Significantly, she is in control here, taking up the authorial, creative position from the man, seeing herself as he would, but in her own terms, by her own hand. The imperfect body uncomfortably displayed in En-closure and the Eve Series is here explored and, perhaps, accepted. In this self-exploration, the presence of the partner is crucial, and the work is remarkable for its negotiation between the anxieties of intimacy and the self-knowledge that only intimacy can afford.

This negotiation is uneasy, its conclusions precarious: Often the surfaces of the works vie with their influences and echoes. My Hands, for instance, visually matches Broken Vessels in the white background and simple images and appears to balance that work's cracked fragments with the complete, unified image of white sugar-coated almonds. At the same time, however, the echoes from Herbert Bayer's surrealist Lonely Metropolitan (1932) subtly undermine this surface calm. This strategy is used throughout unbridled. It is the influences and images of the tradition in which Belluigi works that disturbs their surface control, suggesting once again their malign interference on self-expression.

However, Belluigi's journey into marriage is not only fraught. For she chose to marry freely, after all, in a way not open to many women of the past. The images in her narrative journey are often beautiful; the symbols of the past are rich with creative potential, often despite their coercive history: they provide resources and a sense of continuity, of fellowship with other women, even as they so often excluded them. In part the effect of the serene digital medium, the viewer is left with a sense of acceptance, of authorship and control over the materials of the past and present. We are reminded that however unsettling the echoes of My Hands, for instance, the almonds resting on their palms are also a symbol of fertility. The fragments, contortions and misrepresentations provided by Belluigi's heritage are transformed into works which represent herself, finally, in her own terms.

In unbridled, Belluigi's voice, her self, is 'un-bridled'; the restraints are removed, but the memories of those restraints, personal and cultural, are still clearly felt. Self-exploration offers some relief from artificially imposed restraints and allows the expression of a protean self that is as far as possible of one's own making. In our culture's romantic stories, the heroine disappeared into silence as she entered marriage, a state considered defining and completing; in unbridled, Dina Belluigi finds her own voice and her story continues beyond marriage, beyond the confines of the exhibition.