American artist Mary Helena Clark makes enigmatic, associative, oneiric films that propose cinema as both a trance-like and transparent experience, one “that operates on dream logic until disrupted by a moment of self-reflexivity, like tripping on an extension cord.” Whether working with 16mm film, video or installation, with found footage or her own images, Clark uses the language of collage in order to bring together disparate sounds, images and texts that suggest an exterior logic or code, a puzzle to be solved, a mystery to be cracked. Her work explores dissociation and the limits of cinema as an embodied experience – it questions the relationship between bodies (both animate and inanimate) and sounds, between touching and hearing, whilst problematising the notion of the body as an instrument and that of the object as a fetish. As Hannah Bonner writes, “whether Clark’s collaging distances or attracts us, it indelibly touches us (aurally, haptically, sensorially, corporeally) to experience our own porous selves, and cinema, anew. The films’ affective properties bring us back to the animacy and excitement of our bodies.” 
Mary Helena Clark’s films have been widely screened at festivals including International Film Festival Rotterdam, New York Film Festival, Cinéma du Réel, Courtisane, Media City Film Festival, Images Festival, the 2017 Whitney Biennial and in solo exhibitions at MIT List Visual Arts Center (Cambridge, MA), LUX (London) and Document (Chicago). In Focus: Mary Helena Clark is the first UK survey of her work and includes all her short films as well as a screening curated by Mary Helena Clark. 

An Experience of An Impossible Form: On the Films of Mary Helena Clark

By Hannah Bonner

Here’s an erotic thought: the bluing gloam in the beginning of Mary Helena Clark’s Figure Minus Fact (2020) soaks up light like a stain. A bed’s white coverlet bruises in the diminishing twilight, the pillows slightly rumpled as if from sleep. An assortment of magnolia blossoms in close-up become nautical, almost navy. Night is falling. The blue slowly deepens on screen and in the muted, rapturous viewer – a chromatic mimesis of feeling not fully formed to the point of articulation.

In Figure Minus Fact, the lack of language and the dusk light spark a fecund dialectic between image, sound, and time that Clark’s films so often conjure. Clark’s oeuvre simultaneously complicates and accentuates our understanding of cinema as an embodied experience through a collage of heterogeneous images, sounds, and texts. Perhaps this is why I eroticize the blue in Figure; I consider my own body’s darkness when I watch this sequence and how its emotional gradations are coloured by longing or by loss. Cinema physicalizes feeling’s impossible form; this is one of its many pleasures. In “the office of the image which I call my body,” as Henri Bergson writes, my mind churns when watching Mary Helena Clark’s films, not just my heart.

Clark achieves this interplay between sense and sensuality through her acute attention to how image pairs with sound. As she states in an interview for Pioneer Works, “sound creates a really specific, bodily experience, or it proposes one.” And yet the delight and demand of Clark’s films is how often they thwart the relationship between sound and image, proposing not synchronicity on screen, but something much more thorny and charged. The desire is to recurrently dislocate sound from image, not to wed them.

To wit, The Glass Note (2018) opens with wild bird cries against a black screen. A human neck appears in close-up. Red, laser pen lights rife across the throat. The washed-out skin suggests not sunlight, but a cool and clinical place.  Already the soundscape belies what we see. A person begins to hum a muffled melody, but, due to the extreme proximity, it is unclear whether the onscreen body is the source of the song. We peer intently, but the throat does not tremble. Poised at the precipice of discovery, we determine the sonic vibrations must come from elsewhere.

Text appears from Jean Paulhan’s preface to Pauline Réage’s Story of O as the image cuts to black. He writes, “We hear of those formations of rocks which suddenly shift when the winds blow upon them, or else emit a sloughing sound or give forth a mandolin-like music. People come from near and far to see them.” Later in Clark’s film, an open mouth emits not song or speech, but the ringing of a wineglass rubbed at its glass rim. While the notes are not “mandolin-like,” they do recall the uncanniness of traveling to look at rocks only to be greeted with a siren-like song. Like Paulhan’s description, Clark’s collage aesthetic eschews legible associations between sound and image. As she elucidates in an interview for the New York Film Festival, “I’ve been bringing sound and image relationships together…[as] discrete objects placed in proximity to each other.”

Ergo, Clark’s films become like a crime novel wherein the detective must piece together seemingly “discrete objects.” Part of the work of a detective is to closely consider disparate evidence which demands making sense of scraps, stains, scandal, or heresy; another is to act as voyeur, trailing subjects of inquiry. Mary Helena Clark has played this part before as an iteration of private investigator Scottie from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in her film The Dragon is the Frame (2014). In Dragon, the camera follows a blonde woman on a bus or returns to various sites from the Classical Hollywood film, including the chapel where Madeline (aka Judy) leaps to her death. Even in The Plant (2012), the camera furtively trails a businessman across a busy Chicago street like a private eye. If you look closely, you’ll notice he’s the same man hypnotized at the end of By foot-candle light (2011). The plot thickens.

But Clark also invites us, her audience, to don the role of detective and to actively engage in the rhetorical and formal questions her films propose. In Exhibition (2022), we grapple with how a suffragette’s desire to destroy “The Toilet of Venus” rubs up against Agnes Martin’s understanding of her identity as “not a woman” but “a doorknob, leading a quiet life.” Rather than serve as objects of visual pleasure, both Mary Richardson and Martin desire their own subjectivity, to invert societal expectations, the gaze, and patriarchal understandings of identity. In Orpheus (outtakes) (2012), a black hole engluts the white screen and then (re)appears in Palms (2015), now crumpling and flapping as if waterlogged in wind. Is it the same image? A symbol? A cipher? There is an element of, as poet Peter Gizzi writes, “felt presences / behind the hole.” Clark collages discrete objects within and between films. The objects are inconclusive if we consider them in isolation but remain full of intrigue nonetheless.

And yet, whether Clark’s collaging distances or attracts us, it indelibly touches us (aurally, haptically, sensorially, corporeally) to experience our own porous selves, and cinema, anew. The films’ affective properties bring us back to the animacy and excitement of our bodies. In Clark’s first film, And the Sun Flowers (2008), a hypnotist’s oneiric voice-over assures the audience, “It is a beautiful day that you’ve chosen in your mind, in your imagination.” A series of dissolves of flowers enhance the hypnagogic experience, the VHS’s time lapse function tingling like a visual representation of paraesthesia. Once again we witness Clark’s rendering of an impossible form, something felt in the body made manifest onscreen. The petals quiver – lush, fringed. “And so you respond,” the voice reassures us. And “in the skin, and the muscles, and the nerves, and the bones,” we do.

Hannah Bonner‘s criticism has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cleveland Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Rumpus. She lives in Iowa.