by Nora Labo
In Oana Stanciu’s photographs, the inconceivable and the mundane collide, and the locus for this unsettling cohabitation is the artist’s own body. Her self-portraits, usually on plain studio backdrops, use minimalist props – often comical in their banality – and clever perspective to transform and distort her body. The resulting scenes are presented to the viewer with no suggestion of a symbolic key or a heavy conceptual framework. They do little more than assert an unlikely presence, stating ‘this too is real’. It is precisely this simplicity which opens up new spaces for reflection and often arouses the discomfort needed to renew our thinking and sensibility. By engaging with unthinkable situations as if they were on a level footing with everyday realities, she subtly encourages the viewer to question accepted notions of normality, and to welcome the legitimacy of experiences different from their own.
It is fitting that the initial trigger for Stanciu’s visual experimentation was a commonplace, almost trivial incident: her friends’ affectionate teasing about her ‘abnormally long neck’. Starting from this private joke, which was nothing remarkable in itself, she proceeded by exaggerating its premise, expanding it, exploring all the imaginary possibilities it opened up. As her practice progressed, the initial notion gradually mutated into stranger and wilder metamorphoses. Evolving through her different photographic series, the subsequent transformations experiment not only with physical possibilities, but with the range of emotions that one might feel, were they to live in such bodies. In every picture, the artist’s gaze is subtle but poignant, and conveys a genuine response to each hypothetical situation, whether it is calm poise, weariness, intense focus, surprise or exhaustion.
Besides the initial joke, Stanciu mentions Victorianera imagery of carnival side-shows and human oddities as an inspiration. This is of course a very problematic heritage, reminding us of the not so distant display and exploitation of other human beings as entertainment, on grounds of their physical differences, whether in relation to race, disability, or simply non-conformity. If this dark shadow of the past is never frontally addressed in her photographs, it is not glossed over or sanitised. The photographer exorcises these ghosts through serious play, by staging situations which mimic these historical precedents but reverse their connotations and speak with a different voice. Wisely, she avoids speaking on behalf of those who are or have been oppressed for being differently- bodied – it would have indeed been very uncomfortable to observe a white, able-bodied young woman engage in such a mission. Instead, she extrapolates from small prompts that directly affect her, either already existing – such as the ‘long neck’ joke – or that she creates for herself to experience, and then fully engages with the material reality she has brought to life. She can thus attempt to imagine and feel how it must be to have a different body, and it is the earnestness rather than the success of each attempt which matters the most.
One fundamental revision of the Victorian historical context is achieved through the control the artist asserts over her own presence. Even though improvisation is central to Stanciu’s practice, and sometimes the props used for her physical transformations are suggested by others (for instance, in the #makingascene series), her stance in each photograph has a gravitas that commands respect. While the whole process is playful, her gaze makes it clear that this is not happening simply for the audience’s entertainment. Especially in her more recent work, which incorporates ceramic appendages, some poses have a hieratic and ritualistic quality, calling to mind Anna Homler’s Breadwoman. Like Stanciu’s photographic alter egos, Breadwoman (‘she’s so very old she turned into bread’) was a character which at first seemed absurd and ridiculous – in the 1980s, Homler created a costume made out of bread for her experimental musical performances – but its incongruity served as the vehicle for expressing a divergent perception of reality. Similarly, in Stanciu’s imagery, physical anomalies which might normally carry shame and stigma acquire a wondrous quality, as if they allowed the artist access to some ancient force.
One need not go as far as the Victorian circus to see how Stanciu’s work might resonate with social rejection or feelings of physical inadequacy. The ‘long neck’ origin story, while doubtlessly light-hearted and non-traumatic, nevertheless alludes to the intense scrutiny to which women’s bodies are incessantly subjected and the impact this has on the way women perceive themselves. Her photographs do not tackle this topic in a confrontational manner, but instead open up imaginary spaces in which the viewer might find novel paths for exploring these issues. Others’ judgment on her body is not directly challenged – if they say her neck is extraordinarily long, she will comply and make it so – but its affective connotations are reclaimed. In the ‘long neck’ photographs, she seems at ease with her body, proud, and even amused by her physical oddity. In the more surreal set-ups of her subsequent photographic series, Stanciu takes possession of each divergence from the physical norm, even when imposed from the outside, by exploring the possibilities it offers, instead of the constraints it carries. Through intelligent use of projected shadows, which distort and echo the scenes in the foreground, we catch a glimpse of the endlessly expanding stories potentially held in each pose.
This role-playing suggests, both to the artist and to the audience, alternative, less oppressive ways of experiencing oneself and the world around us. The title of one of Stanciu’s series, The Raw, recalls Claude Lévi-Strauss’s book The Raw and the Cooked. In this classic work of structuralism, the anthropologist emphasises the importance of sensory experience anchored in material realities in the structuring of abstract conceptual categories. Simple things, such as the way in which food is prepared, determine the notions different cultures have at their disposal in order to develop abstract thought and categorisation; for instance, only those cultures which cook meat have a word for ‘raw’. In one of the photographs from The Raw, Stanciu looks down in surprise and disbelief at where her legs should be, discovering instead two diminutive pointy appendages. Following on Lévi- Strauss’s suggestion, underneath the artist’s surprise we might also guess the sudden realisation of how strange it is to have ‘normal’ legs and a ‘normal’ body to begin with, a strangeness which is only revealed once another sort of limb has been experienced. The boundary between the aberration and the norm becomes permeable and slowly dissolves, as an ever-expanding array of dissonant experiences are brought into the realm of reality. The constraints and artificiality which build these unlikely self-portraits wonderfully transmute into an expansive surge of liberation.