Bastienne Schmidt's Home Stills
“But how does it go? What can I think of? The truth is, I often like women. I like their unconventionality. I like their subtlety. I like their anonymity.“ [i] - Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Like Kerouac in On the Road or Travis in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, Bastienne Schmidt’s character roams America’s suburban terrain. She demurely shields her face from the camera’s gaze, tempting us to daydream about her ruminations while we participate as curious onlookers in her journeys. We travel through these deadpan cinematic vignettes with an anonymous feminine creature who is forever discovering her local environs.
A German-born immigrant who arrived in the United States years ago at the age of 25, Schmidt explores the ethos of America in relationship to nature as well as the culture’s traditional and contemporary gender roles and in Home Stills. Set in and around her home in eastern Long Island, this series of portraits is a form of self-discovery, logically following the artist’s previous work on home and identity. She draws parallels to Transcendentalism and 19th century Romantic painters and poets, incorporating references from those including Friedrich Schiller and Caspar David Friedrich whose quest for self-discovery was stimulated by nature’s unpredictability. Likewise, she references psychologically charged works from the Pre-Raphaelite era which present females as lone creatures, ring-fenced by their domestic surroundings. In each scene, Schmidt embodies variations of the archetypal everywoman – feminine symbols of the American Dream, both conventional and otherwise.
In some photographs Schmidt actualizes the yearnings of the foreigner who once wandered America before the onset of family = freedom. Dressed in yellow, her character tests mismatched his-and-hers 1950s-era recliners covered in kitschy designs at the local thrift store. Late afternoon shadows follow her as she peeps around doors at the mansions of her well-heeled neighbors, and she boldly runs across strangers’ fields in a red skirt. Like a 20th century heroine plucked out of film noir, she walks down the double yellow lines of a neatly groomed road in Shelter Island, as if she were escaping one life to enter another.
Introducing family into her scenes, Schmidt portrays life further along in the cycle of womanhood. As Woolf beckoned women of her time to make discoveries of any importance, Schmidt seeks her purpose as a housewife through controlled experimentations performed and photographed within her home. Surrounded by the seemingly limitless and repetitive household chores of laundry and cleaning, she gazes down the hallway, the vacuum cleaner coiled like a piece of spaghetti. Her son lies next to his miniature toys that are artfully arranged across the floor as she meditates on the flowers nearby. While Sisyphean, she neatly grids her family’s used soap and delicately arranges their clothes on the lawn in a spiral jetty – a domestic homage to Robert Smithson’s land art of the same name. Schmidt calls these actions “artistic reorganization…in the midst of the chaos of a household.”[ii]
The photographs picturing a character roaming suburbia do not necessarily chronologically fall before the domesticated ones. By stepping into the picture in either scenario, Schmidt steps out of the role of housewife and mother and into a fictionalized narrative with autobiographical underpinnings. Veiled amidst a mis-en-scene of layered symbolic meanings, in each environmental portrait exists an unpredictable character who questions women’s complicity in domestic roles and their experiences of solitude within a family framework.
Wendy Watriss, ed. (2012) FotoFest 2012. Amsterdam: Schilt Publishing, pp. 68-69.
[i] Woolf, V. 1981 . A Room of One’s Own. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 111.
[ii] Schmidt, as interviewed by Vicki Goldberg in Schmidt, B. with Goldberg, V., 2010. Home Stills. Berlin: Jovis Verlag.