The finite artwork, as contained within the frame, or the exhibition space, or the storage container, has always pressed against the infinite. The 16th century Beeldenstorm saw the mass destruction of religious icons on the basis that the divine cannot also be material. The challenge for artists became how to provide an aesthetic context for that which cannot be understood materially. It is no wonder that centuries later abstract art was seen as the perfect method for evoking rather than depicting the immaterial, and it is also no wonder that earthly celebrity turned these works into icons for worship any way, and the museum into the church. The museum holds these worshipped objects which have variously grappled with the invisible and the inconceivable, from the geometric spiritualisms of Mondrian to the interrogations of the unconscious in the Romantics and then the surrealists.
Maya Deren places a witch in the holy space that is the art museum, and explores art’s material limitations while unlocking and suggesting magic spaces through the film format. Film is for Deren both immaterial in the sense that it can be reproduced and distributed endlessly (now even moreso with the internet) and so is by nature free from the painting or sculpture’s Divine Original, and material in the sense that it opens up new architectural spaces, is printed on celluloid, and uses duration and juxtaposition to build a fluid, uneasy subjectivity of meaning. It is magic drawn from the physical world, to be performed in the physical world, and it can turn our physical reality into one of Fuseli’s nightmares (whether this is demonic or psychological is up to the viewer and her beliefs).
A criticism of surrealism is that an artist like Dalí never actually managed to draw out the unconscious for the viewer directly, which is to say, without a surrealist iconography as proxy. The idea belying this is that our subconscious is surely a shifting liquid more than a rigid network of definitions, and that like those Protestant artists, one should never attempt to rationalise the irrational. Deren calls upon iconographies of witchcraft, but the spaces of overlapping meaning and subjective terror that she creates effectively break from this criticism- the emblems drawn in dirt and skin are not proxies or flat icons, but methods for unlocking terror here and now. The magical, the physical, and the psychological cohabit the same space.
The geometric abstractions of an artist like Mondrian or Mrkusich at once acknowledge their existence on a flat canvas plane, and desire transcendence alongside and through the help of the viewer. Composition with Red Blue and Yellow’s spiritual significance is in the way that each of the grid’s black lines reach the edge of the canvas. It comes cropped, so as to say that the life held within the painting extends beyond the work’s arbitrary cutoff point. Deren is sympathetic, but makes fun of this cropping and this supposed holiness of geometry. The photographer is given an infinite amount of ways to shoot a single object or scene, and so what we see of the photograph is everything the artist chose not to exclude from the frame. By nature the photograph asks us to wonder what exists beyond that edge. In Witch’s Cradle Deren focusses in on material objects which ask us to imagine the infinite- everything beyond the object- and then she turns the object so we see what lies beyond its aesthetic focal point. In the case of a painting, it is not God but stretcher bars and rusty staples that exist beyond the edge, just out of view.
When we see Duchamp appear as an actor we think of his Unhappy Readymade where a geometry textbook was left outside and exposed to the elements. Mondrian’s works find the sacred in the geometric; Duchamp’s find the geometric (and thus the sacred) printed on paper and watch as the wind and the rain tear them apart. Deren’s witch strangles Duchamp but she understands where he’s coming from. Deren is the elements, she knows these material limitations, but she will craft magic from them. There is an insouciant air to the film which goes along with its sinister obscurity, and moments where unexposed film flick in and remind us of the film’s artificiality don’t break but add to its spell.
The work of art as private property has allowed businessmen to profit from the divine, as well as have their holy (and necessarily earthly) value increase through removing them from the private sphere. The public church-museum has its perks in that it allows the public their right to pilgrimage, but for many this means worshipping at the altar of white male art. The museum and church are witch cradles- man-made environments to torture women into submission. Deren’s witch though acknowledges the material limitations of the device(s), and uses them to open spaces for women. The film is both a how-to-guide in using the weapons of patriarchy against itself, and an immersive example of art as opposition. It both illustrates and suggests. In the 18th and 19th century paintings and prints of Goya, we see darkness as ignorance and witches as propaganda justifying a brutal Inquisition. In countries that readily embraced the Enlightenment, darkness and witches mean different things. Deren as a young female artist in a field dominated by men, in a world of rationalised genocide and mass murder, finds heroes in witches and potential in the darkness.
It is important to remember that a finished work is only finished because the artist says it is, rather than because it is objectively complete. Every artwork could have had more paint or ink, or objects, or textures, or could have been longer, or indeed arranged differently, but the point at which we see it is when nothing more or less has been done to it. The artwork is always a work in progress, and the ‘finished’ artwork is just frozen in progress. One needs only to look at the late drawings of Picasso to see how an artist who once left patches of canvas bare, now struggles to know when to stop. His works in the Tate collection are so overworked, so unsure of themselves that they’re difficult to look at. It would have been nice to have Deren say This is Witch’s Cradle and I am happy with it, but in lieu of this we can appreciate it as prematurely frozen but no less developed than it might have been otherwise.