The Fearless Frame: Barbara Hammer at Tate Modern

Sophie Mayer hugs, shares, learns and grows with Barbara Hammer's Active Cinema during the latter's retrospective at Tate Modern in London

Sophie Mayer, 19 February 2012

It's pretty hard not to fall in love with Barbara Hammer.

BH_Balloon.jpg First of all, she was the first ever lesbian filmmaker (and the sentence could, barring speculations, end here) to depict lesbian lovemaking on film, in Dyketactics (1974). Secondly, she has been out, proud and ever-changing in her art and life since then. Thirdly, she's warm and welcoming: on Sunday 5 February she turned the chilly Tate Modern Turbine Hall into an old school happening for her Hammer Expanded programme, inviting people to lie down on the floor Olafúr Eliasson-style and contemplate the shifting edges of film projected on a giant white inflatable. Fourthly, at the same time as being accessible, she's articulate and engaged, telling the audience that she's recently returned from a trip to Palestine as part of the first ever queer activist delegation, raw footage from which she'll be screening in London.

Double Strength Single.jpg
Fifthly, she gives great hugs, perhaps a product of her time as a naked trapeze artist, as shown in the film Double Strength (1978). At the end of Hammer Expanded, she lifted up the white inflatable sphere, for all the world like a female Atlas, laughingly displaying a female strength in embodiment that is all too rare. Only minutes earlier, she'd been lying beneath it with her partner Florrie, gazing up in wonder like a young girl at the curved projection of her film Bent Time (1983), the one marking her move from hippy Southern California to happening New York as well as from putting her radical lesbian body in front of the camera to taking a stand behind it in videos such as No No Nooky TV (1987).

Films such as Nitrate Kisses (1992) lay claim to public space for queer identity, asserting not just that we're here, but that we always have been

Hammer's early work came in for some heated criticism, from both the patriarchal establishment and radical feminism, in the 1980s for its orgasmic nudity, as detailed by the Life in the 80s: Struggles in Conservative Times programme screened on 15 February.

The 1970s films, from Hammer's time at San Francisco State University and after, depict every hopeful, angry, beautiful, courageous and downright goofy aspect of '70s lesbian feminism that you've ever dreamed of. All captured in a haze of golden California light falling over the hills above Berkeley, we witness a group of women dropping hens' eggs from between their legs. Women waving vibrators on the escalator in Macy's! Women with Martina Navratilova hair in vests that read SuperDyke! Pubic hair aplenty! French feminist theory turned into foreplay! Superimpositions of slick clitorises and rock formations! The aforementioned naked trapezing - a hymn to female muscularity!

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Barbara Hammer
Sync Touch, 1981
© Barbara Hammer

It's glorious, all this fresh energy, a rural dyke sister/flipside to the scene pictured in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. And - even if Hammer disappeared for some time behind the camera - there is clearly a thread running through all her pursuits as she develops an emphasis on new forms of documentary (dyke-umentary, anyone?) that blend the personal (which is always erotic and embodied) and political (which is both strident and celebratory).

Films such as the classic Nitrate Kisses (1992) lay claim to public space for queer identity, asserting not just that we're here, but that we always have been. Interviews with American lesbians and gay men who came out (or at least, went bar-hopping) in the 1930s and 1940s reveal a hidden history that is made vivid in black-and-white footage of two older women making love.

Recently, Hammer has turned to celebrating her influences, queer women artists who made art out of their lives, such as Alice Austen (Tender Fictions, 1975), Maya Deren (Maya Deren's Sink, 2011) and the incredible photographer Claude Cahun (Lover/Other, 2006). She has also documented and celebrated her own recovery from cancer (in A Horse is Not a Metaphor, 2008), bringing an intensified lease of life to her work - which itself has been celebrated recently at institutions such as New York MoMA and now Tate Modern.

If ever the Lesbian Museum is established in the world, as opposed to our hearts, Hammer's work deserves pride of place

Moving with the times, Hammer experimented with Super 8, followed by video and then digital. She is always creating and editing her highly-structured, poetic ideas using accessible, low-budget forms, which she's also taught around the world, including video workshops in South Africa (Out in South Africa, 1994). On the opening night of the Tate retrospective, she invited audience members to talk to her about their work, and she has been a notable mentor and queer mother to the new queer moving image practice emerging in New York. Younger moving image and performance artists such as Emily Roysdon have been making art over the last decade that pays tribute to Hammer's incredible body of work, particularly those groundbreaking '70s films. The Tate is mirroring Hammer's generosity by including work by artists that she's mentored in the month-long show.

On Saturday 18 Febuary, Roysdon, Gina Carducci and others took part in a day of performative lectures and dialogues that invited the audience to get involved. A central topic of this study day was 'Archiving the Lesbian Museum', drawing on ideas from Anne Cvetkovich's beautiful book An Archive of Feeling, one which Hammer mentions appreciatively in conversation and in her memoir Hammer!

If ever such a museum is established in the world, as opposed to our hearts, Hammer's work deserves pride of place. For the moment, until 26 February, Tate Modern is providing an excellent temporary Living Lesbian Museum, an ever-changing archive of films, events and encounters in which I urge you to include yourself.

Remaining photo credits:

Barbara Hammer
Changing the Shape of Film, 2009
© Barbara Hammer

Barbara Hammer
Double Strength, 1978
© Barbara Hammer


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About the author

Sophie Mayer

A big fan of Barbara Hammer's work and hugs, Sophie Mayer reviewed the Tate retrospective for Sight & Sound and was one of the respondents at the Barbara Hammer Study Day of performative lectures and dialogues last Saturday

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