Barbara Hammer: Making the invisible visible

Lori Gum

Jun 25, 2019

Barbara Hammer, still from Evidentiary Bodies, (detail), 2018 Three-channel video installation Dimensions variable; running time:  9 mins. 30 secs. Courtesy of the artist, COMPANY, New York, and KOW, Berlin © Barbara Hammer Studio

Writer Lori Gum on the impact of seeing Evidentiary Bodies at the Wex and watching the films of Barbara Hammer as a young lesbian in New York City.

“Being sick leaves you without much disguise.”—Barbara Hammer

Barbara Hammer was never much for masks or disguises even before she became terminally ill. With over 50 years of filmmaking experience that produced over 80 films, this fearless pioneer, lesbian, avant-garde filmmaker sought total honesty through her work. This was often tender and sometimes brutal but the dialectic of sensory perceptions that define her work established a truly new cinematic language that did not rely solely upon abstract intellectual juxtaposition or even ... thinking itself.

It was instead about feeling. It was, in her words, to “make the invisible... visible”.

In her last public appearance at The Whitney Museum before her death this past spring, after a 13-year struggle of living with ovarian cancer, Hammer stated that her encompassing artistic mission had always been to convey “sensation”: to make us recognize the joy and pleasure of our own bodies and relish in the profound and delightful intimacies we share with other human bodies and nature itself. As she grew older and became more ill, Hammer would also profoundly share with us the sensory experience of living while dying, the notion of finding youthful joy in the creative process while the physical ability to create was painfully diminished and ultimately, and maybe most importantly, her passionate plea for the right to die through her own volition and agency.

All of these swirling, swollen, sublime and paradoxical life conundrums are realized with the four-channel HD installation, Evidentiary Bodies, that serves as the centerpiece of the exhibition, Barbara Hammer: In This Body. This would be Hammer’s last film project. It premiered in 2016 at The Berlin Film Festival but was projected on three flat screens. This “black box” installation at the center is the first, authentic realization of Hammer’s cinematic vision of this work.

And it is a stunning experience.

Barbara Hammer, still from Evidentiary Bodies, (detail), 2018 Three-channel video installation Dimensions variable; running time:  9 mins. 30 secs. Courtesy of the artist, COMPANY, New York, and KOW, Berlin © Barbara Hammer Studio


Sitting on a simple wooden bench at the center of the three screens that surround you, initially you are struck with the vivid colors of the diagnostic medical imagery that appear around you in the form of X-rays and moving images of the inside of a human body. You are suddenly inside her body and, consequently, your own. Hammer’s naked and very ill, 78-year-old body appears onscreen, first as just a face with nostrils still caked with blood from chemotherapy treatment tubes. It is stark, horrifying, honest, and beautiful in its transparency. Soon this naked, worn body begins a dance with another body (both Hammer's) dressed in a white jumpsuit. The naked, real body often merges onscreen with the idealized one, peeking over the film’s edge with youthful curiosity and wonder and then falling to the ground; then crawling, struggling, succeeding, failing, living, dying.

But more profoundly, the movement of the images on the screens to your left and right, perpendicular to the screen in front of you, gives you a sort of horizontal, vertiginous sense that the walls are closing in on you. If you glance back at the front screen, that sensation ceases. But after you do this several times, you will start to sense that the room is ... breathing. Inhaling and exhaling. Contracting and expanding. And you start to breathe in rhythm with the projected images. It is an astounding experience. And as Hammer’s naked body, lying on the ground, is finally dragged offscreen by an unconquerable, unseen force, the screen and room go black. The room is no longer breathing. Hammer is no longer breathing. And for a few moments, neither was I. The intimate physical perception of death was actually, no matter how fleeting, experienced by the viewer. With these few moments—moments that truly transcend the medium of cinema—Hammer has fully realized her intent to convey sensory perception. It is a profound and peacefully devastating artistic accomplishment. 

But one of the things that is missing from the exhibition is the celebration of Hammer as a fiercely out lesbian artist. This is understandable given the limited space and scope of the exhibit, and this element of her life has been represented in the accompanying film series Barbara Hammer: The Body in Film. But talk about making the “invisible” “visible”?!

In This Body

This isn’t just a female body. This is a lesbian body.

“It has been the goal of my life,” Hammer once said, “to put a lesbian lifestyle on the screen. Why? Because when I started I couldn’t find any!”

In the early 1970s, at the age of 30, Hammer left her husband, hopped in a Volkswagen with a reel-to-feel audio recorder and an 8mm camera and headed off to Berkeley. Soon, she was at the Pride Parade interviewing people about orgasms. After sitting in a movie theater and accidental rubbing her knee against the knee of her female friend in the seat next to her, Hammer realized that she was a lesbian. Her initiation into her true sexual identity was realized through pure sensual and sensory perception. Hammer never looked back. Her films were uncompromisingly personal, not political.

"It has been the goal of my life,” Hammer once said, “to put a lesbian lifestyle on the screen. Why? Because when I started I couldn’t find any!"
Still from the film Nitrate Kisses by Barbara Hammer


Dyketactics (1974), a celebration of the female/lesbian body, nature and the delight of lesbian physical intimacy, put her on the avant-grade film scene as an out lesbian artist. Who knew anyone in 1974 that would self-identify as a lesbian, let alone be so publicly out with their artistic endeavors? This was radical and brave.

Mind you, the notion of “lesbian erasure” at that time wasn’t even a thing as we hadn’t even become visible enough to be erased. All of Hammer’s subsequent films unapologetically represented and embraced a lesbian body, a lesbian culture and a lesbian identity. Hammer truly made us, the invisible, visible.

In the '80s and early '90s, as a young, out lesbian filmmaker and writer, my NYU film schools friends and I would tromp down to the Anthology Film Archives in lower Manhattan to see the films of avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brackage, Jonas Mekas, and Maya Deren. We discovered an entirely different way of making films and witnessed the creation of a new cinematic vernacular. It would be Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) that would inspire Hammer herself to become an experimental filmmaker. But those films, as radical and idea-expanding as they were, seemed almost asexual to me. As an empowered, out lesbian filmmaker myself, there seemed to be a dryness, an intellectual domination in these films—ideas and ideology over emotion, feeling, gender, and sexuality.

Hammer would change all of that.

It was nearly impossible to see any Hammer films in those early days but in the mid '90s, I was invited to a dark studio apartment in New York City by lesbian friends to view Hammer’s Superdyke meets Madame X (1976) via an old, probably bootlegged VHS. Just the title was enough for me. But the film was breathtaking in the fact that it self-documented the somewhat contentious, romantic relationship between Hammer and her girlfriend, Max Almy. There was kissing, easy and unself-conscious nudity, and it was a deep peek into an authentic lesbian relationship. And they looked like us. No Hollywood cinematography, makeup or lighting. No movie stars. It was simply a very real representation of my own lesbian community and friends. And me.

Yet, times change, and there has been much progress for our LGBTQ community and our LGBTQ artists over the last 50 years. After all of this newfound visibility and acceptance both socially and legally, the language of our community is changing and much of it is long overdue. I am 57 years old now and I do not know any woman under the age of 40 who self-identifies predominantly as a lesbian. Many of us have taken on the umbrella label of “queer,” mostly to acknowledge not only a whole new spectrum of sexual identity we now respect but also to celebrate and honor our gender identity and all of the empowerment that entails for our LGBTQ-queer-trans community.

But I know that many of our older lesbians feel that “lesbian erasure” is a real thing. After all of our newfound visibility, many of them feel invisible again.

Invisible. Again.

For now, I’ll leave the discussion of such with Barbara Hammer’s own words...

“A lot of my lesbian friends were upset about so many butch friends of ours who were becoming trans, and I was always trying to explain to them: everybody gets to explore. To be who they really are. But one thing is we don’t want to forget the lesbian, and we don’t want her to be lost. She might not even be known in 20 years, as a population or as a language. A mode of being, a vocabulary, a particular way we cut our hair—this is going to be lost if there’s no lesbian anymore. After a while, nobody will even remember.”

We will remember. The work of Barbara Hammer will always powerfully remind us.


Images: Barbara Hammer, stills from Evidentiary Bodies, (detail), 2018 Three-channel video installation Dimensions variable; running time: 9 mins. 30 secs. Courtesy of the artist, COMPANY, New York, and KOW, Berlin © Barbara Hammer Studio; image from Nitrate Kisses, part of Barbara Hammer: The Body in Film, courtesy of The Barbara Hammer Estate and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York