Eyeline, no. 82, 2015.
In America, before the 1920s, cigarettes were a male thing. Few women smoked. It was seen as slutty and unladylike. But, as tobacco companies recognised that women were an untapped market, they set out to change the culture. They enlisted the help of Edward Bernays, a public-relations mastermind and a nephew of Sigmund Freud’s. He asked psychoanalyst A.A. Brill what women’s unconscious motivation to smoke might be. Brill said that cigarettes were symbols of masculine empowerment, little penises, and that ‘penis envy’ could drive women to smoke. Armed with this insight, Bernays staged an intervention during a 1929 New York Easter parade. He organised for a group of fashionable debutants, whom he handpicked (not too pretty, not too plain), to join the parade, then to all light up simultaneously. He tipped off the press, saying the women were suffragettes lighting ‘torches of freedom’. The press took the bait. The photographers were waiting. It was free promotion and an early instance of psychoanalysis being used to shape desires (before the fact) rather than simply analysing them (after).1
Big tobacco cashed in on the association between smoking and feminism. They recruited modern heroines, like trans-Atlantic aviatrix Amelia Earhart, for endorsements. Smoking was linked to female strength, defiance, and emancipation, and also promoted as a way to stay slim. They created special brands for women, shaping and styling cigarettes and packs ‘for the feminine hand’, turning them into seductive props.2 Even after 1964’s damning Surgeon General’s Report, Virginia Slims (introduced in 1968) could still be promoted as defiance of patriarchy: ‘You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.’ Today, in the affluent west, women are as likely to smoke as men, achieving a dubious form of equality.
As we all know, tobacco’s fantasies contrast with its realities: stained teeth, bad breath, enhanced cellulite, emphysema, heart disease, lung cancer, gangrenous toes, botched babies, etcetera. On average, smokers lose more than ten years of their life to the habit, yet smoking remains a defiant, ‘supermodel’ thing to do. Although Linda Evangelista ended up in hospital with a collapsed lung in 1991 and quit, she soon returned to smoking. And in 2011, Kate Moss lit up while on the runway during No-Smoking Day, joyously defying a ban on catwalk smoking.
The sight of attractive, young women smoking has long provided a nexus for compelling but contradictory ideas we have about sex and gender, glamour and power, illness and death. Auckland artist Steve Carr plays on it all in his 2007 video Annabel. It’s Carr’s longest video to date, an epic single take of one-hour-and-ten-minutes duration—a portrait of a young woman chain smoking. Annabel is slender, with high cheekbones, and long chestnut hair, cut in a fabulous fringe. She has bedroom eyes and full lips. As she smokes, she works though a repertoire of acquired gestures: holding her cigarette like this, like that, bringing it to her mouth, sucking on it, inhaling, exhaling, blowing smoke, looking bored, thoughtful, pensive, eyes watering slightly. The already sedate, flattering lighting is only enhanced by the accumulating haze—a subtle veil of smoke. The woman says nothing, but she becomes a screen onto which we can project our speculations as to what she might be thinking, including what she might be thinking about us watching her in the future. Of course, we can never know what she’s thinking, only speculate.
Annabel positions the viewer as a voyeur. The camera remains static throughout—like a surveillance camera. The filmmaker could have been present during the filming, or not (perhaps he ducked out for a cigarette). Although we cannot know if Annabel was being watched at the time, she is completely aware of being filmed. She avoids making eye contact with the camera, which perhaps shows how conscious of it she is. As a medium close-up, Annabel recalls Andy Warhol’s filmic portraits, his Screen Tests of glamourous sitters, some of whom enjoyed a cigarette, cigar, or joint while being filmed.3 But equally, it recalls smoking-fetish pornography (lots of good stuff on YouTube).
They say that smoking’s erotic appeal is tied to its prohibition, which is probably why, looking back to the 1920s, women smoking is sexier than men smoking. If many men find smoking women sexy, for a few it is acutely, exquisitely so—it is a fetish called capnolagnia. Most capnolagniasts would agree with Brill that cigarettes are little penises, enjoying the female smoker as a ‘phallic woman’. However, everything contains its opposite. Their number also includes ‘black lung’ or ‘lung damage’ fetishists, a sadistic sub-group who get their kicks from the thought of women being damaged by the habit.
Carr wrote a blurb to accompany Annabel on the Circuit website. It’s written in the third person: ‘Annabel documents the performance of one of Carr’s students engaged in the act of attempting to smoke an entire packet of cigarettes one after the other. Like a naughty child being caught [smoking] for the first time and made to smoke the entire packet as punishment, the viewer is witness to Annabel’s endurance and eventual failure.’4
The blurb tells us things we could not deduce from the video itself (notably, that the sitter is one of Carr’s students) and suggests that we might consider her chain-smoking here as aversion therapy or as reliving a childhood punishment. After reading the blurb, I felt like a creepy teacher, perving on a hot student I’d held back on detention. The blurb places me in the role of her punisher, albeit benevolent (it’s for her own good, of course). The pretext that she is being punished provides an alibi for my scrutinising her, her hair, her fingers, her lips.
A telling feature of Carr’s blurb is a grammatical error. The first part of the second sentence—‘Like a naughty child being caught for the first time and made to smoke the entire packet as punishment’—should have been tacked on the end of the first sentence, so it refers to Annabel. But Carr made it part of the second sentence, which is about the viewer. This Freudian slip suggests that, while viewers may see themselves as punishers, we may also identify with her as punished, somehow sharing in her punishment through empathy. So, as much as I might take pleasure in Annabel’s slow poisoning, I can also identify with her, as if this is an ordeal we go through together. Perhaps it is ‘hurting me more than it hurts her’.
With Annabel, real-time duration is crucial. It’s a meditative work, a little vanitas. It cross-references our reflection upon it to smoking itself, as a reflective activity. It gives us time to enjoy looking at Annabel, to cruise her with our eyes, and to think about what is at stake in this, for us, for her. It lets us ponder beauty and addiction, desire and death. Its duration allows us to work through contradictory insights, accumulating them, rather than having one erase or supersede the others.
It’s interesting to watch Annabel alongside another Carr video, Smoke Train (2005). Here, a young mother entertains her young daughter on a domestic doorstep. As mum enjoys her cigarette break, she modifies the pack so she can use it to puff out smoke rings to entertain the toddler. We are drawn to this magic, nostalgic, loving scene, but also disturbed by the way mum (who should know better) inducts her wide-eyed daughter into the joys of the filthy habit. Shot on film, Smoke Train looks as though it could have been made decades ago, before there were such taboos around smoking.5 Viewing Annabel through Smoke Train, we might fantasise that Annabel is that little girl, now grown up, facing the consequences.
One of Carr’s perennial concerns is pleasures—innocent and guilty. Mostly these pleasures are gendered and many are sexual (albeit sublimated). In his videos, he has a pillow fights with little girls in their jammies; he smashes up a panel van with skater boys; he drinks Tiger beer with a ‘throng of models’ in a jacuzzi; and, in scuba gear, he watches bikini girls swim around him in a pool. In his more recent videos, Carr’s pleasure is often abstracted in the form of cars doing burnouts, paint-filled-balloons bursting, and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge being obliterated by bullets in orgasmic slo-mo. Carr shares pleasures with the people (and the things) in his videos; he also shares these pleasures with us, his audience. However, his pleasures, their pleasures, and our pleasures are never exactly the same, even if they overlap and reflect one another.
Pleasures may involve identification, but it is one thing for a punisher to identify with his victim, another for the victim to identify back. Identification doesn’t mean equality; indeed, it can mask inequality. Annabel is about our seeing ourselves, in turn, as artist, as viewers, and as subject; but it is also about the difference between being Annabel and filming her, the difference between being Annabel and watching her, and the difference between filming Annabel and watching a film of her. Carr’s work provides opportunities to meditate upon the nuances, mechanics, and politics of these differences. In a relay of compromised identifications, we may share a cigarette, but we can never fully become the other. We can never get inside her head, can never know her. Nor she us. In the end, Carr’s Annabel highlights loneliness: hers, ours. After making Annabel, Carr quit smoking.
- With apologies to Adam Curtis, from whose 2002 BBC television documentary series, The Century of the Self, I lifted this account.
- In 1937, New Zealand’s own Rita Angus, freshly-separated from her husband, would defiantly brandish a cigarette in her famous self portrait, to signal her feminist independence and modernity. The painting is in the collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
- Made between 1964 and 1966, Warhol’s screen tests were each about four-minutes long—a single roll of film. A number of subjects—including Marcel Duchamp—smoke during the filming. In 1964, Warhol also made a feature-length film of Henry Geldzhaler smoking a cigar. While the camera was running, Warhol apparently walked off to make phone calls.
- For Carr, Smoke Train is genuinely nostalgic. His own mother showed him the trick when he was a child. Significantly, here, he has chosen to have his role played by a little girl, complicating (or simplifying) our relays of identification.