ella dreyfus

12th December 2014
Breaking the Surface: On the Depths of Intimacy
by Sean O'Brien, Canada,
Abstract from feature article
Critical of recent conservative trends in literary studies that favor the surfaces of texts, the Marxist literary critic Carolyn Lesjak has encouraged us to consider "how notions of surface and depth can be seen in productive tension or unease with each other," a statement with significant implications for examining a wide range of aesthetic and cultural practices. This essay examines the relations between aesthetic surfaces and the affective depths of aesthetic experience in recent work by the Australian visual artist Ella Dreyfus. Over the course of her work-from earlier projects that consider the body as a contested site of meaning, such as The Body Pregnant (1993), Age and Consent (1999), and Transman (2001)-Dreyfus has focused on "the development of an aesthetic space, where positive and negative affects could arise as relational encounters." Her work engages with what she has described as an "aesthetic of intimacy," an artistic practice she argues captures "relationships between embodiment and feeling" by exploring the affective depths of the artwork.

In her most recent two projects Je m'appelle Dreyfus, je suis Juive (2014), and Intimate Distance (2014), Dreyfus continues her creative investigation into questions of intimacy and aesthetic experience. In shots of soft, colorful letters adorned on city walls and in stairwells, Je m'appelle Dreyfus, je suis Juive combines installation and photography to confront the traumatic history of the Holocaust through what Marianne Hirsch has called "postmemory," a "relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right." With her declaration, "Je m'appelle Dreyfus, je suis Juive" (My name is Dreyfus, I am a Jew), Dreyfus not only reclaims a presence for contemporary Jewish life in Parisian spaces marked by an acute historical absence; moving between the colorful surfaces and the grave depths of history, the project also reaffirms a vital line of historical continuity in the face of violent rupture and erasure.

Intimate Distance, on the other hand, deals with the production of affect between expressive subjects photographed in the studio, which Dreyfus has described as "dark, womb-like space of intimacy," invoking notions of safety and comfort that allows for the exploration of difficult, personal emotions and negative affects. Taking its title from Lauren Berlant's work on affective proximities, Intimate Distance portrays subjects in proximal relation to one another, photographed individually and then arranged in pairs during the post-production stage. Like Je m'appelle Dreyfus, je suis Juive, Intimate Distance explores the depths of intimacy, as facial expressions capture outward expressions of inner emotions that form dynamic connections, producing new relations between subjects and spectators that traverse the personal and the impersonal, the soft and hard, past and present, surface and depth.