Australian Video Art Archive

Catherine E. Bell


Snow baby

00:04:20 2003

This performance was filmed in Paris on the roof of the apartment block I lived in.  In this work my body acts as conduit for the tragic news of a friend’s still born baby.  Assuming this role involves embedding myself in the psychic trauma of bereavement, “in that declaration of identity and identification, there is always loss, the loss of not-being the other and yet remaining dependent on that other for self-seeing, self being” (Jones 1998, 225).  In this instance the ritual is both a subjective response to my friend’s trauma and contingent on her experience.  The performance outcome manifests as a distanced reenactment of the catharsis, a ritual that incites emotional distress and purges it.  When I heard the sad news that my friend‘s child had died in her womb, I was focused on trying to conceive a child myself.  This establishes a relation between the symbolic performance and reflexivity within the structure of experience.  By identifying with her situation the performance activity becomes a mode of crisis resolution and not only represents but interprets maternal loss.    

The news of this still born child coincided with a freak snowstorm in Paris.  Wearing black or mourning dress, I climb out the window of the stairwell to gain access to the roof of the building.  In an upright position sitting on my feet, I begin to gather the snow into handfuls and place them on my lap.  Using myself as a plinth, I repeat this gesture, smoothing the clumps of snow into a rounded belly.  Then I lift my flimsy top and drag it over the white snow bulge.  I feel nothing but the numbness of the wet, solid ice directly on my flesh.  The garment hides the snow and gives the illusion of pregnancy.  When I was performing this action all I could think of was an image of the dead baby frozen in time, entombed and lifeless like the bulge of snow under my shirt.  I lovingly rub and stroke my belly during and after its methodical creation but the atmosphere is desolate and melancholy, like rehearsing a burial.  The sadness of the performance is punctuated by the excited squeals and melodic laughter of children playing in the snow-covered playground below. 

The opening sequence to the performance trilogy Snow Baby, complies with Gennep’s formula for rites of passage, a pattern that instinctively originated with this work and has influenced the format and display of my other video performances.  Snow Baby poses the questions: if a pregnancy doesn’t proceed full term is the woman considered a mother? Or, if a phantom pregnancy could be simulated because the body is exhibiting all the physiological side affects, is this equivalent to the maternal state?  These questions are validated in the liminal phase because what this zone authorises is a suspension of normal rules and roles. Thus experiencing the role of the deviant mother or states of ambivalent maternity during the performance is an important function in the alleviation of the anxiety and areas of uncertainty even when they conflict.

The second part of the Snow Baby performance represents the liminal phase and the camera moves to the basement of the building, a dangerous and threatening space, where vagrants are known to break in and pilfer the wine locked away in tenant’s cellars.  Seated on a wooden chair so the profile of the stomach is accentuated, I lift the black top to reveal the glowing purity of the snow. Leaning forward slightly, the snow dislodges from the flesh forming a convex shell.  I squeeze the curved sides of the snow into the centre to create a compact shape.  Using suffocating force and a violent slapping motion I beat the snow into a lifeless effigy of a baby.  The force of the blows is suggestive of the desperate urge to revive a baby and the sinister compulsion to silence.  Surprisingly the snow holds its shape and doesn’t disintegrate into pieces.  I remove the scarf from around my neck and wrap it around my snow baby so there is a space left for the ‘face’ to peer out.  I stand and position the bundle to my shoulder as if ready to burp and then begin to walk toward the darkness as the ‘face’ glows and eventually fades.

The final scene is shot in the bathroom of the apartment.  This warm domestic interior is compliant with the post-liminal stage where the subject is reintegrated back to society, transformed in some way.  There is a connection with This little piggy . . . fades to pink, as the scene symbolises a washing away of guilt prompted by the ominous middle stage of the performance triology.  I fill the sink with hot water to restore feeling to my numb fingers and melt the compact block.  I am aware when I am bathing the snow baby that a common cause of child abuse is to place the infant in hot bath water and protest that the child had accidentally turned the hot water on when unsupervised. While the water is running I remove the scarf from the lump of snow, lower it into the basin and imagine the nurse preparing the lifeless baby for my friend to hold after it was induced.  Instead of resurrecting the lifeless lump, the water slowly eats away at the surface until the packed form becomes perforated and eventually crumbles into the sink.  When the water drains away, all that is left is a handful of pebbles that were gathered up during its creation.  Coincidently, when I pulled the plug out of the sink after I bathed the piglet, I noticed his excrement resembled hard brown stones, and echoed the entropic cycle of the snow returning to the elements.

What these two performance trilogies illustrate, is Gennep’s rites of passage. Unconsciously the performance sequencing of the works, Snow Baby and This little piggy . . . fades to pink, adopt this structure and like a rite of passage, the subject is transformed by the liminal experience.  Turner specifies that:
"[Ritual] separated specified members of a group from everyday life, placed them in limbo that was not any place they were in before and not yet any place they would be in and then return them, changed in some way, to mundane life" (Turner 1987, 25). 

This description of the initiation process explains how the performance tripartite structure emulates rites of passage because this system offers a means to engage with the disturbing subject matter researched.  The liminal phase allows me to confront and explore criminality outside the conventional socio-cultural order where I am able to shift and experience extremes of behaviour or psychological states.

Identifying the difference between performance as public spectacle and the performance as private ritual is a distinction that resulted in the research trajectory moving toward the anthropological study of ritual processes originating from the pattern of social drama.  This formula demonstrates how the social drama must reawaken collectively held distress that is unresolved in everyday life.  The reawakening must occur in a context that is sufficiently safe so that distress is not experienced as overwhelming and under these conditions catharsis occurs.
- Catherine Bell

Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject.  Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1998
Victor Turner, The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1987

DVD available