I saw Hannah Doucet’s work for the first time in a group show last spring at La Maison des artistes. Two of her works caught my eye in particular. The first was a stop motion video of her head as a beach ball, inflating and deflating infinitely. The second, a life size recreation of her naked form, photographed and printed on fabric, then stitched together and laid out on plexiglass like some unstuffed teddy bear — more than a photograph, but still frustratingly two-dimensional. That’s what I love most about Hannah’s work. It points out, explores and challenges the limitations of photography, while never fully resolving them.
Hannah continues to play with these ideas in her latest show in PLATFORM’s gallery 2. Entitled “I wondered when my body would deflate,” the show centres around an illness Hannah had between the ages of 8 and 10, which led to her losing her hair. Just before the show opened last week, we sat down in her studio to chat about the work.
FULL: What got you into photography?
Hannah Doucet: I went straight out of high school and did the BFA program at the University of Manitoba. I started out more into painting and drawing, and at first I just enjoyed hanging out with my friends and taking photos. But then I started to realize that you don’t have to take a photo, you can make it in the same way that other art forms are constructions. You see images all the time, but most are snapshots. Realizing I could engage with the medium and play with it was super exciting to me. The failures of photography are also what attracted me most to it.
FULL: What do you see as being its biggest failings?
HD: It’s a two-dimensional medium capturing a three-dimensional world. I think there are a lot of opportunities for interesting visual play and confusion when you make photographs while thinking about those limitations.
I’m also interested in work that addresses things beyond the medium specifically. I don’t like it to be too insular, but all the photography that I’m interested in is considering photography as a medium — what the act of taking photos, printing photos, and documenting is doing — how it affects representation and interpretation.
FULL: Your work plays with that in such a literal way, because you build structures out of the photos you take and then photograph them again. How did that process develop for you?
HD: It happened slowly. The first project where I started thinking about photos as objects was in my advanced photography class with Elaine Stocki. I’d take 10 photographs of my mom and photoshop them into a single image, taking an eye, or a cheek. It was kind of fluid, but it looked weird. Then I printed that out and photographed my mom wearing this mask of herself. That layering of photography was really exciting. A photo as a mask or this thing that can be worn — that was a breakthrough for me.
In my thesis year of school, I was thinking about hidden mother portraits. In the Victorian Era, people would try to photograph children, but the shutter speeds were long, so people, who we now refer to as mothers, but who knows if they actually were, would hold the children still. They’d be hidden in the photo, but there are all these subtle presences of other figures in the images. I started taking photos where I only focused on the hidden figure, shrouded similarly to these mothers, but instead, covered in fabric photos. That’s when I started working with printing photos on fabric and playing with the materiality and versatility of that. I became obsessed. Eventually I started thinking less about covering a figure in fabric and more about printing photos on fabric, then disrupting the surface of the image by playing around with the fabric it was printed on. I think fabric is a great surface to work with, because you can fold it and unfold it, and the image is not marked by that gesture, whereas paper, you crumple it and it’s crumpled. You can uncrumple it, but it still has the remains of that action.
FULL: One aspect of portraiture I return to a lot is around self-perception. A lot of people don’t like the way they’re seen by the camera. The camera also sees your body in ways that you can’t possibly see it purely with your eyes. Do you feel your self-perception or relationship to your body has changed through photographing it?
HD: I was thinking about those things a lot with the last project I showed at The New Gallery — the idea of creating a false body through photography, and how strange it is that we can never see our whole bodies except mediated through the surface of a photograph, or screen, or mirror, which are all two-dimensional surfaces.
Thinking about that has made me more aware of the way I perceive my body, but I don’t think it makes me less critical. I decided not to photograph other people’s bodies because I felt like I was perpetuating these acts on other peoples bodies, even though I was thinking about it from a critical lens and the intention was different. It just didn’t make sense to me to do that to other women. I like that I’m the subject and the artist. It’s me at every turn. There’s agency within that.
FULL: You have agency, but your brain is still limited by how you want to see yourself.
HD: There are so many conflicts. Two years ago, when I was really heavy into making this work, I’d also be posting pictures on Instagram, and I thought it was funny that I was doing this work where I’m trying to make my body look weird, and being critical of how the camera interprets the body, but at the same time, I didn’t want to post a picture of myself on Instagram that I didn’t like.
By focusing the camera on me, I think I was also trying to focus on the act of representation that happens within my own mind all the time and is pointed at myself. It’s less blaming society and the male gaze, and understanding that that’s in me.
FULL: And for this particular show, you’re focusing on an illness you had from the ages of 8 to 10.
HD: When I had my show at The New Gallery a couple years ago, I was standing in the show, looking at the work all installed, and suddenly made this connection to a reoccurring nightmare I had as a kid. A male doctor was cutting my body up and then trying to sew me back together. In my dream, he had good intentions, but he sewed my body back together in a way that didn’t represent my body. I was aware of it having happened, and I was alive, but I was like, “This is not my form.” It was weird to realize that I was literally sewing representations of my body for my work, and failing. What does it mean that I was haunted by the idea of this doctor doing this to me, and now, as an adult, I’m recreating that act?
After realizing that, it was hard to dismiss. The work that I made in the spring was still closely materially linked to the work I was making before — I was still thinking a lot about representation, but more as a metaphor for the literal lack of control over the physical body. Where I’m going with my work right now, it’s all about my body, but it’s less direct, not actual photos of my body.
FULL: A key aspect of that link between health, representation, and control seems to be hair. Can you tell me more about the role your hair plays in the show?
HD: The grounding piece in the show, and what informed the making of the whole thing, is a video work performance of my father cutting off my hair.
As a kid, I asked my dad to shave my head because all my hair was falling out. I don’t remember asking him. In conversations we’ve had since then, he’s described that as standing out as one of the more emotionally painful moments of his life. He felt he shouldn’t have to do it — sitting there, shaving his eight-year-old daughter’s head. I found that moment sad, but also beautiful. Not having hair for years as a young girl, it’s a pretty formative experience. I was thinking about the powerlessness in that, which I think is mirrored by my nightmare. I felt such a lack of control over my body.
I wanted to recreate the act of my dad cutting my hair. I’m asking him to do it as an artist, and I’m orchestrating the situation, so I’m reclaiming agency within that. Ever since I grew my hair back as a kid, it’s steadily gotten longer and longer. At a certain point I thought it was pretty wild that I was letting the experience of losing my hair as a kid affect me. Maybe I could just cut it off. I liked the idea of personally orchestrating the shearing of my own emotional connection to my hair.
I’m pairing the video of my dad cutting my hair with video of me slowly counting and moving my hairs one-by-one. It’s an absurd act to relish every single hair, and it looks disgusting. There’s a little bit of comedy, but it’s also kind of sad.
Those video works are alongside photos of a non-representational fabric photo inflating and deflating. It’s a blue shape on a blue background. I’m also going to have these metal pieces installed. They’re two-dimensional sculptures. A big theme of the show is medical intervention with the body, and with these, I’m thinking about points in my own body which have had medical instruments intervene with them. Each one is representing a part of my body, but they’re pretty abstract.
I’m also including these pencils in the show. They belonged to someone else who was sick, and I was asked to make this artwork for her. It was an end-of-life legacy gift. I was given this collection of pencils she had from her visits to the hospital, which really made evident the enormity of her illness, how many there were. But the nurses were joking that she would always steal more pencils when they weren’t looking. I loved that, because similarly to how I was thinking about my hair, it was an act of participation or defiance of illness. “I can’t control much, but I’m going to take these mother fucking pencils.” With my work, I’m talking a lot about control over the body, but we don’t really have control. There are these small gestures, futile acts of resistance or defiance to illness that are beautiful and strong, but in the end they don’t give you control.