Donigan Cumming/ Pretty Ribbons

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Donigan Cumming

A DESCENT INTO THE HELL OF DONIGAN CUMMING
by
PATRICK ROEGIERS

[original in French]

Patrick Roegiers was born in Brussels in 1947, and presently lives in Paris. He is the author of essays on Lewis Carroll, Diane Arbus and Bill Brandt and has been photography critic for Le Monde from 1985 to 1992. In addition to his collections of interviews: Ecoutez voir and Facons de voir and collections ofarticles: L’CEil vivant and L’CEil multiple, he is the author of Beau regard and L’Horloge universelle, novels published in 1990 and 1992 by Editions du Seuil. He has directed films on photography and has served as an exhibition curator.

“The solid outline of the human body is horrible,” said Kafka. Viewed in their disgrace, unconcerned with their
appearance, showing off their whims, defects and mutilations, the characters of Donigan Cumming are as alone
and unarmed as they are naked. As excruciating evidence of an ethical sensibility for human misery, most of them
display deep internal injuries to their identities.
Across the anatomical image of the body, Cumming points out the corporal monstrosity of normal
people. A strange body is a strange thing. Undressed, man finds himself in a despoiled state analogous
to that of a primitive man, but Donigan Cumming offers no rehabilitation of the flesh. Symptom of social
decay and of the decadence of civilization, the bruised, scarred, worn-out body marks the decline of the
excluded. From this perspective, even the photographic act is experienced by them as a mutilating
operation. Concerned with showing the unshowable, the author bluntly details the progress of
decrepitude, the degeneration that hastens the inescapable reversion to scrap.
Echoing Jankelevitch who compares aging to an increasingly threadbare suit of clothes, Cumming
understands that old age is the sickness of temporality. His pitiless report is brought to a fever pitch in
Pretty Ribbons, produced with Nettie Harris who first appeared in 1982, dressed in a wrapper, standing
beside her open fridge.
Like Thomas Bernhardt, Beckett or Bacon, Donigan Cumming functions as a biographer in this recent
work which he began in 1988. No longer dealing with the relationships of people, he has begun a
devastating encounter with this widow, mother of three children, who becomes his actress fetish,
endlessly examining her own life. Each image, as a reflection of precise mental states, is a raw fact, but
also the synopsis of a fiction, the representation of a staged moment in which Nettie Harris faces her
confinement and puts to work what Cumming has called “the repertoire of her experience, real and
imagined.”
With feet atrophied like the bound feet of Chinese women, naked or adorned with jewels, bathing or
miming eternal rest, Nettie Harris, offering and consenting, acts as though the operator were not there.
Simulating the most ordinary and intimate attitudes, she is nevertheless always conscious of his
presence and poses only for him. “He is my director. 1 work with him,” she says, recalling that this
account of the passions, born of a mutual fascination, is first of all a business, a relationship of
account, a clear professional understanding.
With disconcerting freshness and absolute availability, Nettie plays out her decomposition and
immeasurable decline. Increasingly emaciated, her skeleton now protrudes through her skin. As La
Rochefoucauld said, “Old age is women’s hell.” Without trying to escape the image of her own physical
collapse, Nettie Harris exhibits her body without shame, as it is. The relentless accentuation of her
withering flesh obscures the fact that these terrifying moments are first of all freely accepted walk-ons,
the cruelty of a report adapted to fiction. All is reinvented, nothing is really natural in these plots in
which Cumming adopts the viewpoint of an imaginary witness. Nettie Harris is a magnificent character
who serves as her own model: it’s the staging of her real life that she recounts. Truth lies in openness
and Cumming is not pretending when he shows Nettie taking out her dentures (an internal prosthesis like
an IUD). The final view of a disintegrating figure, in the fetal position of suffering and sacrifice, evokes
the nightmare of remembering, the obligation to memory that her Jewish identity brings closer —
unbearable visions of death camps, the Holocaust, the crematoria and the gas chambers — endowing
this seemingly private epic with undeniable historical dimension.
Drawing on a dead friend’s diary, to which the writer, Harry, had confided the difficulties of his
relationships, Cumming was inspired to pair Nettie with male partners. Vacating the domestic setting, all
attention is directed to the relationship of the couple, to the comedy of impossible love, to sexuality as
a dream. But this desperate attempt at seduction, a sort of sentimental release, ends in free fall back
into a new hell, blessed by the devil who celebrates (by damning) the union of two unhappy beings
fleeing from themselves and braving the solitude they share.
As cruel and shocking as it is, to the point of using colour “to soften and make it more natural,” the