Barbara Hammer

1939Hollywood, Californie, United States | 2019New York, United States

American video artist.

Considered one of the pioneers of queer and lesbian experimental cinema, over a career spanning 40 years Barbara Hammer made over one hundred films and videos, shooting mainly on Super 8 and 16 mm, and became a key figure in the feminist and LGBTQI+ movements.
B. Hammer first followed a degree course in Psychology and English Literature at the University of California in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and went on to study film at San Francisco State University in the early 1970s. This change of direction reflected the discovery of her own sexuality: they left their husband, made their first films and came out as a lesbian.
In 1974, having only recently proclaimed their feminist and lesbian persona, they made Dyketactics, a revolutionary manifesto in itself, and an ode to Sapphic desire and gratification. The first part features a community of women dancing, swimming and frolicking naked in a bucolic setting while the second is more explicitly erotic and shows the artist and their partner making love. Breaking away from the omnipresent “male gaze” of mainstream experimental and erotic cinema, B. Hammer created the first lesbian film conceived by a lesbian. Throughout the 1970s their films (such as Superdyke, 1975; Superdyke Meets Madame X, 1976; Women I Love, 1976 and Multiple Orgasm, 1976) put into pictures the feminist pro-sex theories in vogue at the time, while also tackling taboo subjects such as menstruation, pleasure and the female orgasm, non-exclusive and polyamorous relationships, and lesbianism.

In the 1980s, in common with other artists and LGBTQI+ activists, they condemned the homophobia shown by the state and biomedical institutions at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and released Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986). Edited using an assortment of headlines from the mainstream press or from newspapers and television programmes, the film focuses on the Reagan years (1981-1989), during which the so-called “gay disease” was treated with chilling indifference. In the 1990s B. Hammer produced a trilogy (Nitrate Kisses, 1992; Tender Fictions, 1995 and History Lessons, 2000) devoted to the invisibility of gender, sexual and racial minorities in the dominant historical discourse, countered by the artist’s gay and lesbian take.

From 2006 the subject of their films became coloured by illness and the diagnosis of stage 3 ovarian cancer. The 12 ensuing years of treatment and chemotherapy were charted in A Horse Is Not a Metaphor (2009), in which they filmed their daily life in hospital, the support of their wife Florrie R. Burke, and the acceptance of a sick and ageing body. Facing their cancer with remarkable spirit and determination, they published their autobiography, Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, in 2010. In 2018 they held a conference at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York titled The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety), during which they lifted the taboos associated with death, with the right to choose one’s own death, and with pain and illness. Their last years were met with a surge of institutional recognition: Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010) and at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art (2017), Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame at Tate Modern in London (2012) and Les visions risquées de Barbara Hammer at the Jeu de Paume in Paris (2012).

B. Hammer died on 16 March 2019.

Manon Burg

Translated from French by Caroline Taylor.

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