Secret Burdens: Response to Jennifer Dickson’s Dream of the Captive in Red (1977)
by Jelena Markovic
Researching this piece was challenging as there is a dearth of interviews and detailed analyses of Dickson’s works available online (though there is a trove of work and records at Library and Archives Canada). That being said, Dickson has described her own work as centrally concerned with time: “You can’t really live in the present unless you are familiar with the past.” (1) Throughout her work, we can also see Dickson’s interest in love stories and myths taking place against the backdrop of a broader history, and the materialization of that history in art and architecture. Dickson’s photographs seem to personalize history, to exude emotion and narrative. As Remo Rapetti says in the introduction to Dickson’s Hospital for Wounded Angels, “…she ‘loads’ [the scene] with her temperament and culture… she releases again the sparks of life that the sculptor imprisoned in the statues.” (2)
The work Dream of the Captive in Red is from Dickson’s 1976 series, The Secret Garden. This series has been described as exploring changing gender roles in Western society. (3) The photographs have dark combative words in their titles: “ensnared,” “fugitive,” and of course, “captive.” I also see in the series more universal themes of connection and disconnection in love. The Secret Garden is stylistically and thematically continuous with Dickson’s 1979 series Three Mirrors to Narcissus. I am fascinated with the story of Narcissus and Echo as it pertains to these works. Specifically, how can there be love if one can only see themselves and one can only reflect the other? Both characters are frozen in their lack of reciprocity and genuine interaction. In Dream of the Captive in Red, the figures seem locked in a kind of ambiguous pleasure. It’s uncertain if they’re pleasantly contemplative or concerned and willfully blind. I want to highlight the themes of connection, pleasure, and separation by flatfootedly putting words into the mouths of the figures in this photograph. As an allusion to Dickson’s frequent use of reflections in her work, as well as our collective isolation at this time, I have primarily used screenshots of video conversations to create the images in this piece. These are documentations of small moments happening on what is currently the primary platform for our connection. The piece is titled after Anne Carson’s poem “Short Talk on My Task,” which ends with the words “restore red hearts to red.”
(1) Jennifer Dickson Interview (en anglais). Ottawa Art Gallery. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69oFbosj4uY
(2) Dickson, Jennifer. (1998). The Hospital for Wounded Angels. The Porcupine’s Quill.
(3) Jennifer Dickson Biography. URL: https://www.jenniferdickson.com/biography.html
Jennifer Dickson. (2015). The Canadian Encyclopedia. URL: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/jennifer-dickson
About: Jelena Markovic
I am a performance artist and PhD student in philosophy at the University of British Columbia. My research is on transformative experiences and how they restructure the systems of meaning that organize our experienced worlds. I work with philosophical ideas and texts in a narrative and embodied way, aiming to express the physical and emotional context of phenomena such as illness, care, memory and attachment. Since 2018, I have been part of CUERPO, led by Guadalupe Martinez. CUERPO is an ongoing research process that places the body at the centre of knowing and enquires how it may exist within the very function of art production and art education.