ON SIMON FUJIWARA

Megan Preston Elliott, January 2017

Joanne. A pseudo-documentary about Joanne Salley, the former high school teacher of the artist, Simon Fujiwara.

 

A scandal hit Joanne whilst teaching; nude photographs were circulated around the school, having been discovered on a memory stick left in a classroom. Consequently, Joanne was ridiculed and objectified by the media who focused on her body and background as a beauty-queen and former Miss Northern Ireland.

Although I have viewed this piece at different exhibitions, the set-up is always the same – Joanne’s tragic tale is fed to you on an information board at the entrance. The scene has been set. Viewers must snake through billboard-sized photographs of Joanne modelling sportswear to reach the film; a metaphor for seeing past the media images, even those that paint her in a kinder light, to get to the ‘real’ Joanne.

Joanne, Simon Fujiwara, 2016. Image Courtesy of Film and Video Umbrella.

However, Joanne is hugely controlled by external forces: the artist, Fujiwara, and the institutions that commissioned the piece (Photographers Gallery, Film and Video Umbrella, the Ishikawa Foundation). The intentions and state of authorship of an artwork that has been commissioned is always in question. I am increasingly aware that Joanne is a puppet, when she says, ‘I’m an actress, I play a role’, poignantly scrolling through social media at the same time.

The film is about understanding the ‘real’, authentic Joanne. It follows a reality-TV style narrative in which Joanne emotionally discusses her past and attempts to give the viewer an insight into who she is now. Now, Joanne is whoever she wants to be. She is the director. The illusion is given that Joanne is in control; we see her instructing a ‘brand manager’, tenaciously telling him what she wants him to say. We see clips of her speaking into the camera, assumedly on the front of a phone, as on apps like ‘Snapchat’, giving the impression that Joanne is the author and we are getting an intimate insight into her life.

Joanne, Simon Fujiwara, 2016. Image Courtesy of Film and Video Umbrella.

Despite this, the work is described as a collaboration between Simon and Joanne. This feels deceitful; it is sold as Fujiwara’s work, part of his artistic oeuvre. Moreover, the title 'Joanne' demotes her to the subject of the piece, not the author. What does it mean for a man to be conducting this portrait of a woman today, following the canon of male artists throughout history depicting women?
 

The work seems to attempt to exploit and undermine this long established male artist - female subject relationship and the ‘male gaze’. In the narrative, Joanne’s brand manager is a man who struggles to get past her physical image and get across her ‘real’ self, so says Joanne. Clips of her running effortlessly down the street, appearing pristine, alludes to tropes used on social media and in advertising associated with fitness, to publicise the self as empowered and strong, which Fujiwara describes as “an uncriticisable form of positivity”. But, in doing so, the camera still objectifies. We are voyeurs watching Joanne in the shower, and the camera lingers several times as Joanne touches her chest.

Even so, Joanne has authorised this portrayal of herself, whereas she did not authorise the topless image and all that became associated with it. Does that make it more acceptable or more authentic? It corners in on certain aspects of her life, such as her boxing, which attempt to counteract that of the previous, disingenuous portrayal of Joanne in the media. Nonetheless, what we are left with is an equally shallow, superficial version of ‘Joanne’.

 

Certain clips feel too obvious and overdone. The scene where mud is flung at Joanne is an all too evident, slightly tacky metaphor for the previous media fracas, which Joanne now laughs off – she has overcome this image.

Joanne, Simon Fujiwara, 2016. Image Courtesy of Film and Video Umbrella.

The use of a chameleon in the video, climbing over her shoulders as she poses in fashion-shoot style also feels a little trite – Joanne can be anything she wants and is not defined by one thing, she is adaptable: ‘I am a model, I am a teacher, I am a lover, I am an artist, I am a chameleon, I am a fighter... I am a person... I am a female’.

 

These inclusions in the piece were irritating whilst viewing the film, but, upon reflection, I consider their inclusion to be necessary to the success of the piece. Juxtaposing these overtly obvious metaphors alongside the far subtler clips, such as Joanne filming herself on her phone, remind the viewer that those less-obvious clips, that we are so used to seeing, are in fact no more genuine than the clichés we see on TV; they are both selling a product. 

Joanne, Simon Fujiwara, 2016. Image Courtesy of Film and Video Umbrella.

Essentially, if the piece is a genuine attempt at re-branding Joanne as a ‘complex and multifaceted person’, as suggested by each of the galleries, then it has not succeeded. It presents instead a more socially acceptable, ideal version of Joanne. Joanne the product. She was objectified in the media before and cannot escape being an object here, albeit of a different nature, marketed in a different way. The film is self-aware of this, made clear in a scene in which Joanne sits down with a PR team who tell her they are going to sell her like a product.

 

However, the work does succeed in probing the complexities of social media, advertising and the construction of ‘woman’ online. It exposes the media for their continued objectification and perpetuation of an ‘ideal’ woman. By using marketing techniques, it walks a fine line between media tool and complex artwork. But, I am inclined to say that its use of these tools is what makes it work. As a woman watching this film, I immediately recognised these contrived portrayals; the constant need to fit an ‘ideal’. It aroused within me an anxiety that I attach to navigating social media as a woman and has since caused me to continually question my actions on these platforms. Why do I want to document myself in this way? Where do these archetypes come from? How can I present a multi-faceted self in a way that feels authentic? As demonstrated by ‘Joanne’, this cannot be achieved within the confines of today’s socially sanctioned media archetypes.

© 2019 by Assemblage Magazine.

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