Translation and elation are the central themes of “Tell me there is a lesbian forever . . .,” an exhibition of the late feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s multidisciplinary works and archival materials, curated by Tiona Nekkia McClodden at Company in New York. Lining the gallery’s walls, stairwell, and glass vitrines are pages from Hammer’s notebooks, showing drawings, poems, photobooth strips, and hand-scribbled missives. Hanging on the walls of the ground floor gallery is a selection of Hammer’s black-and-white photographs, in which women are pictured in quasi-abstract scenes often punctuated by slants of light or architectural structures. The basement gallery screens a thrilling set of the artist’s short films. Like many of Hammer’s works, the exhibition is marked by exuberant layering—light from one film drenching another, sound spilling from one room to the next, and distinct periods of the artist’s career overlapping throughout—thanks to McClodden’s thoughtful arrangement.
In her lyrical letter-cum-press release, McClodden reveals how she came to understand Hammer: “The pandemic keeps me from viewing the Barbara Hammer Papers at the Beinecke Library, which has restricted visits to Yale affiliates only. My greatest love, Mia, is a Yale PhD candidate, and she arranges to view the archive for me. . . . Through her eyes, I become able to envision Barbara. In our conversations, I encounter who Barbara is becoming to Mia first, before I am able to figure her myself.” This process of vicarious encounter—reflected even in the exhibition’s title, which is excerpted from a letter sent to Hammer in the 1970s and unearthed by Mia at the library—not only frames this show as an archive of layered intimacies, but also nearly mirrors an intimate collaboration between Hammer and her widow, Florrie Burke. Just three weeks before her death due to cancer at age seventy-nine, in March 2019, Hammer sat for an “exit interview” with New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen. During the conversation, when language became tricky for Hammer to wrangle, Burke interceded, gently drawing on their companionship to illuminate Hammer’s biography. She fills in the gaps of Hammer’s trajectory as a pioneering experimental artist, one of the first to consistently spotlight lesbian pleasure and autonomy on film, decades before popular culture or politics had caught up. Burke’s gaze also hovers above this exhibition, for which she lent a selection of personal photographs of Hammer, comfortably interspersed with the late artist’s ephemera.
Downstairs, disparate scenes from Hammer’s films I Was/I Am (1973), Marie and Me (1970), and Sync Touch (1981) are projected simultaneously, transmuting in meaning through their juxtapositions, particularly when read as a triptych. I Was/I Am unfolds with the movements of a slow horror flick: close-up shots of a shiny gun barrel and shattering glass lead to scenes of Hammer transforming from a distressed damsel to a leather-jacketed, lesbian mutineer, fully self-possessed. Even when the film shows a vulnerable body (in one instance, an X-ray of a skull with a tiny black dot marks where a sniper, Hammer says, wounded her with a BB gun), the viewer sees just alongside, in Marie and Me, a utopia of uninhibited queer bodies, where playful nude women traipse through valleys and rivers.
At far right, in Sync Touch, Hammer’s preoccupation with translation becomes explicit: a woman theorizes on eroticism and touch in French while the artist, dressed similarly and standing beside her, repeats each word as if to learn the language. The theoretical is also embodied: the camera zooms in close to the women’s faces and necks as they speak, echoing the intimacy of an earlier scene where a naked woman was caressed by a lover. In this close and affectionate gaze lies the elation: if ever there could be a lesbian forever, surely Hammer’s legacy—of enraptured looking, of looking at but also with the beloved—tells us how to get there.