Death Industrial Complex by Candice Wuehle / Action Books / 978-0-900575-06-8 / paperback / 85 pages / April 1, 2020
If you love the life and work of Francesca Woodman, odds are good you have had the experience of reading a description of one or more of her photographs.
These descriptions, naturally, pose themselves the task of describing (and look at that word morphologically, as almost un-writing) the “text” of their source material—either by attempting to tell the viewer/reader what is there in the frame, or by telling a scholarly story that involves hooking the portrait up to some formidable machine of abstract nouns (trace, absence, reflection, femininity, girlhood, suicide…)—as though to an iron lung. This task of description, although it is probably not impossible to do (and even do well!), feels in a visceral way like it misses the point of Woodman’s astonishing accomplishment.
Enter, in the wake of this feeling, Candice Wuehle and her monumental Death Industrial Complex.
Wuehle’s book frees itself from the conundrum of description/representation of Woodman’s work by instead dramatizing and lyricizing the “i” of Woodman’s life and (self-)portraiture; Wuehle’s speaker enacts what the philosopher François Laruelle might term a “cloning” of the historical and artistic Francesca Woodman, using the profoundly rich affective apparatus of Wuehle’s poetry as a way of understanding the impulses, gestures, struggles, and contradictions that drove Woodman’s singular body of work and continue to drive its reception. Like an interpretive dance, this book moves as we can imagine Woodman herself might have moved through language, up to and including the incorporation of text from Woodman’s own writings—for example (fittingly!), “then at one point i did not need / / to translate the notes / / they went directly to my hands”, which serves as the title of one of the book’s last poems.
Wuehle’s poetry is gripping in its ability to make the reader live the feeling of trying to speak through a medium that cannot speak itself without help, as Woodman did in many of her most famous photographs (like “Self-Portrait Talking to Vince“, which runs like a thread through the collection via the metonym of telephone wire and the character of “vince”). The book’s first poem, “i’m trying my hand at fashion photography” (another direct quote from Woodman herself), announces this project with Wuehle’s deft interweaving of body, language, and photograph:
i stand in front of a tree and i pronounce
the alphabet as one word. i open my mouth
to take a photograph of the white birtthd ay
candle tip burning at the back of my throat. […]
[…] Watch me lift the finger of one hand. No one else
knows how to draw the outline of the skeleton
on the baby limbs. Frames
become us all. Lift
a limp glove with a glovved hand
to estimate the importance of a body.
The hand becomes a stand-in for the artist, the act of framing. This is a practice of estimation, certainly, but also one of importance, and whether we take photographs with our cameras (Woodman, photographer) or our mouths (Wuehle, poet), our inability to escape the frame must itself frame this practice—as well as the “outline of the skeleton”, the eventual shape it takes.
This game of frames and framing is a serious one, and it requires all the resources at the artist’s disposal. On this score, the “misspellings” and aberrant spacing in the above-quoted excerpt are all [sic] and blessèdly intentional; in DIC Wuehle stretches language to similar limits as the ones against which Woodman tested photography throughout her career. Wuehle’s alphabet serves as the raw machine used to produce poetry, as here in a slightly later poem (“waxed”):
At 13 i saw
the 10 invisible letters
of the alphabet. All my life
i had been speaking in a partial
language. Now i can tell
the names of the shadows under
I love the numerology of this: 13, the age when Woodman takes her first self-portrait. 10, the number of digits we have on our bodies that specifies the base of our number system, making our hands into unutterable extensions of our linguistic capacity. We can begin to see the cult of Woodman taking shape in Wuehle’s rendering here, since the extension of language and photography beyond their standard, “legible” uses is permanently at risk of misunderstanding:
[↳cont.] You won’t believe
the words i know
because you won’t know
that they are words. […]
The cult of Francesca Woodman is interesting and deeply complicated to consider with/in/alongside Wuehle’s book (in which it is named and implicated often, for instance in this enigmatic line from “poltergeist ii”, addressed to vince: “tell them it isn’t a cult if it works”). On the one hand, there is no denying the historical Woodman’s personal and artistic charisma, as attested in the C. Scott Willis documentary about her life in which one of her classmates recalls her “rock-star” personality and the lasting impact she had on her peers at RISD. On the other hand, Woodman and her family appear(ed) to be card-carrying members of the grand cult of Art, with her parents and brother all practicing artists who seem(ed) to share with one another—if, perhaps, very little else—a common solemnity vis-à-vis their mutual vocation.
This shared seriousness, and the imploring tone Wuehle uses to capture it (“vince, after the shell of my body dissolves around the part of you i swallowed, tell them what we did worked”), darkens the hue of tragedy surrounding Woodman’s life and Wuehle’s portrait of same in Death Industrial Complex. Photography, of course, is no stranger to this kind of grayscale morbidity; as Laruelle writes,1 “[i]t is not so astonishing that photographs are filled with the dead, the assassinated, complete and incomplete infants, the living universally condemned to death. Hence this aura of pity that floats on photographs.” Just as Woodman’s work in life challenged this photographic moroseness with its unique ability to manifest movement (through techniques like long exposure and slow shutter speeds), so does Wuehle’s poetry highlight the dynamic character of Woodman’s thinking through and in her chosen medium:
Wuehle’s justified, prose-y blocks here are exactly the kind of brilliant formal choice we revere in Woodman, and they are just as revelatory in how they propel the eye through the breathless syntax of the last four-and-a-half lines to create motion in contrast to the earlier short sentences—like a Woodman long-exposed figure standing out against a static domestic interior. Other reviewers have already noted the way Wuehle’s manner of building her book out of smaller poems mimics the compressed humility of seeing Woodman’s prints in real life—the Untitled (greenhouse) series I got to see a few years back at RISD is only 5 ⅜” x 5 ⅜”!—and this is just one of the countless ways in which Death Industrial Complex gesturalizes poetry to inhabit the same thoughtworld as we can imagine Francesca Woodman dwelling in ca. 1980-1.
There is so much more to say about this book. Wuehle and her publishers (Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Gӧransson at Action Books, as well as their wonderful staff) have collaborated at the level of the physical-book-as-art-object to use printing itself as a sort of extended technique of the book’s mode of expression; in the later parts of Death Industrial Complex, bits of old poems resurface in gray, reoriented clusters, and what had before been only small, lexicographical distortions (an extra space here, a duplicated letter there) now become material interventions in the medium of the printed page on a much grander and more striking scale, à la Woodman’s later experiments:
To bring ourselves down just a little to the level of poetic content, Wuehle’s cosmology of images for séancing a life of Francesca Woodman is every bit as stunning as the visual and typographical pyrotechnics excerpted above. Wuehle’s Francescan “i” whirls through a world of mirrors, lipstick, taffeta, blood, skin, spit, girl[s], and everything i/they touch (modulo how “they is a rhetorical construction. trick, trick. [/] the speaker is the audience.”—the pronoun as yet another mirror). Any poem in the collection would be a completely suitable candidate for a close reading of how these images work in their total proliferation and reduplication, their uncanny thisness especially when reflected/refracted in Wuehle’s speaker’s autopoetic mouth. It’s the constant orality of this mouth, too, which helps remind the reader how to say what the book sees:
Some lipsticks are better than others
for writing yyour name on a mirror.
[…] A knife too long for the birthday cake. There has to be sometthing
more than this. […]
That wrenching, aspirational assertion, like so many of the dazzling lines in this book, will undergo one more permutation in the space of the poem (“There has to be somethhing more than this and there [/] is.”) because that is what a life in art needs to mean: drawing and figuring again and again the inexhaustible source of a real that we never quite touch, never fully trace.
Francois Laruelle writes that “[p]hotographs are the thousand flat facets of an ungraspable identity that only shines—and at times faintly—through something else.” What we have the privilege of witnessing in Death Industrial Complex is the boundless artistry of Francesca Woodman as refracted through Candice Wuehle’s honed lyric. I have waited a long time for this book’s disjunctive unity, for the way its reader can say a self together with Wuehle’s “i” and Woodman’s legacy and the looming simulacrum against which I and we and they together proclaim:
[…] Languid annunciation; self-portrait; fake lash.
i’m made of what i’m made of.
1 In his book Photo-Fiction, a Non-Standard Aesthetics (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Translation by Drew S. Burk.