Skip to main content
Lux Online Home Themes Artists Work Education Education Tours Help Search
artist details Artist's home page Artists essay index page
The Fairies Banquet
Subtitled A visual fugue of eye, tongue, fingers, Sandra Lahire on Swollen Stigma for Coil Magazine number seven, 1998

Sarah Pucills's film Swollen Stigma suggests a sexual tumescence polymorphously displaced onto imagery of unfolding flowers, plucking, deflowering, and coming with red petal juices. A precise edge of pleasure/pain is evoked by the woman tonguing flower orifices and pinpointing nerve endings on her own skin. Swollen macro shots of her eye's pupil fuse the viewer with the woman who has visions of her phantom, a fragile doll-like woman. The construction of both women caught in each other's gaze looks out to implicate the viewer. Eye and lashes are fingered in a microscopic language that speaks a state of trance. Eye lash tugging, a seeminly slight action, is camply magnified; the sound of this becomes preternatural. The she-phantom is a kind of pupilla (diminutive of pupa, puppet: from the tiny reflections up-side down at the back of the retina), who hovers between flight and earth. First she appears inverted in a chair, then she is hanging and swinging up-side down.


Tears, drinking glasses, looking glasses and the lens of the eye - play with the film projection beam. One woman encloses another bend in the pupil of her eye. Through this hole, which is the focal point, passes the inverted woman. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, she falls into a hole: either it is very deep or she falls very slowly, "then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards." The woman in Swollen Stigma is drawn along many intricate corridors of the mind. She relishes inversion, both optical and sexual. Tears swell and optically merge one woman with her phantasm, her remembered passion for another woman. They fuse in a language of light and liquid. This intensity has swollen the skin itself and made the fluids pour out and change colour and seep and soothe old wounds. The world outside is brought closer optically, so that social classifications and commodifications of the body are perrmeated and undermined by the microsmic eruptions in the film. There is a powerful dialectic between a construction and a leap outwards. The diaphanous but confined wing beats signal to take a risk, to move out of paralysis. In this way 'social stigma' is transformed to joy in the sexually perverse 'swollen stigma'.

plucking from a skin of light

The main emphasis of the word 'pluck' in the film is 'uproot'. This highlights the in-between state of contact/absence in the relationship of the women. The doll-like women hangs uprooted and haunts the woman who is rooted in her home. To pluck also relates to deflowering, breaking the skin and stripping bare the pores.

There is a jouissance of the surface as a screen and as a skin, a layer over a face. The skin which is the film emulsion absorbs the shape shifting rays of light over ceramic surfaces and in the tinctures that permeate and transmute in colour. The woman's lips and tulips display an osmosis between their insides and outsides as if their skins were turned inside out. The private becomes public in a turning inside out, or eruption, in an ongoing scenario. The viewer oscillates between joining her point of view and seeing her in full shot as if her mental furniture has seeped out of her.

Our need for a tangible unified subject is dissolved into layers of possible differences or identities. Both the woman and film surface itself 'feel' what the body, hand and objects are tracing. Film and skin are fused. Drops of water glide down a luminescent white bowl, as if expressed from a nipple. Blood and milk drops flower out into water, into the film surface. Red galaxies swell in the clear water. A white Milky Way spreads like ectoplasm.

The plucking from the skin is pain, separation and uprooting. This sensitivity punctures a numbness. Plants, matches and tears are filmed as if tattoed on her skin. She is so close up she appears to be closing a wound, stroke by stroke, arounde her eye. By touching her skin she partakes of these memories of her flesh. Away from a linear narrative, the skin enacts an unfolding modest presence.

iris in

Lipsticked petals, stamens, body hairs and tears are edited with the woman and her female phantom. She opens door after door, moving ever inward as if to the centre of a labyrinth. By super-imposition she opens the cupboard for food and she opens a woman's legs. In a pacing related to mesmerism and trance, the woman passes through corridors and garden of her darkened house. In a nightmare of pursuit, she could be chasing herself into a crypt of repressed desire, or seeking the nourishment of a former life which continues to haunt the walls.

When the camera is at a low angle, the emphasis is on her head, on her power as the 'seer', but also on her confinement by the ceiling. Swollen Stigma plays with the bottom of the frame; the phantasmic woman is vulnerable and subservient on the floor space. Space off-frame is used to associate the phantom with a lurking hallucination. She may be behind a closed door or behind the camera itself.

The viewer sees the iris in the pupil of the woman looking and shares her telescoping point of view. This iris, in effect, suggests the squeezing in of passage ways and her intense concentration.

The entranced woman is static at the start of the film. When she leaves her chair she is repeatedly tugged back into it. This image of being frozen to the spot exchanges with the phantom, who is released from a kind of rigor mortis when hands dig frantically in soil. The phantom begins as pallid. There is a sense of blood having been drained. Blood goes down the sink, later a drink of milk turns back into vital blood.

Crucially these are all spectacle. Eyelids sip and suck like lips on the flowers. There is a prceise imaging of the swollen stigma as clitoral. The stigma column of the flower is female, the female phallus is enclosed by her eye's pupil.

deflowing and devouring

Sarah Pucills's kitchen is a microscosm, a looking glass world in which anything can happen. Human desires are displaced onto fragile insect appetites and onto proboscii in flower genitalia. The woman becomes intoxicated on the colour transmuting fluids. Through her mouth she sucks in milk and ejaculates blood. It is as if her womb has joined with her stomach. She engenders herself by drinking from the memory of the breast and by giving birth to blood.

Swollen Stigma enacts a devouring female gaze. It creates a world of playful domination and submission. There is a power imbalance between the woman who is looking and the bone-china doll woman who hangs topsy turvy in a subservient 'looked at' position. First the fragile woman's beauty is at an arrested, non-feeding stage. But later, the 'pupa' bites back and eats lilies lustily, drooling. There is a political bite in two women seeming to eat and drink each other at a fairies banquet. They are not reflecting 'reality' but seeing with their own incandescence.

The non-verbal discourse of eating, plucking and deflowering is slowed down and microscopically sensitised. This raised a question of how the anorexic highlights what it is to partake in a community of language. She needs visibility and a fed body. How far is the exchange of liquids in the film to do with gagging and compulsively sucking up the other woman? The strongly-bodied woman seemes to devour the delicate phantom woman.

In the central panel of Hieronymous Bosch's tryptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, groups of intimates sample minute fruits, enjoying their sweet ephemeral pleasures. As they taste these fruits and one another, their bodies are simultaneously devoured. In the Victorian era painting, The Fairies' Banquet by Edward Fitzgerald, the magical creatures are incorporeal, yet they physically eat petals from a plate in a forest, a place for dreams which could as well be a kitchen. Looking through the lens of Victorian decadence, the film Swollen Stigma is fantasical and excessive, yet exquisitely ordered. This brings to mind the drawings of Aubrey Bearsdley. Also it recalls the lesbian erotic, yet drugged states caused by juices from fruits in Christina Rossetti's poem Goblin Market. In the film lipsticked lips and fingers touch the throats inside flowers. Flowers should only be looked at. This foregrounds notions of the artificial as precipitated by Oscar Wilde whose "Art for Art's sake" encompassed the unnatural both in artifact and in sexual practice. On his lapel he wore a white carnation poisoned green with ink.

a match burning In a crocus

In defiance of Freudian psychoanalytic theory which reduced female sexuality to a lack, the film offers polymorphous nerve-endings in hairs, flower stamens and plant roots. With a hovering violence these create a speakable lesbian territory. Likewise the Victorian fairy painters conjureed a language from Shakespeare's perverse love play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Queen Titania of the fairies, the sexually ambiguous Puck and all the mercurial and rascally creatures stage an excess of desire which threatens to disrupt a Darwinian order of the survival of the fittest. Titania passes between the strongholds of the lunar dream and waking senses. Puck's petal juices dropped on her eyelids enchant her into a passion for the first creature she sees when her eyes open. When eyelids close, as petals of a rose close, there is a screen for inner meaning. Swollen Stigma unveils a powerful magical realm that has often been occulted, where tulips light up and two women fuse in luminescence and in wet surfaces.

Glowing with a penumbra of inner light, the life in Swollen Stigma partakes of a magical feast. The fairy glade at root level is part of the dark labyrinth of the film. In A Midsummer Night's Dream this level of undergrowth exists far from the sun which is the plane of enlightenment rationality. Titania's Queendom is at midnight when reflection and refraction conjure up the 'Others'. Here fireflies, glow-worms and phosphorescent fairies shine out. In Pucill's film, as in Virginial Woolf's image of the 'match in the crocus', (1) the self-illuminating flower enacts a seeing by her own light.

The timeless media of mesmerism and seance are on a continuum with digitised imagery in their potential to enflesh a life that has been repressed. This is part of a strategy, of lesiban visibility. The Oxford English Dictionary states the ambiguity of the word 'canny'. It means not only 'known' and 'homely' but also 'endowed with occult powers'. The homely ritual of flower arranging maintains its tender pacing as it slips into dismembering of lily throats.

into the Limelight

The end of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of electric light and flight. The entrranced woman in the film projects light just as in the nineteenth century Magic Lantern staged limelight images out of a deep void.

There is a play of contradictory aspects of the female subject in language. In a dynamic of disintegration, objects are isolated from the false coherence of 'realism'. The scientific determinism that would turn people into cyborgs is still in the 1990s challenged by the continuous flux of the willed imagination. The film's non-verbal interior monologue selects and rediscovers social existence. Convulsions of radiance grant a respite from total or totalitarian neutrality.

Swollen Stigma refuses any narrow vision of the outside world as a threatening place. The political bite of the film lies in its nourishment of fantasy which is the lived inner dimension of the subject's social life. The film proposes a lesbian imaginary which takes a leap into rootlessness, into a risk and a displacement. Swinging inverted is an action that is continuous with the social sense of uprooting.

Ulrike Ottinger's film Madame X... An Absolute Ruler proposes an outward journey. Her ship of lesbian fools takes them on a fantastic voyage of vision which is not just an escape; equally Pucill's film acts as an inner voyage where layers of accumulated codings may transform each other rather than simply being rejected as outmoded.

Whilst the metaphors of flower genitalia and a woman's mouth amid vessels and body fluids are revealed, the essentialism caught within them is equally refused by the material process of the film text, which makes meanings slip and seep. To this end there is oscillation between positions, between there being one woman remembering her past selves and there being two women in a relationship. The film refuses to lead the viewer through a 'realist' story, thus implying the question, 'whose realism?' Instead we draw ourselves along to confront the mechanism of narrative itself. Voyeurism is denied in favourr of the viewer's mirror identification with the entranced woman whose past passion insistently flares into the moment.

What is proposed is a portrait of one and of two women - but not simply a psychological portrait, also a structural one. This portrait is a site of speaking which is the centre of a woman speaking within herself. A non-verbal lover's discourse confronts the other, the absent loved one, who gradually comes to sentience and into lustful bodily appetite. Pucill's 'Pupilla' or doll is thrown away and picked up again, mimicking a mother's absence and return. She devises a language to delay the drop from absence into death. Both women eat an absence which is marked by the flowers and both speak a silence.

The absent one acts like a fairy princess by haunting the lover at the interface between the realms of optical science and phantasmagoria. Fairy tales endure when physical facts and their linear stories become ashes and dust. The phantom woman comes to life eating. You eat what you are, and speak what you are. This reverses the lockjaw that has gagged the lesbian body of language. The lesbian phantom's voice is enfleshed. She has a mouth at her feast of fire flowers.


Sarah Pucill, Swollen Stigma (Arts Council of England 1998, 20 mins)

(1) Virgiania Woolf, Mrs Dalloway - "a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed".

Sandra Lahire
Coil magazine
The Fairies Banquet: an article from Coil magazine
Go to top of                             page