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In the photographs that comprise Choreographed Puppets, the artist’s blurred figure appears frozen in moments of thrashing motion, held aloft by a series of black canvas straps attached to her limbs. The figures of two male puppeteers lie horizontally above her suspended form, supported by a theatrical set constructed by the artist. Her body appears suspended as if caught in a spider’s web, trapped like a fly that can do nothing but flail. But in this case, the artist is also weaver of the web, controlling the strings both literally and metaphorically. It is with her time-release cable that the artist signals for the photograph to be taken.


Her puppetlike movements give visual form to the process of swinging from consciousness into unconsciousness and back, submitting to process while simultaneously controlling it. The artist re-presents herself as both sorceress and hysteric. She is in control of the mechanical apparatus that allows her to symbolize herself, marking the cycle of photographs as a series of intentional acts conducted in the symbolic realm. Lake submits to her own direction, composing her body as an object worthy of reproduction in order that she might be seen. The paradox in Lake’s

second wave of feminism that arose during the 1960s. The legacy of Lake’s feminist performance practice is easy to trace, and she is increasingly recognized for her pioneering use of lens-based technology to capture her own self-image. Her photographic operation freezes her body as a series of representations manifesting her subject self and her object self in the processes of making, viewing and being on view. Citing the Surrealists Marcel Duchamp and Claude Cahun amongst her antecedents, Lake’s self-performed photographs are reflective of both the early twentieth-century trauma, which marked the avant-garde, and a kind of suite derives from the operation that reproduces the one who looks as the one who is observed. By assuming these contradictory roles, Lake reminds viewers that woman is a symbol of both life and death, elaborating the logic of oscillation between the opposing poles of observer and observed, viewer and object.


Lake’s marionettes remind the spectator of children’s games, playful and problematic like a set of children’s swings. The rocking action of the playground game can be at once soothing and perilous. Hélène Cixous writes that during times of crisis she likes to suspend herself from ropes in the trees.[2] The swing is named as an apparatus in Erigone’s suicide; it is chosen for its rhythmic motion, the rocking, which reproduces infancy and evokes pleasure.  Pleasure, though desirable, brings with it the threat of transgression, of crisis and climax: the little death. Everything within a man’s narrative, writes Cixous, drives towards that end, the climax.[3]  She attempts an intervention into language, using the notion of flight/theft to obviate and celebrate the layers of double meaning that characterize women’s relationship to language:


To fly/steal is a woman’s gesture, to steal into language to make it fly. We have all learned flight/theft, the art with many techniques, for all the centuries we have only had access to having by stealing/flying; we have lived in a flight/theft, stealing/flying, finding the close, concealed ways-through of desire. It’s not just luck that the word “voler” volleys between the “vol” of theft and the “vol” of flight, pleasuring in each and routing the sense police.[4]


In this way, Lake’s photographic enactments are designed to elicit a double response in her spectators.


Rooted in the history of art, Lake’s self-imaging project clearly extends from the artistic social/cultural activism, which derives from the 1970s feminist revolution.


Lake’s practice pays homage to the woman artists of the Renaissance who painted images of themselves in the dual role of artist and model, presenting themselves simultaneously as objects of the gaze and subjects engaged in the processes of looking, making, being and becoming. While completing her postgraduate degree at Concordia University (1974-78), Lake made a study of this arc of self-referential pictures from the Renaissance through to the Surrealist practice of Cahun (Lucie Schwob) who, along with her partner Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), staged photographic self-portraits throughout the 1920s. Cahun’s auto-portraits are marked with intentional surrealist dislocations and echoes, which seem continually caught up in rehearsals of personal memory and dreams.


Cahun’s influence is evident in Lake’s preference for making spare black and white photographs that derive from a singular point of view and in the ability of her images, like Cahun’s, to undercut traditional notions of coherent subjectivity. Lake’s photographic practice allows the artist to use her physical body and appearance as tools for an exploration of feminine identities caught up in the performance of stereotypes.


More recently, due to important feminist exhibitions like WACK!  Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007), curated by Cornelia Butler for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angles, and Identity Theft (2007), curated by Jori Finkel for the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Suzy Lake’s conceptual photographic practice has been critically aligned with contemporary artists such as Eleanor Antin (b. 1935), Lynn Hershman (b. 1941), Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), all of whom enact the slippage between subject and object in their self-portraits. This slippage is visualized by combining strategies of documentation and appropriation to address the persistence of cultural memory in the formation of feminine identity.


Lake first began exhibiting in Michigan during the early 1970s and has subsequently come to be recognized as one of a pioneering group of artists who combined performance and photography to investigate the body and the politics of gender. Like the internationally-celebrated Sherman, Lake employed her own face and body, with the help of wigs and makeup, to re-portray the stereotypical images of women regularly depicted in the mass media.


In his 2006 catalogue essay for Suzy Lake: Concealment/Revealment, Hallwalls curator John Massier claims that the effects of the politically charged decade when critical thinking around race and gender came to the fore can be discerned in the work that Lake produced while still in Detroit. He also notes that Cindy Sherman included one of Lake’s Transformations images in an exhibition that she co-curated with Robert Longo at Hallwalls in Buffalo in 1975, prompting the viewer to speculate regarding Lake’s potential influence on one of the most prominent feminist artists of the 1980s.


Lake and Sherman both predicate their complex pictures on the notion of the unstable subject, but whereas Sherman posits multiple roles, Lake posits multiple positions of consciousness. Each artist makes decisions about the position of her camera, its focus, aperture, and shutter speed. Her every movement in front of the lens is directed toward it and, by implication, toward the spectator. In Sherman’s case, this implied gaze functions as a strategy to absent herself from her work, while in Lake’s case it dramatizes the process of revealing herself incrementally. Envisioning a more progressive model than the underlying hierarchy of activity and passivity that supports the dominant power structure, Lake attempts to do more than just repeat normative representations of woman within an existing historical framework.


Neither Lake nor Sherman was alone in exploring strategies combining performance and photography to produce images of the feminine self. In his review of Identity Theft: Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, Suzy Lake, Matias Viegener explains that “for feminist artists, the social dynamism of women’s liberation from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies not only brought about changes in what women could do, but in how women might think of themselves.”[5]  Postmodernism demanded a criticality with regard to both language and image. The very concept that gender was a role, one that an individual might choose to accept or reject, impelled a generation of artists to make work that questioned fixed notions of identity.[6] These changes manifested in the way artists spoke and wrote about art and choice of media, representations of the body and the relationship between the viewer and the artwork. By emphasizing that the personal is political, feminist writers, artists and filmmakers demonstrated that statistics about women’s inequality had social and cultural dimensions and were not merely a private problem.[7] The ‘text’ or work of art became a site for the constant (re)construction of meaning and identity.


Simone de Beauvoir argues that women as a category is structured by a lack of definition; women are what men are not, delineated only in the negative as the reverse of the positive male subject. To illustrate her point about the unequally gendered landscape, de Beauvoir quotes Aristotle, who defines the feminine as a “lack of qualities,” and woman as possessing a nature “afflicted with a natural defectiveness.”[8] Irigaray writes, “any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by ‘the masculine’.”[9]


Art historian and critic Amelia Jones explains that Marcel Duchamp’s infamous makeover as ‘Rrose Selavy,’ like Warhol’s feminine wig and powder, enacts the play of gender construction in the performance of self. But while both artist/subjects take on effeminate characteristics, each retains his male privilege. The double operation at work here allows Duchamp and Warhol to be seen at once as objects of desire and possessors of artistic genius.[10] Jones seems to echo Hal Foster who muses that perhaps the assumption of “female modalities” without the sacrifice of “male prerogatives” presumes the advantage of identity and the option of its subversion.[11] This double operation is precisely the operation that Lake and Sherman seize and make their own. With her self-imaging project Lake aims to reinscribe her self imaginatively and symbolically in contrast to traditional representations of woman as lack or fantasy.


Irigaray states that it is the through fetishization that the female body compensates for her lack and therefore necessarily deceives or appropriates the power of the phallus.[12]  If she is displayed to perfection, the role of femininity, Irigaray writes, will show the fault, the lack of the phallic economy. In her view, subjecting one’s self to objectification – by being the “female” image – while claiming to identify as a “masculine” subject problematizes representations of subjectivity for women.[13]


Photography has proven to be the kind of practice that allows the artist to occupy two roles at once. Almost from the onset of its official discovery, Hippolyte Bayard, photography’s self-proclaimed inventor, acted for his own camera, notably playing the role of a drowned man who was nonetheless alive enough to make sure his image was fixed in his now infamous salted paper photographic print. It is also from this starting point, Amelia Jones argues, that camera-produced portraits promised to produce an indexical trace of the self: proof, within a scientifically-produced image, of the inextricable link between body and mind.[14]


Looking at the significant body of conceptual photo-based works that Lake produced from the early 1970s onward, it is clear to see that the artist did not pursue photography as an end in itself, but took up the practice for its ability to satisfy a particular cluster of ideas and concerns that were relevant to her feminist performance practice. Jones posits that in photography there is an “interrelation between the death-dealing pose and the life-giving spectatorial engagement of interpretation,” delineating the oppositional manner by which the subject takes her place in and as self/image.[15] It is this interrelation that Lake wants to tease out, making new meaning in the liminal space between fixed subject positions.


Lake became interested in photography precisely for its self-imaging possibilities. There is invention in this process whereby the image is also an act.[16] The magic is in the artist’s coincident operation, which permits her to probe the complex relationship between visual representations and concepts of the self. She exposes the layers of imbrication while interrogating the status of photography as a truth-telling form, especially in light of its frequent co-optation in service of the construction and reinforcement of gender stereotypes.[17]


Lake’s pictures demonstrate the way in which the visualization process extends from the will to see oneself as the object of one’s subjectivity, and how it is through this doubling that the artist attempts to escape being one or the other. Cixous explains:


It is in an identification with the other that he lives out the whole gamut of reactions of posturing and display, his conduct of which makes their structural ambivalence, the slave identified with the despot, the actor with the spectator, the seducer with the seduced.[18]


In Choreographed Puppets, and Lake’s practice as a whole, the play between distinct but wholly imbricated strands of theory and practice mirrors Lake’s oscillation between subject and object. Lake conceives the binary as activity/passivity, creating costumes, sets, and situations in which to perform the dichotomy known intimately by every woman.


Barthes’ claim, in “The Death of the Author,” that “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture,” has problematized the responsibility of authorship.[19] Barthes explains that an author is not simply an individual but, rather, a socially and historically constituted subject; he posits that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body of writing.”[20]

While both Lake and Sherman create representations of women as signifiers of a male-dominated commodity culture, presence is essential to Lake’s work while absence is a central theme in Sherman’s. Both theory-driven practices make use of appropriation as a double voice that both critiques and embodies the dominant capitalist construct of woman as commodity. Feminist theory links these binary oppositions, revealing ancillary complications that Griselda Pollock grapples with in her essay, “Missing Women: Rethinking Early Thoughts on Images of Women.” Pollock writes:


Images are judged against the world they reflect or reproduce or, as feminists have claimed, distort or falsify.  The real is always present, as the criteria against which images are assessed, never interrogated as itself a product of representations. The image becomes the true or false reflex of the real, and thus, posed in a hierarchical relation, the real precedes and determines the image. [21]


In On the Museum’s Ruins, Douglas Crimp explains that Cindy Sherman creates surrogates using herself as the foil. She emphasizes the masking quality of postmodernist photographic practice, prompting the viewer to focus on the process of unmasking.  Sherman’s coercive stereotypes rely on the artist’s intimate relationship with her subject, thereby calling attention to the duplicitous nature inherent in her act of appropriation. Crimp asserts that Sherman is acting in all of her self-portraits, not saying or revealing anything about herself, but instead replicating the dominant imagery of the culture in which she is situated. Crimp sees this as a reversal of the role of photography in relation to art and autobiography.[22] Sherman employs art not to disclose an inner truth but to reveal identity as a kind of invention.


As with Sherman’s Film Stills, Lake’s photographic practice is rooted in conceptual concerns.  Although the inherent aesthetic properties of photography play into her interrogation of image, identity, and truth, what is more important for Lake is that the camera allows her to draw attention to the temporal dimension of identity.  One of photography’s defining principles is its ability to freeze and visually document a single moment in time, and Lake’s photographs aim to elaborate the implications of this temporal specificity. The repetition of Lake’s self-image in the form of multiple images displayed together, as well as her use of blurred motion to highlight the fleetingness of each moment pictured, underlines Lake’s focus on identity in flux. While Sherman’s archetypal images of femininity on display highlight the power imbalance involved in the process of looking, they are less about oscillation, or an exchange of position, than about the inability to escape the male gaze as constructed through language. Lake’s use of the blur, which is the visual manifestation of the instability of the subject position, provides a point of entry into her Choreographed Puppets images, a dynamism that separates Lake’s body of work from Sherman’s.


Writing about Pluck (proof), a 2001 work in which Lake repeatedly photographs herself in close-up, plucking hairs from her face, Jocelyne Fortin muses that “by revealing her ‘cultural’ reality as a woman in the photographic act, Lake crosses the line between role-playing and her own life, and the line between photographer and performer suddenly become very tenuous.”[23] Taking up the contradiction, Lake employs a flippant tone with politically provocative content, highlighting an ongoing problem for art historians: is the artist’s role in society to be a social and political commentator or is she instead the very illustration of the flattening-out of the economy of the sign? The implication here is that Lake attempts both. She repeatedly inserts her self-image into the picture and, in doing so, takes up the question of the possibility of controlling one’s own image in the world.  She privileges enquiry and human irony over certainty - because appearance is always up for negotiation. In this potentially new space, a promise is born.


As photographer, Lake positions her practice in the realm of the sorceress. As model, she often assumes the position of the hysteric. These categories, female archetypes that represent, respectively, agency and domination and lack of control or submission, are not usually crossed. Yet the medium of photography, which captures the instant before it is gone but comes back to provide us with proof that it happened, is the perfect metaphor for this crossing over between the living and the dead. Lake not only conflates the two positions but also, in doing so, theorizes a dynamic oscillation between roles that gives rise to a new understanding of identity and subjectivity.


Her interdisciplinary practice examines models of sociability with the help of costumes, objects, and actions that subtly transpose reality by bringing into being their significant doubles. These photographic likenesses have become a central part of her aesthetic production. In these works, Lake’s use of gesture replicates the conceptual operations at work within the physical production of the artworks. Transgressing disciplinary boundaries, as well as the boundaries between the photo and viewer, Lake co-extends the engagement between the viewing subject and the body pictured. Looking at the photos of the suspended artist indicts the viewer to inhabit Lake’s dual role, and the charge that arises from that vision is felt in the viewer’s body. The photographic medium, writes Jones, “with its visible rendering of the subject on a two-dimensional plane…embodies the subject (both within and outside the image)”.[24] 


While viewers can never completely know the subject behind the image, Lake wants the spectator to glimpse across the façade. For Cixous, the place to explore unpredictability and the imaginary real is theatre - that singular form, she writes, which interweaves the natural and the artificial, which turns on the axes of paradox and contradiction – a place of time without time, which affords the individual the opportunity to pass across and between boundaries.


The poetics of Lake’s works – their insistence on the necessity of the visual within a conceptual framework – provide a space for understanding Lake’s explorations of the body, femininity, and beauty as moving beyond straightforward critique. In her catalogue essay on Lake’s photo-conceptual practice, Martha Hanna succinctly states that for Lake, the image is an act.[25] Although the large-scale photographs that comprise Lake’s Choreographed Puppets series are striking in their own accord, their success as images of identity in flux hinges on the inextricability of the finished works from the action of creating them. Performing for the auto-portrait, the artist swings from what appear to be multiple positions of consciousness, back and forth across the threshold, recording the performance of femininity. In the processes of production and reproduction, Lake rapidly oscillates from subject to object and back, breaking the rules of gender and mortality. The visual blur which results from this fluidity of position, fixed on film, provides a visual model for the fluid logic of oscillation, described by Irigaray and Cixous, in which binary poles become blurred and, ultimately, unraveled.




[1] Amelia Jones, Self/Image: Technology Representation and the Contemporary Subject (New York: Routledge, 2006) Prologue, xvii.


[2] Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 20.


[3] Ibid, 19-21.


[4] Ibid, 96.


[5] Matias Viegener, “Identity Theft: Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, Suzy Lake, 1972-1978,” X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, 10, 2 (2008).


[6] Ibid.


[7] Merit Eichler and Marie Lavigne, “Emergence of a New Women's Movement,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, (accessed July 26, 2008).

In the late 1960s, discovering that "sisterhood is powerful," women from Vancouver to Halifax began forming groups. The Vancouver Women's Caucus was organized in 1968 and published The Pedestal from 1969 to 1973. The Montréal Women's Liberation Movement was founded in 1969, the Front de libération des femmes du Québec published a feminist manifesto in 1970, and the Centre des femmes edited the first French-language radical feminist periodical, Québécoises deboutte! (1971-75). At first, some were consciousness-raising groups, but others quickly turned to concrete action, providing abortion services, health centres, feminist magazines, militant theatre, day-care, shelters for battered women and rape crisis centres, and organizing for equal pay. By the end of the 1960s, Canadian society had begun to adjust to the rebirth of a major social movement.


[8] Simone de Beauvoir, excerpts from “The Second Sex,” in French Feminism Reader, Kelly Oliver, ed. (Oxford UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 8.


[9] Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Gillian C Gill, trans. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 133.


[10] Jones, 19.


[11] Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty (Boston: MIT/October Books, 1993), 53.


[12] Irigaray, 114-15.


[13] Ibid., 133.


[14] Jones, Prologue, xv.


[15] Jones, 49.


[16] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presses du Reel, 1998).


[17] Viegener.


[18] Cixous and Clement, 19-21.


[19] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 146.


[20] Ibid, 142.


[21] Griselda Pollock, “Missing Women: Rethinking Early Thoughts on Images of Women,” in Over Exposed, Carol Squiers, ed. (New York: The New Press, 1999), 230.


[22] Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Boston: MIT, 1995).


[23] Jocelyne Fortin, Attitudes et Comportements: Suzy Lake (Rimousi: Musee Regional de Rimousi, 2002), 36.


[24] Jones, 69.


[25] Martha Hanna, Point of Reference (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, 1993).










Contradiction and Oscillation in Suzy Lake’s ‘Choreographed Puppets’ by Carla Garnet

The series of still photographic self-images that make up American-born performance artist and photographer Suzy Lake’s Choreographed Puppets (1976) are pivotal works. Prescient, in that they easily prefigure Photoshop, Lake’s performance pictures transfigure space while translating vast, deep and spectacular feminine knowledge about concepts of self, appearance and the artistic act of transforming thought into self-image. 


Rebelling against idealized notions of femininity and a world organized systematically to trivialize her gender, Lake uses photography as a means of tapping into the cult of personality explored by Andy Warhol, applying the same supposedly fact-affirming medium of photography to the act of portraiture in order to tease out the relationship between self and image. Unlike Warhol, whose artistic identity was shaped in and by the burgeoning celebrity culture of the 1960s, Lake’s body of work grew out of the Women’s Movement, and thus her investigation of identity developed along very different lines.


Lake explores the ways in which women’s sexuality and the unconscious mind shape notions of identity and the body. Her photographs exhibit the drive to employ photographic technology to visually confirm the self, paradoxically objectifying the body in order to prove its existence as a subject. The disjunction that occurs as the result of this slippage between positions calls attention to the wound that often results from putting the oppositional forces of self and other into play.[1]

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