Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

HAMMER! Making Movies out of Sex and Life: Barbara Hammer

Written by Emily Westerweller
 Active Image                             
In current pop culture we often hear terms like “sellout,” or the softer reference “crossover,” used when an artist changes his/her aesthetic to reach a larger audience. Avant-garde filmmaker Barbara Hammer is not one of these artists. In her autobiography, HAMMER! Making Movies out of Sex and Life, Hammer writes: “I want the audience to grow to meet me; I don’t want to reduce the complexities of the film to meet them.” The book is much like her “personal archive” and Hammer says, “My hope is that by sharing such personal and extensive material from my life, my work and I will be understood more fully.”

In current pop culture we often hear terms like “sellout,” or the softer reference “crossover,” used when an artist changes his/her aesthetic to reach a larger audience. Avant-garde filmmaker Barbara Hammer is not one of these artists. In her autobiography, HAMMER! Making Movies out of Sex and Life, Hammer writes: “I want the audience to grow to meet me; I don’t want to reduce the complexities of the film to meet them.” The book is much like her “personal archive” and Hammer says, “My hope is that by sharing such personal and extensive material from my life, my work and I will be understood more fully.”

Hammer documents her life and her life’s work in decades—growing up in Los Angeles (she was born in 1939), an unhappy marriage, and discovering herself both artistically and personally (she left her husband and became a lesbian) in her early thirties. Ultimately, these discoveries merge in films like Dyketactics (1974), the first film of lesbian lovemaking made by a lesbian (a scene is featured as a flip book on the spine of the book).

Hammer has been an important figure in the avant-garde and women’s film scenes (the book is dedicated to women artists everywhere) since the 1970s. Her films document various female issues from the female orgasm, sex, and menstruation (oftentimes filming herself as the subject). “I am a filmmaker,” she says, “because I can embrace multiple disciplines; painting, collage/montage, poetry, architecture, and photography together with feminist, queer, and culture studies.”

Another common theme in her work  is aging and ageism. In the 1980s Hammer filmed her grandmother in a retirement home (Optic Nerve, 1985), and it was this filming that helped establish her in the New York art scene and paved the way for one of her three Whitney Biennials. In the 2000s section, she writes: “How infatuated I was with older women in my early films. Now I am that older woman, aged but very much alive.”

The book itself covers a huge portion of her personal and professional life. Among other things, it chronicles her bed hopping (and reputation for such), discovery of long-term love, and 2006 diagnosis with ovarian cancer. It also includes essays about her films, black-and-white stills, and discussions about her teaching methods; her relationship to the lesbian community, and her audience’s reactions to her work. Hammer even includes her own version of “The Creative Process,” and while discussing her own work says: “My films begin in what I call feeling images, an inseparable unity of emotion and thought/idea/image and internal bodily states of excitement.”

In the 1980s Hammer made a list of the things she wanted to be famous for, and along with wanting to be remembered as a “visual poet/poet of images,” she writes: “I want to be recognized for creative work that is unique and has never been done before and that I find by following my inner guide with belief and trust.”

Well, twenty years later, and now in her seventies, she is still sticking to her original beliefs, and with upcoming retrospectives in cities from New York (Museum of Modern Art) to London (Tate Modern), most likely she can look back with confidence that she has achieved her goal.

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