Sophie Whettnall or the geography of dis-encounter

Cestelli Guidi, Anna


In making an attempt to describe the emotional landscape of the works of Sophie Whettnall, nothing seems more appropriate than the dialogue between Eva and Charlotte in Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 “Autumn Sonata”.


“To you I was a doll that you played with when you had time. If I was sick or naughty, you handed me over to the nanny or to Father. You shut yourself in and worked, and no one was allowed to disturb you. I used to stand outside the door listening. When you stopped for coffee, I’d steal in to see if you really did exist. You were kind, but your mind was elsewhere. If I asked you anything, you hardly answered. I’d sit on the floor looking at you. You were tall and beautiful.… Because you always looked so nice, I wanted to be nice too. I grew meticulous with my clothing. I was always anxious that you wouldn’t like my appearance. I thought I was ugly, you see, lean and angular with big cow’s eyes and big lips and no eyebrows or lashes, and my arms were far too long and my feet were too big and my toes too flat and… no, I thought I looked almost repulsive. But you hardly ever showed that you were worried over my appearance. Once you said “You should have been a boy”, and then you laughed so that I wouldn’t be upset. I was, of course. I cried for a whole week in secret, because you detested tears – other people’s tears.

Then suddenly one day your suitcase would be standing downstairs and you’d be talking on the phone in a foreign language. I used to go into the nursery and pray to God that something would happen to stop you from going(…). But you always went. All the doors  were open and the wind blew through the house and everyone talked at once, and you came up to me and put your arms around me and kissed me and hugged me and kissed me again and looked at me and smiled at me and you smelled nice but strange and you yourself were a stranger, you were already on the way, you didn’t see me. I used to think: Now my hearth will stop, I’m dying, it hurts too much, I’ll never be happy again.”[1]

Eva’s monologue throws us in a world of laceration provoked by the loss, by the frustration of our most intimate need and desire. It is cry for the self, which reveals the fears, the pains which we are made of.

And which are at stake first of all in the relations with our beloved ones. Since identity, the definition of the self can only be formed in relation to the Other.

It is in the complex landscape of the micro politic of emotions where we encounter the work of Sophie Whettnall. Her late work seems a cry to give form, to give image to that intimate question.

In both video works, Shadow Boxing and Conversation Piece, the confrontation is accurately staged. The negotiation of identity is in case played on a face-to-face metaphorical duel between the Other, the boxer/the sushi chef, and the woman/artist.

It is landscape of silent violence and emotional tension, almost erotically in its intensity, in which the spectator is treat to the same shocks as the ones suffered.

As emotional space, the work of Sophie whettnall could be defined as geography of dis-encounter, where the absence of the Bergman’s Mother becomes the impossibility of language itself. In both cases in fact, the communication is blocked since it’s beginning: the tension between the motionless woman/artist and the Other is increased by the silence.

“And when you did come I could hardly bear it, I was so happy, and I couldn’t say anything either, so sometimes you were impatient and said: “Eva doesn’t seem to be very pleased to have her mother at home again.” Then my cheeks flamed and I broke out in a sweat but couldn’t say anything _ I hadn’t any words because you had taken charge of all the words at home. I loved you, it was a matter of life and death – I thought so anyway – but I distrusted your words. I knew instinctively that you hardly ever meant what you said. You have such a beautiful voice, Mother. When I was little I could feel it all over my body when you spoke to me, and often you were cross with me for not hearing what you said. It was because I was listening to your voice, but also because I didn’t understand what you said. I didn’t understand your words – they didn’t match your intonation or the expression in your eyes. The worst of all was that you smiled when you were angry. When you hated Father you called him “my dearest friend”, when you were tired of me you said: “darling little girl.” Nothing fitted. No, wait, Mother, I must finish speaking. I know I’m tipsy, but if I hadn’t had a drink I wouldn’t have said what I have. Later, when my courage fails and I don’t dare to say any more, or keep quiet because I’m ashamed of what I’ve said, you can talk and explain, and I’ll listen and understand, just as I’ve always listened and understood. In spite of everything, it wasn’t so bad being your little child. There was nothing wrong in my loving you.” [2]

Precisely in their being silent, the works of Sophie Whettnall are no mourning either. They can be seen as moments of resistance in a face-to- face confrontation with her own power’s breeding ground: moments of crisis. Of creative crisis. As Eva’s monologue.

Roma, April 2007, Anna Cestelli Guidi.

[1] Ingmar Bergman, Autumn Somnata, Pantheon Books, NY, (1978),pp. 49-50

[2] Ibidem, pp.51-52