Barbara Hammer – Special Session
With an artistic practice that spanned fifty years, Barbara Hammer (1939-2019) is recognized as a pioneer of queer and feminist experimental cinema. A self-described “visual artist who primarily uses film and video,” Hammer created a groundbreaking body of moving image work that illuminates lesbian histories, lives and representations. Shattering taboos with her radical visions of lesbian sexuality and identity, she was a fierce advocate of the empowered female body.
Writes Hammer, “Thematically, my work deconstructs a cinema that often objectifies or limits women. My work makes these invisible bodies and histories visible. As a lesbian artist, I found little existing representation, so I put lesbian life on this blank screen, leaving a cultural record for future generations.”
Challenging limits and dissolving borders between the political and the personal, Hammer explored the expressive and activist potential of experimental filmmaking. She began making films in the early 1970s, amidst the fervor of the feminist revolution in the U.S. Among these early films are several landmarks of lesbian cinema, including Dyketactics (1974) and Multiple Orgasm (1976). Hammer also explored filmic processes and materiality, often referencing the natural world. In subsequent decades she made a series of autobiographically-based documentaries, including Nitrate Kisses (1992) and Tender Fictions (1995), as well as essay films about lesbian histories, such as The Female Closet (1998) and History Lessons (2000), and numerous works exploring cultural and gender identities. In 2015 she premiered Evidentiary Bodies, a performance and multi-channel installation that extended her explorations of experiential physicality.
It would be impossible to write about Hammer’s art without referencing her life. Irrepressibly energetic, generous—she endowed two annual grants to young queer filmmakers—and risk-taking, Hammer was committed to fostering community, mentoring young artists, and interacting with audiences. Her 2006 diagnosis of ovarian cancer only spurred her to increased activism and art making, and she became an advocate for medical aid in dying. Influenced by Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet, in the last year of her life she developed a performative lecture entitled The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety) in which she engaged her audiences in frank discussions about living with advanced cancer.
Hammer’s creative output was vast; she left over ninety moving image works, as well as a large body of installations, performances, drawings, collages and photographs. Her legacy—the impact of her art and life as sources of influence and inspiration—is incalculable.