‘Saddle Sores’ (1998) is set somewhere familiar, but it is not the geographical location that builds a feeling of closeness. The scramble of styles – appropriated footage of John’s Ford 1956 western ‘The Searchers’, analogue video effects and the intimate feel of a home movie, resemble in parts, while watched on a computer screen, a YouTube confessional.
The camera pans jerkily across a friend’s kitchen like footage from a mobile phone as Vanalyne reminisces lightly about her failed romance with a cowboy. In a similar unfocused style it captures personal conversations, while driving and in cafes, and steadies itself at the horror and embarrassment in the artist’s friend’s faces, who were asked to look at images of the people after they contracted herpes.
Shortly after, Vanalyne interjects almost playfully, to depart from the personal to her politics: ‘Is Romance Sexually Transmitted Disease?’ she asks in a large white font on a black background. For Vanalyne, ideas are like viruses. Even before the attention economy of social media became the norm, shared emotions, ideas and stories could be made ‘viral’ (and monetised at profit) in the news and media, as a mass psychological form of contagion. Romance accelerates the contagion. Adding a sickness to romance, it creates a potent and heady mix of trials and tribulations – in the hope that the shared suffering may lead us to a shared self-recovery.
In her book ‘Cold Intimacies: Making of the Emotional Capitalism’, Eva Illouz writes: “In the therapeutic narrative the choices that seem detrimental to us serve some hidden need and purpose. It is here that narratives of self-help and suffering connect for, if we secretly desire out misery, then the self can be made directly responsible for alleviating it.” Vanalyne dismantles a redemptive arch of suffering and healing through love bit-by-bit, the romance is over before the diagnosis becomes evident.
“Pain. It had a taste to it, it was metallic and bitter” she tells us of her first symptoms. We don’t see her face as she speaks but an electrically blue object pierces the screen in our direction as if breaking through jellified membrane. It pokes, twists and hovers in the white body-like mass.
It is our internalisation of prescribed and self-policing definitions of desire, sexuality and body that ‘Saddle Sores’ expose anew. The body in the age of Instagram can be only shown if bodily manifestations such as menstrual blood, sweat, pus, semen and hair are not just safely out sight but also outside the limits of conversation. Body, illness and romance must be aestheticised to make themselves presentable, in accordance with the dictated community guidelines.
Australian blogger Belle Gibson cut out gluten, dairy and caffeine to cure herself of cancer, after being given only four months to live. Thousands of her followers watched her miraculous recovery documented by her Instagram account, downloaded her health app and bought her recipes book from Penguin, hoping they could get better, too. Before being revealed as a fraud, Gibson had shared (and monetised) her self-professed trauma with images and selfies using feminine tropes of purity: flowers, tasteful arrangements of ultra-healthy foods, gently lit hospital scenes and bit of Photoshop. Gibson’s followers have fed on the therapeutic narrative, looping through the compassion/desire/consumption chain which was marketed with images of conventional feminine cleanliness and propriety.
It is here that ‘Saddle Sores’ align the concept of purity to its core motif. In the ‘Searchers’, Ethan Edward’s long hunt for his abducted little niece is not really driven by his need to save her but to kill her in a racist revenge. In his eyes she has been polluted as a native American’s squaw. In a 2011 work by the British artist and animator Ben Wheele, the title character ‘Decoration’, a cervical cancer, gendered as an older male, takes on the shape of a baroque vase, settling in the womb of the young girl to kill her.
Like in the ‘Searchers’, ‘Decoration’ tells us, it is ‘out of love’ attacking her at the moment when she becomes sexually active, in order to prevent the contagion of sex. To free us (and herself) from the binary of clean/dirty, Vanalyne tells us calmly about the sores appearing on her vagina. Then with a bit of hesitation, she reminds us Cowboy’s Bob clean crisp cotton shirts, good posture and the rosy skin that seduced her.
In a final bid to find an explanation for her bad luck, Vanalyne instigates an interview with the herpes infection inhabiting her vagina. Unlike the outspoken cancerous tumour ‘Decoration’, Herpes refuses to comment and then it goes silent, opening the door to shame. And shame, as Vanalyne says in her film, is always experienced in relation to a community, while it is most acutely felt in silence. Vanalyne, ever thoughtful pauses a for bit before she shares with us the happy ending with her dreams full of blood and pus – the story of her vagina that will go on even after her tape is finished.