When you ask for someone’s heart you must know that you are smart smart smart enough to care for it
by Inga Charlotte Thiele

Ellen Cantor, Snow White Will Come, 1996, Installation view Capture Captures, curated by Lucie Pia, Universitätsgalerie der Angewandten im Heiligenkreuzerhof, Sala Terrena, Wien, 2022. Photo: Demian Kern.

Navigating one’s ambivalence and vulnerability while writing about/through art is a form of emotional labor that usually doesn’t find its way into art critical writing. Here, taking Ellen Cantor’s work as a starting point, a text is drafted that amplifies the urgency of Cantor’s reflections on personal relationships within political systems. Since Leonie and I have been friends for six years, I wanted to contribute a text that doesn’t shy away from opening up emotional worlds. Leonie knows mine well, and our friendship was not always untroubled by a world that is hostile towards companionship.

      The front door to her studio stands ajar towards the inner courtyard of the large Wiener Wohnen complex. The sun is shining, and the neighbors are spending this Sunday outside around the Bärenbrunnen fountain. The song of a blackbird, children’s voices and their parents’ calls fall inside towards her desk. With the greatest of ease, a fat black hummer has flown in through the door and is now turning its rounds around and in front of her. It fills the room with a loud humming noise. She gets up and tries to guide it outside. Using a cloth, she manages to carefully catch it and then release it outside, wishing it a safe onward journey.

      Stepping inside again, she thinks about being a woman sitting at a desk. It is a way to feel time, to hold it, to make of temporality a body, something mineral, that kind of specificity.[1] Sitting down, she thinks about what it means to write a text about an exhibition that already lies in the past. Layer by layer, she now tries to uncover her memory and sentences like I remember it was a cool September evening. Maybe it was even raining, come to her mind.

      Capture Captures opened on September 7, 2022 at Angewandte University Gallery Heiligenkreuzerhof. The group exhibition, curated by Lucie Pia, brought together a selection of works that deal with the effects of political decisions on emotional needs and vice versa. How real power relations influence individual experience, structures of desire and the emotional inner life are considerations that accompany her daily. This is where similarities and abysses are revealed, where affects become a place to identify modes of effect and resistance.[2]

      It is a sentimental feeling that comes over her when she thinks about the exhibition. This is not only due to the fact that it happened a year and a half ago, during a period of her life characterized by instability and transitions. It is the exhibition itself and in particular Ellen Cantor’s works that still resonate with her, that are still close to her, and to which she feels a deep personal connection. At Heiligenkreuzerhof, two of Cantor’s Snow White drawings were exhibited. They are almost diaristic, childlike and raw works that expand the Disney character’s narrative to include sexual encounters and comment on complex personal relationships. Within the exhibition, Ellen Cantor and Linda Bilda (both born in the 1960s) are two artists who already passed away in the 2010s and who, in text-image compositions, release common narratives from their conventional reading and provide new contextualization to the visual and language-based material.

      The word sentimental has a double meaning: it contains both the feeling and the thought: sen from séntir (to feel, to sense) and men from mental (mentally). It conveys a thought or consideration that is characterized by a feeling or emanates from a feeling—an emotional thought. Writing does not happen in an emotionless space. It most likely happens in a pragmatic realm; the reason and reasonings that motivate the [writer] (and [text]) are embedded in the world and in the language with which we bring it into view.[3] Criticism, understood as a mode of inquiry, might stand closer to poetic language than it seems: the act of writing is a process of improvisation within a framework (form) of intention.[4]

      In critical writing about or through art, the question could arise as to how and by whom judgments are influenced. Artists, exhibitions and authors are discussed in a mesh of relations. Information about them circulates; tips and references are passed on and criticism is formulated in groups of friends, between lovers—sometimes with relatives. The relationships one has with others, the context in which artworks, films, books, etc. are discussed—who you visit exhibitions with—all have a not insignificant influence on the emotions you have towards these works. She asks herself whether and how her emotions feed into her texts. In the format of the ‘mainstream’ review, emotion is categorically excluded as an influence that shapes judgment. You can recognize it now and then between the lines, where it sometimes leaks out, spills over to the reader, who may or may not be affected, moved, inspired. She likes to approach writing as a process, not a definite act; an inquiry, a thinking on.[5]
The encounter with some artists’ work—like the one in this exhibition—feels intimate because someone close to her told her about it.

      It must have been 2019 or 2020 when they started talking again. The first few conversations on the phone were awkward, unwieldy, clumsy. She chain-smoked and usually drank a few glasses of wine to calm her nerves. By the end of the phone call, she was often quite drunk and slightly ashamed because the person on the other end of the line wasn’t.

      It was clear to her that their contact meant initiating a healing process. No one had ever told her before that healing also causes pain. Talking to T. again meant, besides poking into unhealed wounds, to return to an exchange about family relations, politics, art, their friendships and emotional worlds. And, for the first time: dating. She could hardly believe that this was possible. In the past, conversations about dates or hook-ups with others always meant betrayal. In the ten years of their turbulent relationship, there were many affairs, secrets and lies. Harm was inflicted on both of them. When she looks back on their fights, she sometimes thinks that they wanted to destroy each other so that they could be caring and close again afterwards. A conflicted idea of care and unity: only you can inflict this pain on me, only you can take it away again.

      Now, she often wonders about how growing up in a dreary small town in northern Germany and their turbulent youth made it impossible for them to understand what a good relationship could be. Hard norms and social rules being impressed upon their naive principles of love. But is anything worth attaining ever attained, whether knowledge or love, without some brief and hushed moments of expectant childishness?[6]

      It was in one of their phone calls that the work of Ellen Cantor was brought up. T. was talking about preparing a presentation on Cantor for a seminar at art school and spoke about her capacity to deal with difficult experiences in a palpable, gentle, occasionally humorous manner. She’d never heard of Cantor before but ordered the catalogue A history of the world as it has become known to me, only to never open it again except for one inattentive flip through after its arrival.

      Still, she remembers being excited the moment she saw Cantor’s name in the artist list of the exhibition. She thought of T. and became curious about the encounter with an artist to whom she already sensed a closeness without ever having seen her work in person.

      Cantor was born in 1961 and died of lung cancer in 2013 at the age of 51. Her work, expressing openly her own sexuality, faced censorship battles in the UK and in Switzerland in the 1990s.[7] Consisting of drawings, paintings, films and sculptures, it is characterized by a simplicity that could be read as childlike insouciance. The content and intensity of its representation, on the other hand, is explicit, charged and sensual. Power relations, sexual desires, personal desire structures and motifs–among them Pinocchio, Bambi, unicorns, galleons–recur with autobiographical resonance. Snow White was one of Cantor’s childhood heroines.[8]

      Two pencil drawings with the titles Prince/Snow White (1996) and Snow White will come (1996) by Cantor were on display at Capture Captures. In them, Disney’s animated character Snow White is depicted as a desiring subject. Her object of desire is the prince; an apparently heterosexual story of (disappointed) longing and patriarchal power structures is sketched out.

      The first, Snow White will come, is a single collaged drawing with glued-on paper cut-outs. Erased but still visible pencil drawings overlap. Naked body parts intersect, the naked Snow White, drawn with a thin felt-tip pen, is depicted in front of four, thinly drawn male bodies with erect penises. She is framed by green leaves, flowers and birds. At the bottom left of the picture, a little girl in a short dress is visible seen, holding out her hand with the words Wait (for me) appearing in front of her. Clockwise around the naked Snow White, the words Your Prince Will Come are written in thin letters in front of the birds’ beaks. Two strips of paper glued to the top and bottom edges of the drawing read: When you ask for someone’s heart you must know that you are smart smart smart enough to care for it and When you offer someone your heart ... you must be smart. In the bottom-left-hand corner the sentence, I miss you, I don’t want to lose you. is added in felt-tip pen. In between the layers of erased pencil strokes, the words My heart feels so … I don’t know who to trustappear.

      The overlapping of bodies creates the effect of Snow White dancing or swinging by the men who stretch out their hands to reach her. She could be portrayed in a moment of tumultuous desire; not knowing who is the ‘right one’ to choose, while the birds sing to her that her prince will come. There is a magical quality to the depiction of Snow White amongst the birds and leaves, while at the same time a darkness is at play amidst the presumed Disney innocence: the outstretched hands have something both frightening and constricting about them, as if they were trying to grab Snow White against her will.

      The curator Jonathan Berger writes about his first encounter with Cantor at Participant Inc. in New York in 2006: I remember, vividly, that when Lia introduced me to her, Ellen pulled back rather dramatically and blinked in an exaggerated way. Its a move that female Disney characters make, I realized later. It was completely sincere, but also startling in how she could instantly fully embody that kind of stylized behavior.[9] For Cantor, the reference to Disney protagonists and heroines from pop culture is not an intended critique of patriarchal power structures or ideals of beauty. Her use of the images arises from the complex relationship she has with the cartoon’s protagonists. Instead of producing a moral reading of the figures, she adds something to them. She celebrated them for what they are––hyper-feminine––and believes in them as the women they would have been.[10]

      Prince/Snow White consists of two pencil drawings hung back to back in one frame. One drawing depicts Snow White and is mounted upside down on the drawing of the prince. The prince’s erect penis looks almost painfully stiff, his sinewy arms sticking stiffly out from his upper body. Etched-out, leftover drawings of the prince’s arms are still visible, resembling sequential motion pictures. Snow White’s upturned head shines through between the prince’s legs from the other side of the paper, her large eyes gazing blankly past his erect penis. The prince is surrounded by loosely floating bird heads. One supposedly holding an erect penis, giving the impression that the bird either wants to eat the penis or insert it into its beak for oral sex.

      In Cantor’s drawings Snow White’s sex life is not romanticized or loving. It is complicated, as human sex lives always are. Unconscious forces of desire, violence and lust are combined with sweet, childlike and magical attributes. Romance and the hope for true love meet the brutality of obsessive limerence. The hard-ons in Cantor’s drawings look aggressively taut, protruding from the men’s bodies as if they were barely attached to them. The disembodied penises, although thinly drawn, are also marked by pulsating veins. A physical urgency, aggression and power emanates from them, reflecting the violence of heterosexual relationships in patriarchal society. For Cantor, drawing was a quest for narration and the (re-)creation of emotional states.[11] [S]he fought in complex ways to reclaim power through her artistic practice and to overcome the effects of trauma. She hoped to find agency somehow within oppressive situations.[12]

      She remembers being surprised about the heterosexual imagery used by Cantor in the exhibition, because she thought she recalled that Cantor was a lesbian. Strictly speaking, she wasn’t a lesbian, but I thought, Fuck categories, her drawings are so intense, the line childlike, yet the content raw and urgent. In one, a kneeling girl performs frenzied cunnilingus on another as they both undress, the excitement registering in the lightly sketched objects scattered in the room around them, including a tiny pair of unicycles on the wall above,[13] writes Cantor’s friend Nicola Tyson, who included Cantor’s work in Part FANTASY: The sexual imagination of seven lesbian artists explored through the medium of drawing.

      She thinks of a quote from photographer Honey Lee Cottrell about her 1981 shot of Ms. Leather, Rachael Williams: The lesbian gaze meant that there was a contemplation, a restraint, a sincerity and a warrior quality, you might say. This lesbian look was compelling. While your heterosexual woman model might compel the rest of the world to look at her, a lesbian was addressing you.[14]

      Cantor was interested in how power structures—more specifically, how fascist governments and the people at the top of the ladder—influence and destroy the lives of normal people in their everyday lives, through multiple generations. She wanted to understand how trauma and violence permeate our experience of life and subsequently how we re-create them in our personal relationships.[15] As Snow White was a childhood heroine of Cantor's, it makes sense how she re-narrates the story of a woman who doesn't know who to trust. In the tale, Snow White is being forced out of her home by her stepmother, who cannot tolerate Snow White being more beautiful than her. Finding refuge with the seven dwarfs, Snow White remains in a state of innocence, waiting and fantasizing about her prince. It seems as if Cantor also wants to reveal the power relations contained in this waiting: the passivity of the waiting woman, bound to the domestic sphere, the hope for ‘liberation’ by a man. And yet the imagination, magical thinking, is also a form of activity and agency.

      Cantor depicts Snow White entangled in social systems. The heroine of Cantor’s adolescence develops into a complex, adult figure who is not independent of social rules, norms and constraints. Growing out of the narrowness of adolescence means to learn how to sharpen one’s vision in the vastness of the world, (re-)discovering oneself, uncovering one’s own entanglements. Teenage love bursts with imagination, and often is just that: a fantasy. Since everything is experienced so intensely in the teenage years, the crush from the school years provides an unfamiliar security: the intensity of feelings, understood as love, seems to be the only thing one can surely know: if I love you enough, I am a whole person. Meaning: a fantasy is a real thing.[16]

      She sits with her legs crossed, chewing on almonds and drinking a Cherry Coke—a taste of her youth. Cantor’s work, and subsequently this text, allows her to look at her past relationship and its youthful, unfiltered idealism. She loves getting older, gaining more distance and understanding, moving away from T., and towards herself. A feeling of work, a kind of purpose. The feeling of rooms to accommodate such labor, her ambition.[17] There are feelings in this text, but it is through the labor of writing that these feelings are accommodated. Reality, like feelings, are both temporal and temporary; [they] must have a past tense.[18]

      After their breakup, she listened to Under Your Spell by Desire excessively.

I was wondering
Do you know the difference between love and obsession?
And what’s the difference between obsession and desire?
I don’t know

      T. went from being the prince to one of the dwarfs. Now, they can make jokes about the course of a date or the end of an affair, sometimes speak about new partners. She can almost hold the thought that she is no longer making a confession. That she no longer has to feel guilty. That she now tells a friend about her experiences. There’s joy in the letting go—a kind of growing pains too.[19]

      In 1998, Cantor opened an exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien with the title my perversion is the belief in true love. It suggests that the act of believing in true love doesn’t keep women in their subordinate, passive and awaiting positions, but rather the opposite: to strive for love, community and friendship would mean the world as we know it would burst apart.[20]

Capture Captures
University Gallery Heiligenkreuzer Hof, Vienna
September 8 – October 22, 2022

[1] Quinn Latimer, Like a Woman, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017, p.18. [2] Sabeth Buchmann: Überblendungsverhältnisse, „Das Individuum“ Texte zur Kunst, Dezember 2016, Nr. 104.
[3] Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000, p.4.
[4] Hejinian, p.3.
[5] Hejinian, p.2.
[6] Vernon Lee, introduction to Clementia Anstruther-Thomson, Art & Man. Essays and Fragments, London: John Lane, 1924, p.33.
[7] Scene Stealer: Jonathan Berger talks to Johanna Fateman about the art of Ellen Cantor, Artforum, October 2016, Vol. 55, No. 2.
[8] Nicola Tyson: Ellen Cantor's Magical Thinking, Bomb Magazine, Artists on Artists, Winter 2017.  
[9] Scene Stealer: Jonathan Berger talks to Johanna Fateman about the art of Ellen Cantor, Artforum, October 2016, Vol. 55, No. 2.
[10] ibd.
[11] Nicola Tyson: Ellen Cantor's Magical Thinking, Bomb Magazine, Artists on Artists, Winter 2017.
[12] Scene Stealer: Jonathan Berger talks to Johanna Fateman about the art of Ellen Cantor, Artforum, October 2016, Vol. 55, No. 2.
[13] Nicola Tyson: Ellen Cantor's Magical Thinking, Bomb Magazine, Artists on Artists, Winter 2017.  
[14] Pioneering Lesbian Photographer Honey Lee Cottrell Died at 69, Out, 28.09.2015
[15] Scene Stealer: Jonathan Berger talks to Johanna Fateman about the art of Ellen Cantor, Artforum, October 2016, Vol. 55, No. 2.
[16] Hejinian, p.11.
[17] Latimer, p.19.
[18] Hejinian p.10.
[19] quote by her friend J.
[20] Barry Schwabsky: Ellen Cantor’s Perpetual Revisions, Books & The Arts, The Nation, 20.12.2016.