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Essay by Daniella Schreir

25 Apr 2023

For Emily Andersen’s exhibition Somewhere Else Entirely, we commissioned an essay by Daniella Schreir, editor of the Feminist Film Journal Another Gaze.

Installation view at Bonington Gallery

“Will it be a man, will it be another woman, will it be myself?” poet Ruth Fainlight asks in the voice-over of Emily Andersen’s eleven-minute three-channel portrait film, Somewhere Else Entirely. She is referring to the notion of the “muse” and although it is not made explicit, this three-part question is one Fainlight first posed in reply to an interview at an earlier point in her career; one she is – aged ninety at the time of filming – now reflecting back on. Of course, the history of art has never cared to trace the figure of the muse in relation to the woman artist, largely because the latter has never been historicised properly, let alone mythologised. As art historian Penny Murray has it: ‘Man creates, woman inspires; man is the maker, woman the vehicle of male fantasy.’ Fainlight – a self-proclaimed feminist – nonetheless seems surprised by the confidence of her younger self: ‘At that time I said arrogantly, “My muse is myself.”

There is something refreshing about Somewhere Else Entirely in its relationship to the figure of the woman artist and constellations of influence. Now, of course, it is much more common to talk about influence than muses, and to tack this abstract, ineffable notion onto real figures. We can see this in our contemporary neoliberal feminist moment, in which the culture industries are excavating women “pioneers,” and giving them their (rightful, although sometimes cynically delineated) places in museum and gallery exhibitions, on the lists of publishing houses, and in film programmes. Somewhere Else Entirely might have represented an attempt to highlight Fainlight’s importance qua woman poet, or have used the film form as a vehicle through which to recast Fainlight as a neglected “icon” in her field (and Andersen certainly knows how to capture these, having taken portraits of women including Dame Zaha Hadid, Nan Goldin, Nico, Tracy Chapman, Helen Mirren and Whitney Houston across four decades as a photographer). Instead, there is a fundamental humility to the film on the part of both filmmaker and subject. Fainlight appears on-screen in her local park and at her home in West London. She prunes her houseplants, spins salad leaves, boils an egg, sorts through her papers, reads – and yes, writes. As well as being the elements that make up a life, these quotidian fragments make sense when read alongside her poetry. As Richard Carrington has it: ‘[Fainlight] finds strangeness and even mysticism beneath familiar surfaces. Domestic life often contains and reveals the most significant truths.’ Meanwhile, Fainlight’s voice, off screen, is edited into a monologue, and although it is obvious that she has been guided by Andersen’s questions (at times I think I can make out a non-verbal utterance that seems to come from the filmmaker) her speech feels unprompted.

Installation view at Bonington Gallery

The first few seconds of Somewhere Else Entirely plunge the viewer head-first into a psychoanalytical drama. On the middle screen, the poet appears at the end of a corridor and walks slowly towards the camera, as we hear on the voice-over:

“I’m alone in the house and suddenly feel the need to phone my mother.
But it’s decades since she died – and I don’t remember having this urge before…”   

From the depths of the dream-world, Fainlight’s voice brings us into the concrete and pragmatic with a start. We realise that she has been quoting the first line of one of her poems (‘A Meeting with My Dead’), and instead of unpacking or analysing it, she begins to discuss the shaping of its form. Andersen, meanwhile, cuts away from the corridor and to several annotated pages. Fainlight’s hands gesticulate above them. “I’m already reaching the place of not knowing what I’m going to write next,” she says. And, a few moments later: “I only know what the poem is going to say when I’m writing it”. Throughout Somewhere Else Entirely, Fainlight hovers above and circles her practice, sometimes capturing the inability to describe how a poem is made: “I only discover what I’m going to say while writing it”, at others admitting her powerlessness: “I’m in the hands of the poem”.

Somewhere Else Entirely is the product of a coincidence. Alongside her photographic practice, Andersen teaches at Nottingham Trent University. During a train ride back to her London base in 2011, she came across a review of Fainlight’s New & Collected Poems, accompanied by a picture of the poet. Andersen realised she had seen this woman in her neighbourhood and took a clipping of the review. The next day at her local market, Andersen saw Fainlight and approached her with the proposition of a portrait. In Andersen’s telling, Fainlight wasn’t immediately convinced but emailed Andersen a few weeks later. A portrait was taken, a friendship emerged and then, over the following decade, a filmic portrait. The film represents an encounter in the longue durée, which seems pertinent to Fainlight’s practice, in which she can spend “months or even years” on a single poem. Nevertheless, the initial, delicate meeting between the women is, I think, detectable in Somewhere Else Entirely whose visual montage is shaped by Fainlight’s narration. At no moment does it seem as though the filmmaker is bending the poet’s words to her aesthetic desires.. In its form, it is as though Andersen has taken Fainlight’s practice as a cue for her moving portrait.

Daniella Schreir