On Doa Aly’s ‘A Tress of Hair’

Written for the Indicated by Signs — Contested Public Space, Gendered Bodies, and Hidden Sites of Trauma in Contemporary Visual Art Practices, eds hamzamolnar, a publication accompanying a group curatorial project of the same name.

Some images: my cat’s tufty little forelegs are a source of great comfort to me, planted either side of her fat furry stomach. I can barely keep my mind off her for more than a few minutes, particularly given her constant determination to walk across my keyboard. Yet before I can give her insistent paws yet another shove, I’m involuntarily recalling the knees of a horse I saw today in the middle of a market lane, shivering and cringing like a shy supermodel caught in the drizzle. And from that there is the image of a pair of camel legs cut off at the knee, standing neatly and horrifically alone in the unpaved alley as though the rest of the animal had just chosen to detach them and walk away on the stumps.

Unintentionally, this trajectory took me from pure sentimentality through to the terrifying catalogue of memory somehow hoarded when we are not paying attention. It reveals the unreasonable and disturbing behaviour of visceral association. While logical thought flows according the dictates of accepted restrictions, the uncontrolled mode of association allows things to cling in the memory and then to crop up as they please, paving the way to obsession, phobia, and fetishism.

Doa Aly’s short video work A Tress of Hair presents a world in which the strength of a wildly associative order has entirely replaced any other mode of signification. Firstly, however, the privileged viewer should know that it is refers to two stories by the 19th Century writer Guy de Maupassant, Berthe and A Tress of Hair. Described in both the subtitled narrative and in physical form is Berthe, indeed, the greedy, simpleton beauty whose almost nonexistent intelligence is only stimulated by the fulfilment of her desires. ‘Trained’, after some pains, to associate the clock with sensual fulfilment (the arrival of food and later, her husband), her one connection with the realm of meaning eventually leads her into madness. There is also the unnamed madman of A Tress of Hair, whose diaries from the madhouse tell of his falling under the erotic spell of a heavy golden rope of female hair found in a second hand cabinet, eventually leading him to believe in the woman it conjures for him. They are both stories of people whose symbolic order is violently rearranged, and they are genuinely frightening. In Aly’s A Tress of Hair, they are plaited together through character, physical gesture, and narration.

This work is not a rendition but an arrangement. Most noticeably with de Maupassant, they are written as stories-within-stories, removed already from the immediate readerly senses and put at a safe distance, retold through the eyes of the sane narrator. Aly’s A Tress Of Hair removes this luxury: we are faced directly with some less rational realm. Subtitled lines from the two stories — references to the conditions of Berthe and the madman — constitute the only narrative element, which instantly shed any navigational quality they had in the story. Characters and gestures are meaningful only through repetition and uncertain, tautological associations. In some ways, we’re put in the position of de Maupassant’s Berthe, whose only notion of meaning was painfully administered to her by attaching the fulfilment of her desire to a symbolic element, the hands of the clock. In the video, Berthe is horizontal and spins, her head in the lap of a suited man, turning anticlockwise in his lap.

Within this queasy and vague realm there is a heavy dose of literalness in the form of three dominant characters, the Women of Yesterday. Three elegant young women in pretty dresses, directly represent a nostalgic femininity described by the madman in de Maupassant’s A Tress of Hair. It’s a strange, over-literal thing to do, because in the story — even to the madman, really — they’re very easily read as some metaphor for privileged male heterosexual nostalgia. Making them into prominent, genuine characters has an adolescent gaucheness that prevents them from becoming mere replication of a slick male fantasy.

This gaucheness is emphasised through Aly’s deliberate use of nonprofessional actors with no dance training to co-devise the elements of movement. It is really gesture, rather than dance, that fascinates Aly, involuntary or unrefined gesture that stems from contact between an uncertain body and the social world, and it is a key device across all her works. Often, it is formalised enough to become dance — such as the Women of Yesterday making their slow, rhythmic way along a back wall — but it is still ultimately understood somehow within the realm of their constituent repetitive, decorative, coordinated gestures. They are also never quite polished enough not to make you think of the repetitive gestures of the insane, the physical tics of the terminally anxious, or the self-conscious poses of a teenage girl.

In fact, gaucheness might be a key term in understanding Aly’s use of gesture; that which pertains to ‘the left hand’. The hand whose ability is atrophied, which can only have an auxiliary practical function, and use of which society has taken to be somehow suspect, unreliable, or occult. You might say that A Tress of Hair is an exercise in removing the dominant hand and compelling the other to work, where systems of significance are, like drawings made with the non-dominant hand, faint in some places and wild, heavy-handed in others.

Aly herself, slim and dark, plays Berthe, a deliberate decision that immediately contradicts the character’s description as a vacant, plump blonde Venus. And though the tress of hair was blonde, an abundance of glossy brunette curls dominate the video: certainly on the Women of Yesterday, and as the longest tresses of all belong to Aly, she also seems to stand in place of the metonymic object of the madman’s obsession. By comparison the male character — young, suited, nondescript — is a cipher who could directly represent, equally, Berthe’s husband, doctor; or the madman in A Tress of Hair. Aly’s presence, then, is not just one of playing a character, but of standing in for things: a embodied, symbolic occupation of the stories’ key conditions.