Book Review: Girl Plays With Snake
By Isabella Weiss
Clare Strand did not take these photographs. Notorious as an artist for her unconventional research-based process, her project is to express cultural meaning by means of organization, not creation. Hers is the art of framing, of education through the revelation of the already-there. In Strand’s recent publication Girl Plays With Snake, found photographs of women holding snakes are each paired with an enlarged segment that Strand has cropped from the original. These enlargements do not only change the meaning of the original image, they bring into question the implications of our original reading of the image as well. A girl plays happily with the snake in her hands; she is handcuffed by its bind. A lighthearted photograph of a woman modeling a snake on her neck; her neck is strangled by ringlets of serpent. Strand points out the confining effects of a “game” that is spectacle driven: in each case, the snake is held for the camera’s audience, and in many, for a literal audience within the image as well. Her edits force consideration of the danger in play that is rooted in the modeling of a living decoration, decoration that threatens violence against both she who wears it and he who observes.
The observer in Girl Plays With Snake is indeed male. One image depicts a woman posing with a snake, surrounded by a group of men, three of whom, including the image’s photographer, photographer her, and Strand’s cropping of another image highlights a previously peripheral crowd of grave-faced men. A poem within the book, of which there are many, reads: “A live necklet / draped around her / two deadly snakes / tamed by her / snake-farmer father.” In this project, Strand reveals the role that both men and the camera have played in the confinement of women to decoration and its display.
Snakes are a fashion garment in Clare Strand’s book. They are decorative features affixed to the bodies of women, features that transform individual into model, action into pose. Strand’s cropping of a photograph compares the enamel shine of a posing woman’s painted fingernails with the snake scales she grips firmly. Other croppings seem to emphasize the decorative jewels worn by the photographs’ subjects. The snakes themselves appear in these images as an extension of dress, as necklaces or shawls, as living luxury items. The snake as symbol for decoration threatens to suffocate the woman wearing it as well as to bite the man allured by it. As an ornament the snake is both attractive and repulsive, sensual and violent.
In the Western tradition, the snake is a symbol of seduction and sin. The fall of Adam and Eve was incited by a snake, and manifested in the invention of clothing. Decoration is the origin of sin, sin is the origin of fashion. Strand’s book argues that temptation and threat are the functions of fashion. Fashion is humanity’s snake-play.
Girl Plays with Snake by Clare Strand published by MACK