Adynata, 1983

Adynata is a figure of speech, a form of hyperbole that has been exaggerated to the point of impossibility. Similarly, Leslie Thornton’s seminal film, Adynata is also a densely assembled rhetoric: an exposition into the social representations of a perpetuated, exoticized otherness – an alien culture, an irretrievable past, an impenetrable psyche – a conjured idealization collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity and irreconcilable contradiction. A wispy, idyllic shot of a futuristic, opalescent, gently contoured botanical garden greenhouse in New York City sets the otherworldly tone for Thornton’s exposition into the culturally amorphous forms of representation as the images of exotic flora (in its sumptuous foliage and forbidding thorns) are juxtaposed against a nineteenth century photograph of an upper class Asian couple formally posed in traditional costume, and set to the nostalgic sounds of scratchy, early twentieth century phonograph records. From this implicit evocation of an intangibly fragile, elusive, intranscendable alterity (an alienness that is reinforced by the idiosyncratic, animated sequence depicting an extraterrestrial view of a spinning Earth), Thornton begins to systematically dismantle the very mechanisms of this subconscious process of rarefaction and exoticism through the practical – and consequently, de-romanticized – recontextualization of the images themselves.

A western woman (Thornton), whose voice appropriately remains unheard, is seen in the process of donning the elaborate period clothing in the style of the woman in the photograph, and in the process, reveals the reductive, vulgar, and grotesque nature of ethnic sameness, caricature, and desexualization that underlies this act of superficial imitation. The shallowness of the masquerade is further underscored by the reconstructed opacity of Thornton’s figuration mimicking the photographed woman’s enigmatic expression, as any traces of her thoughts and motivations are obscured – and consequently, suppressed – beneath the heavy make-up and baroque ornamentation of the costume. Rather than presenting the seductive image of exotic fascination, what emerges in these self-contradicting images is a figurative masquerade: an erasure of identity enabled by the idealization of the subject behind the images, in the submissiveness and artifice of its projected illusion. This deconstruction of idealized images is also illustrated through the recurring shot of a pair of women’s shoes, shaped in the impossibly narrow style of the period, as the footwear is whimsically integrated into images that reveal implicit domesticity (in the act of embroidered sewing) and objectification (in the collage of oriental paraphernalia). Initially juxtaposed against sumptuous, tropical images of bird of paradise flowers at the botanical garden, the footwear is then placed in the context of photographs and illustrative sketches from a scientific journal depicting the process of oriental foot binding to illustrate the implicit violence and inhumanity intrinsic in this cultivated ideal of exotic artificiality.

Moreover, innate in Thornton’s investigation is the insidious nature of images, deployed equally as tools of information as they are of misinformation, illustration and deception, illumination and ignorance. In presenting the contradictions intrinsic in the perception of images, Adynata diverges from the immediate theme of orientalism and alterity towards a broader examination on the nature of human imagination, where the very process itself becomes an engaged, interpretive act of complicity towards the perpetuation of the perception of otherness. It is this multiplicity of meaning that is inevitably captured in the superimposed image of a two-headed earthenware jug that is set against the formal portrait of the Asian couple that concludes the film – an illustration, not only of the ephemeral irreconcilability of images, but also of the unresolved layers of significance that exist beneath the implicated act of seeing.

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