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Rest in power Barbara Hammer, a lesbian feminist filmmaking icon

An artist until her dying breath, the pioneering visual artist has passed away age 79, leaving behind a legacy of queer love, joy, and pain onscreen

Barbara Hammer brought lesbian life, love, joy, and pain to screens in the 20th and 21st century with a uniquely queer gaze, a 50-year legacy of avant-garde filmmaking that broke new ground. Today, it has been reported that the iconic visual artist and activist has passed away at the age of 79, succumbing to the ovarian cancer she was first diagnosed with 13 years ago.

Hammer was the first artist to have won mainstream recognition for an oeuvre that’s by, for, and about lesbians. The recognition of her work only continues, with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences restoring 80 of her works for wider audiences. There’s also an exciting exhibition of her work on the female form, in multi-channel, multi-screen video for the first time, happening in the Wexner Centre, Ohio this June. Across the years, there’s been a stretch of retrospectives at the Tate Modern, Paris’ Jeu de Paume and MoMA which reflect on her vital voice and career. 

“It has been the goal of my life to put a lesbian lifestyle on the screen. Why? Because when I started I couldn’t find any!” Hammer wrote in a statement after the formation of Yale’s Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant. “Working as a lesbian filmmaker in the ’70s wasn’t easy in the social structure…and I want this grant to make it easier for lesbians of today.” Hammer was passionate about helping the next generation of underrepresented filmmakers, with the grant and acting as a mentor.

Born May 15 1939 in Hollywood, California, Barbara Jean Hammer got her degree in psychology at the University of California, and later earned two masters degrees in English literature and film from San Francisco State University. She spent the last years in a West Village apartment that she shared with her wife, human rights activist Florrie Burke.

After coming out as a lesbian and joining a feminist group, Hammer left her marriage, riding off on a motorcycle with a trusty Super-8 camera. She then went on to produce her short film Dyketactics (1974), which was her major breakthrough moment, revered by the avant-garde film movement for its dynamic use of over 100 shots superimposed on each other across four minutes. Showcasing a community of naked women, body’s sensually intertwining, it was a revolutionary moment for the queer perspective. Prior to this, films about the queer experience were predominantly produced by men – Dyketactics is a stunning exploration of the lesbian reality, from a vital lesbian voice that refused the male gaze.

“I have never separated my sexuality from my art, even if the film has nothing to do with lesbian representation,” Hammer said in an interview with ARTNEWS last year.

Her work spans across over 80 impressive features, short films, and art pieces – inspired by structuralism, Hammer’s films reflect a relationship between women’s bodies and the environment in what was a new and exciting form, and giving the audience a chance to participate in innovative ways. Hammer’s first work, Schizy (1968), explores gender play before it was even articulated in mainstream discourse. Her 1976 film Multiple Orgasm cuts from a close-up of a vagina being fingered to a rocky landscape, reflecting bodily ecstasy in the world around her, while Women I Love uses floral blooms at their most sexual and sensual. The Pond and Waterfall installation of 1982 lets the spectators use stethoscopes to listen to their hearts as the film plays, providing their own personal soundtrack. 8 in 8 (1994) is a captivating eight-channel installation bringing together interviews with female cancer survivors who talk with brutal honesty, with Hammer’s straightforward, captivating approach. The multi-project Evidentiary Bodies is an expansive collection of her multi-faceted work confronting morality, her use of colour, sound, and texture so bold. As her work developed in the 90s, Hammer spearheaded the ‘essay film’ format to capture queer historical figures like Alice Austen and Willa Cather, to push back against the erasure of their work and lives. She was forever testing herself with tenacious energy; 2003’s Resisting Paradise asks how one can be an artist in during war, and then in 2007, she made a documentary about women divers from South Korea, the Diving Women of Jeju-do.

Ultimately, Hammer relentlessly captured both the repression and celebration of marginalised LGBTQ people, from the First World War and beyond in the powerful Nitrate Kisses (1992), her political visual and aural exploration of Aids stigma in Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986), her intense autobiographical Tender Fictions (1996), and the x-ray repurposing Sanctus (1990), which examines the fragility of the human experience. Taboos on the female orgasm and menstruation were obliterated in the likes of Menses (1974), See What You Hear What You See (1980), and Save Sex (1993), with a uniquely wry sense of humour and tender heart.

“Our vulnerability to one another and to ourselves is our strength,” Hammer said in April last year. Hammer never stopped asking challenging questions even in the last few years of her life, rigorously interrogating what it means to be an artist, or how queer narratives can be bolstered and told by queer people. She worked fearlessly to lessen the arc between her private and public self, always remaining open about her sexuality and ideas of the body, as well as her then-approaching death both with an artist’s perspective and as a right-to-die advocate. Just in October past, Hammer performed The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety) at New York’s Whitney Museum, a reflective, staggering summation of the art she made while battling cancer, as well as her hope to “die a dignified death”. That fearlessness in confronting these painful subjects, suppressed histories, and themes the mainstream is hesitant to discuss is illustrated across her pioneering work – our mortality, sexuality, the body and all its pleasures and realities, aging, and death. 

“I’ve never understood why experiences need be separated into categories. And, so, I don’t,” she told Vanity Fair in a recent interview, aware of her approaching death. “Making pie is as natural as making love and one could argue equally important though I don’t know I’d go that far. In a way I’m lucky that there is so much forbidden unexplored life areas that it is rich fodder for an artist intent on shining light on the hidden.

“If I don’t share what’s deeply personal then I don’t learn the deeply personal of others, and we live in these strange contiguous landscapes bent on surface reflection only. How do we move without engagement with others?”

Barbara Hammer reflects the need for creatives to remain curious and challenging, to radically question the unquestionable, and blast through oppressive structures to tell the joyful, painful, affirming stories of the concealed – women, the ill and disabled, queer people, those crushed by political systems. An artist and advocate until her dying breath, the world has lost a force of nature.