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Article » Composure. A Story of Metamorphosis

Camilla Wills

Birmingham New Street signal box

The train is travelling forwards, but I am travelling backwards, looking forwards at the trees and buildings that move across the screen of the window from right to left. We pass Birmingham New Street signal box and the flat black canals that run round there and Wolverhampton. The architecture is clean, that is the meaning is clear, its function – but some of the buildings exceed this function that justifies their form, some buildings have their own preferences and cycles, an irrational residue that isn’t entirely a human energy. Similarly, it feels similar, the MRI scan came back clean, but she remains numb down the right-hand side, has a constant buzzing in the fingertips and feet, vertigo and estrangement. Here I think ‘she’ stands in for every impenetrable thought that can not be proven. There are single-storey warehouses with metallic air vents, self-storage facilities, lattices of grey tubes, guttering, and small red brick bridges for pedestrians. All this surrounded by still water. The roads are wide and wet and alien. I’m going back for Christmas, an announcement is made by the East Coast train service, We are experiencing Local Flooding: the advice is not to travel. The situation is thickened by the weather as well as the pull of personal attachments from different times and places.

MRI scan

One evening I experienced two moments of recognition, or impressions of existence. I’m standing very still by the bathroom door waiting and staring, because a rat has got into the plastic pipe at the back of the toilet. We have heard the sound of scratching for a week now, this intensifies at night. Waiting for the animal to confirm its existence before I call the council to arrange for poison, I quite suddenly access or connect with its brain. It is liquid. A sludge of enzymes. I am in there and we commingle. If I shift my position at the doorway there is an impressive …rush, the rat has no way to resist, stiffens and is frozen still. This creature senses matter but no content. Memory is evolved to anticipate the future, not to remember the past. Living in a pipe like this on instinct there is little or no backwards current.

Later on I am lying horizontal, I imagine I am bed-bound and have lost physical independence and mobility, and how that would affect every external relationship, I don’t know who I would ask for help. I am sure both of these moments are connected to the house I live in, the configuration of doorway, pipe, bed, kitchen.

‘So you will understand that I loved to escape to the little park whenever I could, even though it was a clear violation of the rules of my job. In that public square I always found buttercups, a fresh breath of spring, and I chewed them slowly, and secretly… At times I felt as though I understood everything the birds said. There were cats, too, and dogs; the dogs always barked when they saw me, while the cats gave me funny looks. I had the impression that everyone knew I ate flowers. When summer arrived I no longer found as many flowers and fell back on plain grass; in autumn I discovered horse chestnuts. They had a nice flavour, chestnuts. I didn’t bother trying to hide anymore.’ (Marie Darrieussecq Pig Tales)

In a relapsing and remitting process of metamorphosis, the narrator slips out and takes on the appearance and qualities of a pig, although the symptoms initially sound hormonal, an increased appetite for food and sex, flushed skin, and a sore back when standing upright. You can change through your appreciation for something, through lust or passion, or to make it less easy your constitution is likely to mutate when you lose control. The narrator says she needs to write her story urgently because she can no longer use her hands, she was made unemployed because she could not hold the perfume bottles in the cosmetics boutique where she worked. Disabled or transformed characters blur the lines between divisions, making nonsense of boundaries even as they are demonized by them.

It seems like more and more kinds of behaviour are now filed as disorders. According to Ian Hacking The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the internationally accepted medical guide) classifies cognitive dysfunctions on the botanical model of genera, species and subspecies, but actually dysfunction does not fit neatly into tidy blocks the way plants and animals do. ‘Everyone in North America who hope their health insurance will cover or at least defray the cost of treatment for their mental illness must first receive a diagnosis that fits the scheme and bears a numerical code.’

This week it was reported in The Independent that a woman in her early 30s was attacked by a gang of feral cats whilst walking her poodle in the north-eastern Franche-Comté region of France, they dragged her to the ground, bit her and pierced an artery. In the report the woman’s mother and a local policeman both make a statement, but the woman doesn’t speak which makes this feel like a vague fate. In what way can you prove a crime has happened when you’re thinking like an animal. Scratching is something desperate. On her blog Kate Zambreno describes writing as scratching, and she uses Michael Leiris’ title for the first book of his four-volume autobiography, SCRATCHES, as the title-at-large she has kind of attached to all her writing so far.

Two Crudes

Impressions are caught quickly and linked up. A list of titles can work that way: Bruise Cabaret, hospital opera (rejected), Crudité dish, Fatale Fatality, Cabaret Brutalité, CRUDES, Scabs of experience, Irrational Residue, the Physical Symptoms, Deep Backgrounds, more messages! brain on a plate, the butcher, taste is violence, she makes mash potato of her, Standards sustained at home, I seem to have lost my sovereignty in this situation.

We carry around bits of information, the parts that have made an impression, like indentations or bruises, or scabs. Richard Howard has described Emily Dickinson’s poems as scabs of experience, ‘How they press in upon us!’ We pick up things that are our taste, taste and choice are types of violence too. In rented properties in London the new tenant makes an inventory with a person from a company external to the landlord and letting agent. You are introduced to the house by moving through the rooms documenting any scratches, stains, damp patches, home improvements, damage to the walls and floors; this builds a brutal affirmation or index of the habits of previous inhabitants. Bits can make patterns too, it’s a forensic experience.



A bruise is rich and incongruous, the mark is as certain as it is incomprehensible. Being the site of impact, a bruise is on the brink of a revelation like a keyhole or a fingerprint, it can be used to trace a line through history. A mark caused by the confusion of sleepwalking or by looking for an object in the dark. If you hold onto something tight enough until it hurts, you can embed that thing into your self, you will take on an imprint of that encounter. I think that is how Simone Weil described her conversion to Christianity, and her desire to demolish the self or extinguish the ‘I’ through her attention to an externalized faith. When we were commingling I tried to hold onto that moment with the rat, as soon as I made that decision I slipped away from it, animals don’t really bruise.

It is not damaging to make your stories public. I took an image of the top of my leg with my laptop Photo Booth application, to see how I had bruised after I had fallen over. I liked the pose I had to hold in order to take the picture with the laptop camera, it’s quite twisted and classical, hysteric, flirtatious and frozen, cabaret. To take the picture I had to turn my thigh and face to the screen at the same time, it felt unauthorised. A baroque or mannerist depiction of the saint Sebastian follows for simple formal and intuitive reasons. It seemed to offer a solution (to some of these notes) through embodiment. It is an image of undoing by violence, but significantly the face is divorced from the mutilation of the body. Sebastian holds a defiant pose while arrows make holes in the smoothness of his skin. He maintains composure, he takes ownership of his face and the pose of his body is conscious and resistant, he was taken on as the patron saint of Europe’s black death plague in 1348 and is an early gay icon.

His image reminds me of a friend’s description of a film scene, this is what she said: The shot is of Cologne cathedral spire, in black and white, the spire is trembling and naked, a fetish. The scene is cut in with a quick succession of close-ups of people holding cameras or crude electronic devices to their faces. The tower is an attraction, a tourist attraction photographed so regularly but never truly revealed. More faces and cameras. Again a shot of the naked and trembling building. The voiceover is the slurring of an emphatic drunkard ‘I know you, I’ve seen you somewhere before, yeah I definitely recognise your face… I know you, we’ve met before…’

‘She pursed her lips when she looked in the glass. It was to give her face point. That was her self – pointed; dartlike; definite. That was her self with some effort, some call on her to be her self; she drew the parts together.’ (Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway)


Camilla Wills

Camilla Wills (b.1985) lives and works in London. Recent exhibitions include Perra Perdida (with Allison Katz), Lulu, Mexico City; Bard Girls Can Fly, White Flag Projects, Missouri; Cabaret Brutalité, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Sunbathers, 1857, Oslo and Notes on Neo-Camp, Studio Voltaire, London. In 2011 she completed the Masters programme at Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam and she currently works at Book Works, London.

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