Barbara Hammer, the pioneering experimental filmmaker whose vision of life and love came from a distinctly lesbian point of view, has died. She was 79.
The cause of death was ovarian cancer, with which Hammer was diagnosed in 2006. In her final years, Hammer was an outspoken advocate for people’s right to die, an option she hoped for after having exhausted all forms of treatment for her disease. Last October, Hammer performed The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety) at the Whitney Museum in New York, in which she detailed her journey of art-making in times of joy and pain and her desire to die “a dignified death.” Having performed three versions of the piece previously, Hammer considered that to be the final iteration.
“There is a general fear of talking about death in the Western world,” Hammer said at the beginning of the lecture. “It is, as if by not mentioning and discussing it, it would go away. We do ourselves a disservice to not engage in ruminations of this most powerful life force, for aren’t we alive until our last breath? And isn’t this a rite of passage we wish to address?” As in much of the work she had produced in a career covering more than five decades, Hammer addressed that which might seem unaddressable, to bring subject matter often subjugated to the fore.
Hammer’s breakthrough work was Dyketactics (1974), an experimental film that features more than 100 shots in just over four minutes, with images superimposed on top of one another. She arrived upon her distinct style after she was bored by the raw footage she had produced, later saying that she had fallen asleep in the editing room. Produced shortly after she came out as a lesbian and left her marriage—famously by riding away on a motorcycle with a Super-8 camera—Dyketactics depicts a group of nude women in an Edenic forest, their bodies intertwined in the midst of forming a community. Hammer often described the work as a depiction of lesbian sex from a lesbian point-of-view and positioned it as filmmaking about women devoid of the ever-present male gaze.
Dyketactics was the first of Hammer’s many artistic explorations of the lived realities of lesbians from a queer and female perspective, and it was received as revolutionary. Made at a time when queer experimental filmmaking was still dominated by white men, the work and Hammer’s subsequent films opened up new possibilities for lesbian artists of all kinds.
In an unpublished interview with ARTnews in 2018, Hammer said, “I have never separated my sexuality from my art, even if the film has nothing to do with lesbian representation.”
This post will be updated.