THE UNKNOWN HEROINE is a 64-page limited edition artists’ book made by conceptual artist Sherry Wiggins in collaboration with photographer Luís Filipe Branco and curator and writer Cydney Payton. The book is comprised of text and images that are based on Wiggins’ interaction with French photographer and writer Claude Cahun’s essay “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess.” The book includes this essay by Claude Cahun as well as an essay by Cydney Payton. You can download Payton’s essay below. The book was designed by Joseph Logan.
PROLOGUE FOR C.C. – Sherry Wiggins
I am writing to you, C.C., about what happened in The House.
The House, named Grunfoort after a castle that disappeared long ago, was strange at first. It was beautiful, old-fashioned. White tulips grew in the garden. Aren’t they a symbol of loss? I saw them for their other meaning—regeneration.
Persephone called to me. Or was it Demeter? Daughter or mother? This always confuses me.
I brought your Heroines* with me. The stories (allegories, parables) are so good, so complicated, filled with references to history, to the Bible, to literature, mythology, fairytales, and they are so wickedly feminist and modern: EVE THE TOO CREDULOUS, Penelope the Irresolute, HELEN THE REBEL, SAPPHO THE MISUNDERSTOOD, SALOME THE SKEPTIC, BEAUTY (OR THE TASTE FOR THE BEAST), THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess, THE ANDROGYNE and the rest. I want to make all of your Heroines my own.
As I delved into the tale of “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess,” allusion by allusion, I understood that, though the story is yours, this is really my story. And though you tell the story well, I have lived this story. I also realized that The House was the perfect setting for the tale, a perfect abode for both THE WIFE and the the Princess.
That’s how it all began—the embodiment, this practice, this theatre—with me enacting the story—your version, my version, our version, in The House.
I took my role as THE ESSENTIAL WIFE quite seriously, and the the Unknown Princess emerged as well. I dressed in black. I pulled my hair back severely. Lots of makeup—Chanel and more. Was it a parody, a performance or truth? The truth, is an older woman looks better with makeup, not too much.
I am no actress. I have become a performance artist. Who knew? Maybe you knew, C.C.; you did all that theatre in Paris in the twenties. I love those images of you as The Devil, The Buddha, The Dandy, The Maiden. Identity is a fluid subject, but you already know that.
Day after day I performed quite well—almost not a performance— as THE ESSENTIAL (House) WIFE. What drudgery! What fun! Well, the the Unknown Princess certainly appeared too. It was all somewhat exhausting: the cooking, the cleaning, the play acting. I needed lots of cigarettes in the garden.
That last morning, while putting on makeup, eyeliner, red lipstick in the upstairs bathroom, standing there in my tights and Spanish socks, I thought, Why not? I went to the banister and posed. What do you think, C.C? Am I THE ANDROGYNE?
Still performing, I put on my robe and went into The Study, the most beautiful room in The House. The windows, the light . . .
What do you think, C.C.? What is a Masterpiece anyway? Masterpiece or not—who decides?
* Claude Cahun, “Heroines,” translated Norman MacAfee, in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, ed. Shelley Rice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), 43 – 94.
You can download the pdf of Cydney Payton’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” below:
All 19 performative photographs in the book were made in collaboration with Luís Filipe Branco. All 19 images are also available as limited edition archival digital prints.
All photographs of the book were made by Robert Kittila.
Please contact me if you would like to receive a copy of the book.