Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker: Madame B. Explorations in Emotional Capitalism

Ars Nova

A New Take on the Iconic Novel

The first floor of Ars Nova will be filled with the multi-part video installation Madame B. Explorations in Emotional Capitalism, created by Mieke Bal, from the Netherlands, and Michelle Williams Gamaker, from the UK. The work, comprised of eight acts, offers a new interpretation of the classic novel Madame Bovary (1857) by French author Gustave Flaubert.

Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker, Madame B. Explorations in Emotional Capitalism. Photo:  Helinä Hukkataival.

The story, set in contemporary times, examines the temptations of romantic love and consumerist culture. The protagonist of both the original novel and this new installation, Emma, is bored and unsatisfied with her marriage. She craves luxury, passion and freedom and strives for these through romantic affairs and material purchases. Emma is ultimately brought to desperate means. She is trapped in her own fantasies and falls out of touch with reality.

The Price of Happiness

The artists consider Flaubert’s novel to be culturally topical and use the video installation to examine contemporary culture. Emma’s frantic actions are juxtaposed with the modern culture of consumption and its desire for sensational experiences, emotions and excitement that is impossible to achieve.

Besides the craving for romance, the artists also explore “emotional capitalism”, a concept created by Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz. This denotes a culture where transaction, trade and capital are involved in emotional experiences as well as commerce. Emotional capitalism frames emotion and economy within the same functional logic.

An International Production

The artists see Emma’s crisis as a contemporary and global one, which led to the work including dialogue in several languages: Finnish, French, English and Swedish. The lead roles are played by Finnish Marja Skaffari (Emma) as well as the French Thomas Germaine (Charles, Rodolphe and Léon) and Mathieu Montanier (Homais). The work was filmed in Åland and Paris in 2012 and 2013 with a large number of volunteers. The installation was finished in 2014.

The eight acts of the installation loosely follow the events of the novel. The videos can be watched in any order and for any length of time. The combined length of the installation is around two hours. The videos are presented in large projections as well as smaller screens. Some acts include multiple simultaneously presented videos. These blend together memories, dreams and reality. The fragmentary work invites alternative ways to see and conceptualize Emma’s story.

Viewers who have read the novel “Madame Bovary” will find several familiar events and lines in the videos. Reading the novel is still not required for understanding Emma B’s desperation and the artists’ vision. Anyone can take the plunge into Emma’s world.

Subtitles are offered in Finnish and English. The installation also includes a number of photos as well as costumes that were used during filming.

Madame B has previously been presented in Columbia, Australia and Poland, among others, as well as its latest presentation in Oslo’s Munch Museum (January 28 to April 17, 2017). In 2014 the work was presented at the Eckerö Mail and Customs House in Åland. Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova is the only venue to present the work in mainland Finland. Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker have also made a feature film of Madame B (2014).

Mieke Bal (1946) is a cultural theorist, critic and video artist from the Netherlands. Michelle Williams Gamaker (1979) is an English artist that works in both video and performance. The artists began their collaboration in the early 2000’s with experimental documentaries. In 2011 they displayed a video installation in 21 parts, Landscapes of Madness, in Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova. The filming, scripting, directing, editing and design of every one of their installations and films is done in close collaboration between the two artists.

The French author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) is one of the most prominent members of the realist movement. He is known for his honed and precise prose as well as his critique of bourgeois values. Flaubert’s first novel, Madame Bovary (1857), caused much public outrage. The novel tells of a woman who is bored of her life in the country and her mediocre husband, which drives her to seek love outside her marriage with tragic consequences. Flaubert’s depiction of female sexuality and adultery was even prosecuted in court for perceived indecency. Today the novel is regarded as a classic of modern realism.


Taiteilijat Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker näyttelyssään Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova -museossa. Kuva: Jari Nieminen.
Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker, Madame B. Emotionaalisen kapitalismin tutkimuksia. Kuva: Helinä Hukkataival.
Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker, Madame B. Emotionaalisen kapitalismin tutkimuksia. Kuva: Helinä Hukkataival.
Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker, Madame B. Emotionaalisen kapitalismin tutkimuksia. Kuva: Thijs Vissia.
Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker, Madame B. Emotionaalisen kapitalismin tutkimuksia. Kuva: Thijs Vissia.