Category Archives: Art History

Review of Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery By Lily Magenis

 

Hannah Höch was the only female member of the Berlin Dada movement, and a pioneer in photomontage, a medium and method she used to satirize Weimar politics and subversively comment on society, gender, and race. Her first major exhibition in the UK is currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery from January 15 – March 23, 2014.

The Hannah Höch exhibition brings together a collection over 120 pieces of work, and spans the length of her career, from the 1910s -1970s. Höch’s varying series of photomontage are presented in a chronological time line, beginning with her early work, which was heavily influenced by her career in fashion magazines. Höch critiques the way in which women are represented in the media, by ripping their images out and pulling them away from the objectified environment of a magazine page. She re-applies an image of the ‘new woman’ into a formation and structure that addresses how we perceive beauty.

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Höch’s Ethnographic Museum series questions the construction of gender and the notion of beauty, for she pairs Ethnographic masks with images of the female body. Höch’s collage “Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From the Collection: from an Ethnographic Museum)” (1929), combines the body of a baby with a traditional mask and gives the figure an eye of a modern woman. Höch wants us to relate to the body in a different way, as this figure does not adhere to the idealized vision of beauty, but questions different standards of beauty. The new woman she creates here does not correlate to that of the typical woman of ‘typical’ beauty, she is a woman with a modern eye.

Höch’s art is personal, and we are greeted with a playful exploration of re-imaging. She cuts and pastes, taking familiar images and reconstructing them. Women in Höch’s collages are beautiful, feminine, and playful, but not as sexualized objects. Instead, women are depicted in a way that challenge preconceived notions of femininity. This is the new woman.

The upstairs gallery showcases a collection of Höch’s scrapbooks while the rest of the exhibition is dedicated to her experiments in abstraction and ‘Fantastic Art’ where we see her transition into color and an adjustment to her portrayal of the new woman.

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Given the extent to which the female body is included in her work, it is evident that Höch is conscious of sex and her bisexuality. However, sexuality is a factor that presents itself in her work scarcely. I was struck by the collage of a peachy pink bottom resting on a beach in “Der Schöne Po (The Beautiful Bottom)” (1959). For this was the only overtly sexual image in the exhibition. It’s bright turquoise hues and sparkling semblance stand out in comparison to her earlier collages – it has an exaggerated, girly character which I regard as a shift in the image of the new woman.

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By pulling apart and reshaping figures, most commonly female, Höch seems to be challenging the treatment of gender in 20th Century Germany. Traditionally the female figure in the artistic canon exemplifies an object of beauty. Höch contests this notion with, “Um einen roten Mund (Around a Red Mouth)” (1967). Here, a set of red lips rest on a mountain of pink petticoats. The inclusion of petticoats, which were worn by women for centuries, draws reference to a traditional and often required uniform for women. However, Höch tears at the petticoats and layers the pink horizontal frays one on top of the other, creating an abstract image of a vagina. The violence implicit in the medium Höch used here literally reshapes an image of the very core of a woman’s femininity.

Höch’s work is ambiguous, but this allows for a sort of fluid and ‘fantastic’ reading. The medium she uses is surrealistic – the multifaceted layers of cut and pasted images relax the boundaries of interpretation, and therefore we can read them in myriad ways. Her work is both political and poetic. The way she chops and splices images is political, and often comments on gender, but the finished product is beautiful and dream like.

My first impression was that Höch’s work is confused, that she struggled between different images of the new woman, as she too identified with struggles alike, (e.g. confusion with her bisexuality and being the only woman in Dada) “Two Faced” (1928), illustrates such confusion; a collage of a woman with two faces, drawn in different directions. However, this exhibition takes us on a journey of the new woman from the stiff magazine women in pearls to the effervescent pert behind. And this is exactly the point. Höch works with the notion of the fragmented self. The new woman is duplicitous and you can read her in multiple ways. Höch wants us to have our own personal and objective understanding of the ‘new woman’, as there isn’t one way to perceive her.

Höch’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is a humorous critique of gender and beauty. Her work is crude, but not offensive. It is light hearted, but makes a point. It’s sexual but not sexualized. Hannah Höch cuts the perfect balance and creates a new image of the new woman.

 

 

Hannah Höch is on view through March 23, 2014.

For more information visit Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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Ana Mendieta’s Traces: A feminist icon? By Ruth-Eloise Lewis

“The nature of her work was transitory; it either took place in time, or was destined to be reclaimed by the earth.”

“All that is solid melts into air.”

It’s been a week since Ana Mendieta’s first ever UK retrospective closed at the Haywood Gallery in London and I’ve spent every day of that week attempting to pin down my argument, to articulate the experience of the exhibition into a firm and reflective line of thought. But that seems precisely the point. Mendieta appears impossible to translate into words, a transitory trace in which memory and solidity are fragile.

Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba and sent to the US when she was 12 in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. During the late sixties, she studied painting at the University of Iowa and developed strong and forceful performance pieces that utilized her own body. The full range of her practice- which incorporated performance, film and sculpture- has often been overshadowed by the tumultuous tale of her unsettling death in which she fell from the 34th floor of an apartment she shared with her husband, the minimalist artist Carl Andre.

Fortunately, the Haywood didn’t become entrenched in the dialogue of personal drama but focused instead on the life, power and themes of the art she produced. Moving through the exhibition, which was curated chronologically, felt like moving through a process of absorption with the artist in which her body blended increasingly with elemental materials of blood, fire, earth and water. And as her physical body seemingly faded, a sense of the transformative force of nature arose. Therefore, a focus on key three stages (body, outline and elements) can help to emphasize the culmination of an incredibly unique artistic perspective in relation to corporeality and its connection to the earth.

Stage One: The Body

Mendieta is often venerated as a feminist icon and bearing in mind the first three rooms of the exhibition, it is easy to understand why. The initiation into the visceral hits the viewer as they enter the space. Mendieta’s body appears in full view, squished up and distorted against panels of glass, altered and masqueraded under wigs and heavy make-up and covered in facial hair. These works explore concepts of corporeality, the politics of hair and the social and cultural implications of gender performativity. Projected video works Source (1973) and Sweating Blood (1973) focus closely on singular body parts, milk being pumped out of a breast uncomfortably and ox blood dribbling from Mendieta’s forehead and fixed gaze. Viewed in conjunction with other famous feminist works of the 1970s, for example Abramovic’s Rhythm series or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, this exploration of the fluidity and form of the female body is deeply symbolic. The repetitive use of blood in the second room of the exhibition ties in closely with 1970s French theorists such as Kristeva exploring the concept of abjection and the subversion of the boundaries of the acceptable and presentable female body.  A clear commentary on violence against women can be seen in Untitled (Rape Scene, 1973) that focuses around the real-life rape and murder of a young student nurse. Mendieta re-created the scene, placing her bloodied and naked body over a table and inviting guests to her apartment to be shockingly confronted with the enactment. However, even in Body Tracks (1974) in which the artist dipped her arms in blood and dragged them down a wall in a ritualistic gesture, the movement and energy of Mendieta is still at the forefront. Mendieta’s blood works were also inspired by Afro-Cuban spiritual Santeria practices, installing them with a powerful aspect which she viewed as “a very magical thing.” Blood, for Mendieta, could be seen as a positive force in healing, sacrifice, initiation or exorcism. So, whilst she can be closely correlated to personal-is-political abject ideals, the pattern and rhythm of her body tracks connote the force of her presence and the organic energy of life.

Nonetheless, the artist is, very overtly, present.

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Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) 1972 

Stage Two: The Outline

The second stage of Mendieta’s work approaches the dynamic of the female body in relation to the landscape. She created her first ‘earth-body’ sculptures, named Siluetas, up until 1981. In these works, outlines of her body are marked into the earth with leaves, mud, ash and hair. She frames these contours with fire, flowers, fruit and candles. Mendieta recorded these performances through photography, carving the etchings into the soil and leaving them to the will of nature. The collective repetition of her silhouette against various backdrops evokes notions of space and belonging. As Mendieta was forced out of her homeland, she appears to be seeking a home in the earth. There are instances where the outline rises like a mound of the soil, grave-like, decorated with patterns or vertically planted sticks. Puddles of wet clay-like earth create a fluid boundary around the mounds, emphasizing the transitory nature of the piece. Soon the water will evaporate and the soil will shift away, just as the body of the artist has fallen slowly away before our eyes. We no longer see Mendieta’s body parts, displayed defiantly and forthrightly, and in fact we are denied them. We have an impression, we know, that Mendieta was once physically there yet the fragile impermanence of the silhouettes appear like a surrender to a more powerful force.

The artist is, becoming, absorbed.

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Silutetas, 1977

Stage Three: The Elements

We all want to leave a trace, to alter the minds and landscapes of those we love. Mendieta’s Siluetta’s engaged with her corporeality yet disengaged from it by focusing on more organic materials and elements. But what does the landscape mean to us today? We are taught in the Western world to believe that the individual is powerful; we build cities in the sky from concrete and put our own egos at the core of our being. We are aware that our bodies are flimsy and fleeting in comparison to the forceful stability of mountains, volcanoes or forests yet how we are, truly, linked to it to the landscape that surrounds us?

In the final shift of the exhibition, we are presented with the late work of Mendieta of the 1980s in which she changed direction and began to create sculptures of wood and precise drawings incised on leaves; concentrating solely on the elements. Also included in this section is paintings and sketches of simplified female forms inspired by cave paintings such as the Venus of Willendorf. This final shift seems to disintegrate the concept of the individual entirely replacing it with material, the elements of wood and leaves, repetition and pattern. In the narrative of art history, therefore, this sentiment is potent as the cult of the unique genius artist is so inherent at its core. We all know the big players of art history and venerate their names like gods, those (mainly masculine) icons who supposedly pushed forward a singular linear progressive vision of art. Mendieta’s absorption opens up a space beyond this narrow definition leaving it free for the collective and the previously marginalised, beyond the ultimate ego-driven goal of modern status. As both a female artist and an ethnic minority, Mendieta is speaking from the borders. Yet, whilst this dialogue could be interpreted in feminist terms, her ultimate goal feels more humanist, linked to the fragility of all women, men and living beings against the power of our planet. Nevertheless, Mendieta appears impossible to translate into words, a transitory trace in which memory and solidity are fragile.

Ana Mendieta at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 22/9/2013.

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(Re)staging in performance work- Marina Abramovic, Gina Pane and Valie Export by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The issue of re-staging artworks critically examines how the construction of modernism, as an ideological system of power and sexual division, can be reexamined, readjusted and reinterpreted. The re-enacting of performances actively engages with the politics of representation and the potential for a more flexible framework of theoretical interpretation, “at its best, the return to the live via complex modes of re-enactment, re-staging, reiteration, might be seen to be sparked by (and eliciting of) openness and hope, by way of presenting new possibilities of intervention and by activating fresh ways of thinking, making, being in the world.”[1] Furthermore, re-enactment locates itself back to the social, cultural and political viewpoint of its origins- creating a clear correlation with the theorizations of that period. Above all, a process of including and reworking past styles is imperative to women artists due to the concept of what Catherine de Zegher calls an ‘elliptical traverse.’ This active structure radically critiques the institutional structure of classification, exploring ommitances and fissures in the dominant history of modernism and delving into an “artistic experience that is folded into visibility, as into dough.”[2]

Griselda Pollock argues that there is an intrinsic ideology bound up with the system of representation, a structure of sexism that actively perpetuates a gender hierarchy that overtly excludes women. Pollock states, “Women have not been omitted through forgetfulness or mere prejudice […] what we can learn about the world and its peoples is ideologically patterned in conformity with the social order within which it is produced.”[3] The concept of the representational figure of Artist was signified as male, heterosexual and white, located in the formative and actively creative site of the studio. This notion of individual genius was unleashed against a depiction of twentieth-century art practices based on a structure of innovation and progression, defined by modernist critics such as Clement Greenburg and epitomized in Alfred Barr’s infamous formalist diagram of styles and movements:

It also refers to a representation of twentieth-century art practices which select some as significant (advancing, avant-garde), while marginalizing others as residual, reactionary or historically irrelevant. Modernist criticism and art history have become the shaping and ‘selective’ tradition of and for twentieth century culture in the west.[4]

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, this dominant paradigm of modernism in artistic practice began to be deconstructed on many levels. An analysis of the politics of representation emerged alongside social upheavals such as youth movements, national independence movements, anti-war activism and black consciousness movements. Pollock further states that the emancipatory effect of the Women’s Liberation Movement and feminist practices had an enormous impact on the visual arts.[5] In addition, Laura Cottingham adds that fundamental issues concerning abortion, birth control prohibitions, discrimination against women and sexism were contested during the unfolding of second wave feminism as a mass political movement.[6] The position of the female body in patriarchal structures was relegated as subordinate, yet, women artists were beginning to be encouraged to reclaim their own image and to seek new modes of artistic representation, “feminist consciousness allowed women artists to see how completely the representational circulation of the female body before 1970 had existed on the level of spectacle, metaphor, fetish, object, property, vessel, caricature, and symbol.”[7] The female body, previously represented as nude and passive, part of the material of the canvas through the active and expressive brushstrokes of many male masters of modernism,[8] was reclaimed and asserted as a direct mode of expression, “many of the artistic processes that have incorporated the artist’s body are really about transcending it, getting outside of the corporal limitations of the human frame, challenging the ideological frames that regulate the movement of bodies in space.”[9]   Although there were male artists such as Paul McCarthy and Richard Long using their bodies in their work during this period, the female body had an additional layer of meaning through its status as muse and model, as “hundreds of years of art history attended to the depiction, idealization and fetishization of the female form.”[10]

Performance art emerged as an alternative medium, a celebration of previously taboo subjects such as sexual desire and the boundaries of the female body with often emotional or intimate material. [11] Body-orientated practices were often seen as a liberating tool, which could powerfully commentate on gender and sexuality, “it is more open, without an overwhelming history, without prescribed materials, or matters of content.”[12] It could be argued that artists incorporating the body as “a shifting and unstable site”[13] anticipated Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity as a role that is performed, rather than biologically determined. [14]It is important to highlight that these theorizations were not yet developed in this period; yet, as we elliptically traverse back with a retrospective glance at these emerging forms, our contemporary critical awareness could both enrich past performances and emphasize their subversive and deconstructive nature.

The Belgrade-born artist Marina Abramovic is widely known for her series of performances in the 1970s in which she purposely subjected herself to physical pain. Abramovic, the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”[15] has also become a key figure in the politics of re-staging performance work, re-enacting both her own works and works by other artists. In 2005 Marina Abramovic re-enacted six major 1970s performance art works at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.  Through this exhibition Abramovic aimed to expose a model for re-performance that both respected the past and opened up possibilities for reinterpretation. Abramovic’s conviction contested Peggy Phelan’s argument performance is non-reproductive:

Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance.[16]

Contrarily, Abramovic argued for performance’s ability to endure and to inspire new audiences by redoing and preserving work. Kaja Silverman states that the key is not to keep the past unchanged but “to transform and not to reproduce.” [17] Abramovic introduced the concept of a performance ‘score’, that is to say, a certain set of guidelines that re-performances must follow: to ask the artist for permission, pay the artist for copyright, perform a new interpretation and display the original documentary material such as photographs or videos. [18]The undertaking must be approached with thorough research and understanding, [19] yet this open structure works on non-hierarchal and open level. A concentration on two of these re-performances by female artistic practioners, Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969) and Gina Pane’s The Conditioning (1973), engages with the politics of representation contested during their creation.

Abramovic’s re-performance of Gina Pane’s The Conditioning took place on the fourth night of the Seven Easy Pieces event.  Abramovic, like Pane, lay fully clothed on an iron bed-like structure heated by the fire of fifteen tall candles. There is an interval of approximately 10cm between the fire and the bed, the tips of the flames nearly reaching her body. Abramovic extended the original to seven hours, yet, after the first thirty minutes of Pane’s performance her only activity was slowly wringing her hands, “needless to say, the pain started right away and was very difficult to dominate.”[20] Pane presented her body as artistic material in this performance, “I feel I succeeded in making the public understand right off that my body is my artistic material.”[21] Kathy O’Dell argues that the specific way the body is positioned reflects the structure of contract, “particularly the consideration phase of contract proceedings, during which benefits or detriments are clarified.”[22] Furthermore, in contract negotiations, what is being exchanged or considered is often the human body or its services and in the modern period, she states that money and the human body became interchangeable.  She cites Walter Benn Michale’s who describes how masochistic performance “personifies modernity in that it thrives on the tension between owning and being owned.”[23] The symbolic site of the bed can be discussed in psychoanalytical terms:

the bed serves as a compelling metaphor for the oedipal scenario in part because the father’s role in the oedipal scenario is that of claiming territorial rights- particularly sexual rights- over the mother, and because the site most symbolically invested with sexuality is the bed. Lacan argues that the father’s figure’s extension of territorial rights over the mother figure constitutes the “law of the father.[24]

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This notion of territorial rights can be linked to Pollock’s argument on Marxist theories of production, consumption, distribution and exchange in highlighting the value of the object. Pollock cites Raymond Williams who states, “What seems to me very striking is that nearly all forms of contemporary critical theory are theories of consumption. That is to say, that they are concerned with understanding an object in such a way that it can be profitably and correctly consumed.”[25] Amelia Jones pushes this idea further, linking the use of the artist’s body to contemporary issues of globalization by stating that it can addresses, “this voracious commodification, and, in particular, the marketing of the artist (via the artists’ body) as commodity fetish.”[26] Therefore, through this reference to production, consumption and the contract, the body becomes a catalytic signifier for engagement with modernist capitalist regimes, “this, I believe, was Pane’s mission: to demonstrate not only the role of the body in social relations but also the ways in which the body can become more effective as a tool for change.”[27]

Both Pane and Abramovic’s performances evoke the sensation of touch, Kathy O’Dell argues that the participatory aspect of touch is sensory and active, questioning gendered systems of looking at the female body.[28] Furthermore, the pain endured by Pane can be understood as a metaphor for the “oppressive level of institutional and political domination in the 1970s”[29] seen in the political turmoil of the Vietnam War. Therefore, this performance is tied directly to the political climate, “‘in the end, it was a bed that served the needs of others rather than her own in the psycholegalistic terminology of territorial rights.”[30] By lying down once again on Pane’s bed, it could be argued that Abramovic is engaging with the political dimension of the piece in order to address contemporary issues. After all, as Kathy O’Dell states, “in being disturbed, we ask questions. In being moved, we seek answers.”[31]

The correlation to masochistic pain also evokes Abramovic’s own 1970s performances in which she often injured herself by incising the skin or cutting her hand with sharp knives, pushing her body to the limits of what is physically and mentally bearable. It has been argued that this subjection to self-torment for women performance artists work to assert control over what happens to their own bodies. [32]In her 1974 piece Rhythm O, Abramovic invited spectators to use any of the seventy-two objects she had arrayed on a table next to her whilst she promised to remain completely passive for six hours. The objects included a feather, a scapel, a gun and bullet. Before long, her skin has been cut, her clothes cut and a spectator had placed the gun against her forehead.[33]This work explored the dynamics of violence, pain and self-destruction whilst allowing the spectators to become co-creators of the work in which her passivity and silence becomes an active and radical gesture, “you made yourself submissive, you made yourself passive. You said, you can do whatever you want to me. You were overcoming by submission, controlling by being vulnerable.”[34]On a similar vein, Rhythm 10, in which Abramovic plunged a knife rapidly and rhythmically between the fingers of her outstretched hand, amplifying the ways in which women often engage in self-sabotage, “from foot binding, to obsessive dieting, diverse cultural energy has been dedicated to deforming women’s bodies, often with women’s own almost masochistic consent.”[35] It has been argued that the transformative power of unrehearsed enactment offered an opportunity to depict the pain of patriarchy and women’s agency alongside, “the shared mortality of the human body, the ability to survive pain, and the persistence of ritual form.”[36] By re-performing Pane’s work addressing similar notions of pain, the rhythm of repetition evokes Abramovic’s slicing knife and becomes ritualized; insisting on the power of both previous works and the meaning they project, persisting on the importance of reassessment.

Abramovic’s re-enactment of Valie Export’s Genital Panic (1969) showed how reinterpretation could change the nature of the work through altered audience perception. Valie Export originally performed Genital Panic in an underground pornographic cinema in Munich. The cinema setting was alternative space for a performance, creating a shift away from gallery-based exhibition spaces. This negation of the commodified gallery system was rooted in a desire to reach an audience beyond the traditional patronage structure.  Therefore, performance art also addressed the conventional relationship upheld between art and its audience, “it implies an active relationship between performer and audience which can render the activity and experience more collective and social, more immediate, communicative and also open-ended.”[37]Export walked through the auditorium slowly through the rows wearing jeans with a triangular cutout in the public area, with her “crotch and the [the audience’s] nose on the same level.”[38] It is argued that Export aimed to expose issues surrounding the male gaze by placing a real physical female body in front of the consuming customers. This confrontation of the voyeuristic male gaze is said to actively anticipate Laura Mulvey’s critical argument in the infamous essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. [39]Export confirmed the notion of panic involved in the spectacle, stating that “people in the back of the cinema got up and fled the situation, because they were afraid I would come up to them as well.”[40]

However, this performance is associated with an iconic photograph rather than any specific documentation of the event, “Genital panic is a great contradiction because she also made the photograph in her studio and there are lots of different images of that poster.”[41] The problem of documentation is particularly apparent as many pieces from the 1970s were not recorded and there only remains, as Abramovic states, “testimonies, bad photographs, small texts, some people saw something, extremely small audiences.”[42] Often, complex works are often reduced to singular photographic images that represent the performance and future generations will only experience the work through these images. [43] Documentation of performance was often seen as inadequate in conveying the immediacy of the work, with some artists stating that an integral part of a performance was that it disappeared. [44] This belief meant that many artists actively refused, “to create anything permanent was a way of attempting to thwart the system and to stay loyal to performance’s supposed ‘irreproducibility.’”[45] It is argued that Abramovic was aware of this potential problem and instead:

works within the basic premise of the performance; that is, rather than attempting to replicate all the particular elements of the original event, which was, after all, entirely dependent on the circumstances of a certain time, space and personality, Abramovic distils something of the conformation at the core of Export’s work.[46]

Abramovic contends that the value of the experience is more powerful than the photograph or documentation, ‘I have a very strong idea about what 21st-century art should be: art without an object. The object is definitely an obstacle between artists and the audience. Objects have to be removed.”[47] Therefore, another dimension to repeating performance work is the dissemination of art object,the artwork is no longer viewed as a static object with a single, prescribed signification that is communicated un-problematically and without default from the maker to an alert, knowledgeable, universalized viewer.”[48]

Abramovic’s re-performance ensures Export’s work does not slip into invisibility or a simple reduction to a singular photographic image. An engagement with both Pane and Export’s work contents traditional notions of originality, bound up in the concept of individual art maker as genius, “the meaning of the work can’t flow if the originality of the work is seen as holy […] Everything is built around the idea of the ego, and this prevents the work from having a proper life. The ego is not an obstacle to the real experience of art.”[49] Abramovic poses a challenge to the conventional understanding of performance art as an irreproducible product of a specific artist, relying instead on the meaning at the core of the work “the ego has become almost an object for the audience and the public. Sometimes you go to an exhibition and you look at the name, not the work.”[50]

The practice of re-staging performance works is undeniably crucial in engaging with issues surrounding the politics of representation. This cycle of retracing reputes the notion of masculine genius locked into a linear structure of constant innovation, progression and advancement. It questions what has been omitted from the dominant canon of modernist discourse whilst locating works within a social, cultural and political framework. Abramovic’s engagement with both Pane and Export validates the theoretical meaning of their works: the interruption of the male gaze, the female body as a site of passive looking, issues of pain and control, the commodification of the art object within the art institution and the assertion of female subjectivity and sexuality. Re-performance invites the spectators to re-experience the participatory aspects of these works, creating a level of meaning beyond the static two-dimensional photograph of documentation that could spur interrogation as to how far we have, or perhaps have not, advanced since their origins. Due to the lack of original documentation, with the emphasis placed on the ephemeral and transcendent qualities of performance, re-performance ensures that the practices of these women artists are not forgotten. It acknowledges the introduction of second wave feminist modes of producing and critiquing whilst reminding the spectator that the deconstruction of the terms representation, modernity and femininity are still valid even today.

 

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[1] Amelia Jones, Perform, repeat, record: live art in history (Bristol: Intellect, 2012) p.13

[2] Catherine de Zegher cited in Mignon Nixon, ‘After Images’ in October, Vol.83 (The MIT Press: 1998) http://www.jstor.org/stable/779073  [Accessed 10/05/2013] p.121

[3] Griselda Pollock, Vision and difference: femininity, feminism and histories of art (London: Routledge, 2003) p.1

[4] Griselda Pollock, Framing feminism: art and the women’s movement 1970-85 (London: Pandora, 1987) p.103

[5] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p. xiii, preface

[6] Laura Cottingham, Seeing through the seventies: essays on feminism and art (Amsterdam: G + B International, c.2000) p.126

[7] Cottingham, p.126

[8] Carol Duncan, ‘Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting’, The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in the Critical Histories of Art (Cambridge University Press, 1993): 81-108 (originally published in Art Forum (1973)

[9] Cottingham, p.121

[10] Battista, p. 12

[11] Kathy Battista, Re-negotiating the body: feminist art in 1970s London (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013) p.53

[12] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p.45

[13] Battista, p.14

[14] Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (New York; London: Routledge, 2006.)

[15] Mary Richards, Marina Abramovic (London; New York: Routledge, 2010) p. 2

[16] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: the politics of performance (London: Routledge, 1993) p.146

[17] Battista, p. 33

[18] Richards, p.37

[19] Richards, p.61

[20] Kathy O’Dell Contract with the skin: masochism, performance art and the 1970s (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, c.1998) p.45

[21] O’Dell, p.45

[22] O’Dell, p.46

[23] O’Dell, p.46

[24] O’Dell, p.46

[25] Raymond Williams cited in Griselda Pollock, ‘Vision and Difference’ p. 4

[26] Battista, p.53

[27] O’Dell, p.49

[28] O’Dell, p.49

[29] O’Dell, p.50

[30] O’Dell, p.50

[31] O’Dell, p.xiv

[32] Uta Grosenick Women artists in the 20th and 21st century (Koln; London: Taschen, c2005) p.13

[33]RoseLee Goldberg Performance art: from Futurism to the present (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001) p.165

[34] Marina Abramovic, Marina Abramovic: artist body: performances 1969-1998 (Milano, Charta, c.1998) p.16

[35] Cornelia Butler WACK!: art and the feminist revolution (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007) p.345

[36] Butler, p.355

[37] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p.45

[38] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.90

[39] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.90

[40] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.91

[41] Marina Abramovic cited in Amelia Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.99

[42] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.42

[43] Battista, p.149

[44] Battista, p. 148

[45] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.59

[46] Katy Deepwell in Marina Abramovic, ‘Artist Body’ p.38

[47] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.42

[48] Amelia Jones Performing the body/performing the text (London: Routledge, 1999) p.1

[49] Richards, p.33

[50] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.50

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Gwen John- A glance at a private painting by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Gwen John (22 June 1876 – 18 September 1939) was a Welsh artist often cited as a classical example of a woman artist in a male-dominated environment. The focus has frequently been invested in her private life, focusing on her isolation and personal relationships.  During 1895 to 1898, John studied at the Slade School of Art alongside her brother Augustus. The Slade School was said to welcome women students with a degree of equality, allowing her to make an independent career. In 1898 John made her first visit to Paris where she studied under James McNeill Whistler at the Académie Carmen. John settled in Paris in 1904, painting three-quarter length portraits of young women and girls seated in bare domestic interiors. The subjects are often slightly off-centre or leaning, half-way between sitting and standing. Distinct details of dress or background are obscure, with the unity of surface and depth acting as the principle harmonizing components of the paintings. Features of her work such as extreme delicacy of coloring were also often taken as ‘feminine’ yet; as David Fraser Jenkins argues they could also apply to an artist such as Seurat with no such concentration on gender.[1]

It has been argued that John had no interest in political issues and her withdrawal from society signified a withdrawal from the avant-garde groups invested in the expressing experiences of modernity. Suzi Gablick argues that her work expresses, “a dedicated concentration, a private incandescence of spirit that is enthralling.”[2] However, during her years in Paris she met many of the celebrated artistic personalities of her time such as Matisse, Picasso and Rainer Maria Rilke and had an affair with the sculptor Rodin.  John exhibited in Paris in 1919 at the Salon d’Automne yet only had one solo exhibition during her lifetime, in London in 1926.  As David Peters Corbett states, she was the artist “responsible for defining a poetics of the privatisation of modernity.”[3]

Gwen John’s Nude Girl is a three-quarter length portrait of a young girl in what appears to be a domestic interior.  The composition of this piece is stark in its simplicity; the figure dominates the entire canvas in front of a plain background. This minimal setting gives no indication of biographical details or context, directing the attention solely on to the naked body and the character of the model Fenella Lovell. According to Carol Duncan, the representation of the nude female body during John’s lifetime was not ideologically neutral, but instead “when an artist had some new or major artistic statement to make, when he wanted to authenticate to himself or others his identity as an artist, or when he wanted to get back to “basics” he turned to the nude.”[4]

John’s model looks directly into the eyes of the spectator; her features are distinctive and individualistic. This gaze aligns the spectator to the position of the artist meaning we become involved in a human exchange. We acknowledge her humanity, her sociability, her personality. Her back is upright and dominant against the chair, instead of lying down submissively, yet her shoulders are hunched slightly inwards, her hands are clasped together defensively and placed across her body in front of her crotch, acting as a direct barrier. The hand also pins down the piece of fabric, as if she is preventing it from falling down entirely.  This fabric appears transitional, between modesty and exposure. It makes the figure look vulnerable and uncertain, caught between two contradictory gestures.

The effect is paradoxical, the figure is both monumental and static, but her movements are vulnerable and defensive.  This emotional aspect is highlighted by the de-saturated tonal colours and textural brushstrokes, which are used as a way of expressing the volume of the body rather than as a mode of self-expression. The more you look at this portrait, the more unsettling and challenging it becomes; a potential refusal of the female nude body as an ideological site of masculine sexuality.

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Gwen John, Nude Girl, 1909-10


[1] David Fraser and Lisa Tickner, Lisa Gwen John and Augustus John (London: Tate Publishing, 2004) p.35

[2] Jenkins, p.35

[3] Lisa Tickner, Gwen John and Augustus John, p.97

[4] Duncan, p.98

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Old masters and old mistresses: the BBC’S ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The HIS-tory of art, as a discipline, adheres to a strict theoretical canon based on a process of constant innovation, progress and avant-garde advancement. Movement follows movement, -isms spiral into –isms. As time unfolds, so does the reduction of the canvas- style is unpicked, colour is unleashed, linear perspective and historical narrative deconstructed and transformed into an explosion of subjectivity that peaks with the onset of modernity.

This canon thrives on the romantic notion of genius as a singular individual overwhelmed with radical raw talent. This individual is often posed as depressed or neglected, misunderstood in their own time frame, only to be rediscovered after their death. Excavated like a golden nugget. But this concept of genius is not neutral. Genius follows a pattern in the history of art- white, heterosexual and masculine. Tick these three attributes off your list and you’ve got yourself a modern master. This is the history of art we’ve all been taught at school: Manet led to Cezanne who led to Picasso who led to Matisse who let to … you get the point.

The BBC often has interesting art historical programmes based (loosely) outside the parameters of this model, like Andrew Graham-Dixon’s focus on the art of Russia, that new preppy young chap (James Fox, I think his name is? I typed ‘preppy young art historian’ into Google but I realized this made me sound about 100 years old and did not surface any answers) who looked at the history of art thematically in three colours. That was interesting. Not radical, but interesting enough as a one-time formula. However, on Iplayer this week the Beeb have a brand spanking new art program called ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ (1907-1939.) The program “unlocks” the BBC archives in order to “tell the story of the birth of modern art, in the words of the artists who created a cultural revolution” which all sounds very impressive and dramatic, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The notion of documentation and archiving is interesting just in itself. When you look at documentation in the light of say, 1970s feminist performance art, it becomes clear how dominant myths of modernism are perpetuated in the acts of interviewing or recording. The 1970s performance works were not well documented, and they were not supposed to be. This is because the emphasis was placed upon the ephemeral and transitive experience of the performance, as something that took place in front of an audience and then disappeared. Photographs or videos would always stand in place as a substitute for the corporeal act, becoming a tangible object that could be placed within the art institutional system of production, consumption and capital. The downside of this is that feminist artworks often remain unexplored underground, their complex meanings never to be debated within mainstream discourse. Interviewing is based on a decision; somebody has actively decided that the artist has something to say that needs to be recorded and validated. They often do. But, what about the artistic voices that were not always given (or refused) a platform for discussion? What does the history of art omit in its inclusion?

So, this program was set in the hub of late 1920s/early 30s Paris and started with a charming biography of Picasso, the man who “set the standard of what it was to be an artist” due to the fact he “shattered conventions” through the creation of cubism in a “fever of creativity” (get ready for a lot of speech marks.) Rivalry! Picasso was supposedly jealous of another artist named Matisse, who also possessed “dazzling gifts” and a “revolutionary vision.” Then along came Duchamp, who was equally as transgressive, who “completely changed human art expression” through one “simple gesture” of the ready-made. Just like that, startling really. This one man bought about a revolution! He “swept away” old art and replaced it immediately with “his idea that anyone could be an artist.” So along came Max Ernst, the lonely solider fighting on the front of WW1, he offered a “startling new direction” to the mix “like nothing anyone had seen before” which “lay the foundation for Surrealism” and “unlocked a new visual world.” Jump to photography and to Man Ray, his innovations and “incredible versatility dazzled his contemporaries.” What’s this? Leonora Carington, A WOMAN!? Have you never heard of her? That OK though because she’s a weird anomaly  “strong enough” to mix with masculine Surrealist circles. She also had a personal love affair with Max Ernst, of a sexual nature- ooh la la. Oh, and she’s also apparently a witch as it was said she “didn’t paint her pictures but brewed them up in a cauldron at night.” Nice. Then Magritte. Usurped by Dali, who eventually sold out and did loads of bizarre Alka Seltzer adverts. The end.

Apart from brief mentions of the world wars, this documentary completed omitted any references to the social, cultural or political circumstances of that time period. It relied solely on biography and personal antidotes. There was no mention of scientific discoveries, the urbanization of new modern spaces of leisure and entertainment or the rapid development of industries and production based upon capitalism. No discussion of the circulation of new forms of accessible media such as magazines and newspapers, the fact that women gained the right to vote in 1928, no mention of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Claude Cahun, Hannah Hoch, Remedio Varo, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker or Dorothea Tanning. Not even a hint at the emerging deconstructions of binaries of sexuality and gender or the discussion of lesbian identities in Radyclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness. No psychoanalysis, which actively began questioning the formation of the self in symbolic structures of language and the murky realm of the unconscious. I get that the program is supposed to be a brief introduction, a quick summary of the Western art of this period, and so maybe there simply wasn’t enough time to critically converse with those issues. But, then again, I don’t really buy that. The discussion of the work itself, the actual art, was so minimal. The paintings appeared on the screen for a few seconds, and then disappeared without any real analysis or interrogation.

The amount of hyperbole used was excessive, and quite frankly, ridiculous. Not to mention boring. Art history, when studied as a practice invested in the meaning of works placed within a sociological, cultural and political framework, can be so rich and complex on both philosophical and psychological levels. Biography after biography like some kind of gossip-y  Chinese whispers is embarrassing, and it’s why art history often has a bad name. It does a disservice to the artists mentioned, reducing their work to two-dimensional conceptions of revolution and change, propping them up as some other-worldly god-like masters with innovative powers beyond the realms of human understanding. But, even more so, it falls back upon the same-old canon of artistic progression; completely negating and undermining the deconstructive practices of so many incredible feminist, post-structuralist and post-modernist thinkers.  Art history is better than that, you’ll just have to believe me.

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Have you ever heard of Francesca Woodman? by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Francesca Woodman was an American photographer, mainly producing beautiful black and white works.  Woodman’s works display many diverse influences from symbolism and surrealism to Baroque painting. The ethereal and timeless quality of these pieces seem dream-like  and strangely haunting.  She began taking photographs at the young age of 13 and was only 22 when she produced the main bulk of her work. Nobody really talks about proteges in terms of photographers, but most certainly, she had to have been one.

Much of Woodman’s work explores notion of gender and looking, concentrating on the relationship of the body in relation to its surroundings. And most notably, the female body is what is considered traditional ‘feminine’ surroundings, the private rooms of houses. The interior as opposed to the public exterior. Woodman places her own body in the work often but her self-representation is often blurred or partially hidden, rendering her ghost-like and fleeting.  Her body often blends into the disintegrating spaces,  becoming a part of the peeling wallpaper or empty door frames. The vulnerability of her naked body is left exposed intimately yet through her specific photographic techniques, you feel as if you can never quite grasp the whole honest truth about the subject.  Blink and she is gone.

 

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An introspective glance at Claude Cahun by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Today, I encountered a photograph that unearthed a whole flood of emotions in me that I have been grappling with and attempting to articulate for some time. It is a rare thing with a work of art, when it hits you between the teeth- presents itself- and manages to encapsulate a very part of you that you knew was there, simmering silently, but never allowed itself to brim to the surface. It’s a rare moment and often a disconcerting one, when a piece feels so tangible yet it appears slightly impossible to articulate exactly why. It rises intuitively as if it rose from within you itself. It resonates. It breathes.

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Claude Cahun (25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) was a French photographer, writer and artist. Her highly personal yet political work explored notions of gender and sexuality, challenging accepted social and economic boundaries. Cahun is often associated with the Parisian Surrealist movement yet introduced alternative representations into this field. The majority of the Surrealist artists were men that perpetuated the site of women’s bodies as a mode of expression and isolated eroticism.  Today, I saw Cahun’s Self Portrait (kneeling wwith quilt), 1928, for the very first time.

Self-portraits are extremely vulnerable in the sense that they incorporate a certain lack of control. You are presenting an image of yourself to the world yet once this image is constructed, it lays exposed to levels of interpretation and judgment. The control in constructing your image is handed over to the eyes of the viewer who seizes it through the gaze. Lacan describes the gaze as a term loaded with feelings of anxiety and loss. Once we realize we can be seen, risks of categorization and misinterpretation are at play. Your identity is no longer safely constructed as your own.

In this self-portrait, Cahun kneels in front of the viewer in an almost religious position. An offering before the altar. Behind her, the soft fabric of a quilt looms over her body connoting an upright bed. We have the privilege of looking down on the figure, disrupting and disallowing the notion that Cahun is actually lying in a bed. That site of dreams, of sexual encounters, of vulnerability. This composition is also dramatic, theatrical almost, rising up behind her like a stage set. Through the pose and composition, she speaks of exposure on many levels. The interplay of textures highlights this exposure and creates a conversation between the fabric and the figure. The dark horizontal lines of the exposed wood floor and ceiling act like framing techniques, juxtaposing the luminescent white of the quilt and the white of her skin. Contained within this box, her own personal cell, the shadows mirror and dance across both surfaces. The bright white tone of her stomach echoes the sheet directly behind her, whilst the strong shadow cutting across the top emphasizes the mask slicing across her face. The shades and tones of her naked body melt into the background. Therefore, the quilt seems comforting and warm. Like flesh.

Yet, Cahun’s body language and gesture appear both introspective and self-defensive. Her hands curl across her chest and up to her neck, creating a barrier to her bare body. Most importantly, the mask across her eyes creates an immediate sense of shock. It is possible to incorporate Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze at this point; it could be argued that through this masking technique, Cahun is discounting the masculine objectifying gaze. She controls the boundaries of concealment and revelation, of inner and outer, of passive and active. We are not met by the expected returning gaze. We are unable to read any possible expression. And that’s disconcerting, possibly even linking to Foucault’s notion of a controlling gaze. The mask itself is clown-like, surreal and highly patterned like the swirls of decoration on the quilt. The eyes are painted white appearing hollowed, empty and disfigured.

However, I happen to think that the aversion of the gaze is actually highly personal. Caught in her own world of introspection, her eyes looking inward on herself; perhaps it is possible to take a moment for yourself. I believe that contemporary viewers will understand innately about the difficulties and contradictions of masks as, in a way, the concept is more paramount than ever. Physically and emotionally. We fix our facial features into a neutral mask whilst moving through the modern world, on the train, on the bus, on the pavement. The mask presented to us through technology, our own faces multiplied on screens through the flash of a camera. The mask of make-up. These are survival techniques, disavowals of complete exposure.

You can see my naked body, but you cannot see my eyes.

“Under this mask, another mask. I will never keep removing these faces.”- Claude Cahun

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Judy Chicago, Tracy Emin, Helen Chadwick and Louise Bourgeois at Ben Uri Gallery by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Judy Chicago is one of my favourite artists. I discovered her in my second year of university through a module by Griselda Pollock. In fact, I have even written a little bit about her before on this very blog. So, when I heard she was exhibiting in London for the first time since the 80s, well, I was rather excited. The Ben Uri Gallery in London seemed like the perfect place for her return to the country, having 1300 works in their permanent collection by women artists. Many of these works are currently focusing on themes such as autobiography, erotica, feminism, the nude and issues of masculine power.

Which is precisely what Chicago is most well known for. During the 1970s, she founded the first feminist art program in America, aiming to incorporate these themes into the realm of art. This was a time when the personal was truly political and Chicago encouraged and inspired her students to create feminist artworks that validated women’s experience.

On entering the gallery, I was instantly hit by Chicago’s famous works. On the left wall, recent dynamic lithographs such as Into the Darkness (2008) and Signing the Dinner Party (2009) stood opposite her pioneering feminist works, such as Red Flag (1971) and Menstruation Bathroom (1972).  This was a nice touch. For example,  the iconic image Peeling Back (1974)  on the right echoed  the Return of the Butterfly (2009) on the left, mirroring the core values of the initial work. This sense of dialogue seemed tangible, connoting the idea that these conversations are still vital. The writing underneath Peeling Back reads, “In this transitional image, I “peeled back” the structure to reveal the formerly hidden form. What a refuge to finally say: ‘Here I am, a woman, with a woman’s body and a woman’s point of view.'” After thirty or so years, it appears there is still many more peeling back to do and many more layers to explore.

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Judy Chicago, Peeling Back, 1974
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Judy Chicago, Return of the Butterfly, 2009

Also in this room were the ethereal smoky goddesses from the series Women and Smoke which drew on the “eternal power” of womankind. Helen Chadwick’s In the Kitchen (1977) dealt with issues of domesticity and confinement, reputing the idea that women should be confined within the home. Next to Chicago’s  expressive and free nude figures dancing in the mountains, it seemed impossible to disagree.

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Immolation IV from the Women and Smoke Series, 1972

As I walked down the steps to the lower floor, it felt like moving into a more private, personal space. At the top of the staircase, a photograph of a pouting Emin wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt stood alongside Chicago’s piece What is Feminist Art? “Weren’t art and life separated?” the text read, “Like men and women, good and evil, body and mind.” 

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I kept this question in mind in the first downstairs room. The space was smaller, more intimate and slightly cramped. Four walls were covered with A4 autobiographical drawings, expressing the moods and emotions of Chicago during a year of her life. A lot of these diary-type accounts seemed negative and  hyper-judgmental; dark holes, wounded trees and swathes of despair in black, blue and ruby red watercolours. It was a sharp contrast to the bold graphic prints on the first floor but it was interesting to see a different side to Chicago. Much of her popular work is so strikingly strong, this softer and more personal side was somewhat easier to interact with, to relate with despite its extremity. Sometimes, the pressure of fighting for what you believe in is draining. I felt that the pictures seemed cathartic, a release of daily pressures and tension. I am  no artist myself, but it appeared like a healthy means of expression that I could consider trying out in my  own life.  A way of clearing a sometimes muddled head.

 

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The final room included work by Emin and Bourgeois and it seemed to bring all the main themes of the exhibition together.  Chicago’s sensual and erotic side was depicted brilliantly and beautifully through her intricate work Nine Fragments from Delta of Venus (2004) and the “Cat-erotica” pieces were playful  and funny, a trait not often associated with feminism. On the last wall hung two nude portraits, one of Emin called Love is What You Want (2011) showing her running away from the viewer in a moment of vibrant spontaneity alongside a portrait of Chicago taken for her 70th birthday, as  a triumphant Eve  holding up her apple and laughing in a contemporary Garden of Eden.  Again, it felt like the two portraits were in dialogue with each other, two confident and creative women exposing their own skin. It seemed like Chicago was handing her feminist mantle down to Emin in a proud and confident manner.  A celebratory and positive ending.

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Tracy Emin Love is what you want, 2011
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It was so refreshing to go to an art exhibition as a young woman and a feminist and be instantly included;  in a space where women’s experience is expressed and celebrated, where their bodies  and sexuality are explored honestly and openly.  Often with art, I can appreciate it, I can  understand it, I can read and research and learn about the Old Masters or the marvels of the Renaissance  but I never really truly felt a part of it.  My friend had never heard of Judy Chicago before yet we both left feeling like we knew her. And learnt a little bit about ourselves along the way.

Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois,Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin: A Transatlantic dialogue is at the Ben Uri Gallery until the 10th of  March 2013. For more information see:  http://benuri.org.uk/public/?event-details

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Cindy Sherman, SF MOMA and the Drag Artists by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Whilst roadtripping around America this summer, I was extremely fortunate to pay a visit to the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the San Francisco MOMA. As an Art History student and a feminist, this was pretty much my perfect exhibition. Cindy Sherman is undoubtedly one of the most incredible and influential contemporary artists and if you didn’t know her before, then this is the moment to change that.

My first impression of the San Francisco MOMA was how beautiful architecturally the building was. It blew the dusty old National Gallery out of the water. I perused the permanent exhibitions before the retrospective, deciding to save the best until last.

But onwards to Cindy, the exhibition started with the complete collection of her early work, “Untitled Film Stills.” Eerie self-portraits where Sherman herself is the both the artist and the model, every inch the actress dressed in a variety of different personas, poses and positions. The domesticated sex goddess. The blonde film noir bombshell. The seemingly carefree starlet at the seaside. All 69 of these black-and-white photographs are hugely important for a number of reasons; they act as a parody of Hollywood, a dissemination of the traditional roles offered to women, a refusal of the clichés and characters that created a construct of femininity that pulsated through popular culture. It was incredible to see these tiny portraits all together in one room. Sherman was utterly, almost unnervingly, convincing in every image.

The other works that really spoke to me were the large scale colour grotesques. Cut-off, limbless torsos, rotting blood and entrails that shouted and screamed at you from the canvas. I couldn’t help thinking of Julia Kristeva and the concept of abjection. What was most interesting were the disgusted, yet curiously interested, faces of the spectators. In fact, I sat and watched the reactions for a bit. People walked quickly through this room, as if not wanting to seem too interested in the shocking and gruesome images. Yet, I loved them. Again, it seemed Sherman was breaking down that accepted image of femininity- in order to be ‘proper’ women, we must be pure, clean and hygienic. Despite that every day we deal with the same old shit (literally) as men that comes from our bodies, we must  pretend to be the ‘fairer’ gender.

I passed through the room of creepy clowns to my final favourite room. “Untitled #463” and the other gigantic photos showed Sherman again dressed up as different characters, all middle-aged, seemingly rich mature women. The harsh lines of lip liner, carefully coloured-in eyebrows and heavily styled hair looked sad and pointless. It appeared these women were so desperate to cling on to their diminishing looks, to conform every stereotype of western beauty that despite their apparent wealth and riches, the masks of makeup were hiding a hollow and desperate plea. I vowed to myself then that when the time comes, I shall grow old gracefully and proudly display every line and wrinkle on my face. We shall see.

I am writing this piece now (about two months after my visit) as I discovered today, after wasting a few hours idly on the internet, about Fauxnique, a group of Drag artists, who have re-enacted the portraits form Sherman’s show. These four images are a celebration of the retrospective, a clever nod to Sherman’s representations, making you do a double-take. My favourite image is the ‘Cheetos’ packet, where the fluorescent colour of the model’s skin mimics the sickly orange of the crisps. The gesture appears child-like, as she cradles the packet to her chest as a young girl might cuddle a teddy-bear. Despite the brash statement of her skin, there is something fragile and vulnerable about this pose. The drag artists take Sherman’s work a step further, she challenged the damaging construct of femininity and through this re-enactment, these artists are challenging gender stereotypes that still exist even today. A poignant homage.

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FAUXNIQUE: UNTITLED #351

 

LADY BEAR: UNTITLED #354

CINDY SHERMAN, UNTITLED #354

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THE REVIEW: GILLIAN WEARING. ART WEEKLY by Leighann Morris

Whitechapel Gallery, London

28 March – 17 June 2012


Gillian Wearing, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say,1992

Born in Birmingham in 1963, Gillian Wearing shot to fame in Britain in the 90’s with the rising profile of the YBA’s. Having attended Goldsmiths with Damien Hirst, throughout the artist’s 20 years of practice to follow, it seems that that the inevitable comparison with our favourite formaldehyde loving celebrity artist has left Wearing increasingly overshadowed by the formers blinding, inescapable, loud, and controversial artistic statements.

Wearing’s practice is on another level altogether: quieter, subdued, and frankly more effective in engaging with the British public, Gillian Wearing is not an artist for collectors or the market (not saying any names), but rather an artist for the people. To my great pleasure, the Whitechapel Gallery brings Wearing’s array of photographs, works on video, and sculpture to light for the artist’s first and much deserved retrospective.

Wearing’s most effective tool is the video camera, and she uses it to peel back the façade of the individual in the public sphere, to reveal truths behind outward appearance. Wearing films children dubbed with the voices of adults, invites people to reveal their darkest secrets on camera whilst wearing a disguise, and tells members of the public to write down what they are really feeling, to present to the world in a photograph. Wearing’s work is essentially the traditional portrait inverted. Members of the public are encouraged to do the opposite of pose, to exude importance. Instead they are stripped, and invited to reveal truth.

Wearing’s work is all about paradox: given the chance to disguise oneself behind a mask, the individual is liberated and their character is in fact de-masked. Her aim: to question what is true, what is performed or real, to ask WHAT ARE ORDINARY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC ACTUALLY THINKING? She cleverly and often heartrenderingly highlights the discrepancy between what exists in our minds and how we present ourselves in the public sphere, drawing attention to the large gap between the two.

The exhibition begins with Wearing’s 1994 video piece Dancing in Peckham. Wearing invites the viewer to watch her dance for 25 minutes in a shopping mall. Contemporary art cynics: give it a chance and allow me to jump to Wearing’s defence. (Many of my friends would be relentlessly shouting “THIS ISN’T ART!!!” If I had taken them to see it). Perhaps the most puzzling piece in the exhibition (why is she dancing like an idiot to no music outside a curries in Peckham for 25 minutes?), I think the piece sums up Wearing’s aims as an artist perfectly. Unaware of passers by, Wearing dances like nobody is watching acting out self-abandonment within a public space to highlight the gap between accepted social norms and what is really going on inside our heads.

Wearing’s now iconic series of photographs, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say makes this point explicitly. In 1992, the artist invited strangers to write down what they were thinking on paper and hold it to the camera. The effect is humorous, sad, and shocking. A personal favourite is an elderly man holding up a sign saying “what a lovely girl”, showing the discrepancy between our expectations of character judged by external appearance. Seeing the elderly man in public, one would assign to him sexless and paternal characteristics. Given the chance to express all, we discover that the truth is far from the expected: the elderly man reveals his inappropriate sexual and erotic desire.

Similarly, a smiley, handsome, and seemingly happy young man holds up a sign declaring: “I am depressed at the moment”. Wearing captures the truth behind the British public, suggesting that our public “face” is in fact a façade. It is something we can all relate to as members of the British public. Last week on the tube, a well dressed suited business man sat next to me. In his lap lay a letter for probation and a leaflet to alcoholics anonymous. Getting on the tube in the morning, we all appear the same: same “work” clothes, same miserable face, same relentless march to the office, but in our private lives we are different people altogether. Wearing creates her work out of a desire to explore this; to turn it inside out: to turn the private into the public.

My favourite parts of the exhibition are Wearing’s works on video:Confess All OnVideo. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… (1994), Trauma (2000), and Secrets and Lies (2000). Through the medium of video, Wearing explores the difference between ones public persona and private life with a darker, more macabre tone. The retrospective leads us to modern day confessional booths; an enclosed space within which we, put in the position of confidante, are presented with a screen. On the screen anonymous members of the public, masked with latex faces and wigs, reveal emotional and traumatic secrets involving rape, murder, incest, and violence.

Wearing asks to consider which is really the mask: our public “face” or the latex face that hides the confessor. Which is fake? Paradoxically, by masking the confessors, they become de-masked. Their true identity is revealed. With her works on video, Wearing captures the truth behind our public personas. And the truth is depressing. This is Britain today, says Wearing. Lies, secrets, and fake smiles.

I really hope the man on the tube is ok.

ART WEEKLY.Reviews, news, listings, and recommdendations in the arts, London.

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