Tag Archives: Ruth-Eloise Lewis

(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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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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Acrimony between women sucks, let’s stop it by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

So, the other day I was in that lingering unmotivated lull of a mood where I didn’t even want to leave the confines of my comfy bed, let alone do anything productive like pick up a book or go outside. I decided to switch on I-player and watch something entertaining to keep my brain from shriveling up entirely. I decided to watch a program called Snog Marry Avoid. I should have really guessed from the title it wasn’t going to be a high caliber affair. But ten minutes in, and I felt more depressed than ever.

If you’ve never watched this program (then good for you please don’t) basically all that happens is they take a woman, parade her in front of this weird electronic ‘pod’ machine thing and insult everything about her appearance. Then they ask a bunch of men if they want to marry her, to which they all inevitably respond saying SHE’S HIDEOUS etc. And then they transform her into a beautiful magical butterfly and all the men fancy her and blah blah happy ending blah. The thing that annoyed me most about this program wasn’t even the glaringly obviously shitty and sexist stuff like automatically assuming all these women are heterosexual and base their entire levels of self-worth and validation solely on male opinion. That’s just so bleak I can barely be bothered to comment on it. It was the fact that it seemed to be based entirely on a woman-judging-woman formula, perpetuating acrimony between women to an explicitly obvious level. Can you imagine a program in which the genders were flipped around entirely? Not really. Because women are supposed to be ‘bitchy’ towards each other, so much so that it’s presented as almost natural.

The insults were aimed primarily at the amount of makeup the women were wearing and/or how much skin they were showing. While I can  advocate the calls they kept making to ‘natural beauty’ but this should be about being valued on characteristics such as kindness, compassion and intelligence, the presenter kept banging on about stamping out a thing called ‘fakery.’ Fakery= too much makeup or fake tan= too obvious= too threatening. This is not about  natural beauty at all. It is still shaming women on their appearance, waging their worth as objects. They were accused of trying too hard, of making too much effort, of not getting it ‘right.’ Just another form of control that breeds such a negative attitude that thrives off a destructive and tired notion of women hating each other. It’s such an effective form of control; making women dislike each other, setting them in competition with each other, celebrating the fact that they should value each other on their cosmetic consumption. In short, acrimony makes women weaker.

This way of thinking stems into our everyday lives and it manifests in a constant, nagging judgment of other women. I’ll be the first to admit that. But, there also seems to be a distinction between the different women in your life, depending on how well you know them. I mean, the women who you are closest to like your dearest friends/family… you have a wealth of love, compassion and time for them that will never fade, no matter what. But this level of understanding never extends towards women who you don’t know. Because you are taught to feel threatened and insecure and not good enough and everything horrible. Let me give you a couple of scenarios. Ever found yourself flicking through Facebook and ending up at say… your boyfriends ex-girlfriend? Don’t deny it, it happens. And you irrationally deconstruct her appearance bit by little bit, try and convince yourself she has a big nose or crap hair or something equally banal. She’s probably actually pretty cool and you probably have a lot in common. But, that’s classic acrimony. Or imagine you are in a club and there’s a super hot babe who might happen to have a lot of makeup on or be wearing a shorter skirt and ALL the other women are looking at her up and down, giving off evil telepathic vibes. Just because she is a super hot babe and we are judging her appearance, feeling insecure and jealous and instead of assessing where that feeling stems from. Unnnggh I hate it so much and YET I DO IT ALL THE TIME. Let’s all admit that? It will make the next bit easier.

Luckily, I’m reading an incredible book called Cunt by Inga Muscio and she devotes a whole chapter to this conundrum. Muscio states: “the idea of acknowledging the presence of acrimony between all women is pretty dang-awful daunting to me. It extends far past jealously, cattiness and general shitass vibes into highly oppressive forms of ageism, classism, homophobia, objectification and racism.” She also highlights acrimony between women as a primarily Western concept through the story of her Iranian dance teacher named Jaleh. Muscio recounts how her and Jaleh would talk after class about culture and freedom. Before these discussions, she always presumed women in fundamental Islamic countries, for example in this instance, had it way worse than us here in the West. We have ‘freedom’, we can wear what we want, do what we want, lie in bed and watch bloody Snog Marry Avoid if we want. Yet, when Jaleh came to America she was bereft about the levels of meanspiritness and malevolence women project onto one another in their daily lives. Iranian women are very consciously aware of gender-explicit oppression but they have each other’s back. Muscio asks if really all our freedom is worth it if women don’t actually like each other much at all. Furthermore, “women choose to be catty, cruel, prejudiced, competitive or jealous of each other partly because we grow up learning that negative behavior towards women is perfectly acceptable, and partly because it is a difficult task to see ourselves in our perceptions.”

What we need to do is sort this out, argues Muscio. And we can consciously get in the habit of doing this, stopping ourselves, asking “What do I see here that is threatening me?” and then “What of myself do I see here?” And attempting to answers those questions as honestly and truthfully as possible. I’m not suggesting some instant feminist utopia where all women are complimenting each other’s hair and lipstick every day. But, attempting to  make small steps in your mentality in order to try and eliminate this larger problem of acrimony. Turn off Snog Marry Avoid and the campaign against ‘fakery’, be as ‘fake’ as you want to be as long as it makes you feel good and happy. Stop picking other women apart on their appearance. Every time you feel a negative thought popping in your head, try and replace it with a compliment. Maybe even say that compliment out loud. Ladies, it’s about time we started to love each other.

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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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ONE BILLION RISING. Rape culture has got to stop by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Sometimes it’s easy to live in a bubble. You wake up, you get on with your day and the cycle spurs and spurns you on. I find that as every twenty-four hours pass by, the bubble sucks you in and keeps you contained.
Not long ago, six men held a 23-year-old woman and her male friend in a bus for hours in Dehli. They assaulted her so brutally that her intestines were removed as they tortured her with a rusty metal rod. After several surgeries to attempt to repair her insides, she sadly died. Sometimes it’s easy to live in a bubble. Sometimes that bubble has to burst.
The fact is that I felt anxious writing this article. What if I didn’t get all the facts right? Who am I, as a white middle-class woman, to write about the situation in India? I’ve never been to India. My judgment is surely just founded on what has been trickled down through the Western media, perpetuated and distorted. But let’s scrap that. I’d rather be speaking than silent. That way, discussion can get circulating and anyone can correct me if I’m wrong. On a humanist level, it’s impossible to ignore what is happening in the world. And let’s take a look at some hard facts: in Delhi, of 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of last year, only one ended in conviction. These issues should not automatically be unimportant because they are not close to home. And yet, this flux of sexual violence is not just apparent in India; let’s think about Jimmy Saville abusing hundreds of girls under the passive nose of the BBC, let’s not forget how women in the US military are being raped by their comrades, let’s take a moment to reflect about a group of boys allegedly raping a girl in Steubenville, Ohio. So what on earth is going on?

According to the activist Eve Ensler,

“There is a rape culture – a mindset that seems to have infected every aspect of our lives: the raping of the Earth through ecological destruction by the corporate powerful, pillaging resources for their own coffers with no concern for the Earth, or the indigenous peoples, or the notion of reciprocity; the rape of the poor through exploitation, land grabs, neglect; the rape of women’s bodies through physical violence and commodification, where a girl can be purchased for less than the cost of a mobile phone. The modelling and licensing of this rape culture is done by those protected by power and privilege – presidents, celebrities, sports stars, police officers, television executives, priests – with impunity.”

However, Ensler is aiming to create a direct uprising against this epidemic. On February the 14th the global campaign One Billion Rising will speak out for the one billion women who have been beaten or raped. Across 182 countries, communities are planning to rise, dance and speak their minds; becoming a part of what the Indian activist Kamla Bhasin calls a “feminist tsunami”:

“Now is the time. 14 February. Rise in the streets, in the schools, on the buses, in your homes, in the dark alleyways, in the offices and factories and fishing boats and fields. Let our rising reveal our understanding that, until women are equal, safe and free, no society can prosper and life is diminished. Let our rising announce our commitment to make ending violence against women and girls the central concern of our times.”

Others have responded to the horrors in India in different modes, aiming to disseminate the way we think about women and the effect this has on culture. Aswini Aswini Anburajan writes at Buzzfeed that much of India still imagines that the violation she endured was one against her chastity. The old myth about rape that a face is face with a depilating and overwhelming urge to possess a woman is still present; this is a degrading stand to both men and women, posing all men as sexual predators without any emotions or control. There are many commentaries that expose India’s culture of street violence against women, a violence that instills fear into women’s daily lives. And as they walk down the street, they feel every pore of their bodies being watched, analyzed and examined. This violence is all about threat and boundaries. Women are made to feel demoralized when they cross certain boundaries that others feel should not be crossed; the traditional boundary of role as a mother and a wife, the boundary of the home which they are bound too. The street, a space of modernist capitalist culture dominated by patriarchal systems, operates as a site of masculine inclusion. When women step into this bounded space, they become a target of anger. They are out of place. An anomaly. An aggregate.

At CNN Opinion, Lauren Wolfe writes that women are rising up against this brutal street harassment other parts of the world such as Egypt and Somalia. The terror women feel in India, and indeed, in many parts of the world can no longer be tolerated. You wake up, you get on with your day and the cycle spurs and spurns you on. On February the 14th, there is the potential to do something with that day. There is the possibility to take your bubble, your privilege and your fortune and to rise up with women from all over the world. Let our rising announce our commitment to make ending violence against women and girls the central concern of our times.

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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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Lynx- you still smell really really really bad by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that y’know, shock horror, Lynx have produced another sickeningly sexist advert. Oh, how the years have passed with their delightful gifts to society such as Sophie Monk offering to clean men’s ‘balls’ and wild-eyed, lust-crazed ladies running after a man on the beach. And I know, I’ve fallen right into the trap. I’m providing them with free publicity. I’m practically promoting the notion that sexism sells.

But I thought that maybe, just perhaps, some things might have changed. How optimistic. I mean it’s 2012- aren’t we all just a little bit aware that misogyny is not desirable? Did the wonderful documentary Miss Representation not infiltrate into mass culture? Reminding all of us naughty consumers of the harmful and dangerous potential of the media, how it seeps into our minds and distils our thoughts? Maybe some things have changed, but it appears others have not. And there’s nothing wrong with a gentle reminder.

Lynx’s new ‘Type of Woman’ campaign has really pissed me off. I’m forced to watch it every time I go on Youtube, and I do not appreciate this one little bit. ‘Keep Up With Your Girl’ poses five different ‘types’ of girl- sporty, brainy, party, high-maintenance, flirty. Five different tired stereotypes. Blindingly obvious and deductive. The viewer (supposedly male) is asked to pick his type and ‘find out how to keep up.’ This means giving a list of how to impress said girl in order to receive suggested sexual gratification. Basically, lie to women and you will get laid. And as a young woman, this just makes me feel a bit shit. The media makes me feel shit about a lot of things, how I look, how shiny my hair is etc and now it seems our personalities are under attack too.  It’s not just bodies being commodified anymore.

The girl is seen as a problem, as a challenge, as a game to be played in order to receive a prize.

I am aware that Lynx have a gendered market that aims to appeal to young men, but is this latest campaign not a little bit insulting to that market also? Men are portrayed as clueless idiots, like they don’t have the intellect or personalities to form competent human relationships to these new superwomen. Furthermore, the idea that men feel they now have to ‘keep up’ with women disturbs me. As if all these leaps and bounds in modern feminism that were made to ensure women have choices, feel independent and are confident in themselves, can be dismissed entirely by a little bit of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humour.

I don’t really expect a shower gel advert to fully depict women as the complex and diverse people we truly are but this latest stunt just smells pretty cheap, puerile and quite frankly, boring.

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The Challenge of the Unruly Body: Jo Spence by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Jo Spence was a British photographer who worked continuously from the 1970s until her eventual death in June 1992. Spence was born of working class parents inLondon, 1934. She began her photographic career doing portraits in a studio. She then went on to become a founding member of the Photography Workshop in 1974 which aimed to provide an educational, non-commercial system that promoted interest in the critical use of photography as a communicational tool. She was also a member of the Hackney Flashers (1974) a group of feminist and socialist women who produced politically challenging exhibitions that raised critical issues about the role of women in relation to work, social class and identity.

Her work is grounded in a variety of cultural and political debates. Spence challenges the boundaries between private and public, inner and outer, political and personal. She used ‘personal’ materials such as family photographs, memories and her own body to disrupt and threaten the standardized distinctions in Western culture that form the way we reflect about ourselves and our lives. Spence’s work focuses on the personal memories and fantasies of particular social classes, whose existence may have previously been dismissed or ignored, and questions how their day-to-day lives can be of great political importance. Her work is concerned notably with the rise and decline during the 1970s and 1980s of community art projects inBritainand the breaking down of the British welfare state.

Her exhibition ‘Beyond the Family Album’ in 1979 opened in the Hayward Gallery, London and included images on display of her childhood and family. These images, in content and nature, seemed incredibly ordinary and commonplace. However, they worked to investigate her own family and class background and the social implications of being a woman: “The cross fertilization between class and sexuality has informed all my work since this period.”Spence is not afraid to explore differences between social classes and differences between women.

Many works were also about her own fight with breast cancer, offering a patient’s perspective for those in the medical profession. Spence became the active subject of her own experience, expressing the powerlessness she felt by being managed and controlled by a state institution. She was particularly interested in the power dynamics involved in the relationship between doctor and patient. She was specifically concerned with the breast as an object of desire and subsequently as a possession placed in the hands of the medical institution. Her phototherapy work was also used in order to tackle many of the emotional issues her struggle with disease and illness presented. This work included her dressed up as many different roles- for example, a child or her mother, using a personal, emotional moment within a therapy session that could speak directly to the viewer, raising uncomfortable questions about class and gender.

Spence draws parallels between the fragmentation and compartmentalisation of the body and individual, both in the orthodox medical insitution and the mass media, where the essence of the ‘whole’ person can be lost, or ignored. She questions what is acceptable in representations of the human body where the female body is viewed as an passive object of fascination and pleasure by the active male gaze. Spence confronts the conditions that may stigmatize her and defiantly reveals them through the device of the camera lens, repossessing and claiming back her own body for herself.

Narratives of Dis-ease, Excised, Exiled, Expected, Expunged, Included

undated, Jo Spence/Dr Tim Sheard 

Instead of portraying self-pity, Spence took photographs of herself during her illness that embodied and encapsulated her emotions- fear, anxiety, anger and defiance. These images stem from a joint session on aggression with Spence and a cancer doctor. Spence wanted to show how it felt to deal with the illness, like a tearful child clutching on to her teddy bear for comfort (‘Included’) or grotesque, ugly or monstrous in the eyes of other people (‘Exiled’) in order to break the taboo, the unspoken truth of people who are terrified of cancer. These are visible displays of power and shame that deal with the ways in which the medical institution controls women’s bodies versus the reality of the bodies we inhabit as women. ‘Expected’ shows Spence naked except for a pair of red high heels (a cultural symbol of ‘femininity’ as glamorous) leaning over as if stumbling and disorientated. This portrays the powerlessness she felt as a patient, her infantilization whilst being managed and controlled in the profession- as an object, not a subject. Spence is representing the honest emotions felt living in an unruly body that cannot conform to the pressures of female perfection expected and idealised in Western society.

The Picture of Health, 1985, Jo Spence 

Women attending hospital with breast cancer often have to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the medical photographers as well as the consultant, medical students and visiting doctors. Once I had opted out of orthodox medicine I decided to keep a record of the changing outward condition of my body. This stopped me disavowing that I have cancer, and helped me to come to terms with something I initially found shocking and abhorrent.”

This piece of work by Jo Spence explores the way disease and health is represented in photography. Given that women are expected to be the object of the male gaze and are equally expected to conform to an idealised form of beauty, they are still fighting for the basic ownership of their own bodies. Spence disrupts the male gaze by cutting off the head of the figure, meaning there are no eyes to stare into, no facial features to contemplate- the body works completely on its own as the centralised focus of the piece. This also creates a sense of isolation and detachment as well as a lack of identity, expressing the complete loneliness she felt in the struggle for health. Spence is questioning if is it acceptable to display a sick, ageing female body. Here we have a body that is initially shocking, the breasts are big (the shape culturally perceived as desirable) but they are scarred due to disease, therefore the breast works as a metaphor for struggle and conflict. This is the stark reality of living in a body that is fighting against illness, it is the battlefield of the artist’s own subjective experience, it may not be beautiful, or perfect or idealised but it is real and it belongs to her.

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