Tag Archives: Sexuality

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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Reading magazines: A poem by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

I am in the kitchen, dressed all in black

My feet on fire and flailing; running up slippery staircases

Because a job is a job.

A single lingering fingertip; a tap, a knock, a pinch

Of my skin. Reminds me that you think me inferior.

“But cheer up, it might never happen.

Are you dirty enough between the sheets?”

 

I am walking down the street, being rained on

By a constant hiss- the pluck of thirsty lips

That hunts my own body for kicks.

 

“Clever little girl.

He’s a lad, it’s a laugh- we didn’t mean to cause any offence,

She’s a slut, she’s a wench- don’t take it personally.

Don’t be frigid.”

 

You don’t need to be a misogynist to be a man.

 

“But she’s a bitch, she was asking for it-

Did she drink too much, was she wearing a skirt?”

I cut my hair short regardless of my sexuality,

Maybe being a lesbian isn’t solely for your voyeuristic pleasure,

I am sick and tired of imaging if it were my sister, my daughter, my mother:

 

It is me.

 

“Lighten up, get over it.”

 

“I’d smash her back doors in, I’d pound her pussy.

Keep calm and rape on.

You wanted it because you didn’t explicitly say no.

If you’re happy and you know it show us your tits.

Make her a sex addict.

Very capable woman, if such a thing exists.

Women’s Running; lose weight, look good.

Men’s Running: get strong, run faster, be a better athlete.

She’s probs a dyke.”
Boobs are not news.

 

I am in the kitchen, dressed all in black.

My feet on fire and flailing; running up glass staircases

Because a job is a job.

Yet, we are so much more capable-

 

Than just being looked at.

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Reclaiming the Abject Female Body and Writing Against Mainstream Perceptions of Hygiene, Medicine and Sexuality; PART ONE by Aimee Bea

The flows of the female body have long been burdened with connotations and associations of disorder, impurity, defilement and danger, their disregard for social and cultural policing of bodily boundaries causes them to be loaded with significations of castration and entrapment. ‘It’s stickiness is a trap, it clings like a leech; it attacks the boundary between myself and it.[1]

The fear of being dragged unwillingly beyond the boundaries of the self by the contaminating viscosity and unrivalled stickiness of the female bodily flows stems from an inherent fear of abjection.  In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva’s 1941 essay on abjection, she describes the seemingly uncontrollable reaction of horror of that which flows from the body female or otherwise as a fear of the abject. According to Kristeva boundaries are put in place around the body and the self in order to protect from the indefinable, or that which exists outside of recognizable realms of signification. Fear of abjection shields the human conscious from facing the ultimate unknown, death and the cadaver, causing us to distance ourselves and our bodies from their natural flows, constructing social and cultural boundaries in order to discourage a decline into abjection or abject behavior.

The notion of the abject and its associations with danger are markedly more applicable to women. The biological flows of the female body are closely conflated with her social conduct. Perhaps the most obvious example of this are the behavioral connotations affiliated with a woman’s pre-menstrual state. In modern day western- society, it is not exclusively bodily flows that women are socially and culturally obliged to both conceal and remain in full control of at all times. Mainstream ideologies that inform ever-evolving standards for personal hygiene and beautification mean that the female body is caught in a constant flux over which they have little control. The continuous pressure for women to comply to such standards enforced and supported by mainstream media and the medical institution eludes to the attempted construction of an easily controllable female body that benefits phallocentric society. As the pressure of the restraints and conformities around the female body begin to infringe further onto the self, incorporating new standards for sexuality, internal and external bodily control, self-preservation and presentation, it is of little surprise that texts begin to surface from within feminist sub-cultures.

Charlotte Roche’s controversial novel Wetlands provides a shocking and excessive approach to the female body and sexuality. From the outset protagonist sixteen year-old Helen Memel challenges exactly what defines a socially clean and proper woman, ‘as far back as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids. For many, many years I thought I couldn’t tell anyone. After all, only grandfathers get hemorrhoids. I always thought they were very unladylike.’[2] Wetlands draws attention to the similarly excessive and unnecessary modern day standards of hygiene, beauty and sexuality

According to Elizabeth Grosz’s study, Volatile Bodies, the role of female flows in heterosexual sexual activity are ‘merely preparatory, the media or conduits for male sexual flow[3]’. Suggesting that complex attributes of female sexuality are overlooked by consideration of their functionality in regards to accommodating the male. Within masculine ideology the finalizing act of male ejaculation and the seminal fluid that it produces is representative of both male and female orgasm; Grosz comments on the performativity of male ejaculation, ‘his sexual specificity is not the object of the gaze but remains a mirror or rather a displacement of her pleasure (or at least his fantasy of her pleasure)[4]’. The routine and order that is imposed by male ejaculation suggests that men are able to exercise a degree of control over their bodily flows, unlike that of the female, whose inherent representation of the self and social behaviors causes these flows to appear disorderly and contaminating. This element of overriding control that the transmission of seminal fluids is dependent on, causes women’s bodies to be conceived as simply ‘receptacles of men’s body fluids and the nesting place of their product- the fetus.[5]’ Within Wetlands Roche rejects the reduction of female sexuality to it’s purely functional, reproductive means as Helen embraces the possession and release of seminal fluids,

The same can be done, of course, with cum that ends up in the pussy. Just don’t wash it away with a bidet! Instead, carry it proudly. To school for instance. Hours after sex it’ll ooze nice and warm out of your pussy- a little treat.[6]

By retaining and re-releasing semen from her vagina away from a sexualized male presence, Helen physically rejects the idea that female sexuality is purely reproductive. Helen’s release signified her re-claiming the finality of the male orgasm. The private control that Helen exercises over the ultimate release of the semen acts as a reminder of the ability within the female sexual organ for multiple orgasms.

… PART TWO COMING SOON!

By Aimee Bea Ballinger. 


[1] Purity and Danger (douglas 1980:38) look up reference.

[2] Charlotte Roche, Wetlands (London: Fourth Estate, 2009) p. 1

[3] Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994) p.196

[4] Volatile Bodies, p.199

[5] Volatile Bodies, p.202

[6] Wetlands, p.21

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