Friday 14 October 2016

Feminism and 'Flesh' talk continued

Below is the rest of my talk from the York Art Gallery on 'Flesh' and feminism. 

Lynda Benglis

This sculpture, entitled Eat Meat was made in the late 1960s and comprises of a cast of piled layers of polyurethane foam. While Benglis originally constructed these sculptures from the foam itself, in order to make them more permanent, she decided to cast them in lead and steel, which consequently results in a strange and counter-intuitive relationship between materials and shape, so that hard materials look soft, like lava, as if melting and in motion[1].

Instead of appearing to stand erect, this soft sculpture refers to a weighty body, at times even fatigued and drooping. Minimalism in the 1960s was indeed a male-dominated movement led by Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Dan Flavin to name a few, wherein the body was implicated more as a spectator in relation to structures, their design overtly repelling bodily or organic associations. The shift in the late 60s to soft sculpture, adopted by both male and female artists, some of which include Richard Serra, Eva Hesse and of course Benglis, succeeded not only in maintaining a relational and experiential encounter between viewer and artwork, but it also necessarily worked to inlay the body within the sculpture itself, rendering it organic and anthropomorphic. In this way, the meeting between viewer and sculpture is one between two bodies and as such, insists on a kind of mutual understanding of one another, namely on a respectful interaction.

In these works, there is a stark attention given to matter and the ways in which each material has certain qualities that are specific to them and moreover, how gravity impacts the ways in which they fall or sit and relate to their surroundings. By attending to the materiality of the works, and by giving it priority in the making process, there is a certain attribution of agency allowed for so that the objects become beings of influence that are not only present but also active in their interaction with the viewer. In his writings on ‘thing theory’, Bill Brown argues that an object becomes a thing when it fails to function for us, or in other words, when it is no longer of productive use to serve human action. As such, the object becomes a thing in its own right and declares itself agential so that we might alter our perception of it and relate to it as an animated and thus equal entity. If minimalist work was deemed, perhaps unfairly, too object-like, as argued by Michael Fried in his famous essay, “Art and Objecthood”, so that it failed to signify as art, Benglis’s work announces itself as a thing rather than an object. By this, I mean that there is no possible function that can be attributed to these works. Rather, they insist the viewer change his or her perception and approach towards these extraordinary objects and think about how we as humans relate to the differing bodies around us.

These works by Benglis resemble melting lava or some other viscous substance in the process of being poured and spreading on the ground. Although they are not actually in motion, their reference to movement and succumbing to gravity is palpable and gives the viewer the impression that the sculpture is not static but temporal, unfolding slowly. This not only adds to the feeling of activity and vitality in the work, but it also forces to viewer to address sharing the space with these strange beings and the ways in which their materiality impacts the flow of inhabiting and moving around the gallery space. What I wish to express here is that these sculptures are feminist beyond the fact that they were produced by a woman artist and exhibited popularly in their own time given the male-dominated art world led by minimalism. Rather, by implicating the body directly into the sculpture so that the viewer is confronted with a body of sorts, declaring itself organic in form and brining to light process and movement, Benglis succeeds in facilitating a relational encounter that demands mutual respect between different bodies.

Jo Spence

These photographs by British photographer Jo Spence are part of a larger project that took place between 1982 and 1986 entitled ‘The Picture of Health?’ documenting, albeit most creatively, her emotional and physical struggle with breast cancer. There are two ways in which I want to talk about this. The first relates to the way these images subvert the long history of depicting the female nude in art and the second is about the ownership of these images and asking questions like: who are they for? What is their purpose?

If we consider briefly the history of art and of photography and cinema, it becomes evident fairly quickly that most representations of the female nude have been produced by male authors, and most of the time, with a male audience in mind. In her widely read essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey argues that male filmmakers have historically and continue to frame women in such a way that establishes active and passive roles, whereby the man or viewer is the subject who inflicts his gaze on the passive female object. Moreover, Lynda Nead in her discussion on “Framing the Female Nude” discusses how artistic renderings of Venus or other female nudes have been depicted and allowed only insofar as she is “hermetically sealed”. By this she means that nudes were accepted as such because there was no reference to any kind of orifice or leakage that would suggest an actual body, setting as binaries “the ideal and the polluted”[2].

Jo Spence’s self-portraits work in the exact opposite way and directly challenge the history of depicting female nudes. Instead of having the perfectly smooth and enclosed body, she presents herself as a body that is not only fighting illness, but one that also declares its self-ownership. Her pose is for herself, and if it may extend beyond it, it is surely not for the pleasure of a dominating male gaze, but for other women who can relate to her struggle and to the occupation of her body by disease. Just as she does not succumb to the male gaze, she is no less resistant to cancer: this body is the property of Jo Spence, the fighter and survivor.

In this project, she explored the potential of what she called ‘photo-therapy’ to help her in her healing process regarding the illness that affected her in a multitude of ways. Through this method of self-documentation, Spence wished to, in her words, “go beyond demystifying the commercial production of popular photography”[3]. She describes the process in the following way: “photographic sessions take place in a studio ‘play space’ where we use techniques of counselling, gestalt, visualization, ritualization, making of previous psychodramatic representations, starting with raw materials of previous psychotherapy sessions as a kind of working hypothesis”[4].

Terry Dennet, a former friend and collaborator of Spence, explains that in her phototherapy, she used scripted and staging techniques as a predetermined prompt on how to commence a sensation as at times, the illness would cause ‘stress’ and ‘disorientation’ that might effect the session. He explains one of her methods as the ‘intruder system’ which he describes as the following: “an intruder is something that should not be in the picture something to stop the normalized reading of the image thus forcing the viewer to rethink the form and the content of the picture – if the intruder is carefully chosen it can result in a memorable image of great iconic power”[5]. As such, Spence puts a new spin on the concept of the intruder and does not allow the cancer intruder in her body take over. Instead, she appropriates the term intruder for her own empowerment and makes use of it as a photographic method to produce meaningful images.

Gina Pane

Gina Pane is a French artist who worked in the tradition of body art and performance beginning in the1960s along with artists such as Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Yoko Ono. These artists performed publicly and facilitated situations in which the audience was invited either to witness or take part in an event occurring to the body of the artist. Famously, Yoko Ono sat in a gallery and invited audience members to take a pair of scissors and cut bits of her clothing off until she was exposed to them. These performances were designed as creative social experiments to shed light on and challenge cultural taboos, ethics and moral behavior and to expose the degrees of violence that people are capable of.

Pane described this work, ‘Sentimental Action’, in own words as a “projection of intra space” that relate to “the magic mother/child relationship, symbolized by death… a symbolic relationship by which one discovers different emotional solutions”[1]. The photographs show moments in the performance where Pane, dressed in white, injected thorns from a bouquet of white roses into her arms and then using a razor blade, cut her hand, spilling the blood into the roses turning them red. The blood coming from her hand is symbolic of both the rose and the vagina.

Art historian Amelia Jones writes that: “Pane articulates through self-wounding what many feminist artists making vaginal or ‘cunt’ art stated they were attempting to convey in the 1970s: the pain of being female can be viewed as signified through the female body, felt but also signified as open and bleeding”[2]. In this regard, we might consider how Pane’s performance is the ultimate dissolution of the barrier of inside and outside as she literally makes the inside of her body visible to the audience, addressing the pains, wounds and bleeding that the female body endures. If we consider anew Pane’s description of this performance or ‘action’ as she preferred to call it, as ‘intra space’ many interpretations arise. Firstly, this is a space that is about both the inside and outside of the body but it is also one of making emotion and pain, that which cannot be seen, palpable and visible so to arouse a compassionate response from the viewer.

In an essay entitled “Specular Suffering: (Staging) the Bleeding Body” Mary Richards recounts a biblical reading of Pane’s self wounding actions as being Christ-like and about empathy so like Christ and the other saints, the audience would compassionately feel and share the suffering, “etched on the memory through ocular and visceral intensities”[3]. This inspiring of empathy however is not about pity but rather about an understanding of the physical and emotional wounds of women who have been severely impacted by sexism, both psychically and physically.

It should be noted briefly as well that there has been much discussion on the ephemerality of performance art and how to document or cement the event so that it continues to be a relevant work of art. In this case, what remains is a series of photographs that viscerally depict Pane’s process. Interestingly enough, however, this particular piece is so much about colour and seeing the red of the rose as well as the of the blood coming from her body which gets lost in the photographs as flesh becomes black and white, and in a sense, more neutral, less intimate and certainly easier to stomach.

[1] Quote by Gina Pane as found in Lippard, “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth”, 137-8.

[2] Jones, “Performing the Wounded Body”, 54.

[3] Richards, “Specular Suffering”, 112.

[1] Tate blurb on “Quartered Meteor”.

[2] Nead, “Framing the Female Nude”, 8.

[3] Spence, “Disrupting the Silence”, 56.

[4] Spence, “Disrupting the Silence”, 56.

[5] Dennett, “Jo Spence’s auto-therapeutic survival strategies”, 232.

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