Bodies of violence

Screen shot 2013-03-03 at 20.29.12‘Feminist art of the 1970s sometimes has a reputation for being combative and crass’ says Artlyst’s review of ‘Body I Am’ with Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke and Birgit Jürgenssen. Combative and crass it bloody well was, to the image of the violent and crass socio-political climate of the time to which it directly responded. Combative and crass as opposed to the gentle and elegant reputation attached to a certain feminine art practice until then. The late Helen Frankenthaler comes to mind as one of the few women artists who dared working in the macho Abstract Expressionist genre in the 1950s. Not surprisingly, many critics saw her watercolour-based expressionist paintings as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in colour and too ‘poetic’. Women’s art has always been judged as ‘too’, always compared negatively to men’s work. Combative and crass is just the other face of the same coin.

1970’s feminist art is indeed violent and crude, both in its form and content, radically departing from the orthodox, institutional art practices, displacing art from the gallery to the streets and from the object to the messy, political subject ‘I’ and its body. Performance art was one of the most potent art forms harnessed by feminists to expose the everyday violence against women, both in the art world and society. Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965) subverted Pollock’s macho action painting by crouching on the floor and squirting paint from a brush attached to her waist. In a more urgent vein, following the rape and murder of a student at the university of Iowa in 1973, Ana Mendieta smeared herself with blood, tied herself to a table in her flat and invited an audience in to bear witness to the atrocity through its re-enactment. In Untitled (Self-portrait with Blood) (1973), a series of six photographs showing her face covered in blood, the victim she portrays becomes an undesirable object – assaulted, catalogued and put away in a police or medical archive.

Screen shot 2013-03-03 at 20.35.01The blunt representation of violence by women is not restricted to the feminist art revolution of the late 60’s. A few hundreds years earlier, Artemisia Gentileschi responded to the subject of sexual assault in a personal and particularly visceral way, subverting traditional painting and the masculine gaze with off-the-wall techniques and composition. In Suzanna and the Elders (1610), she directs the conspiratorial glance of one of the Elder towards the viewer, by which they become witness and potential accomplice. As one of the two most important Carravagisti of the period[1], she rejected idealisation in favour of naturalistic details and contemporary settings, and painted with vivid colours and powerful chiaroscuro that emphasized the three-dimensional form. The ferocious energy and sustained violence of Judith Decapitating Holofernes (c.1618) is often read in connection to her own personal experience as a rape victim. Although she shared some of the lurid details, styles and the theme of female heroines with that of other painters of the 17th century, her celebration of female physicality and energy, expressed without frills or seduction and in direct rather than arrested action, was found to be ‘profoundly alien to the prevailing artistic temper’[2] of the period.

The purpose of this rather loose connection (between a 17th century female painter and 70’s feminist artists) is twofold: to show that they share a degree of unrestrained anger and brutal, obscene gestures, but also a great deal of subversion and wit; and that these cultural notions are relative to the socio-political circumstances and the artistic practice and discourse in which the work was produced. It would be as misleading to take Gentileschi’s bloody heroines outside the context of 17th century painting, as it is to separate militant feminist art practice from the context of the multitude of radical movements of the late 1960s and label it as ‘combative and crass’. Not only feminist but Fluxus artists, extreme video collectives, performance artists and a plethora of socio-political activists fought for all kinds of social changes through their art by entangling their own life with it and creating a messy, explosive multimedia landscape that still resonates strongly with us today – as an intelligent whole. Carolee Schneemann slowly extracting a scroll from her vagina from which she reads, is no crasser than Vito Acconci masturbating under a fake gallery floor, and no more combative than Ant Farm video artists driving a car at high-speed into a wall of burning TV sets.

After 40 years of social and gender activism, the forms and discourses of the feminist artistic landscape have evolved in ways that may seem less urgent and infinitely more complex within our increasingly globalised and mediatised world.

Last week Cuntemporary curated an evening of films, talk and performances, Bodies of Silence (no3), to coincide with One Billion Rising: A Global Movement to end Violence against Women and Girls. The work on show explored the ethical and political implications of silence as a by-product of traumatic crime. Mostly explicit in their political activism, the films and performances played with language and gesture, visual, aural and bodily (dis)connections, intimacy and sport, personal narrative, trauma and (loss of) memory, voyeurism and the politics of silencing from the streets to the deepest confine of the self. The best work was the films of Regina Jose Galindo, whose often short and brutal staging of her own body under physical attack or abuse expose racial and gender discriminations and wider social injustices. Screen shot 2013-03-04 at 01.04.56In Perra/Bitch (2000) she carves the name ‘bitch’ on her leg by using a sharpened knife, reminding of Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664) by Elisabetta Sirani, a contemporary of Gentileschi. The painting portrays Brutus’ wife stabbing herself in her leg as an act of bravery to prove her virtue and be recognised as a man. Interestingly, as the volubility of women was often used as a metaphor for their uncontrolled desires, this sexual gesture is also an act of (self-)silencing within dominant, male society, as Portia tries to remove herself from the world of women (who spin and gossip in another room) in order to prove her political worth and gain a public status. In both women’s work, the act of silencing, as that of penetration, operate perniciously as a form of self-inflicted pain towards the dangerous, disorderly female body.

Another noticeable performance was the humorous, and a little wacky, re-enactement of two synchronished swimmers’ choregraphy by Beatrice Bonafini and Cicilia Granara. Trotting about on stage, holding their breath and giggling, they revealed the strength and complicity of the female athletes, undermining perhaps the derogatory connotations attached to this hyper-feminine sport.

One criticism goes to the Q&A session between director of Cuntemporary Giulia Casalini with artist Şükran Moral. If the main goal of feminism is to challenge the status-quo and to re-invent a socio-political reality that gives women and minorities a voice out of the dominant order, then feminist organisations should stay well clear of rigid, institutionalised models of talks and presentations à la Tate which re-instate the very system they want to get rid off. The cracks that are created by trying to fit, rather than subvert, existing ruling systems reveal the inadequacy of such systems for moving forward. I wish they had played instead on the possibilities created by the surrounding intimacy of the place and the loose, slow evening time, I wish they had experimented with the unorthodox crowd that had gathered in support of One Billion Rising, I wish there had not been a Q&A session at all, but instead, the performance of one, where failure and dumbness and silencing were intentionally staged and truly subversive of our expectations. A lost opportunity for Cuntemporary to deepen and refine the discourse it had started with Bodies of Silence and ask about feminism’s failures, legacies and possibilities, to show that failure is deep within the cracks and that our strategies should focus there, whatever the means, in the in-between of cultural practices, negotiation and production that cannot – yet – be spoken of.

Body I am, Jacques Alison Gallery
Bodies of Silence no3 – when words are made flesh, Cuntemporary.org


[1] Ward Bissell identified her as one of the two most important Caravaggisti to reach maturity between 1610 and 1620

[2] Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art and Society, Thames and Hudson, 1996

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~ by lavivette on February 26, 2013.

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