Frames of reference

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 14:51 -- damien
Aspects of feminism and art

Including work by forty artists, Frames of Reference served as a major focus for the larger Dissonance Project, an ' umbrella' event comprising exhibitions, lectures, and screenings on feminism and visual art. That the quality and nature of the work in Frames varied greatly, yet has been criticised in terms of its supposed homogeneity, raises relevant issues on the perception of the role of theory in feminist work. For Jacques Delaruelle, reviewing this exhibition for The Sydney Review, "the long accusatory finger of radical artistic consciousness" was peremptorily prominent. 1 I would argue that the posturing to which this comment refers is characteristic only of work that reflects a poor apprehension and a misreading of theoretical concerns, rather than problematising the embeddedness of "Theory" in artwork. Indeed, examination of subjectivity and an emphasis on theory do not necessarily constitute "radical closure", nor do they preclude engagement with the social, as Delaruelle laments in his review. Moreover, it has not always been so, in the history of art, that theory-driven work was regarded in terms of aesthetic impoverishment: quite the contrary.

With this in mind, one could say that a lack in, for instance, Elizabeth Newman's work was occasioned by the way theory was used, rather than a focus on theory, per se: In work like this, polemic has been confused with an ability to propagate cliches that threaten to subsume any real subversive or revelative content feminism may possess.

As well, the 'misuse' of theory (to the extent that this is so), can be explained in terms of a perception of marginality that arms itself for combat with " the mainstream", when in fact, much of "the marginal" is part of the mainstream, or part of a mainstream of women's work. The blandness of Sue Norrie's exquisitely poised painting/easel in Frames, for instance, which seeks to deconstruct "mainstream" bourgeois sensibilities, can also be read as an exploitation of the position the work attempts to occupy. As Elizabeth Gertsakis pointed out at the Dissonance Conference, the cacophony of the centre parading as the margin serves only to obscure and erase actual difference by speaking in its place.

Where, then, is the marginal? It is still located where it always was; among the disenfranchised and the dislocated, and not among those accepted by any mainstream. To its credit, Frames did, within the scope of its brief, attempt to represent some artists who could lay claim to marginality . However, one cannot help but imagine the riches an exhibition with a broader framework might have yielded for feminism had it accommodated older women artists such as Joan Brassil; or artists like Rosalie Gascoigne or Ann Thomson, who do not necessarily regard their work in feminist terms; or expatriates, other than Julie BrownRrap, such as Simone Mangos; or a greater proportion of Aboriginal artists and artists of non-English-speaking background; or, for that matter, more artists from locations other than Sydney and Melbourne, although Tasmania seemed adequately represented.

That Frames of Reference's least effective work reflected difference as consonant with an agenda was most apparent in work dealing with concerns that have become so much a part of the lexicon that there is very little utility in re-engaging what have become tired modes of discourse. For an artist to make work that reawakens us to the pertinence and urgency of the politics of the gaze, the colonisation of "the exotic", the problematisation of authorship and "the authentic" in object-based work, the elision of "the other", and so on, requires a rigourous piquancy that has been short in supply.

Several of the artists in Frames did, however, succeed in finding resonant meaning in work that reflected apparent theoretical concerns in terms of an engagement with the social, contra Delaruelle. Among these was Kate Lohse's installation of a red neon sign emblazoned "Feminism" in a flowing script, perched on the bottom of an enclosure deep as a mine shaft. Its light cast a eerie red glow on the rubble upon which it lay, causing the green of the otherwise foul sea beneath The Wharf to emit its own spectral light. It seemed to straddle both the precariousness of feminism in its present state of flux, and the possibility of a peculiar kind of beauty in the face of uncertainty and loss.

Also striking in its impact was Rebecca Cummin's Descending Metaphors, a tower of black monitors reaching almost to the top of the space, on which military phrases from the Gulf War such as "Target Rich Environment", "Asset Suppression", and "Negative Human Response" (meaning dead) scrolled down theĀ  series of screens. One was aware of the surreal transformation of actual destruction to a silent litany of codes, phrases, and electronic grids which "operate to render invisible the human realities of war" . 2 Its monolithic presence was reminiscent of the black reflective wall of the famous Vietnam Memorial erected in Washington, DC, which is inscribed across its considerable length with the names of the American dead.

Similarly, Ann Wulff's The Time Keepers, also about, in part, the role of electronic media in coverage of the Gulf War, effectively conveyed an oppressive sense of dread and the peculiar dislocation of experiencing an absent horror via imaging systems. Images of people (women?) passing through enclosed spaces placed on the installation surround, suggested hidden-camera security photographs, as well as the claustrophobia of A journey through the portals of some dark labyrinth- a Dantean voyage through a modern Hell. A ticking device placed in the centre of the installation conflated notions of weaponry (a bomb), the passing of time, and surveillance equipment.

In her catalogue statement, Wulff traced a personal history of engagement with feminism that typified the changes in feminist work over the past twenty years, from the militancy and overt strategy of the '70s, via Angela Davis, Freud, sexual politics, and semiotics to the present emphasis on deconstruction and subjectivity. Tellingly, Wulff commented that recent work must be read "between the lines" as it does not necessarily make feminism explicit. Indeed, much of the more successful work in Frames, if feminist, was implicitly so, in the sense that it favoured a complex interweaving of issues that approached its referent in terms of an openness of metaphor.

The most subtle of such work foregrounded concerns centring on felt experience and the tangible materiality of the body. Liz Coats's delicate paintings pulsed with the ferment of the silent, involuntary processes of the internal, in which one might consider the body as a site "where churning occurs and heat con- Ann Wulff, The Time Keepers, 1991. From Frames of Reference. denses" and one can sense "the breakdown of matter and its reformation". The unsympathetic placement of these paintings on partitions next to a raucous work on sexual politics by Shiralee Saul (which imply a different meaning entirely for pulsing and churning), evoked a sense of the work's vulnerability which Coats's remark in the catalogue, "The house is burning and I am still here!" seems to confirm.

Functioning as a locale for a stillness in the maelstrom of the exhibition, Hilarie Mais's constructions revealed a rhythmic interplay of form, shadow, and subtle manipulation of colour. Likewise, Janet Laurence's Forensic, a wall grouping of lead panels and boxes containing ash, straw, and photos of fur, provided a series of contemplative phrases which seemed to engage the viewer in an haptic sense necessitating the tactile presence of the materials used. Ann Graham's Hot Water, a installation of waxen wall panels over which were suspended bare light bulbs, suggested the fervent meditativeness of a devotional space, the bulbs overhead seemed like the obverse of an array of votive candles. Acupuncture needles stuck into a wax block on a metal trolley introduced an ambiguousness that could have referred to either healing or torture.

The aura of decay permeating the disused Wharf seemed entirely appropriate both to Graham's installation and to that of Emma Rooney, who had organized the box-like space into a semblance of a domestic dereliction that caused one to imagine some shambling figure living there. Peculiar relics related by eccentric metaphor were grouped around the periphery of this "room": broken bottoms of bottles joined by

wire to resemble glasses; shreds of an old felt hat nailed like strips of leather to the wall; and a coat or shirt that appeared to be sewn together from yellowed, rotting newsprint or fabric and which reminded the person with whom I saw this exhibition of the garment of skin assembled by the murderous psychopath of Silence of the Lambs. Rooney explores the peculiar mysteries of personal history with curiosity and inventiveness. The silences left in the wake of memory and abjection have left her with fertile material indeed for future work.

It could be conjectured that such a feminism, while conversant with whatever materials may be necessary for the deployment of a particular strategy or for the voicing of a specific sensibility, regards matter primarily in terms of its suppleness and presence, rather than its rhetorical use-value. As such, Kathy Temin's large synthetic fur floor and wall sculptures illustrate an inappropriate prioritising of the latter. While fulfilling her proposed brief to reverse the hierarchy of craft materials by utilising the "lower and more sensuous (materials) within the hierarchy of craft", the works did not reveal the sensitivity to these very materials requisite for an examination of the soft toy as "a container for emotional investment" or for the soft forms to be loaded with the pathos and devotion implied by this project. Of course, sensitivity to materials occurs in other, perhaps overlapping, discourses as well. By comparison, Hany Armanious succeeded where Temin fell short: his work in Perspecta was precisely about the subtle transformation of the humblest materials to objects, however sagging and worn, that are redeemed by love 's concern and reshaped into mnemonic icons.

Overall, the work that succeeds in Frames does so because it eschews the glib 1980s equivalent of a 1970s rhetoric which had the unfortunate side effect of proscribing some models while facilitating others. Useful in its place is a feminism that implicitly informs the conception of a work and the processes by which it is articulated without foreclosure, and allows space for both the political and the poetic. This does not signify "post-feminism" or the lack of a need for feminism, but a response by feminism to its own changing circumstances

It is not surprising that feminist criticism, for the most part, is comfortable with the very aspects of an artwork that most seem to annoy a number of predominantly male critics: an emphasis on what gets labelled theory with a capital "T". It is difficult to determine the extent to which such plaints, specifically directed, are legitimate (that is when work is dogmatic, simplistic, or reflective of a misreading), or are derived from a generalised desire to defuse feminism's more pointed criticisms by asserting that reliance on Theory reflects a bankrupt aesthetics, or worse, fashionable carping. However, in order to maintain a subversiveness and relevance, which is characteristic of a type of discourse that Diane Losche (Dissonance Conference paper) likens to a cargo cult, criticism by women of women's work must become more accommodating to art that demands the sort of interaction to which Brigitte Carcenac has referred as occasioning a multiplicity, a "slippage between terms", that renders unanticipated meanings from a juxtaposition of metaphor and an implication of the materiality of the viewer. In a sense, disavowal of such an implication presumes a position of an objectified separateness, a privilege inconsistent with many of feminism's concerns.

Losche urges a further theorising of the (gendered) viewer: this useful indication of an area that may prove fruitful seems to occur at a time when feminism's contents and methods appear mutable and its future at the present difficult to determine. This should not silence debate. However, in speaking on a fluid apprehension of metaphor that enables her to approach work in its own field of presence / language, Carcenac reveals a lacuna in feminist art criticism where precisely this fragile connection fails to occur.

notes: 

1. Jacques Delaruelle, "Sustaining Fictions", The Sydney Review, No. 35, Sept 91 , p. 15

2. All quotes other than those of Jacques Delaruelle have been excerpted from artists' statements in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.