Liquid assets

Susan F. Gray
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

Recently, in the press, there has been some talk about the 'new feminism'. Briefly, 'lipstick feminism', as an articulation or recuperation of the feminine in the feminist, claims that women really do enjoy the beauty regime. Further it claims that anyone who would seek to discredit women's attachment to and identification with plucking and preening as a form of oppression is espousing an anachronistic doctrine which censures particular choices individual women make about their own identities.

Certain assumptions made in this debate seem to resonate in Susan F. Gray's work, Liquid Assets, part of the Beauty Fluid series in which she addresses advertising as a cultural institution. Liquid Assets featured three site-specific installations: a bus shelter advertisement, a light show at the Institute of Modern Art and a peep show at the 49 James Street gallery. Through these works Gray explores the relationship between advertising and audience. Beauty Fluid questions how the feminine is both constructed and commodified, via beauty/cosmetics advertising, as spectacle. Her parodic works tease out some of the complexities that women might experience in relation to a phallologocentric and commodified notion of feminine beauty in which nature and culture clash. Gray leaves her questions open-ended and they operate as a crack in an otherwise smooth foundation, leaving spaces through which alternate representations can seep into the public realm.

Of course, it seems absurd to assert that the 'beauty myth', as Naomi Wolf has argued, enslaves women and is a tyrannical and seductive trap in which women are imprisoned and in which they imprison themselves.[1] As the Beauty Liquid project seems to convey, it seems absurd to assert that women have so little power. Instead, there is likely to be greater efficacy in challenging and interrogating how beauty, as a cultural value, is constituted, commodified and made operational. Gray's ironic sensibility brings pressure to bear on the conflict between nature and culture, its myriad writings of the feminine and the levels of control, disgust and repulsion which are directed at women's bodily fluids or corporeal fluidity. In asserting that it is unsatisfactory to posit women as readily available for construction by the media, Gray's work states that women's individual positionalities provide more scope to establish both authority and agency.

Central to this project is the notion of 'fluid' through which ideas about the feminine are raised: abjection, sexuality, corporeality, biology, economics, subjectivity. The flow of some fluids pollutes and needs to be kept in abeyance while the flow of others purifies. More specifically, it is the flow of fluids from women's bodies that requires curtailing. According to Elizabeth Grosz, a relationship between feminine corporeality and fluidity emerges whereby "women... are represented and live themselves as seepage, liquidity. The metaphorics of uncontrollability, the ambivalence between desperate, fatal attraction and strong revulsion, the deep-seated fear of absorption, the association of femininity with contagion and disorder, the undecidability of the limits of the female body…, its powers of cynical seduction and allure are all common themes in literary and cultural representations of women."[2]

Gray's works act as solicitation, a coercion which, like advertising, seems to promise an indefinable pleasure, but delivers something quite contrary. In a spectacle of coloured light, the words "Beauty Fluid" are luminescent, a laser treatment for a tired facade. The flow of light belies the flow of fluids. In a street level peep show, the glossy, pink veneer provides flimsy camouflage for a toxic undertaking, begging the question about which sites are sites of toxicity and which are sites of cleanliness. Peepholes overflow with sticky pink goo, while satin slides against smooth pink parts. This is not sleaze, the illicit glimpse of a stripshow, but viscera. It is both inviting and repellent, moist and warm and all too bodily, mocking the gallery's candy-striped facade. Meanwhile, an overwhelming petro-chemical smell permeates the air. Clearly, not all things pink are benign. Herein an active feminine (fluid and all) threatens to explode the paradigm of feminine passivity and mystique.

notes: 

[1] Naomi Wolf. The Beauty Myth, Chatto and Windus, London, 1990, pp. 1-8

[2] Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Alien and Unwin, Sydney, 1994, p. 203