TROUBLING FEMINIST ART

Over the past half-decade, critical discourse surrounding the current state of feminism in contemporary art has been a topic of growing international interest. Many feminist-themed shows have dotted the museological landscape: these include ‘Elle@CentrePompidou’ (2009–2011) in Paris; ‘Wack! Art and the feminist revolution’ (2007), which was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and toured the United States and to Vancouver; and ‘Rebelle: kunst & feminisme 1969-2009’ (2009) at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem, The Netherlands, to name but a few. Ms. Magazine named 2007 as the unofficial year of feminist art, with numerous exhibitions, events and a feminist art conference. Locally, some forums, essays and exhibitions have addressed the idea of a new or revised concept of feminist art.1 The exhibition ‘Feminism Never Happened’ at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) indicated that this revision had arrived in Queensland.

In some respects, contemporary Australia does seem to pretend that ‘feminism never happened’. A distrust of women still shapes many aspects of Australian society—alongside that of new immigrants; Indigenous peoples; and any other groups that may upset a power balance that has over the years been relatively preserved despite decades of activism and policy change. Many young women are far more familiar with the public backlash against feminism, primarily fronted by a complacent, middle-class sense of equality, than with feminism itself.

This kind of social grounding, one that concerns itself with the continuing cultural disadvantages associated with the female gender, does not seem to be an easily identifiable influence in the realm of Australian contemporary art. In the IMA’s all-female exhibition, some Australian and New Zealand artists were shown to work in ambiguous ways to address the role of women and femininity in contemporary culture, if they addressed these issues at all. Unlike the way anti-racist politics are so innovatively and unrelentingly addressed by Indigenous artists such as Gordon Bennett, Richard Bell, or Fiona Foley (who also deals with gender, but was not included in Feminism Never Happened), there was no urgent sense of injustice—with regards to violence against women, masculine nationalism, discrimination, or patriarchal ownership—in the works on display. Instead, there were purposely indirect and indefinite treatments of feminine subjects in a context that curator Robert Leonard presented as having the potential to be received as either pro-feminist or anti-feminist. The show identified a specific trend in Australian and New Zealand art of the past two decades, especially in the work of women artists, who problematise ‘straight’ feminist art, at least as it was known in previous decades.

The works in the show could, as Leonard suggests, work as feminist paradox. While there were plenty of references to key themes of feminist discourse, such as motherhood, singledom and Virginia Woolf’s concept of ‘a room of one’s own’, manipulating the male gaze, and the commercialisation of women’s bodies, many works fell into the treacherous ground between pastiche and critique. Fiona Lowry’s light-touch imagery of young, naked women in the notorious murder site of Belanglo State Forest evoked the kind of deathly eroticism seen in the girl characters of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Lowry haunts the viewer with titles such as What I assume you shall assume. Yvonne Todd’s portraits of slightly unattractive young women, like Did anyone tell you that you’re pretty when you’re angry?, gently mocked glamour and fashion but still attracted the gaze because of her use of young, slim, half-dressed models. However, this was countered by the inclusion of a work from The Wall of Man series, in which a retirement-age, white man in a business suit smiles for his portrait.

While this indirect feminist expression may seem at the borderline of complacency, paradox is in fact a key strategy seen in many contemporary feminist art works in Australia and internationally. ‘Cooling out: on the paradox of feminism’, an exhibition and panel discussion that toured Switzerland, Germany and Ireland in 2006, suggested that paradox is sometimes a necessary conceptual stopgap ‘in the attempt to picture highly complex, contradictory and also confusing social-theoretical terms’.2 Many of the selected works incorporate themes and content that could be considered contradictory to feminism’s aims—cheerleaders, fashion, stripping, cosmetics, rap and heavy metal music—but were still presented as feminist art.

While intergenerational struggle has been a constant theme throughout feminism’s tumultuous history, contemporary feminist art—that is, the art of the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century—is defined by a distinct shift to the conceptual ‘third wave’ of feminism. Third-wave is an often-contested, ill-defined term, tainted by its early association with ‘new feminisms’ and catch-words such as ‘victimhood’ and ‘empowerment’, but its players have irreversibly challenged second-wave approaches to issues such as sexuality, race and globalisation, which has come to shape contemporary feminist art through an emphasis on intersection, self-consciousness, and even paradox.

Third-wave feminism is academically historicised by Carisa R. Showden as a discourse informed by various notions of new feminisms that began emerging in the 1980s and found momentum at the start of the 1990s.3 As daughters, both literally and allegorically, of the women’s liberation movement (second wave) of the 1970s, third-wave feminism is a rebellion against what was seen as the previous generation’s myopic and exclusionary strategies. Instead, ambiguity, contradiction, and a celebration of femininity and girlishness are themes that overlap in third-wave feminist thought. Many feminists, especially those who spent their formative years before or during the 1970s, consider post-feminism or third-wave another part of a widespread backlash against feminism. Contemporary feminisms appear in danger of ‘conflating consumerism with political action, personal change with political change, and cultural and cosmetic accommodations with economic and political restructuring’.4 However, by disregarding the third wave, Showden argues they risk undervaluing the irreversible contributions that third-wave feminists have made to contemporary social liberation movements and to feminist thought generally.

Feminism has developed into a highly sophisticated, sometimes internally conflicting, socio-political movement; and so has feminist art. Third-wave feminism’s openness to change and self-reflection thrives in the seemingly freewheeling pluralism that characterises contemporary art today. Due to the influence of third wave politics, feminist art’s scope is now wider, more ambiguous, more self-conscious, and more politically intersectional, than ever before.

Far from being something to eradicate or shy away from, third-wave feminism’s use of paradox is consciously mobilised. In academic discourse, paradox has been theorised as ‘a way to understand emergent identities, to develop new ways of thinking, and to imagine new forms of social action’.5 It can also be used to enhance one’s sense of agency. Cristina Tzintzún is one of a generation of feminist writers impassioned by the necessarily complex and perhaps unsolvable status of women across the globe, at the intersection of multiple identities: ‘I am the colonizer and the colonized, the exploiter and the exploited. I am confused yet sure. I am a contradiction.’6

One such example of the impact third-wave politics has had on recent contemporary feminist art is seen in ‘Global feminisms: new directions in contemporary art’ (2007). This was the maiden exhibition for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. The show, co-curated by Linda Nochlin and the centre’s founding curator Maura Reilly, was one of the most genuinely groundbreaking events in the current revision of feminist art because it applied distinctly contemporary feminist politics to its curatorial rationale in a way that had never previously been articulated. It brought together women artists from each continent, from places as disparate as the Czech Republic, Bolivia and the Philippines, and promoted itself as the first major all-female exhibition to be so global in scale. This was quite a claim in 2007, given the vast number of international art events and biennales, but perhaps it indicates how new and current this international revision (or boom) of feminist art is in art history.

Despite what could be called ‘traditional’ feminist methods—such as the curators’ woman-only policy when selecting artists—the focus was informed by third-wave feminist principles developed in the last two decades. Global feminism, a strand of contemporary feminist thought and action devoted to women and globalisation, is cited in the show’s title, but the curatorial rationale included many other third-wave principles. Rather than focusing on the differences between men and women, it created intellectual space for an emphasis on the differences among women and the ways in which feminisms (and contemporary art) travel and adapt to various locations around the globe.7 Nochlin and Reilly’s production invested in contemporary discourse concerned with the disintegration of East and West, Third World and First World, and the importance of women’s various regional differences. Overall, the selected artists demonstrated the intersectionality of contemporary, third-wave feminism with other identity politics to do with race, class, colonialism, language, religion, and so on. In Global Feminisms, the curators used third-wave politics to facilitate a diverse but inclusive dialogue.

When Maura Reilly spoke about the production of ‘Global Feminisms’ at the Institute of Modern Art in 2010, the more interesting parts of this show’s underlying concepts were neglected and overshadowed by talk surrounding whether or not women artists were still marginalised. As explored in Reilly’s essay in the Global Feminisms catalogue, female artists—and ‘artists of colour’—now win more prizes, have more educational opportunities in the arts, feature in important collections, and are highly visible in galleries, in the media, and on the art scene in general.8 However, statistically, women are still considerably disadvantaged compared to male artists in many areas of the art world. For non-white artists, the statistics are even worse. Locally, the same kinds of unequal ratios exist, so much so that some artists and dealers shun feminism as the ‘f’ word.9

While it is perhaps disappointing for some feminists to find so much contemporary feminist art disengaged from direct critique, this is only a reflection of feminism’s often invisible role in contemporary Australian society. There is no anger in the works in Feminism Never Happened, rather, there is a cool analysis that uses contradiction and humour to distance the artists from their politics. In other words, it allows for one to see the art through the trees. If this was intended by the artists, it has certainly been a successful strategy: as one impressed visitor observed to me, the works are feminist but ‘not in a depressing way’.

In a forum held on the closing weekend of Feminism Never Happened, many of the panellists commented on Anastasia Klose’s video, Film for my Nanna (2006), to make points about both the continuing existence or non-existence of feminist expression in contemporary Australian art. Her work, first shown in Brisbane at the University of Queensland Art Museum in 2008, records Klose walking around the Melbourne CBD in a daggy wedding gown and a handwritten sign that says ‘NANNA I AM STILL ALONE’ around her neck. The work is intentionally disarming in its amateur-ish production, complete with a sentimental background song. While one panellist saw in the work an intense self-consciousness, others saw the artist’s daring to make contact with the world around her. The artist herself has spoken about the work in public on a number of occasions. Klose recalls how scared she was during the filming process, but sees risks as an essential part of her art production. Klose’s self-effacing humour and brave candour, and its potential for feminist paradox, gives the work accessibility that is almost mandatory in contemporary feminist expression in Australian art.

notes: 

1. See Alexie Glass, ‘Extimacy: a new generation of feminism’, Art & Australia, volume 47, issue 1, pp.132–140; Melissa Miles, ‘Whose Art Counts?’, Art Monthly Australia, no. 224, 2009, p.8. Gertrude Contemporary Art held a forum on feminist art also with the title Feminism Never Happened, but the two events are not related.

2. Pühl, K., ‘From woman to gender and back again? Or: why paradoxes are not self-explanatory’, 2008, in S. Schaschl-Cooper, B. Steinbrügge & R. Zechlin (eds.), Cooling out: on the paradox of feminism (pp.26-33), JRP Ringier, Zurich, p.27.

3. Showden, C. R., What’s political about the new feminisms? Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 30 (2), 2009, pp.166-198, p.178.

4. Ibid., p.166.

5. Renegar, V. R., & Sowards, S. K., ‘Contradiction as agency: self-determination, transcendence, and counter-imagination in third wave feminism’, Hypatia, 24 (2), 2009, pp.1-20.

6. Cristina Tzintzún, ‘Colonize This!’ in Colonize This! Young women of color on today’s feminism, eds. D. Hernandez & B. Rehman, Seal Press, New York, 2002, p.17.

7. Friedman, S. S., Mappings: feminism and the cultural geographies of encounter, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998, p.69.

8. Reilly, M., ‘Introduction: Toward Transnational Feminisms’, in M. Reilly & L. Nochlin (eds.), Global feminisms: new directions in contemporary art, Brooklyn Museum, New York, pp.14-45.

9. Miles, M., ibid., pp.5-8.

Emily Wakeling is an art writer currently based in Tokyo.