remaking gender trouble: a deconstruction

fiona macdonald and therese mastroiacovo: access restricted
Light Projects, Melbourne
May 2010

Fiona Macdonald has recently collaborated with Thérèse Mastroiacovo, an artist from Montreal, on an installation work titled Access Restricted. Alex Martinis Roe, who entered into a written dialogue with Macdonald to create the text for the small room brochure, joined the collaboration. Access Restricted is a double-side poster installed in the gallery with the wall side obscured.

The ‘work’ is a re-make of a 1974 poster by Lynda Benglis. Mastroiacovo, in conceptual collaboration with Macdonald, redraws a page from a little known book about New York art which includes an illustration of a photograph of Lynda Benglis which was used as a poster to advertise one of her exhibitions.1 The image itself was an engagement with Robert Morris, Benglis’s then partner, who had also appeared in an advertisement in Artforum as a masculine prototype of the heroic avant-garde artist.

Posing nude apart from a pair of sunglasses, Benglis holds a large double-headed dildo between her legs. Originally taken out as a centrefold advert in Artforum in 1974, the image caused considerable controversy at the time as the editors of the magazine reviled over the indecency of the image. The essential issue for Macdonald et al is that Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson joined five of the six associated editors and published a letter to the then editor-in-chief, John Coplans, saying they were offended by the ‘extreme vulgarity’ of the picture. It was said to have ‘made a shabby mockery’ of ‘the movement for women’s liberation’.2 Krauss and Michelson subsequently went on to found the journal October and in 2009, in response to an article in the New York Times by Roberta Smith, which detailed the Benglis incident in Artforum in 1974, they tried to distance themselves from the furore by stressing that their concern was primarily with the ‘advert’ as a commercial intervention into the magazine.3

Benglis’s centrefold advert has become a complex signature work for gender studies and feminism but also, importantly, the political makeup of the art world. On one level it is an iconic statement—a retort to the phallocentric canon of modern art; on another it created a critical and at times hysterical reaction within the art world which has provided rich source material to enable revisionist critics to uncover the ideologies in place amongst the reigning taste-makers of the time. In its re-make form—Macdonald, Mastroiacovo and Martinis Roe mine the textual analysis of this work to present a witty but intensive deconstruction of art history.

The collaborative re-make is part of an on-going collaboration between Macdonald and Mastroiacovo titled the Redrawing Project (circa 2008-10). Both artists are well versed in deconstructivist theory, which they use to interrogate the spectacular in modern/postmodern art, and both artists work around the border of popular and/or printed culture.

As indicated earlier, Access Restricted is a double-sided poster. The front, seen by the viewer, is a redrawing of the Benglis centrefold as it appeared in the 2002 book, illustrating an essay titled ‘Discourse as Monument’.4 Mastroiacovo literally draws the whole page of the book, every single letter and the photograph. This is a re-make which addresses representation, repetition and reproduction. The ‘original’ advert, the Artforum page, as it is reproduced in another book, is now copied again by hand and becomes another original for a short period of time. However, in the chain of production the ‘original’ (the re-drawing) is re-made again as a poster and the reproductive cycle is complete. On the back of the poster is a hand-written text by Macdonald titled access restricted (poster children for conceptual art), note to thérèse (redrawing policy: to think we are other than/to policy is to be doubly policed), The Phallus of Rosalind Krauss, dear alex.

The image, text and discourse between the artists is an interrogation of the radical gestures of 1970s conceptual art practices. Taking the gesture by Benglis and re-staging it as a deconstructivist representational process—sealing the content of the text from the viewer’s gaze—creates a neutralisation which refers to the ‘original’ gesture and questions its efficacy. Macdonald calls her text an aporia—a contradiction—of the gesture itself, a silencing as a way of addressing the phallic. We might see this as a 21st century intervention which references, in general terms, the processes of Art & Language. Alex Martinis Roe in response to Macdonald writes in the room brochure:

I would say that the collapsed narrative of the work’s generation, including so many remediations (photocopying, drawing, scanning, printing, handwriting) generates this sense of impossibility that you describe when addressing the aporia.

The labour undertaken in this project is part of the contradiction. Here a performative photograph, an advertisement in a magazine, becomes a heavily crafted drawing. A painstaking exercise which is made as part of a conceptual art work which destroys itself. The poster is glued to the wall like a street poster and when it is removed it is destroyed in the process. The original is literally made to be destroyed: the phallus of Rosalind Krauss, the canon of art history, the conceptual artist’s impotent gesture, are all undone in this seemingly simple but highly complex collaboration.

notes: 

1. Julie Ault (ed.), Alternative Art New York 1965-1985, The Drawing Centre, New York and University of Minneapolis, London, 2002.

2. See ‘Letters to the Editor’, Artforum, March 1975.

3. Benglis’s advert was taken out in Artforum November 1974, the letters to the editor were printed in the March 1975 issue. Krauss and Michelson revisit the incident again in Artforum, November 2009, pp.40-42. See also Carter Ratcliff, ‘The fate of a gesture: Lynda Benglis’, http://www.artnet.com/magazine_pre2000/index/ratcliff/ratcliff6-13-97.asp

4. Julie Carson, ‘On Discourse as Monument: Institutional Spaces and Feminist Problematics’, in Julie Ault (ed.), op. cit, pp.121-160.