Re-inventing the 'F Word' – It's feminism!

Sun, 02/06/2013 - 16:49 -- damien

There is necessarily a politics of inclusion at stake when it comes to the task of mounting an all-women, survey-style exhibition such as ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’. Indeed, when it comes to the exhibition of works by female artists in contemporary art institutions, questions of omission are just as significant as the art on view. Recent statistical surveys confirm the continued disproportionate representation and emphasis of Australia’s cultural institutions in favour of male artists.(1) Keeping the art world to account through such audits has been a long-game strategy utilised by feminist artists such as the Guerrilla Girls.(2) This reflects Linda Nochlin’s observations in her seminal essay of 1971, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ Nochlin identifies the central role that institutions play in notions of artistic significance and indeed, success, arguing ‘The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education’.(3) When questioning the relevance of feminist strategies today, one may well draw on such evidence to demonstrate how much there is still to achieve. Exhibitions such as ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’, which celebrate the ‘diversity, energy and innovation’(4) in the work of women artists practicing in Australia, would seem to herald the state of equality laboured for by earlier generations of feminist artists and activists. However, its presence also begs the question—why are such exhibitions still necessary?

In an international context that has seen the recent return of the all-women exhibition format, this exhibition of Australian women artists is timely.(5) This strategy of reclamation was initiated by feminist revisionist projects in the 1970s. Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin’s landmark exhibition ‘Women Artists: 1550–1950’, held in 1976 at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) sought to reinstate women artists excluded from the canon of art history.(6) This self-determining strategy can also be identified in education programs, such as the ‘Feminist Art Program’ at Cal Arts (1971) and the ‘Womanhouse Project’ (1972);(7) and the emergence of all-women exhibition spaces such as ‘The Woman’s Building’ in LA, founded in 1973(8) and the still thriving A.I.R. gallery in New York, formed in 1972.(9) In these recent manifestations, one may question the agenda and efficacy of such an approach. Do exhibitions defined in terms of gender identity marginalise women artists and maintain a position of otherness from so-called ‘mainstream’ art? CoUNTess suggests,

A suggested hierarchy comes into play—men’s art is too often represented as referencing humanity, (why not just performing masculinity?) and in dialogue with art history while women’s art needs its own separate category and therefore is adjunct or alternative to men’s art.(10)

Separatist strategies of earlier feminists have been critiqued as such, and women artists want to make it on their own terms, rather than being identified (whether vilified or championed) in terms of a particular identity locator such as gender. One may question if this is possible in an artworld context where gender evidently plays a role. Alternative to this view is the importance of showcasing works by female artists and celebrating their achievements. If the emergence of all-women exhibitions in the 1970s was a direct response to the absence of women artists’ work in museums,(11) does their re-emergence provide an appropriate response to the continued under-representation of women?(12)

In ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’, the curators chose to frame contemporary art in Australia by focusing on works made by women; however Feminism, referred to as the ‘F word,’ becomes a subtext for the show rather than being explicitly stated in relation to the works. As lead curator, Julie Ewington states in her curatorial essay ‘Here and now’, ‘The “F” word was eschewed to signal that this exhibition, and the film program, were open to the broadest range of projects’.(13) In the selection of artists for the exhibition, subtle and thoughtful inter-leavings were achieved by the curatorial team in relation to a number of thematics, grounded in the history of feminist art. Drawing from Lucy Lippard’s key text ‘From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art’ (1976), these include ‘the ways that personal and intimate experiences in women’s lives, such as their sexuality, bodies, motherhood and ageing were expressed in art; the use of domestic materials traditionally associated with women; and the ways that women working as artists were committed to social and political progress for women’.(14) The use of the ‘f word’ is significant, as a standby for the term Feminism (where it becomes an expletive deleted!). Is there an institutional shyness in claiming this legacy or are artists uncomfortable in making direct associations to feminisms’ histories and theoretical frameworks? What is the relationship of younger generations of women artists to contemporary feminisms? If there is a politics of inclusion at play here, it portends to the artists whose works are presented in the context of an all-women survey exhibition, and are therefore opened to being considered in terms of these ongoing debates.

Natalya Hughes constructed an installation specifically for the exhibition, The After Party (2012), which directly addresses the context of an all-women exhibition. Hughes references The Dinner Party, an iconic feminist work developed and constructed by Judy Chicago and a team of collaborators from 1974–1979 and now on permanent display at The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, in New York.(15) Chicago commemorates the significant contribution and achievements of historically important and mythical women, from the abstract symbol of Sophia, the egalitarian politics of Mary Wollstonecraft, to Georgia O’Keeffe whom she describes as ‘the mother of us all’.(16) The debates around The Dinner Party are complex and fundamental to the history of feminism in art and its legacy in contemporary practice. Questions are raised concerning the ‘collaborative’ nature of its production, the challenge of inclusionary politics that its project of reclamation entails, and the focus on central core imagery with ensuing debates around essentialism and a ‘universal’ language of women’s art. Each place setting has an intricately embroidered runner, a gold ceramic chalice and a china-painted porcelain plate. This work forms part of a broader strategy of the 1970s to celebrate ‘craft’ and the undervalued contribution of women and ‘women’s work’, domestic handicrafts and decoration, which historically was delegated a secondary role to that of fine art. Chicago’s monumental table is re-presented here by Hughes as a more intimate dining suite with unsettling bulges and protrusions—the centrepiece of an opulent parlour set with ornamental wallpaper and carpet—the whole effect reflected in a mirrored ceiling to create a visual feast.(17) In Hughes’s playful patterning, euphemisms (from beavers to tacos) abound for the much-debated central-core imagery of Chicago’s ceramic-ware. A range of art historical references are at play in this work, from Sonia Delaunay and Kiki Smith, to Hans Bellmer and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. In this work Hughes re-presents the complexities of contemporary feminisms and engages with these legacies in a playful and considered way.

Hiromi Tango’s art practice also draws from the gains of earlier feminist projects, and the reclamation of craft into the realm of ‘fine art’. Utilising collaborative strategies, Tango created two elaborate sculptures especially for the exhibition. X chromosome (2012) was constructed from clothes and fabric bound together and installed in the long display cabinet at GoMA’s entry, and Pistil (2012) was created for the intersection of two axes in the gallery’s architectural structure. Both titles suggest Tango’s interest in reproduction and genealogy. Pistil is reminiscent of Faith Wilding’s Crochet Environment, which was created as part of the ‘Womanhouse Project’ in Los Angeles in 1972. The use of handicraft was an important strategy, as Wilding explains,

… domestic craft came to be associated with femininity and high art with masculinity. In my crocheted environment, I wanted to pay homage to women’s useful economic and cultural work, while at the same time producing a piece that was useless (non practical) to demonstrate the falseness of the traditional distinctions between art and craft.(18)

Arlene Raven described Wilding’s structure as a womb, an ancient female domestic architecture, the ‘mother’s woven nest of blood and everyone’s first room, the sacred heart of the Virgin Mary, and the hearth of the home’.(19) In a similar way, Pistil suggests a nurturing and enveloping space for the viewer. In workshops with artists, school groups and the public, scores of handmade ‘chords’ were formed, by wrapping objects, and then were woven together to create the ornate structure.(20) Here, Tango embraces strategies of collective art making and the use of handicraft to comment on motherhood, generative processes and the potentially transformative experience of objects.

Melbourne based artist Anastasia Klose also celebrated the maternal relationship in the performative video work, Together (2011). Performing with her mother, artist Elizabeth Presa, in a Melbourne shopping centre, the video documents the duo dancing together to Olivia Newton John’s 1980 hit Magic. The pair are wearing matching red dresses purchased for the performance and then returned afterwards for a refund. Passersby mostly ignore the ‘Mother and daughter experiencing the totality of existence!’—a moment highlighted in multi-coloured lettering and love-hearts on a makeshift banner made from a white sheet. Klose is proficient in the realm of the pathetic, drawing out a sympathetic humour from her audience, much as when one is watching the embarrassing situations of a stranger on YouTube. She employs a hand-held, off the cuff, aesthetic and in her autobiographical works, plays at failure with an ironic self-assuredness. Drawing on the legacy of performance art and the mantra ‘the personal is political’, this work draws out the potential transformation of the everyday, however daggy. ‘The work is about the fact that my mother and I are artists, and that we believe in ‘magic’, and that everyday things are magic to us, if we use our imagination.’(21)

Sydney based collective Brown Council (Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore, Kelly Doley, Diana Smith), also played with magic in the performative video works Appearing Act (2011) and Disappearing Act (2011). In highly theatrical and staged works, Brown Council utilise live and mediated performance strategies, drawing on the historical lineages of visual and performing arts in order to ‘critique the way in which we “perform” in contemporary society’.(22) Utilising humour and parody, the artists bring together the unlikely bedfellows of endurance performance and body art with stand-up comedy, pantomime and street performance. Each performance is documented and presented through video. Dressed in black and gold cardboard costumes, artist becomes ‘magician’, and the work displays the cheap magic trickery inherent in a medium of smoke and mirrors. In the live performance piece, Performance Fee (2012), the audience were proffered a kiss from the members of Brown Council in exchange for a $2 payment. The four members sat blindfolded in the gallery for two hours, holding silver tins and intermittently shaking them to attract attention—figuring as the ‘starving artist’. In the context of the exhibition, however, the offering of this intimate sign of affection in exchange for capital, took on a potentially more troubling tone.

The artists were included in the exhibition as part of ‘Embodied Acts’, a special focus on performativity. As Bree Richards states, ‘Many younger artists have moved to distance themselves from feminist discourses, yet, whether consciously or not, reference the performativity of 1970s feminist practise with their intense focus on the body as both subject and object’.(23) While Brown Council explicitly state their intention to explore the meaning and relevance of Feminism in their practice,(24) other artists in the exhibition are more reluctant to do so. Kate Mitchell presents this common view among younger artists, ‘I generally think of myself as a human making work not “I am a woman making this work and that is the reason to be making it.” I never approach my practice in that way’.(25)

Some artists display a seemingly neutral relationship to feminist forebears, such as Kirsty Bruce, whose work Untitled (2010–2011) is described in the catalogue as ‘a classic feminist project but without the rhetoric’.(26) Bruce’s cool, sleekly rendered drawings of young models, pageant contestants and prom queens present a curious tension in this context. One is engaged by the precision and dexterity of the reproductive mode Bruce utilises, which elicits a seductive pleasure of spectatorship. Bruce replays the surface nature of popular culture and the glossy magazines from which these images are garnered. Her subjects are somewhat disengaged and ambivalent, reflecting the source material from which they are drawn, which is re-presented by the artist in an apparently uncritical mode.

Others, such as Lauren Brincat, deal with strongly feminist themes, but frame the work instead in terms of the histories of conceptual and performance art. The performative video work High Horse (2012) is a response to the gilt bronze statue of Joan of Arc (1874) by Emmanuel Frémiet situated at Place des Pyramides in Paris—one of the few monuments showing a female subject atop a horse, in this case also wearing 15th century armour and with her standard streaming. Brincat’s work has a clear agenda in terms of the politics of representation and its history, through this focus on feminine strength and female heroes. In Brincat’s endurance action, the artist, dressed in black jeans and T-shirt, stands riskily atop a horse holding high a beribboned tambourine. She cites the influence of Marina Abramovic’s The Hero (2001), in which Abramovic dressed in black, sits motionless on a white horse, holding a fluttering white flag.

Jess Olivieri and Hayley Forward with the Parachutes for Ladies state another view, that ‘while our work may not always be in direct conversation with feminist art histories, there is an inherent awareness embedded in our practice’.(27) The artists use performance strategies to consider the social and political nature of architectural space and the gallery. The live performance Canon (2012) was created in collaboration with the Galley Services Officers, who voluntarily wore tap shoes for the duration of the exhibition, and in so doing, become part of the ‘Parachutes’. Drawing links with the ways artists such as Andrea Fraser and Yvonne Rainer use the body to address the politics of space, the work is intended to make ‘visible the institution’s human architecture’.(28) Citing Fraser, the artists suggest the performative mode of the institution itself, ‘The institution of art is internalised, embodied and performed by individuals’,(29) and they highlight its capacity to be enlivened and transformed through collective action.

When confronted by the continued gender imbalance in contemporary art institutions, one welcomes exhibitions like ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’, which stake out a place within a major institution to showcase the achievements and practices of women artists (many overlooked or just emerging) on a grand scale. As we have learnt from feminisms past and present, space is political, and the under-representation of women artists highlights that the gallery is still contested ground. Julie Ewington suggests, ‘…women today have inherited what earlier campaigns have won. Their reward is not only in the expanded fields of artistic discourses but in the ambition of their visions’.(30) ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’ highlights not only what has been achieved, but also encourages us to demand institutional rigour so that such exhibitions can be no longer a necessity, but truly celebratory. 

Hiromi Tango, X chromosome, 2012. Detail, installation view. Donated personal objects and art work, artist books, clothes, paper, wool, steel, wire, wood, embroidery threads, sewing needles, beads, crystals, plastic flowers, 140 x 1594cm (installed). Site-specific work commissioned for 'Contemporary Australia: Women'. Courtesy the artist. Photograph Chloe Callistemon. 

Kirsty Bruce, Untitled, 2010-11. Detail. Synthetic polymer paint and watercolour on paper, 55 sheets ranging from 14.6 x 7cm to 39.5 x 27cm, installed dimensions variable. Purchased 2012, Queensland Art Gallery. Collection The Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph Natasha Harth. 

Anastasia Klose, Together, 2011. Still, single-channel HD video projection, 16:9, colour, sound, 9:57mins, ed. of 5. Music: Olivia Newton-John 'Magic' John Farrar (MCA); Billy Joel 'Just the way you are' (Sony); Yo-Yo Ma, Bach 'Prelude' from Unaccompanied Cello Suite No.1 in G Major, BWV 1007 (Sony). Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

Brown Council – Kelly Doley, Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore, Diana Smith, Performance fee, 2012. Installation view. Video, installation and performance, wooden stools, blindfolds, aluminium tins, text, Australian coins. Gift of Brown Council through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Collection the Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph Brad Wagner. 

notes: 

1. As the CoUNTesses blog states: ‘because women count in the art world’. http://countesses.blogspot.com.au Accessed 1 August, 2012.

2. http://www.guerrillagirls.com Accessed 1 August, 2012. The title of this article is also derived from the Guerrilla Girls’ website.

3. Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, 1971, in Woman, Art and Power: and Other Essays, Westview Press, New York, 1988, p.150.

4. Julie Ewington ‘Here and Now’ In Contemporary Australia: Women (ex. cat.), Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, South Brisbane, 2012, p.15.

5. In particular survey-style exhibitions by major international institutions: ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’, The Museum of Contemporary Art, LA, 2007; ‘Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art’, Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2007; and ‘elles @ pompidou: women artists in the collections of the National Modern Art Museum’, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2009.

6. Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, ‘Women Artists 1550-1950’, 1976, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LA. There is also the problem of amnesia when it comes to feminist art history, which signals the importance of exhibitions and scholarship such as ‘A Different Temporality: Aspects of Australian Feminist Art Practice 1975–1985’, curated by Kyla McFarlane, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2011.

7. See Miriam Schapiro, ‘The Education of Women as Artists: Project Womanhouse’ 1973, In Art and Feminism (ed. Helena Reckitt ), Phaidon Press, London and New York, 2001, p.208-209.

8. http://www.womansbuilding.org/people.htm Accessed 1 June 2012.

9. http://www.airgallery.org/ Accessed 1 June, 2012.

10. http://countesses.blogspot.com.au

11. See Jenni Sorkin, ‘The Feminist Nomad: The All-Women Group Show’ In Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution (ed. Lisa Gabrielle Mark) Museum of Contemporary Art, LA and The MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2007, p.459.

12. In response to these issues I formed an artist collective, LEVEL in 2010, with Courtney Coombs and Alice Lang, to explore a feminist praxis through the running of an all-women exhibition space and residency program and now, through specific projects, as a discursive space which embraces feminisms’ capacity to continually transform itself and to radically challenge culture.

13. Julie Ewington, op. cit., p.22.

14. Julie Ewington, ibid, p.15.

15. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/ Accessed 30 April 2012.

16. Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage, Anchor Books, New York, 1979, p.96.

17. It brings to mind the original title of The Dinner Party, ‘25 women who were eaten alive’, as a reference to the ways in which women had historically been ‘swallowed up and obscured by history instead of being recognized and honored’ Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage, ibid, p.8.

18. Faith Wilding, ‘Monstrous Domesticity’, In M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory and Criticism. (Eds Susan Bee and Mira Schor), Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2000, p.90.

19. Arlene Raven ‘Womanhouse’ in The Power of Feminist Art, (eds Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard), Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1994, p.55.

20. http://hiromitango.com/Pistil-X-Chromosome Accessed 1 August, 2012.

21. http://anastasiaklose.wordpress.com/category/together/ Accessed 30 July, 2012.

22. Brown Council, in Bree Richards, ‘Embodied Acts, Live and alive – an email round table’, in Contemporary Australia: Women (ex. cat.) 2012, op. cit., p.173.

23. Bree Richards, ‘Embodied Acts, Live and alive – an email round table’, ibid, p.173.

24. Brown Council, ibid, p.174.

25. Kate Mitchell, in Bree Richards, Embodied Acts, ‘Live and alive – an email round table’ ibid, p.183.

26. Julie Ewington, op.cit., p.15.

27. Parachutes for Ladies, in Bree Richards, ‘Embodied Acts, Live and alive – an email round table’, op. cit., p.183.

28. Parachutes for Ladies, ibid., p.174.

29. Parachutes for Ladies, ibid, p.174.

30. Julie Ewington op.cit, p.22.

Dr Rachael Haynes is an artist and writer. She is Director of Boxcopy, and a Founding Director of Level, both artist run initiatives in Brisbane.