(Very) unfinished business

Tue, 21/08/2018 - 05:04 -- eyeline
Perspectives on curating feminism in the age of Tumblr politics

[T]here has emerged a dispersed and fractured feminist space in which conflicting ideologies and politics simultaneously coexist, between groups, tendencies, communities…Yet against any suggestion that this allows a happy postmodern eclecticism, I would stress the need to take up a position and argue it. There is as much danger in the word ‘differences’ becoming a polite fiction allowing us to disregard the real injuries of class and race that disfigure feminist aspirations.
Griselda Pollock, 1996 1

We shouldn’t expect younger people to be enthused by a celebration of the present or to be satisfied with the progress of cultural gestures in place of real material progress any longer.
Angela Nagle, 2017 2

Throughout his career, literary theorist Stanley Fish has asserted that the value of political commentary is limited by artistic medium: ‘if you want to send a message that will be heard beyond the academy, get out of it’.3 Fish does not doubt that art and literature reflect the social conditions they emerge from. Indeed, these contexts are foundational, as no medium is autonomous. Rather, what Fish warns against is the assumption that artistic or literary works concerned with political issues constitute pragmatic, real-world politics. The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s (ACCA) recent exhibition Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism, the second in a series of ‘Big Issue’ exhibitions championed by new director Max Delany, not only reveals much about the current dialogues enmeshed in contemporary feminism(s), but the ways that artists and curators ‘do’ politics.

Collaboratively curated by Delany; artists Paola Balla and Elvis Richardson; and feminist focused curators Julie Ewington, Annika Kristensen, and Vikki McInnes, Unfinished Business occurs at a point in history when feminism—long defined by its struggle against the misogynistic ideals perpetuated by the mainstream—has been subsumed by popular culture. No longer confined to academic or activist circles, feminism is now hailed by popular media, crowning its most influential thinkers (who emerge from the blogosphere rather than the academy) through shares and likes online. Occurring over the past few years, the gradual acceptance of feminism has inevitably reshaped how it is articulated and practised. This shift has been criticised by figures like literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels, cultural theorist Angela Nagle, and writer Jessa Crispin as a reduction of real politics to performative gestures of language policing, and a problematic focus on championing diversity rather than working towards alleviating inequality.4 Unfinished Business oscillates between an embodiment and a critique of this unique condition. By reading it as such, we can discover the problematics and successes of the new political approaches it has fostered. Not only are these evident in the artworks included in the exhibition, but also in the overarching curatorial framework, which reflects the mainstreaming of internet-based and campus left-politics’ emphasis on intersectionality and dissent, and a dubious embrace of choice feminism (the individualistic belief that all women’s choices are inherently feminist and can be justified as such).5 As will be demonstrated, within Unfinished Business, largely incompatible approaches to feminism are seamlessly conflated in the curatorial narrative through the employment of ironic humour as a means of disavowal.

Text and language’s discursive role in oppressing or liberating is a central theme of Unfinished Business. One of the most profound artworks to explore this is Mirning artist Ali Gumillya Baker’s Racist Texts (2014/17). Resembling an architectural pillar, a tower of books snakes up the wall. Easy to overlook in an uncomfortably large gallery space full of comparatively garish artworks, the mundanity of the objects relegates Baker’s work to the periphery. As you approach, the imposing height overwhelms. The stack appears precariously balanced, and—though you know the structure is reinforced—it evokes a familiar anxiety. Closer inspection reveals the books' shocking titles, including The Sexual Life of Savages, Down Among The Wild Men, and Free And Easy Land. The majority of the volumes, which can be found in the detritus of many op shop book bins, may be dubiously dismissed as obsolete; belonging to a forgotten era. However, they record the offensive ideologies that haunt our culture: a culture in which the spectre of Darwinian racism still lingers, and blatant colonial pride is ubiquitous. It is worth noting that the act of collating and re-presenting offensive colonial artefacts in order to highlight their cultural pervasiveness has become a stock standard trope of postcolonial art, its familiarity inevitably compromising its impact. In fact, it featured in ACCA’s previous exhibition of French-Algerian artist Kader Attia’s work. His installation The Culture of Fear: An Invention of Evil (2013) was composed of steel shelving units that held 19th century magazines and newspapers depicting non-western men as grotesque savages. While the towering steel shelves had an eerie, sterile presence, they failed to conjure the disquietude of Baker’s Racist Texts. Baker makes the fear real, and relatable, by conjuring the horror of history’s oppression and objectification contained in these mundane items through corporeal distress. Like the other high calibre works in Unfinished Business, Racist Texts shies away from loud, didactic displays of politics in favour of a subdued, but highly charged, exploration of the weight of words.

Another incredibly compelling contribution is Sydney based Shevaun Wright’s The Rape Contract (2016). Presented in bland wooden frames, fourteen sheets of slightly crumpled A4 paper outline the conditions of the rape contract: a satirical contract between the victim of a particularly violent rape and her rapist. Based on the artist’s personal experience of assisting a friend with legal proceedings following their rape, Wright has created this form to convey the arduous, isolating process rape victims face in the aftermath of their attack. The Rape Contract outlines the conditions of ‘Victim Services’, defined in the contract as ‘all the work and services to be performed… for the state’ by the victim of the crime so as to not damage their credibility. These include strict dress codes (not wearing revealing clothing) and limitations on the victim’s social behaviours, such as not drinking excessively or acting in a sexually promiscuous way. Though these critiques of the cultural expectations of women are rife in online feminist discourse, there is an extra element to Wright’s work that renders it particularly cogent. Only visible under torchlight (three torches are available for viewers’ use) the victim’s commentary is hastily scrawled in invisible ink over the bland legal rhetoric. Compromising the sterility of bureaucracy—and the work’s slightly hackneyed satirical approach—the pages are imbued with the personal struggles and frustrations of the victim. Including jokes, details of the violent attack, and personal accounts of the legal process, this concealed commentary reminds us of the ways that sexual assault victims can be silenced and controlled. This is timely, as the current #metoo campaign—an online movement where women share their stories of sexual harassment with the hashtag ‘metoo’—somewhat uncritically perceives speaking out against aggressors as an act of bravery and empowerment. While the discourse is fostered by the positive impetus to remove victims’ shame and build solidarity, in reality, those most vulnerable to sexual assault and domestic or workplace abuse are the economically, socially and politically disenfranchised—individuals for whom speaking out is not an option, or even a consideration.

An abundance of works exhibited that feature words or text do so in activist, or mock-activist guises that (potentially inadvertently) reveal the collapse between activist rhetoric and clickbait. Papered across the glass doors at the entry of the gallery are blown-up covers for the mock-magazine FEMMO (2014-2015). Elvis Richardson, whose blog CoUNTess has documented the damning data regarding the lack of diversity in the Australian art world since 2008, has teamed with Virginia Fraser, a Melbourne based artist, to create these imaginary feminist magazine covers. They adopt the rhetoric of tabloid magazines, referencing their conventions and content, such as quizzes (‘gender bias quiz’), giveaways (‘find your free gender card inside’) and attention-grabbing gossip columns (‘Exposed: Feminist curators who prefer men’s art’). The artwork’s intention is presumably to subvert the expectations of the women’s magazine through using similar language and graphic design to explore issues of sexism in the art world. Certainly, they cuttingly highlight a number of frustrating hypocrisies, and the ubiquitous culture of misogyny that Richardson’s telling blog has been fervent in exposing. However—partly due to the perhaps inadvertent, though blatant, channelling of internet rhetoric within the exhibition—the covers might be also read to reference popular culture’s absorption of feminist driven identity-politics; a transition that has watered down feminist thought to clickbait and overly-sentimental think pieces that reflect the concerns of a limited number of women who have access to public discourse. Though targeting a form of print-media traditionally devoid of feminist thought, the use of language is almost identical to article titles from blogs like Everyday Feminism, and their humour emulates the sarcasm used by predominantly choice feminist websites like Jezebel, or the satirical Reductress. Their external placement confirms the works’ curatorial function as an advertisement of Unfinished Business, and introduces the tone of ironic humour that is echoed throughout the exhibition.

A similar irony is identifiable in Sydney based Kelly Doley’s Things learnt about feminism #1-95 (48 displayed at one time, arrangement changing throughout the exhibition’s duration) (2014). Displayed in neat, tall columns, 48 boards featuring simple painted slogans and sayings relating to feminism—for example, ‘male artists rule the art park’, and ‘Second Wave Feminism: It’s a white, middle class thing’—greet audiences to the main gallery space. Often accompanied by cartoons, or presented in playful arrangements of text, the works resemble hand-drawn internet memes. The phrases are sourced from conversations Doley had during a residency in which she asked people to explain feminism to her.6 The simplicity of these phrases often comes off as reductive, and sometimes the combinations appear almost contradictory. The naivety of the drawings and the playful variety of texts suggests a tongue-in-cheek approach, as if Doley might be critiquing the problematic simplicity of contemporary political discourse in which the brazen willingness to be loud, but not coherent or well informed, is celebrated. On sale in the gallery shop in ACCA’s foyer is a collection of merchandise including mugs and totes ($25), caps ($35), and t-shirts ($40) featuring phrases taken from the artworks exhibited. Numerous mugs and caps are printed with the text from Melbourne based artist Ruth O’Leary’s self-portraits which feature the artist wearing dresses printed with offensive phrases like ‘Fuck art’, ‘Fuck you’, and ‘Fuck young professionals’. A number of the phrases from Doley’s works are also available on t-shirts and totes, including ‘Feminism: 500 Years and going strong’ and ‘Feminism is for every body’. It would be easy to apply the tediously self-righteous critique of ‘selling-out’ and rebuke the gallery for capitalising on feminism as a trending commodity. Certainly, the display looks quaint and kitsch. However, all large galleries sell merchandise promoting their major exhibitions; ‘Feminism is for every body’ just replaces a van Gogh t-shirt. However, what is worth noting is how easily these slogans translate to merchandise; how fitting they appear on mugs and totes with no alternation or simplification, attesting to the problematic simplicity of the original statements.

In the foyer above tables where patrons read and drink coffee, a three-channel video work Feminist Methodology Machine (2016) by Linda Dement flashes polemic slogans such as: ‘PROTECT contention/unreason’, ‘DISMISS helpful suggestions/offers of help/all requests’, and ‘INCITE riot/hysteria/penetration’. The condensing of transgressive language into a mass of brusque slogans combined with the work’s title again suggests a satirical approach, imbued with cynicism and self-mockery aimed at the overused rhetorical conventions of online activism. However, Dement is an iconic member of the foundational wave of cyberfeminism: a movement conceived in the early 1990s that championed the internet and related advanced technologies as a utopic platform for feminist ideologies. It is considered a precursor to contemporary networked feminism, the title given to current social-media based feminist discourse. Dement’s essay, ‘Cyberfeminist Bedsheet’ (2017), featured in the exhibition catalogue, aptly expresses the impetus of the original movement. Peppered with references to iconic feminist figures such as Kathy Acker, and her friends in the Australian art scene, Dement revels in the chaos and incoherence of the internet,

'No end result, no list of cyberfeminist principles nor resolution of argued contentions is possible. Clean ironed white expanses of didactic proscriptions and restrictions are forever ruined. Nothing here is clean and whole and no part of it will ever stiffen into certainty.'7

Though it does not so proudly flaunt its incoherence and lack of defined goals, Dement’s anti-manifesto is perfectly applicable to today’s networked feminism, which is similarly noted for its expansive embrace of intersectionality and breakdown of universal feminist agendas.

Echoing twentieth-century revolutionary rhetoric, cyberfeminism valorised chaos and disorder, believing it had the power to collapse previously upheld hierarchies and subsequently empower the marginalised. Angela Nagle, who has spent years analysing the online culture wars played out on websites like 4chan and Reddit, has best articulated the troubling repercussions of internet discourse, which has fallen devastatingly short of these early utopic fantasies. Though cyberfeminists (and now networked feminists) embraced radical language and disorder, anticipating a revolutionary potential for the leaderless, orderless composure of networked landscapes, as Nagle notes, the last decade has demonstrated that this lack of order and the associated aesthetics of radicalism and transgression have benefited the right rather than the left. It is through online platforms that the alt-right—a movement of primarily young men united by an aggressive disdain for left-politics and feminism, and a love of anti-establishment ideals—was forged.8 Known for the ‘ironic’ sharing of swastikas and mass cyberbullying, stalking and hacking of female celebrities, the seriousness of the alt-right’s cultural impact was confirmed in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia when counter-protestor Heather Heyer was struck by a car and killed during a white nationalist rally.9 As Nagle highlights, political movements benefit from structure, intellectual labour, and nuanced understandings of the workings of power.10 Moreover, despite its leftist connotations, ‘the culture of non-conformism, self-expression, transgression, and irreverence for its own sake’ constitutes an ‘aesthetic that suits those who believe in nothing but the liberation of the individual and the id, whether they’re on the left or the right’ [my emphasis].11 We need look no further than the alt-right to see what disorder really looks like.

Notably, the tongue-in-cheek humour that resonates throughout the exhibition serves a particular curatorial agenda. By now, an entire generation have experienced their political awakenings online. As evidenced by the popularity of the aforementioned websites like Jezebel, Reductress, or Everyday Feminism, millennials' (and now also generation Z’s) engagement with political issues overwhelmingly stems from satirical articles, and anecdotal think pieces.12 Part of the appeal of these websites comes from their deference to individualism, and adherence to nuanced forms of internet humour which is often characterised by cool detachment and irony. Seemingly adopted to eschew the didacticism, earnestness and perceived elitism of sincere, academic political commentary, ‘coolness’ has been brilliantly diagnosed by Vladana Ilić as ‘our contemporary version of ironic distance that takes on an “anti-mainstream” cloak of critical perception and detachment, while smuggling (wittingly or unwittingly) shallowness, cowardice, and apathy’.13 What is most dangerous about the adoption of coolness/ironic distance in political commentary is that it is used to evade sincere and pragmatic engagements with politics. When protected by the thin veneer of irony, individuals can resist being held accountable for their position, as the level of genuine investment is obscured. This not only allows for intellectual laziness, but also excuses narcissistic and problematic behaviours. By appealing to ironic, or seemingly ironic, takes on feminism, Unfinished Business is similarly able to eschew any observable overarching, definitive statements, and include an indiscriminate array of loud and propagandistic artworks without regard to their message or implications (or lack-there-of).

However veiled with ironic humour, this lack is also compensated for by a concurrent curatorial focus on women historically marginalised by feminism. In her catalogue essay ‘Blak Female Futurisms And Yte Feminism Waves’ (2017), co-curator Paola Balla rejects the title of feminist, as feminism has let Aboriginal women down by being complicit in, or ignorant of, their historical and ongoing abuse. She states: ‘Feminism has failed us, as it was not designed for us… Our shared womanhood does not make us sisters with white women.’14 A similar reproach of white feminism appeared prior to the women’s march: a worldwide protest held on 21 January, 2017 advocating for human and women’s rights threatened by Donald Trump’s presidency. (Phrases sourced from these marches are appropriated in Sarah Goffman’s I am with you [2017], a collation of fabricated cardboard protest signs that also feature in the exhibition.) A slew of articles written by women of colour emerged prior to the women’s marches explaining why the authors chose to boycott them. These authors explained that they were unable to feel solidarity with white women whom they viewed as responsible for Trump’s election (indeed, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump—though probably not those attending the women’s march), and perceived to be generally unconcerned with the issues facing black people.15 Balla’s rejection of feminism might appear irreconcilable within an exhibition dedicated to feminism, and populated by many artworks that are critically lacking and politically disengaged. However, these conversations—Balla’s, and the boycotters of the women’s marches—are often facilitated and championed by the same liberal-left media they critique.

In her catalogue essay ‘Thank You’ (2017), Annika Kristensen evokes the ethos of choice feminism and its embrace of irreconcilable difference: ‘For every one story, there is another. For every argument, a counter-argument. What appears to me to be important is that we are heard, and that we listen.’16 This suggests that all opinions are equally valid and deserving of attention—a seemingly democratic approach, but one that ultimately benefits those that have access to discourse, and posits that all grievances can be equally weighed. Moreover, while the suggestion that all arguments can be countered importantly acknowledges the plurality of feminism and the diversity of its agendas, it also justifies the eschewal of solidarity, or any collective arrangement against patriarchy. In line with—and justified by—choice feminism, the curation of dissent enables the gallery to appeal to a variety of discourses within feminism (like feminism’s exclusion of black women) without asserting the importance of any one in particular, or proposing a way to consolidate or move forward.

Unfinished Business includes a number of iconic Australian feminist artworks from the 1970s such as Vivienne Binns’s Repro vag dens 3 (1976), a painting of a vagina dentata, and Frances (Budden) Phoenix’s Queens of Spades (1975), a doily and zipper arranged to resemble a vulva. However, much of the dialogue around the exhibition—particularly overt in talks and panels accompanying it—is defined by a strong resistance to second-wave feminism. Curators and artists often defer to reductive criticisms of second-wave feminism and its ‘unfinished business’: it’s racist, it’s homophobic, it’s transphobic, ‘it’s a white, middle-class thing’, according to a panel in Doley’s artwork. However, within these accounts, little effort is exerted in unpacking second-wave feminism, its specific problematics (there are many, of course), or its many political successes. This is not confined to the exhibition, but is overtly present in our culture. For example, one often weaponised criticism in contemporary discourse is many second-wave feminists’ reluctance to accept trans people. While certainly deserving of critical commentary, there are obvious reasons behind this trepidation that are rarely addressed. Reproductive rights and sexual empowerment were front and centre for many second-wave feminists. How hard it must be to see beyond the biological, after dedicating their lives to fighting the abuse and exploitation that women, as reproductive beings, have suffered for thousands of years, unable to transcend their biological bodies. Yet, this inability to keep up with political and social changes that have entered mainstream political discourse, primarily in the past decade, has meant that many younger feminists have purged their entire body of work. Part of this flippancy with theory and history is likely influenced by a wilful lack of understanding. American writer Roxane Gay, one of today’s most lauded feminist figures, openly admits that she is not well read in feminist theory and does not see this as problematic.17 In a culture where a leading feminist figure is intellectually lazy and proud of it, it is no surprise that second-wave feminism appears to be interpreted not only by the mainstream, but by self-proclaimed feminists solely through reductive stereotypes. Regardless of its genuine ethical failings and political successes, second-wave feminism symbolises the obsolete: it presents younger feminists with something to define themselves against. Moreover, staging a relentless, purportedly heroic and progressive critique of second-wave feminism provides a deflection from contemporary feminism’s own failings.

Garnering much media attention on the opening night, due to the participation of Greens politician Adam Bandt, a performance work by Melbourne based artist Nat Thomas titled Man Cleaning Up (2017) gave male viewers a chance to parade their allegiance to the feminist cause.18 Installed in a corner of the main gallery space, a high-visibility vest with the label ‘man cleaning up’ across its back hangs above a mop and bucket and a piece of A4 paper tacked to the wall. The paper is scrawled with the handwritten instructions for the performance piece, which asks male gallery visitors to don the vest and give half an hour of their time to scrubbing the gallery floor. Subsumed by the rhetoric of middle-class feminism that pervades the exhibition, the work is about the uneven distribution of domestic labour among heterosexual couples. As explained in the work’s instructions, it asks men to give back and acknowledge their privilege by performing the often-gendered task of cleaning. Though, no doubt, an incredibly important and often ignored issue, the approach is baffling in its gross disregard of the continued exploitation of unskilled workers in favour of middle-class grievances. (We might note here that, as countless recent studies have shown, cleaning and other low-skill industries in Australia are rife with exploitation and abuse, and are disproportionately occupied by migrants.19) The work makes overt reference to American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Works series (1969-1980). In these performances, Ukeles performed tasks in the gallery like mopping steps, or dusting vitrines, often going unnoticed by gallery goers who assumed she was an employed cleaner. Significantly, Ukeles’s Maintenance Works series was made after she became a mother, and the act of marking invisible labour as art was partially a reference to her realisation that domestic labour was at odds with the concepts of artistic genius and autonomy that pervaded the art world and characterised the ideal artist.20 However, what Thomas’s homage to Ukeles leaves behind is one of the foundational concerns of the original work: Ukeles was simultaneously incredibly engaged in the devastating class struggle of 1970s America, and much of her work directly addressed this concern. As summarised by art historian Andrea Liss, Ukeles’s series ‘demonstrated the conceptual unity’ that the artist wanted to emphasise between domestic labour performed by women and the undervalued work publicly performed by hundreds of labourers in cleaning and maintenance roles; ‘The appeal was to give a sense of humanness and worth to the nameless’.21 These alliances are increasingly lacking in contemporary discourse.

When I encountered Man Cleaning Up during the bustling exhibition opening, I initially thought it was a brilliant, witty work that critically reflected upon how the contemporary rhetoric of identity-politics—which is clearly foundational to the curatorial impetus—ignores poor people in low-skill jobs. I presumed the fact that the person scrubbing the floor was a white man was part of this acknowledgement: a nod to the hollowness of liberal left media’s obsession with rebuking ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’, concepts that evidence the class-blind politics that justify the celebration of diverse representations in middle-class spheres, jobs, and social initiatives over striving to alleviate the damages of economic inequality, which also impacts white men, and compounds the effects of discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. At worst, the essentialist concepts of ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’ serve to perpetuate the lie that diversity alleviates inequality. As argued by Walter Benn Michaels in his polemic The Trouble with Diversity: How we learned to love identity and ignore inequality (2006), the fight for equal representation—an essentially neoliberal aim—still involves the exploitation of the poor by the economically enfranchised, provided that all races, genders, and sexualities are represented equally in the ruling class.22 Man Cleaning Up is an unrestrained embodiment of this rhetoric. It is this symptomatic indifference to economic inequality within mainstream identity-politics that enables a work like Man Cleaning Up to be produced without a second thought spared for its offensive disregard of the poor and vulnerable.

Perhaps the most innovative and informative work in the exhibition is Alex Martinis Roe’s It was about opening the very notion that there was a particular perspective (2015-2017). The three-channel video-essay, installed in the middle of the cluttered main exhibition space is easily overlooked, trumped by the looming cardboard polemic by Sarah Goffman and Maria Kozic’s Bitch (1990): a large billboard featuring the scantily clad artist clutching a cordless drill and an action figure. Within her work, Roe tells the story of a powerful alliance between feminists associated with the University of Sydney, and the Australian trade union organisation the Builders Labourers Federation. Through the collation of interviews, and archival footage and photographs, Roe—an Australian born artist now living and working in Berlin—details the events surrounding a strike at the University of Sydney following the rejection of a proposed subject in the philosophy department titled ‘Philosophical Aspects of Feminist Thought’. During the strike, the Builders Labourers Federation supported the student protest and ceased all construction work at the University until the class was instated.

Though this alliance might seem unexpected, the video-essay further explicates the strong bonds and affinities forged between activists, labourers and academics in Sydney during the 1970s and ’80s. One significant initiative was Working Papers, a self-published journal dedicated to disseminating philosophy and theory texts not merely among students, but the broader community. Moreover, thanks to the Builders Labourers Federation, many women were entering workforces traditionally dominated by men. Roe documents anecdotal accounts of these women, who shared their feminist beliefs with their colleagues, even screening feminist documentaries during breaks on the worksite. Amid charged footage of protests and rallies, sombre, still images of empty classrooms and halls of the University are displayed. The juxtaposition of the stuffy European architecture, so often associated with creative repression and elitism, and the cultural impact of activists’ and academics’ initiatives like Working Papers—which provided some of the first English-language translations of the writings of Luce Irigaray and Michel Foucault available in Australia—demonstrates the productivity of such intercultural dialogues, dialogues that fostered rigorous critical thinking in communities that often have little access to academic material. As the voiceover explains, these movements were ‘about reorganising the institutions of knowledge and power’. The strike evidenced the value of such alliances and demonstrated how ‘things that once seemed disparate, like the interests of workers and the interests of feminists, are ultimately interdependent’. In stark contrast to the nearby display of Pheonix’s work—which, through its depiction of central core imagery, embodies our cultural stereotypes of second-wave feminism—Roe exposes a second-wave narrative that is often overlooked. (And one that is also present in Ukeles’s Maintenance Works series.) Far removed from the perception of 1970s feminism as white and middle-class, it fostered solidarity between marginalised groups, exposing a powerful example of intersectional feminism that manifested over a decade before the term intersectional was coined, and long before it became accepted in mainstream rhetoric. Despite conceptually anchoring itself as a progression from, and revaluation of earlier feminisms, Unfinished Business (perhaps inadvertently) highlights a striking, pragmatic thread of intersectionality within second-wave feminism.

Though contemporary art has resisted an encompassing definition—aside from the fact that it is art made in the present—there has been recurrent reference to the post-critical turn in art criticism post-1990. Australian art theorist Wes Hill has provided a most cogent of these analyses, arguing that contemporary art, long having discarded the notions of criticality that used to separate art from broader visual culture, is now best interpreted as folkloric. It is highly significant to consider what this means for art framed as politically important (and indeed, critical), particularly when the political ideologies these works reflect have been heavily informed by intellectually bereft online identity-politics. If, as Hill suggests, art is no longer driven by criticality and reflexivity, but constitutes ‘performed meanings and associated belief systems’ relating to the particular identity groups to which the artist belongs, then art can operate as unmediated evidence of their content.23 Though Unfinished Business seeks to reinvigorate conversations around feminism and its past failings, what it actually does is highlight the dubious nature of its current incarnations. Its deference to individualism, incoherent plurality, and favouring of a politics of representation over a politics of action, is explicit, combined through the use of ironic humour tactically distracting from the exhibition’s (and contemporary feminisms’) troubling irreconcilability. If we interpret Unfinished Business as a direct manifestation of contemporary feminism(s)—which I think we should—then it has succeeded with brutal accuracy.

Shevaun Wright, The rape contract, 2016. Detail. 14 sheets of paper, wooden boxes, UV ink, torches, 36 x 27cm (each frame). Installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Courtesy the artist and MARS Gallery, Melbourne. Photograph Andrew Curtis.

Nat Thomas, Man Cleaning Up, 2017. Performance, ACCA. Courtesy the artist.

Alex Martinis Roe, It Was About Opening The Very Notion That There Was A Particular Perspective, 2015-2016. Film still of photographs courtesy of Barbara Creed. Image courtesy the artist.

Virginia Fraser and Elvis Richardson, FEMMO no. 4, 2014-15. Screen print on cotton, 140 x 110cm. Courtesy the artists.

notes: 

1. Griselda Pollock, ‘The Politics of Theory: Generations and geographies in feminist theory and the histories of art histories’, in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts, ed. Griselda Pollock, Routledge, London, 1996, p.16.

2. Angela Nagle, ‘A Tragedy of Manners, Trump and the new age of anti-PC transgression’, Baffler, no.36, 2018. See https://thebaffler.com/salvos/a-tragedy-of-manners-nagle

3. Stanley Fish, Professional Correctness: Literary studies and political change, Harvard University Press, London, 1999, p.2.

4. The core of this argument posits that focus on diversity is a neoliberal distraction from acknowledging the damages of economic inequality. Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How we Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2006; Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Zero Books, Winchester, 2017; Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, 2017.

5. Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino, ‘The Failure of “Choice Feminism”’, Jacobin, March 15, 2017. See https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/i-am-not-feminist-jessa-crispin-review/.

6. Kelly Doley, Opening Saturday Relay, artist talk, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 16 December, 2017. Event URL see https://acca.melbourne/program/unfinished-business-opening-saturday-relay/.

7. Linda Dement, ‘Cyberfeminist Bedsheet’, in Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism, ex. cat., eds. Max Delany and Annika Kristensen, ACCA, Melbourne, 2017, p.69.

8. Nagle, Kill All Normies, op. cit., p.27.

9. Nagle, ‘The Lost Boys: The young men of the alt-right could define American politics for a generation’, The Atlantic, December 2017. See https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/12/brotherhood-of-losers/544158/.

10. Nagle, Kill All Normies, op. cit., p.27.

11. Ibid., p.67.

12. As highlighted by Nagle, in 2015 Buzzfeed—a website known for predominantly producing propagandistic, vaguely left-leaning satirical content—averaged more shares on Facebook than news websites like BBC or Fox News. Ibid., p.43.

13. Vladana Ilić, ‘Dystopia-En-Abyme: Analysis of The Lobster’s Narrative’, Issues in Ethnology Anthropology, Vol.12, No.2, 2017, p.484.

14. Paola Balla, ‘Blak Female Futurisms And Yte Feminism Waves’, in Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism, op. cit., p.46.

15. Notably, these accounts rarely broach the issue of class. Some examples are: Barbara Sostaita, ‘I’ll Pass on “Unity” and the Women’s March’, Feministing, January 2017. See http://feministing.com/2017/01/19/ill-pass-on-unity-and-the-womens-march/; Jamilah Lemieux, ‘Why I’m Skipping the Women’s March on Washington’, Colorlines, 17 January, 2017. See https://www.colorlines.com/articles/why-im-skipping-womens-march-washington-opinion; LaSha, ‘Not Your Mule: I will not march for white women’, Kinfolk Kollective, 19 January, 2017. See http://kinfolkkollective.com/2017/01/19/not-your-mule-i-will-not-march-for-white-women/.

16. Annika Kristensen, ‘Thank You’, in Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism, op. cit., p.31.

17. Roxane Gay, interview with Garvia Bailey, ‘Roxane Gay, Feminism and Difficult Women’, Appel Salon, 16 March, 2017. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvoiQbfi5No.

18. Kerrie O’Brien, ‘Why is Greens MP Adam Bandt scrubbing the floor?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December, 2017. See http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/why-is-greens-mp-adam-bandt-scrubbing-the-floor-20171214-h04s6g.html.

19. Ben Doherty, ‘Revealed: The systematic exploitation of migrant workers in Australia’, The Guardian, 29 October, 2016. See https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/oct/29/revealed-the-systemic-exploitation-of-migrant-workers-in-australia; Ann Arnold, ‘Taken to the Cleaners: International Students Underpaid, exploited’, Background Briefing, RN, ABC, 3 June, 2016. See http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/international-students-exploited/7472384; Clay Lucas, ‘Dirty Work In The Cleaning Industry’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August, 2013. See http://www.smh.com.au/business/dirty-work-in-the-cleaning-industry-20130828-2sqtm.html.

20. Helena Reckitt, ‘Forgotten Relations: Feminist Artists and Relational Aesthetics’, in Politics in a Glass Case: Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgression, eds. Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2013, p.133.

21. Andrea Liss, Feminist Art and the Maternal, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009, p.47.

22. Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity, op. cit., pp.110-138.

23. Wes Hill, How Folklore Shaped Modern Art: A Post-critical History of Aesthetics, Routledge, London, 2015, p.3.

Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism was exhibited at ACCA, Melbourne from 15 December 2017 to 25 March 2018.

Tara Heffernan is a Melbourne based independent art writer. Her research concerns performance, technology and video in contemporary art.