Essay: Feminist art practice

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published on: January 9, 2019
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Since the 1970s, Feminist art practice has been at the very forefront of social and political discourse. From Carolee Schneemann to the Guerrilla Girls the targeting and exposing of inequality between male and female counterparts in Western Society has earned its value within the art world. Through my studio practice I focus greatly on the objectification of the female form. Whilst some artists approach this subject with caution and heedfulnes, I approach it with full duress and passion. With the aim of evoking emotional responses attributed to how society surveys the body, I exploit and fragment my own body, aiming to ‘re-invent’ the vision of the female form.

‘Men act and woman appear. Men look at woman. Woman watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and woman but also the relation of women and themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed, female. Thus, she turns herself into an object and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’ – Ways of Seeing, John Berger (Berger, 2012)

As women, we act under the status of a historical object. Merleau-Ponty maintains not only that the body is an historical idea but a set of possibilities to be continually realised (Butler, 1988). Aiming to transcend this objectivity women became an active role within their artwork. This created an outlet that soon diverged into two polar approaches in regards to the role of the female body. One, resisting putting the body in a position of gaze and objectification. The other, utilised the liberated body and its sexual explicitness. These two different approaches to feminist articulation created a division regarding how the female body should be used within fine art practice. For feminist artists, the body became a contested site, a problematic locus for work (Battista, 2013).

I. The Body: Site, Object, Material.

“The body is not only a historical idea but a set of possibilities to be continually realised” – Merleau-Ponty, “The Body is its Sexual Being,” in The Phenomenology of Perception, 2015 (Merleau-Ponty, 2015)

Woman is always described in relation to the man. In the art world, a female artist is compared to the male rather than her female counterpart. We hold different titles, ‘Artist’ and ‘Female artist’. As women, we act under this status. When Ponty ascribed the role of women as ‘a set of possibilities’, he empowered us to choose between these possibilities. Reversing gender binary roles and taking control of my own gaze within my work, I act as both the creator and the voyeur. To my audience I am presented as both the object and the subjugator. In 1998 Jemima Stehli takes on these roles with her work ‘Chair’, recreating Allen Jones’s original imagine from 1969 using her own form. Stehli’s position within her piece was described as “Both female and male positions within the same image, not only ‘woman as spectacle’, ‘passive object of the look,’ but also as active voyeur, controller of the gaze.” (Jones, 1999).

By taking control of the situation and choosing how our own bodies are seen by our viewers, we take on the role of the traditional male portrait artist. This can be problematic for women in todays society. As a site for art practice, the body is an unstable medium. When targeting the objectification of women through objectifying my own body in my work, I cannot always guarantee complete ownership of my own form when exposing it as a subject. Therefore it cannot be guaranteed that viewers will not find this exposure arousing. I relish in this instability.

At the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s Britain, performance art became a viable alternative to the more conventional studio practice. Body-oriented practices, starting in the 60s following the gestural canvases of Jackson Pollock, this led Feminist Art, especially performative aspects, to become heavily based around the body in a realtime situations. The female body became an important part of the new artistic process. Carolee Schneemann, finding the naked female body empowering, worked to reclaim her body making it the literal site of her artwork. Her piece ‘Up Too And Including Her Limits’ from 1976, created as a discussion with Pollock, addressing the male dominated history of Abstract Expressionism and action painting. Swinging naked from a harness, Schneemann creates drawings from her movements, functioning as a pencil, she vitalises and extends her whole body as a stroke, a gesture, in a dimensional space. Schneemann focuses her body as the literal site for her artwork, realising herself as an integral material.

In my own work, I act as Schneemann does, immersing myself into materiality. Simone De Beauvoir, claiming that ‘woman’ is a historical idea rather than a natural fact (Beauvoir, 1972), under scored for us the distinction between sex and gender. By doing so, the body becomes materiality, an active process. And for me, a medium. Acting in real-time and real-space, I am the material. I am both image and image maker, a primal archaic force of visual information. ‘The body is not self-identical or merely factic materiality; it is a materiality that bears meaning.’ (Butler, 1988). Placing myself as an object in the eyes of the viewer, I encourage the objectification and realisation of my body through my work. Much like ‘Up To and Including Her Limits’ I extend the idea of drawing through my body and onto the canvas. Each drawing created is a personal, explorative performative process of self reflection and role destabilisation. Through my pieces such as ‘Give Her A Pattern #1’ I force my audience to reimagine the form, to search for, rather than to see. My viewers are made to confront the immediacy of my body, of my limbs. They’re made to gather them up at piece them back together, thats human nature.

II. The De-Ribbing Process


1976. Hannah Wilke stands behind Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ (Also know as The Large Glass) dressed in a white satin suit and fedora. Duchamp’s work diminishes human sexuality to the status of mechanical process whilst consequently, dividing male and female (Batchelor versus Bride). Again, Wilke takes on both the role of male and female. Immediately undercutting the crucial element to one of Duchamp’s most famous pieces. Partially distorted behind the glass, Wilke begins to strip, this performance is a ten minute duration of erotically charged and liberated acts. A redemption of female sexuality. A reclamation of our very erotica.

Through my artwork, I aim, as Wilke did, to reclaim the conviction of woman. By using and therefore controlling my own body through my artwork, I do exactly that. As one with my material, I work to ‘de-rib’ woman from man. To distinguish Eve from Adam. By taking control of who I am, what I am and how Im seen through drawing, I challenging the constructs of psychosexual development. According to Jaques Lacan, it’s in our nature to be driven by our sexual desires. To harness and exploit these desires in its most ‘zero form’ (the idealisation of ourselves) (Lacan and Fink, 1999) in my art practice, I target the most conventional male desires.

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