Essay: Feminist art practice

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  • Feminist art practice
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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.

One needs look no further than Yves Kleins work to see the exploitation and manipulation of a woman’s body through art. Woman, merely his object, his paintbrush to be handled, act in a state of total passivity. In 1992, Rachel Lachowicz undertook a critical review of Kleins ‘Anthropometries’ series. Standing above man in her own performance piece, bare faced and tenacious, Lachowicz reversed the roles of Kleins original performance, highlighting a woman’s objectification through role reversal in its purest form. Lachowicz states; “If you’re obsessed with how you look, you spend your time doing that, rather than doing and being and making accomplishments” (Dubin, 1992).

Studying the works of Lachowicz, I question myself and how I create an image within my performance work. Whilst exposing my natural form entirely to my audience, I still choose to wear one thing only. Makeup. As an imprint of patriarchal society, I question wether I am ultimately still trying to present myself as a desirable object to men. Wether my practice is entirely driven by self-indulgence and narcissism. Throughout the history of feminist art, the question of narcissism or phallic validation has been raised over women using their body in or especially as their artwork.

III. Self Representation And The Question Of Narcissism

Throughout arts history, the fixation on self-portraiture has never faltered. Rembrant, Gaugin, Van Gogh have all been elevated as ‘fathers’ of portraiture. Even Egon Schiele, whilst he raised so many hackles, was never labelled a narcissist. McCarthy, Brisley, Nauman, whilst they utilised their bodies though performance art, even still. When looking at the most important female artists from the 1970’s onwards, Schneemann, Wilke, Cindy Sherman, who in turn, all used their own image as the centre point of their practice, rather than praised, they were criticised and labeled narcissistic.

Narcissism. The exploration of/and fixation on the self. (Jones, 1998)

If we take narcissism at face value, I question, why it cannot be seen as a political and performative mechanism. Art historian, Amelia Jones, reinterprets narcissism, as a feminist strategy, that can be adopted and utilised by artists, saying; ‘Narcissism, enacted through body art turns the subject inexorably and paradoxically outward’ (Jones, 1998). I question now, that if, perhaps by engaging in narcissism through my art practice, I also engage myself in the codes and genres of masculine self-portraiture and tradition. I realise also, by saying this, that I am not creating my artwork in the hope of phallic validation, that is to be validated or elevated to the equivalence of man. But rather, that my artwork has everything to do with narcissism. And that, as an artist, I explore what I know best. My ‘self’.

IV. The Private Made Public

‘To do, to dramatise, to reproduce, these seem to be some of the elementary structures of embodiment’ – Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, Judith Butler (Butler, 1988)

My circumstance in todays art world, is that I am a woman of my environment. Surrounded by a patriarchal hierarchy, whilst I have the opportunity to portray a message and expect to be heard, still, my most fatal flaw, is my explorative attitude towards sex and sexuality. Simone de Beauvoir talks often of the female body being a ‘situation’ rather than a ‘thing’ (Beauvoir, 1972). Whilst I acknowledge myself as a situation through my private performances, when presenting my audience with my drawings, my documentations, a vital part of my work is lost.

When creating my drawings, there is a sense of profound introspection. I approach every piece with the expectation of exploring my deepest vulnerabilities. My practice demands a submission, into a unique and respectful relationship between myself and my materials. A submission rewarded by catharsis. John Cage spoke of art as a method of loosing ego, control and predominantly choice, a process of self-alteration (W. Bernstein. and Hatch, 2001). Performance artist Marina Abramović likens her audience to dogs, saying that they can sense madness, fear and insecurities and therefore believing that exposing true vulnerabilities is key to a great performance. In my performance piece ‘The De-Ribbing Process’, I recognise that my acts maintain a cathartic response within my own psyche but also that they most likely bear meaning and purpose for others as well. Because of this response, a relationship is created between myself and my viewers. a relationship based on the exposure of my vulnerabilities.

Whilst focusing on the body, for me, there has always be a desire to understand more than one identification of it within a spacial context. Cindy Nemser also recognises this, saying, “There’s a desire to know oneself as both subject and object in relation to ones surroundings” (Warr and Jones, 2015). Very much like the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, I question now, how I ever determined myself as subject and/or object without witness. By inviting an audience into my private, performative space, I situate both them and myself in a role of which I have the power to predetermine. As the subject, performing the act, I place myself in a position of control. Acting as an object, I place myself in a position of voyeuristic pleasure. Placed in fluidity between my body and my material, I maintain my part in both roles by designing a role for my viewers. The voyeur. To immerse my audience into this role, it was essential for me to destabilise them through a series of repeated acts.

The depiction of two men fighting a lion can be found in a Nineteenth Century B.C Assyrian wall relief. It is hard, as a viewer, to organise and understand which limb belongs to animal and which belongs to man. The figures become mere integers repeated across stone as the viewers vision is obscured. In ‘The De-Ribbing Process’ the repetition of my voice and incoherent panting of my breath as I fatigue releases my observers from all linear logic.

By positioning myself facing primarily away from my audience, they are forced into a position of in-looking perception, looking over my shoulder to glimpse at my private relationship. By giving my audience the act of documenting my performance, they are immersed further into their allocated role of typical voyeurism.

I create a tension in my performance, utilising conventional roles of the male and female counterparts. In Sigmund Freud’s ‘Three Contributions To The Theory Of Sex’ (Freud and Brill, 2014) it is claimed that shattering the tension of sexuality is something we seek to repeat throughout our lives. By creating a relationship empowered by tension with my audience I hold the eye of my viewer. I recognise now, that through performance art, I am given the ability to strip away fixed protective layers that my audience members so often hide behind.

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