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Feminism Manifested in Art

By Roxana Marcoci

To speak about the feminist epistemes of the year 2000, one needs to look back at the decade of the 1990s, a period when feminist practices related to visual and performing arts, theory, criticism, and activism became more dissenting and schismatic than ever before. While the pioneering Women's Liberation Movement of the early 1970s had a clear mandate -the construction of a distinct female subjectivity and the inclusion of women within the orb of cultural production-, modified ensuing generations to calibrate a clearly articulated oppositionality between "grass roots" and poststructuralist theories of gender, more recent feminist investigations have ceased to operate by any such clear-cut demarcations. In other words, since the end of the 20th-century two aspects have been problematized: the received categories of feminist art, and the idea that "woman" can be literalized in terms of a normative collective identity, a gestalt of some sorts. This being said, one should not hastily conclude that feminism, now fractioned and divergent, is bankrupt or in reflux. On the contrary, I would argue, that if contemporary feminists have less of a sense of themselves as a movement, it is because their power subsists no longer in a unified Pan-feminist voice, but in the disjunctions among their voices, in the differences among women themselves1. 

It is through this prismatic lens that I would like to focus, even if briefly, on three different practices which have contributed to understanding our period and concurrently have extended the social contexts in which these practices still unfold. 

Shirin Neshat - Turbulent

To begin with, nineties feminism not only jettisoned gynophobic stereotyping, but also probed sexual, ethnic and racial differences. This explains why, on one hand, feminism today is more likely to address all the clichés about what it means to be a woman -since as a construct (whether historical or fictional), woman is always open to investigation. On the other hand, it offers a much broader range of positions, not to mention realignments, as in the challenge posed by women of color to the authority of white women to speak for all women in general2. The sustained productions of the last twenty years of Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson are just few of the known paradigms. The same can be said about non-Western feminist rebuttals of Western hegemonic discourses.

Consider, for instance, the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, whose work is feminist, yet inverts all generalizations about the identity of women in Islamic societies. Her work, comprised of still photographs with calligraphic inscriptions and experimental video short texts, disclaims systems of representations that carry with them a kind of coercive authority, opaque to interventions on the part of those represented3. Neshat is interested to open up the narratives she explores, to portray the ambivalent, often contradictory roles that women perform in Iran. Her series of photographs such as Unveiling, 1993, and Women of Allah, 1994, focus on the topic of the veil in relation to the female body, and on the dynamic between femininity and violence subsumed in the image of the Muslim woman as militant. In the first series, the woman dressed from head to ankle in traditional black chador (a garment that fully covers the body except for face, hands and feet) is to Westerners' eyes an image of religious Fundamentalism; yet, to the women of Islam it is an image reflecting cultural difference. The woman wearing the chador, like the veiled woman, stands for the body politic honoring Islamic laws. This public image, however, is doubled by the private body "empowered by the sense of multiplication and anonymity that her veiling offers." 4 Concealing the woman's sexuality, these garments not only prevent her from becoming an object of scopophilic desire, but also subvert the masculine drive to fix her in a stable and stabilizing position. Or, to state it differently, it is precisely the woman's anonymity which enfranchises her to assume an infinite number of shapes and identities. In the second series, the woman's body appears inscribed by feminist poems in Farsi, the Persian language of Iran, and armed with a menacing pistol pointed to the viewer. Once again, Neshat introduces a cultural paradox: the always-already submissive Muslim woman takes on the role of the free-shooter, an equal to her male counterparts in the military, in the revolution and in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Issues of violence and terrorism are thus deployed in relation to feminism, politics, and religion. 

Similarly, more recent video installations suchlike Turbulent, 1998, communicate a degree of ambiguity between a particular feminism rooted in Islamic values, and Western misconceptions about the passivity of Middle-Eastern women, who are said to lack a voice of their own. The artist introduces two protagonists, a man and a woman, two singers, facing the viewer's space from opposite sides. The man performs a classical love song before an appreciative all-male audience. The woman performs (which is strictly forbidden in Iran) to an empty concert hall. The gendered space of the two confronting voices is complicated by the underlying tension between tradition and iconoclasm as distinct modes of production available to men and women respectively. While the man lip-synchs (the actual voice is of a popular Kurdish singer) a classical song by the renowned Iranian composer Kambiz Roshan Ravan, the woman sings a rapturous, self-invented chant, her electrifying voice enhanced by computer-sampling and asynchronization. Throughout the duration of the piece, the camera fixes the man frontally in a static position, but roves freely around the woman in a hypnotic whirl. Paul D. Miller notes that the man, free to act, "is bound to repeat what is known and identifiable within the given musical traditions of his culture, whereas the woman, driven by a history of prohibition, is compelled to invent a form which expresses, explodes, and reconfigures sound in a visceral stream of abstract and universal potential."5 The work goes from addressing key issues about Middle-Eastern relations battled out on the phonetic field to making a statement about women's transgressive power in a world of culturally inscribed limitations.  

Current feminism is likely to unscreen various incongruities among women, including not just differences of culture, race and ethnicity, but also of sexual identity. This explains the recent emergence of lesbian content in art, as seen through the lens of Nicole Eisenman, Nan Goldin, Laura Aguilar, Catherine Opie, Collier Schorr and Zoe Leonard, to name just a few. Zoe Leonard, whose work I would like to examine in this context, is one of the founders of the lesbian feminist group Fierce Pussy, an organization engaged in political activism, street interventions and mural painting. As a member of the artist collective Gang, the artist produced in 1992 a poster titled Read My Lips, in which a woman's vagina is coupled with the phrase: "Read my lips before they are sealed." The text directly references a law prohibiting American doctors to use the word "abortion." At the same time, it alludes to the censorship of homoerotic subjects. The scope of the piece is to establish an analogy between the conservative patriarchal models of political order (what Lacan calls the pere version, i.e. the version of the father, otherwise known as perversion) and the annihilation of the female body whose self-actualization owed a great deal to the 1960s sexual revolution and to the widespread use of the contraceptive pill. Also, the fact that it is a lesbian feminist who had the initiative of placing the vagina at the center of the picture, entangles matters even more, raising further questions about the judicial and institutional praxis which governs, controls and litigates the female body.

The woman's genitalia became the topos of Leonard's critique of male sexist power-play. So, in 1992, on the occasion of Documenta IX, the artist decided to shatter the hegemony of patriarchal lawgivers by installing in the Neue Galerie, Staatliche Museen Kassel, a series of scandalizing black-and-white photographs of female pubes amid moralistic 18th-century German paintings. Addressing the familiar critique of painting in terms of the "male gaze," Leonard redirected the viewer's attention from that which the paintings merely hinted at to that which was subliminally hidden beneath them. Her close-up photographs of female genitalia directly pointed to the modern history of art as underwritten by the "fathers," beginning with Gustave Courbet's Origin of the World, 1866, and ending up with Marcel Duchamp's Given, 1946-1966, key works construing the female sexual organ as original site. Original site of what? of becoming? of originality? of masculine desire? of specularity? All these questions interfacing each other only had the result of recreating the primal scene as a peepshow spectacle.

In Courbet's case, the work had been commissioned by a notorious Turkish collector of erotica, Khalil Bey, for his own delectation, if not for that of his confreres who, during the course of an Oriental soirée would be shown the "nude woman, without feet and without a head"6 following dinner -one can only guess- as desert. The work would be admired on grounds of its original composition and masterful depiction of the flesh. It is known, however, that by 1910 the Origin had changed owners. The Baron Francis Hatvany of Budapest bought the painting from the dealer Bernheim-Jeune, who is said to have kept it in a double-locked frame, hidden by a panel of a "castle in the snow." 7 By a twist of fate, the work eventually ended up in the collection of Sylvie Bataille Lacan -former wife of both Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan- before becoming a highlight in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. From a Lacanian point of view, this is a classic scenario: a common image -the cunt- becomes the object-cause of desire because it is converted into a screen onto which the male subject projects the fantasies that support his orgasmic desire (jouissance).

In the case of Given, Duchamp's testament-work, the viewer is invited to peek like a voyeur through a peephole into a diorama revealing the headless nude torso of a woman in a landscape, her legs spread over to reveal, once again, the cunt. Like in Courbet's Origin, the image of the female sex functions here as an empty form, filled out by masculine fantasy. In both cases, patriarchal prerogative and pictorial originality (e.g. bravura of brushwork, manipulation of matter, composition thought in terms of the gaze) are interlocked. In contrast, Leonard's photo-verité shots of female pubes are almost too present, too real and too banal, revealing the cunt "as the incarnated, materialized emptiness." 8 Smeared by an obscure vitality belonging to the real, the cunt stands no longer for the empty signifier ready to be filled with male jouissance, but for a lawless form penetrated itself with enjoyment. As such, Leonard's appropriation of the modern masters and her invasion in the gallery of old masters' representations of women constitutes a violation of parental authority and jurisdiction over the only possible origin, the woman's sex, that void which stands for the whole without ever closing itself as totality. In the end, one realizes that Leonard's practice is less one of appropriation, or territorialization -i.e. taking hold of the space of old masters' works- and more one of expropriation: she expropriates the male appropriators, thus reclaiming the power of the creative act on her own terms.

In a similar vein, Janine Antoni has produced throughout the 1990s a body of work which evinces a liberating revision of male art and a broad understanding of feminist artistic strategies. Her sculptures made of chocolate, fat, or soap are, on a first-level reading, products associated with feminine obsessions concerning eating habits and carvings, struggle with bulimia, the desire for love and cleanliness, guilt feelings, and the drive of self-hatred. In Gnaws, 1992, Antoni "re-sculpted" two Minimalist cubes of lard and chocolate, each weighing 600 pounds, by chewing and spitting out their corners. From the spewed mass of chocolate, the artist then produced the interior plastic tray of a heart-shaped box of candies; from the lard mixed with pigment and beeswax, a collection of 300 lipsticks. Antoni applied a similar sculptural process in Lick and Leather, 1993-94, a group of soap and chocolate self-portraits which were gradually worn away by narcissistic licking and compulsive washing of her own features. 

According to the artist, the bite, like the licking, is a process "both intimate and destructive,"9 insofar as it implies a close, intimate relation to one's body, but also an aggressive, oral-sadistic tendency. Thus, on a second reading, one could argue that the performative practices conjured up in Antoni's works are related to a pre-Oedipal oral fixation which recalls Louise Bourgeois' fantasy of dismembering her father's body in a well-known installation from 1974,

The Destruction of the Father. This is a piece in which the social ritual of the family meal is turned into a cannibalistic attack on the father's power, his words, through biting. As noted by Mignon Nixon, Bourgeois' act of devouring her father's body is one and the same with the act of eating his words. She writes: "... eating takes place of naming in a substitution of oral sadism for speech that is at once Kleinian and anti-Lacanian. The little girl's desire to speak and her frustration of being silenced is transposed into another desire for oral power and pleasure -the desire to bite, to cut, to devour the one who oppresses with his speech.10 Thus, in Antoni's Gnaws the rows of teeth marks indented on the surface of the chocolate cube and the impressions of her chin, nose and mouth left on the lard, constitute an attack on the male-oriented Minimalism legacy which at once defines her as an artist and excludes her as a woman. The desire to eat the father and to eat his words is turned into the desire for new sculptural solutions which involve performance as an aggressive act with the intention of producing works -lipstick and candy- that comment on the manipulation of women's desires in advertising industry and consumer culture.

In 1992 Antoni performed Loving Care at Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London, a piece which stands for one of her most witty critiques of the aggrandized Abstract Expressionist gesture and the male action painting paradigm. Soaking her long hair in dye, she used it as a brush to mop the gallery floor, combining cleaning and painting into a single action. The performance is not without irony. As Amelia Jones observes, Antoni subverted "the usual outcome of the laborious act of mopping by making the floor dirty rather than clean." 11 In other words, her "painting" became a reverse action since the floor literally had to be mopped once the performance ended. The impact of Loving Care consists in the intersection between Pollockian drip painting and laboring female body. By making contact with the floor, Antoni evinced the debasement and self-abnegation of the female body at work in antithesis to the Pollockian gesture, which although performed on the floor, always maintains a distance from the web of paint.

The distance intimated by Pollock became a full statement in Yves Kleins' Anthropométries, 1960, a series of performances in which the artist "painted" by employing the naked bodies of female models (dubbed the "living brushes"), smeared with International Klein Blue while he kept his own body free of paint altogether. Klein's argument that the male creator directs his energies and materials from a distance, constitutes one of the most triumphantly misogynistic messages in the history of 20th-century art: "I no longer dirtied myself with color, not even the tips of my fingers." 12 As opposed to Pollock and Klein, Antoni's gesture is not linked to a transcendentalized concept of work but to the "low" economy of domestic labor. Her rationale brings to mind Shigeko Kubota's performance, Vagina Painting, presented in 1965 at the Perpetual Fluxfest in New York. On that occasion, Kubota similarly proceeded to paint red strokes on the floor with a brush attached to her underwear. Redefining gesture painting according to the codes of female anatomy and bodily fluids, she produced a gestural image that activated the vagina itself "as the originary point of the meaningful painterly gesture." 13 Like Kubota, Antoni, next to Leonard and Neshat, have each made a gesture toward the "unbearable lightness of being." Indeed, they have each produced an "easy" piece that recovers woman as the source of artistic practice, not to mention as the gender able to produce both life and art.

1. For a solid analysis of this issue see Laura Cottingham, "The Feminist Continuum: Art After 1970," in The Power of Feminist Art, ed. by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 276-287.
2. In the late 1980s a number of feminist organizations for women of color emerged in the United States, among them: Coast to Coast (African-American artists ), Vistas Latinas, and Godzilla (Asian-American artists).
3. For an informed discussion of this issue see Phil Mariani and Jonathan Crary, "In the Shadow of the West: An Interview with Edward Said," in Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture edited by Russell Ferguson, William Olander, Marcia Tucker and Karen Fiss (Cambridge and New York: 4.The MIT Press and The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990), 93-103. 4 Paul D. Miller, "Motion Capture: Shirin Neshat's Turbulent," Parkett 54 (1998-1999), 160.
5. Ibid, 159.
6. For an excellent discussion of the history of this work see Linda Nochlin, "The Origin without an Original," October 37 (Summer 1986): 80.
7. Ibid, 80.
8. See Slavoj Zizek's, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1991), 145.
9. Janine Antoni, quoted by Rosa Martinez in Cream: Contemporary Art in Culture (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998), 61.
10. Mignon Nixon, "Bad Enough Mother," October 71 (Winter, 1995): 74.
11. Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 281.
12. Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), 122.
13. Ibid, 99. 

" Contemporary feminists' power subsists in the differences among women themselves. "

First published at: First published at ICCA
Via IranDokht

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