Vadge at the VAG: The Delicate Art of Framing Feminism
Jen Graves just published a list of her favorite art exhibitions of 2008 in the Stranger. Not surprisingly, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution topped her list. I just returned from a trip to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the show and I am in agreement. The exhibition, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and curated by Connie Butler of the MoMA, New York, is the world’s first international survey of “Feminist” art from 1965 to 1980—a fact I find difficult to wrap my head around. Jen published a lengthy review of WACK! in the Stranger that covers the basics, so I’m going to build from there. Jen says:
If feminist art had to be represented by a single medium, it would probably be video, since the emergence of the handheld camera dovetailed with the focus on female self-exploration and the re-creation of a female body that existed outside the parameters of art history and mass media. Performance would be a very close second.
Maybe so, at least from where we’re standing. The video pieces may be played again and again; handed off and handed down without losing their form or content. But man oh man! If I had the choice between watching all 40+ hours of video in WACK! and witnessing just one performance of Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll, guess which one I’d pick?
Like religious rituals, successful performative artworks use the dimensions of time and space to occasion a transcendent moment that collapses these dimensions altogether. By relying upon the audience to provide content, artists can introduce a layer of sponteneity into their work that demonstrates their archetypal commentary better than anything they could have scripted. As Peggy Phelan writes,
…for me the power of [Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece] resides in the drama of physical intimacy that the piece stages. To participate in the performance, the spectator has to come onstage; he or she has to enter the performance space and give up the security inherent in voyeurism and become the object of the audience’s gaze. … In the…film of the New York performance, when a particularly aggressive male spectator approaches and cuts off her bra strap, the artist flinches for a brief second before she resumes her passive sacrifice. This flicker is precisely where live performance gains hits power; unscripted and momentary, Ono’s work exposes the aggression that marks sexual difference and the laborious efforts women make not to be undone by it. …
In 1974, the themes of Ono’s Cut Piece were revisited in Marina Abramović’s extraordinary performance Rhythm 0. Promising to remain passive for six hours, …Abramović invited spectators to use any of the seventy-two objects she had arrayed on a table next to her in a gallery in Naples. The objects…included a feather, a scalpel, paint, a gun, and a bullet. Before long, Abramović’s skin had been cut and she was bleeding; a spectator had put the gun in her hand and cocked it against her forehead. There was a growing sense of danger. Other spectators intervened and Abramović accepted their care. In this radical gesture of an even more profound acceptance of the spectators’ will than the original plan, a gesture that showed how active passivity often is, the performance was transformed; Abramović allowed her spectators to become co-creators of her work.
–Peggy Phelan, The Returns of Touch: Feminist Performances, 1960-80. Printed in the WACK! exhibition catalog, pp. 352-353.
A video of Abramović’s six hour ordeal apparently exists; WACK! represents the performance with a still photograph and wall text describing the project parameters and listing all seventy-two objects. For me, this is one of the most compelling works in the entire exhibition because it has resounding implications that transcend the artist, her body, and our political moment. We are all her spectators, all the time. The only thing that keeps us from ravaging and exploiting the passive, “feminine” matrix all around us is the strange, precarious and ill-understood moral glue that prevented Abramović’s audience from allowing her to be destroyed.
Like Jen Graves, I also walked out of WACK! with few complaints. One is that aside from a few husband-collaborators, there were no men represented in the exhibition. Yes, I’m aware it’s a feminist exhibition, but there are plenty of male artists—gay, straight and otherwise—who also examine issues of gender and identity in their work. There are, for instance, wonderful works by photo artists like Jürgen Klauke or Pierre Molinier from the period 1965-1980 that could have had an interesting dialogue with the works in this show. This issue jumps to the forefront for me because ever since I took a graduate seminar on “Sexual Identity in the Visual Arts” from Dr. Patricia Failing at the University of Washington, I have a little trouble swallowing feminism as a stand-alone category. One woman’s gender feminism is another’s essentialism, and until genderqueer and post-feminist artists and theorists began to question the conventional wisdom of viewing masculinity and femininity as binary oppositions, women artists could not help but continue to view themselves as somehow dependent upon or at least reacting to a heteronormative male-dominated culture. My assumption is that all this was considered by the curator and was deliberately omitted in favor of a wide-angle snapshot of a more cohesive 1970s “women’s moment.” (To be fair, I haven’t read this whole massive catalog yet, and I would be surprised if it doesn’t at least partially address my concerns.)
That said, all in all WACK! manages to be amazing. If you’re in Seattle, it’s well worth braving the snow and subjecting yourself to the “male gaze” at the border on your way back into Freedomland. When they bust out the rubber gloves and the flashlight, just channel Marina Abramović and remember: I’m letting you do this to me for Art!