Review: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
My animation of Orlan: Strip-tease occasionnel avec les draps du trousseau, 1974-1975
The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s held at the Photographers Gallery covered two floors of incendiary, exciting and too often forgotten artwork. The works on display haven't lost any of their relevance, and appear even more important to today’s cultural climate because, although these works were made forty odd years ago, women today are still struggling with issues that the women in this exhibition were fighting against in the 1970s. Women today have a few more rights but no more genuine autonomy or power of our own within society. Within the past two years, the battle for equal rights has begun to regress in direct correspondence with the rise of right-wing politics and the re-establishment of white patriarchal systems of control. This exhibition represents more than a simple retrospective of an art movement within history - the works on display are a reminder of the diversity of thought and vision within women’s artistic narratives and also demonstrate methods for creatively resisting patriarchal violence.
As I walked through the gallery spaces, I observed a point of correspondence between the artists works; a unifying feature throughout the show was the often intimate sizes of the images (of course with exceptions, there were large scale pieces present too). What stuck out to me about the scale of the pieces is the impression it gave that the artists worked within their economic means; on an intimate ‘hand-to-mouth’ scale. This, I feel, created a sense of closeness between the author of the work and the artistic objects they produced; subsequently between the artwork and the viewer who encounters them. Generally speaking the work displayed can't be categorized wholly one way or the other, large or small, vulnerable or detached, as the artist is confronting the viewer in the work through their own presentation of spirit, experience and intellect.
The presence of the ‘personal is political’ is embodied within each of the works in the show, as the artist herself exists as both the subject of the work (pointing the gaze of the camera at her own image) and producer of critical thought within the work (controlling how her image is perceived). The images, documents and films on display critique the male gaze and offer new approaches to creating art. They demonstrate that reflective "acts of motherhood" and feminist activist performances should be considered (and are considered) ‘art’, that the bounds of what can be defined as 'art' are malleable and can be used as a method of opening up discussions - and that art can be used to free both individuals and the community of those oppressed from their societal limitations.
For example, in Ulrike Rosenbach’s moving image piece ‘Wrapping with Julia’ (1972), the artist binds herself to her child with a bandage - a work that looks at motherhood not as an idealised saintly activity, but as a form of bondage. The discomfort she creates through this ritualistic and claustrophobic scene evokes a fear within me, as a young woman looking at the potentiality of my own future and biology. There's an immediate sense of recognition that reveals a darker and subconscious side to what motherhood can be, where the Woman As Person and Individual becomes bound by responsibility to the child, becomes eclipsed by the future of her children and loses all autonomy. Inversely the bandage could also act as a bond of love and attachment, of the unity between mother and child. Either way this piece evokes many intimate responses due to it's under-represented topic.
Suzanne Lacy’s ‘In Mourning and In Rage’ (1977) (image below), stages a ritual performance of public mourning to confront the various forms of violence against women. The ritual confronts misogynistic murders, rapes as well as the violence perpetrated by the voice of the media and how these gendered crimes were portrayed by the media. This ritual confronts how we, as a society, view women, and steps beyond the 'personal as political' into direct political action. The veiled women have a haunting presence because the identities of women beneath the veil have been erased, and they stand in for the faceless victims of gendered violence who have suffered in actuality.
There was a cohesive vision throughout the exhibition that echoed and related the artwork created despite the geographic, social and ideological distances that existed between the women at the time of their creation. Whether this is intentional, due to the curation of the show highlighting these similarities through hindsite, or whether the women's shared vision was just eerily coincidental, I'm not sure. This interests me on a larger scale as it shows that the feminist artistic action of the 1970s is a legitimate art movement, one not dissimilar in it's cohesive vision from the eruption of pop-art, or surrealism or any other time-specific collective vision. A collective vision that corresponds to the Zeitgeist, and that expresses something from the collective unconscious. An example of very specific shared motifs within the works are the pieces of Ana Mendieta, Brigit Jünrenssen and Katalin Ladik. They each explored the concept of the 'male gaze' through similar methods, i.e., each of them use a pane of glass to stand in for the male gaze, but were most likely unaware of how similar their work was as they lived remotely from each other.
Mendieta’s ‘Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints-Face)’ (1972) and Jürenssen’s ‘I Want Out of Here’ (1976) both explore the societal perceptions of female appearance by distorting their faces with a pane of glass (in this context the glass pane acts as a physical expression of oppressive aspects of the male gaze). Yet despite the shared object of a pane of glass and the artist's own face, each artist executes their work very differently. Mendieta’s ‘Untitled’ is a document of performance where the artist violently distorts her own image by pressing and pushing a glass pane over her lips and nose, making her skin turn white from the pressure of the glass. Its violence is on the fine line between horror and humour as Mendieta disrupts the male gaze through transforming the objectified ideal of a female face into one of disturbing unfamiliarity and grotesqueness. It's viceral, bodily and uncomfortable. This confrontation of the portrait creates an immediate reaction within the viewer when encountering the work.
On the other hand, Jürenssen plays more with the ‘concept’ of the male gaze itself and of the way the viewer is looking to objectify women within a work of art. This is revealed by the way Jürenssen makes herself appear trapped within the image. In contrast to Mendieta, Jürenssen’s ‘I Want Out of Here’ does not wholly resist the male gaze - the artist’s face still conforms to the norms of feminine beauty and passivity within the work (appearing trapped, confronting the viewer sidewards). In this way, Jürenssen appears to be more complicit in the visual objectification of her own identity as a women, whereas Mendieta’s approach is more subversive and aggressive as it challenges the viewer by demonstrating the violent way the gaze subjugates the artist-subject to its power of seeing.
To bring the theme of women and glass into a contemporary context, Pipilotti Rist’s video work, ‘Be Nice To Me (Flatten 04)’ (2000) is a modern echo to the works mentioned above. It's modernity lies in its use of film to combine photography and performance to create a time-based/moving image work. Rist’s work also brings the politics of make-up into the mix as she smears her face aggressively across the glass of the screen, the camera lens and across the ‘lens’ of your eyes - the makeup leaving a trail of evidence of the violent event of ‘the look’.
Pipilotti Rist: Be Nice To Me (Flatten 04), 2000
What I was left with after seeing this show - and thinking of the ways in which some themes travel across time and across minds, is the subversive, powerful possibilities of a communal subconscious. I love the idea that intuitive ways of thinking can unite people in mysterious ways that cannot be overtly qualified and measured. What I found to be most exciting aspect of the show is the way in which individual experiences resonate to become a ‘zeitgeist’. Individual expressions become larger themes that appear elsewhere in the world, outside of logical explanation. This idea resonates with me too, as the themes in this show correspond with the themes emerging in my own work. Before this exhibition, I was unaware of this section of cultural history because there's a huge lack of popular acknowledgement of the artists included in this show (even more so unacknowledged is the works of POC women whose works were largely not included in the exhibition). The themes that exist between the works within the exhibition span from the idea of female identity as ‘mask’, the archetypes/roles of women in society, the personal as political, the politics of the gendered gaze, and the use of one’s body as a tool or an artwork. These are all topics that are just as resonant and powerful today as they were in the 1970s.