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My animation of Orlan: Strip-tease occasionnel avec les draps du trousseau, 1974-1975

The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s show comprised two floors of powerful and exciting images and films. The works have strong relevance for today’s cultural climate because, although these works were made forty odd years ago, women are still struggling with equal representation within both the ‘real’ world and the art world. Within the past two years, the battle for equal rights has invariably begun to regress with the rise of right-wing politics and the re-establishment of white patriarchal systems of control. This show represents more than a simple retrospective - 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.

VALIE EXPORT: Aktionshose: Genitalpanik, 1969 (Bild: VBK, Wien 2010)

One unifying feature of the show was the intimate size of the work each artist produced (with a few exceptions). Each artist created art within their economic means and on an intimate ‘hand-to-mouth’ scale. This created a sense of intimacy between the artist and the artistic objects the artists produced; and also between the artwork and the viewer, as the artist is often confronting the viewer in the work.

Kirsten Justesen: Sculpture #2, 1969

The ‘personal is political’ is evident in each of the works in the show because the artist herself exists as both the subject of the work and also as the producer of critical thought within the work. The images, documents and films on display critique the male gaze and also offer new approaches to creating art. They do this by demonstrating that reflective acts of motherhood and feminist activist performances should be considered (and are considered) ‘art’.

Ulrike Rosenbach: Wrapping with Julia, 1972

For example, in Ulrike Rosenbach’s video ‘Wrapping with Julia’ (1972), pictured above, 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.

Suzanne Lacy’s ‘In Mourning and In Rage’ (1977) (image below), stages a ritual performance of mourning in public to confront both the violence against women carried out by murderers, rapists and also at the hands of the media. These works both look at how we, as a society, view women and are politically charged works of art.

Throughout the show, there was a cohesive vision - which is curious because although all the works were created around the same time at different locations across the world, the artists themselves would not necessarily have been aware of how similar the themes and approaches were within their works collectively. Ana Mendieta, Brigit Jünrenssen and Katalin Ladik each explored the male gaze in very similar ways, 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.

Ana Mendieta: Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints-Face), 1972

Mendieta’s ‘Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints-Face)’ (1972)  and Jürenssen’s ‘I Want Out of Here’ (1976) both explore the societal perceptions of the female face by distorting their faces with a glass pane (in this way the glass pane acts as a physical expression of oppressive aspects of the male gaze). Yet 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 draws a fine line between horror and humour as she disrupts the male gaze through turning the objectified ideal of a female face into one of disturbing unfamiliarity and grotesqueness.

Brigit Jünrenssen: Ich möchte hier raus!, 1976

On the other hand, Jürenssen plays more with the ‘idea’ 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. However, in contrast to Mendieta, Jürenssen’s ‘I Want Out of Here’ does not wholly resist the male gaze - as the artist’s face still conforms to the norms of feminine beauty and passivity within the work. In this way, Jürenssen appears to be more complicit in the visual objectification of herself, whereas Mendieta’s approach is more demonstrative and aggressive as it challenges the viewer by demonstrating the violent way the gaze subjugates the artist-subject to its power of seeing.

An example of a contemporary artist working with the idea of ‘male-gaze-as-glass’, Pipilotti Rist’s video work, ‘Be Nice To Me (Flatten 04)’ (2000) is in along the same vein as the works mentioned above, yet it is a modern interpretation as it uses 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 and the makeup leaves 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 possibility of a communal subconscious... 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 sort of ‘zeitgeist’, as themes that appear elsewhere in the world - as an undercurrent of thought and as a way of communicating that is not logical or language based. I say this because the themes in this show also resonate with the themes emerging in my own work. I was unaware of this because, due to the lack of popular acknowledgement of the works of groundbreaking female artists included in this show (and also the works of black women whose works were not included in this show), the variety of topics spanning from the idea of female identity as ‘mask’, the archetypes of woman 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 are all topics that are just as resonant and powerful today as they were in the 1970s.


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