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Re-Examining Feminist Performance

Gretchen Holmes

Three years ago, I had my first bikini wax in preparation for my re-performance of Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll,” a piece she debuted in 1975 that has endured as a simultaneously cliché and outré icon of feminist body art.  The gesture was, first and foremost, an attempt to convey my commitment to engaging in a dialogue with Schneemann’s work: how could my performance recall that famous image of the artist unfurling a rolled up paper from her vagina without replicating her abundant yet neatly-groomed bikini line?   My frantic concern with this particular detail seems, in retrospect, indicative of a difference between my own ambivalence towards performing the female body and Schneemann’s confident assertion that her body was both an object and maker of meaning.  While the original “Interior Scroll” emerged at the confluence of Fluxus Happenings and Women’s Liberation, a site primed for the radical gestures and collaborative interventions characteristic of 60s and 70s feminist art, my recreation was submerged in a contemporary feminism overwhelmed by contradictory attitudes towards femininity, sexuality, and feminism itself.  My pubic hair became a sort of allegory of Western feminism’s transformation over the past 40 years from an activist movement to a dispersed spectrum of discourses, identities, hot-button issues, and politically innocuous lifestyle choices.  Schneemann and her Second Wave contemporaries had the ERA, Equal Pay for Equal Work, education reform, and the Freedom Trash Can; my generation, feminism’s so-called Third Wave, has Sarah Palin, fertility therapy, and Sex and the City.  How would Schneemann’s defiant gesture translate into this strange new context?  Indeed, such an investigation could be broached only after a proper waxing.

Carolee Schneemann “Interior Scroll”

Carolee Schneemann “Interior Scroll”

This reperformance of “Interior Scroll” intended to challenge viewers to distinguish between critique and immitation; to compare the visual legacy of feminist art created during the woman’s movement with contemporary representations of feminism and femininity; and  to rally a coalition of conflicting sensibilities (nostalgia, defiance, irony, vanity, frustration, and humor to name few) in an effort to vindicate the relevance of contemporary feminist art in a post-feminist visual culture.  Today, many strategies women artists use to critique feminist representation—particularly strategies likely to achieve broad appeal—necessitate some reiteration of the femininity they aim to subvert: irony, parody, and masquerade, for example, can be interpreted as both imitation and critique.  Navigating these intersections within contemporary feminist art (or within contemporary feminist discourse) reveals a dissonance between the genre’s aesthetics and its politics, complicating the trajectory of Second Wave feminist strategies as their tactical components become repurposed.

During what might be considered feminist art’s “golden age” (the 60s and 70s), performance appealed to many woman artists seeking a medium capable of critiquing the modes of representing the female body saturating both high and low culture.  While this generation of artists approached performance from diverse perspectives and leveled criticism towards a range of injustices both inside and outside the art world, the politics of their work are typically unambiguous.And because feminist politics is a politics of the body, the visual language pioneered by 60s and 70s performance artists (Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Cindy Sherman, Valie Export, the list goes on…) gave voice to an uncanny mix of eroticism and didactics.  This means that their work was sexy and forceful, but that is not the only reason for the movement’s impact and endurance:  the particular political and social issues these artists engaged with tended to be issues of visibility, and their work provides a clear analogy between the experience of the female body and women’s position within visual art.  A project like Eleanor Antin’s Carving a Traditional Sculpture, a craft-based work like Miriam Schapiro’s Connection, or Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful series can’t be dismissed as an activist gesture irrelevant to the art world proper because its politics are enmeshed in the aesthetic manifestation of women’s traditional relationship with visual art.

Fifty years later, we can sufficiently articulate how these artists navigated gender through representation within the contexts of the Women’s Liberation Movement and Postmoderism.  It is far more challenging to begin to understand what feminist art looks like today, who is making it, and why.  Then there’s the real question:  What (if anything) is still at stake in feminist art?  Feminist art continues to pose relevant questions and engage in a contemporary aesthetic discourse, but the rules of the game are in constant motion.  As I survey these past fifty years, I consistently return to a theory that feminist art’s characteristic forms and strategies have diverged from the genre’s initial activism and are now embedded within many diverse contemporary practices.  Consequently, many artists deploy body performance, craft process, gender masquerade, domestic aesthetics, historical revision, or center core imagery to make decidedly unfeminist work; however, the ways contemporary feminist artists adopt and transform these strategies is, in my opinion, more fascinating.  Feminist artists who adapt historical models and imbue them with contemporary content often fall short of making work that is sufficiently critical (“craftivism” comes to mind) or sufficiently, well, art.  It is not so much that good feminist art needs to balance critique and aesthetics; rather, it needs to prove that something is at stake within its critique by engaging its audience with something compelling, provocative, beautiful, or terrifying.

SFMOMA flier featuring Takemoto

SFMOMA flier featuring Takemoto

Last week, San Francisco-based artist Tina Takemoto vindicated my flagging conviction that, yes, there are still reasons for feminists to make art in her lecture at Columbia College’s Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media.  Takemoto is an interdisciplinary artist and theorist whose work emerges at an intersection of public and private identity performance, drawing attention to paradoxes within practices that constitute gender, sexuality, and race differently in social and personal scenes.  Prior to attending Takemoto’s talk, I was looking forward to hearing her speak about Drawing Complaint: Memoirs of a Bjork-Geisha, a performance intervention she and collaborator Jennifer Parker staged at the SFMOMA during the opening of Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint.  A typical extension of Matthew Barney’s megalomaniacal culture empire, the exhibition showcased sculptures the film Barney, in collaboration with his wife Bjork, had just released as well as a site-specificinstallation, two-dimensional works, and more.  Takemoto and Parker performed as Bjork and Barney:  Takemoto wore a ridiculous kimono decorated with plush seal pups and whales—very Bjork—and sharpened pencils in an electric pencil sharpener concealed in her updo while she lip-synced to a Bjork CD blasting from the boom box Parker carried around the museum.  Takemoto’s performance was conceived as guerrilla warfare, a creative protest to Barney’s problematic exoticism of Asian culture and the SFMOMA’s dutiful reification of the Art Star’s Personal Mythology.  And most museum patrons assumed Takemoto and Parker had been invited to perform at the opening gala—in fact, SFMOMA’s next marketing campaign featured a picture of Takemoto amidst the delighted patrons as if she were part of Barney’s exhibition.

I was thrilled to learn about this performance not just because I give a free pass to any artist willing to befoul a Matthew Barney opening but because the project relates identity to art and institutions in a fearless, hilarious way.  Like my favorite feminist art projects, the ones I can assuredly label “feminist,” Takemoto’s Drawing Complaint smuggles itself into the seat of cultural authority and leverages woman’s public presence as spectacle in order to critique dominant aesthetic practices while simultaneously participating in them.  (One difference between political art and activism is that, after the protest, the artist lists the event on her NEA application.)  I love this piece, but I love it because it conforms to my expectations of “feminist art” as a sort of genre.  Entering into Takemoto’s oeuvre anticipating a treasure-trove of feminist jewels, I became confounded by projects expressing more intimate, less overtly political aspects of gender, sexuality, and race.  Takemoto’s collaborations with her partner Angela Ellsworth emerged as powerful examples of this more personal work: their project Her/She Senses presents a body of performative work exploring the visible sameness and difference making their bodies and their relationship.  When Ellsworth was diagnosed with lymphoma, she and Takemoto attempted to translate the marks cancer treatment left on Ellsworth’s body onto Takemoto’s body using absurdly inadequate props in a series of visual rhymes called Imag(in)ed Malady.  Each diptych illustrates Takemoto’s attempts to empathize with Ellsworth, to cling to an intimacy with Ellsworth’s body that her illness threatened to destroy.  The work exists first and foremost as a working-through of loss, fear, and love; but as these images emerge from private into public, Takemoto asks the viewer to bear witness to the heartache of difference staged within visible markings of illness, race, gender, and sexuality.  Instead of simply arguing that women are not recognized as creative agents and access to culture should not, in this day in age, be reserved for heterosexual white men, this work demonstrates that artists who may not be straight white men do, in fact, have beautiful, profound things to say about the human condition.

Tina-Takemoto2

Tina Takemoto "Her/She Senses"

Drawing Complaint intertwined identity and authority so successfully, so why would Takemoto want to make explicitly personal work instead of making more work that reveals the politics limiting access to culture production?  Before I answer this, allow me to pose another rhetorical question:  Why would [insert normative white male artist’s name here] want to make work that is explicitly personal instead of making work that reveals the politics limiting access to culture production?  Facile as it seems to redirect this question towards white male artists, the simple rephrasing sheds light on the double-standard motivating my perplexed response to Imag(in)ed Malady.  While an artist who is a feminist might view art as a forum for political dialogue, it is more than her desire to engage in this dialogue that motivates her to make art.  And this is what is still at stake in feminist art: an adequate space for expressions of subjectivity that go beyond demands for subjectivity—art that’s not preoccupied with its plea for legitimacy.

Tina Takemoto "Drawing Complaint: Memoirs of a Bjork Geisha"

Tina Takemoto "Drawing Complaint: Memoirs of a Bjork Geisha"

Could my bikini line, painstakingly groomed out of reverence for Carolee Schneemann, be such a utopian space?  If you’re feeling generous, you might agree that this gesture imbued my reperformance with ambivalence towards femininity and feminism and gave voice to my anxieties about claims of empowerment through sexual expression.  Or, we could return to Takemoto’s work.  Takemoto simultaneously engages feminism’s politics and its steaks, and this dual presence argues for the importance of both.  In order for Takemoto to make Imag(in)ed Malady, someone has to make Drawing Complaint; but it’s not worth making Drawing Complaint if institutional critique and identity politics do not ultimately aim to create a space for creative expression through different, non-normative subjectivities.  Coexisting within Takemoto’s exciting oeuvre, Drawing Complaint and Imag(in)ed Malady substantiate feminist art’s struggle and its reward in a common voice, suggesting that the old axiom “the personal is the political” does not necessarily mean that “the female body’s subjective experience constitutes feminist politics” or “your hopes, fears, frustrations, and disappointments are not yours alone but part of a collective conscious;” rather, Takemoto proposes a politics clearly in service of the personal and a personal whose fullness deserves and inspires the political.

[Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine”, posted 12/09]