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FEMALE TROUBLES
by Michéle C. Cone
 
"Global Feminisms," Mar. 23-July 1, 2007, at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238

A Tsunami-sized wave of distress signals has landed on the walls and floors of the new Sackler Wing of the Brooklyn Museum, where works of some 90 young female artists from all around the globe are displayed together under the title "Global Feminisms." In a frequently sensationalist tone, artists from far and near lay out their pessimistic outlook on the future of women as wives, mothers, grandmothers and lovers, and point an accusatory finger at men and mankind in general. A long way from their homelands, the Third World artists in the show are especially uninhibited.

More than a handful of the artists are familiar, including Ghada Amer, Tracey Emin, Anna Gaskell, Sara Lucas, Pipiloti Rist, Shazia Sikander and Kara Walker. Quite a few came into view at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and many of the non-Americans have made New York their home base. The others are new here, at least to me. Speaking loudly and aggressively for the most part, their works, done since 1990, have been chosen by the mentor / mentee team of Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly, with the assistance of local experts.

Reilly is the newly named curator of the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, a feminist niche within the Brooklyn Museum, and the first space of its kind. Linda Nochlin is a brilliant art historian who not only reinvented 19th-century Realism but also, as an early feminist, put a number of underappreciated women artists from the past on the art-historical map. In 1976 she co-curated the exhibition "Women Artists 1550-1950," which was the first major historical museum show devoted to women artists.

"Global Feminisms" seeks to update the 1976 exhibition by doing for young women from around the world what the earlier show had done for women artists of earlier times -- give them visibility. Nochlin supervised Reilly’s Ph.D. thesis at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, which was on the lesbian theme in Courbet’s paintings, and this interest shows in their choices as curators of "Global Feminisms." A shared affinity for Realist sensibilities may explain the predominance of photographic, video and film artworks in their collaborative efforts.

Attention-grabbing presentations are nothing new to the Brooklyn Museum, of course. In 1999, the museum happily violated all sense of decorum with "Sensation," an assembly of young British artists with a knack for scandal. One star of that show, Jenny Saville, is also in the current exhibition with two eye-catching paintings, one of them of a transsexual nude.

And, although the Chapman brothers (who contributed sculptures of Siamese twins with penis-shaped noses to "Sensation") are excluded owing to their gender, their idea of transgressive bodies is given quite a play in "Global Feminisms." "Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Feminist Art and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990) is almost required reading for some of this work," Nochlin concedes in the exhibition catalogue.

But the Young British Artists were not pushing a single idea. "Global Feminisms," on the other hand, aims to set new directions in contemporary art with an emphasis on content that has social and political import. The plan, according to Reilly, is "to dismantle restrictive dichotomies (us/them, center/ periphery, white/ black) in favor of an examination of themes about the individual and collective experience of women crossculturally."

In this deconstructive project, the line between Third World feminists’ art made for Western vs. localized consumption is also blurred, and that difficulty problematizes the curators’ objective, inspired by the feminist theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty, "to underscore not only significant similarities but also localized differences between women across cultures." In the exhibition, significant similarities across cultures on the themes under discussion are easier to read than localized differences.

The show is divided into four themes -- life cycles, identities, politics, and emotions. In the first two sections of the show, "identities" and "life cycles," sexual confusion reigns. It is visible in a photo pretending to depict a Hassidim man stroking his large sagging breast (the Israeli artist Oreet Ashery, in disguise). It certainly applies to the trick photographic likeness of two smiling Asian males with ballooning pregnant bellies (Hiroko Okada from Japan), and it also characterizes the photo of a tattooed mannish woman with a baby suckling at her breast (Catherine Opie, from the USA).

Not everyone will agree that we, women, are so confused that we don’t even know whether we are male or female, but it is a fact that an increasing number of young women are going both ways these days.

Fluid gender boundaries are further symbolized in the show by Mary Coble from the USA and her video Binding Ritual Daily Routine and by Tejal Shah, an artist from India whose video is called Trans-. In Shah’s video, a young man shaving his beard mutates into a woman. In Coble’s work, one is offered the sight of a transsexual binding his/her breasts to pass for a man. Such representations of the female body may not be in the best of taste, and they may not show "new directions in contemporary art," but they do break with 1970s feminists who enjoyed taunting men with images of their shapely bodies.

In the "politics" section, the mess we are in is made excruciatingly visible by several artists who use their bleeding bodies as a metaphor for the suffering of both their countries and themselves. I Am Milica Tomic a handsome woman in a white dress intones in different languages, "I am Milica Tomic," while she slowly spins on a turntable and bloody cuts randomly appear on her face and body. The artist is from Serbia.

In her video Hula Hoop, the Israeli artist Sigalit Landau shows the torso of a naked young woman bleeding from the hurt of a barbed wire hula hoop that she twirls around her waist, a commentary that not only on ooh the mess that Israel is in, but also on the pain that the rest of the world inflicts on itself through war. The sight of a woman inflicting pain on herself is nothing new -- a recent show at Galerie Lelong in New York, titled "Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited 1960-1980," included several films on the subject -- but the use of the motif in the context of war transforms its meaning.    

Of course, not every feminist exposes her body to send a political message. One who does not is the Palestinian artist Emily Jacir. Her long video, Crossing Surda (A Record of going to and from Work) (2002), is about waiting in line to go across a border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The video makes the locale, a parking lot, seem particularly hot and unwelcoming; it suggests the unbelievably protracted time it takes to get across on a daily basis. The tragic conclusion emerging from this work is that measures taken for protection against terrorism breed discontent and more terrorism. 

The political art by feminists is not always somber. The curators must be congratulated for introducing a bit of humor here and there. Observe for example the lustful expression on the face of the ex-Congolese dictator Mobutu while he is watching a parade, particularly at the moment when smiling young women wildly agitating their bottoms pass by in military good order. Entitled Oye Oye, the piece is by Michele Magema from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Or listen to the martial music that accompanies the gyrating hips of a belly dancer whose midriff is adorned with thousands of ringing coins in the video by Zoulikha Bouabdellah. It is the sound of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. Comic relief, however, does not last long, for a demented greed is written all over the face of the all powerful dictator in Magema’s piece, and the honor of France is thoroughly debased in the second piece. Though the artist hails from Russia, postcolonial vengeance is not very far away.  

The fourth theme of "Global Feminisms" is "emotions," and on this subject the new feminists appear to be thoroughly disillusioned. In Australian artist Tracy Moffatt’s video Love, a compendium of film clips illustrates the stages of a relationship as acted by various film stars in old Hollywood movies. Classic love scenes, verbal fights and resounding slaps on the face, scenes of repentance, death threats, final departures, a door banged shut by an injured man or woman, all these fake emotional highs isolated from their original narrative context are exposed in their melodramatic theatricality, which enhances the comic side.

Cruel and cold-blooded is the installation of photos, documents and video by Tanja Ostojic from Serbia, entitled Looking for a Husband with a E.U Passport, which documents the common practice of seeking a marriage partner for the sole purpose of obtaining legal documents. Here, a large generic photo of the artist standing naked -- shaved from head to toe, in fact -- sets the starting point of her search. Suitors answer her email with letters and photographs of themselves, which the artist presents for all to read and look at.

She marries one of the applicants, and two years later celebrates her divorce. This piece is one of the few works in "Global Feminisms" in which men appear. Another with male protagonists is entitled Tagged and features a three-channel video in which young men (Moslems or Turks?) discuss the clothes they will wear on their next date, how much they paid for them, the kind of impression they want to make on their date, and how, once they have tagged a wife, they won’t have to bother with such matters. The piece is by Judika Rudelius from Germany, and sums up the anti-male collective unconscious of the show.

On the positive side, the show offers visitors of every stripe images to which they can relate. Adults with difficulties communicating with their mothers will empathize with the short video of a small child who cannot finish reciting a poem without being interrupted by a sermonizing mother (A Walnut by Valérie Mréjen from France). The solitude à deux of couples in the midst of their first trip together will find a resonance in Honeymoon by Elina Brotherus from Finland.

I for one succumbed to the charm of Yuka by Miwa Yanagi from Japan, a large photo of an older Japanese woman with wild orange hair, riding full speed in a sidecar driven by a young man laughing. Her posture is stiff, her mouth wide open and I recognized in her pose the mixture of terror and ecstatic yearning for freedom that is part of my psyche.

On the negative side, the messages delivered by means of exaggeratedly large photos, films and videos tend to capture attention the way a propaganda poster does. In this context, work by the few wallflowers in the show -- the nonphotographers -- goes unnoticed, no matter that they may well be the better artists.

Ashamed by Angela de la Cruz from Spain, a white relief hugging a corner in the "emotions" section, is a wonderful piece that says exactly what it means, but many visitors will miss it, for it is white on a white wall, small, abstract and poorly situated. A similar conclusion can be drawn in regard to the floor piece by Sarah Lucas, The Sperm Thing, in which a male sperm the size of a soccer ball stares down a bucket-shaped female receptacle. The legs of nylon tights snake behind the two forms.

The curators of "Global Feminisms" set themselves two goals: to profile the latest in feminist thinking, and to convince viewers that these new feminist expressions are the trendsetters of contemporary art. On the question of artistic mediums, the ‘70s feminist reliance on photography, video and film remains the new feminists’ first choice, whether they come from the First or the Third Worlds, with the addition of digital and computer technology now at their disposal.

Concerning subject matter, a shared sense of malaise in regards to sexuality, identity and emotion emerges strongly from different parts of the globe. The pride in being a woman that jumped out of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, newly installed in its own temple-like space nearby, is absent here. So both in message and medium, the works by Third World artists tends to blend with those of their First World sisters, even when cultural conditions in their respective places of origin ought to divide them.  

For instance, while the show correctly reveals that heterosexual women are at a crossroads with respect to their sexual identities, it does not clarify the difference between the situation of women in societies like India, Africa, the Middle East, where patriarchy reigns supreme, and the situation of women who live in more tolerant contexts and have been exposed to feminist theory for some 40 years.

This difference is made clear by the English feminist Helen Haste when she describes heterosexual women’s two options: "For many women. . . personal discovery has involved exploring autoerotic and homoerotic sexuality in addition to -- or as an extension of -- heterosexuality. For others, freedom from patriarchal definition is possible only within lesbian relationships" (The Sexual Metaphor, 1993).

The first option, I propose, coincides with the luxury of the western lifestyle, in which choices of partners are wide open to women. For women in repressive societies, where men are free to kill a woman as punishment for adultery, the second option remains the only one, and secret as well.

If the purpose of a feminist image is to raise the consciousness of one’s sisters at home, in a country where one gets punished for expressing social or political discontent directly, more subtle ways than the sensationalism of most of the artists in "Global Feminisms" would seem to be necessary. Bypassing the reigning censorship may require allegorical thinking, either through "double speak" or via ketman, "which is an old Arabic word for evading and disrupting the conditions of cultural expression"(Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind).

An afterthought: Little did the organizers of "Global Feminisms" anticipate that the image on the cover of their catalogue (taken from Celebrating the Next Twinkling by the Bulgarian artist Boryana Rossa), showing two women looking in horror and shouting in incomprehension at a scene invisible to viewers, would become a mirror image of all of us reacting to the deaths at Virginia Tech, and around the world. Sadly, this image is also one of impotence, the impotence of idle gestures and funny faces, of sensationalism in place of action and imagination.

MICHELE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).



 



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