The Female Body in Conflict
The body is where identity coexists with gender. Exploring the concept of ‘the female’, feminist artists used the body as a locus of both imposed and inherent womanhood. Postmodern feministS confronted the idea of an essential female nature and instead argued for femininity as masquerade. The female body is rooted in the sexual. In a difficult struggle to reclaim notions of femininity and sexuality by extracting them from patriarchal systems and structures of dominance, the complex relationship between body as desired object and liberated subject emerge.
Feminist art in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s became interconnected with the second wave women's movements, which was more radical than the first. Many feminist artists chose the medium of performance, in which they used their own bodies to challenge patriarchal definitions of the female in society. The female body an embodied demonstration to challenge traditional social, cultural, and historical assumptions about the status of women and art. Thus, they investigated the female body to through perspectives of identity, the personal, beauty, sexuality, myth and ritual.
In this writing I will examine historically significant feminist performance art. I will ask the question why feminist artists explicitly placed their own bodies in their artworks.
Carolee Schneemann is a feminist artist(s) who reclaimed the eroticized female body from the exclusive domain of male sexual desire. As a female artist in the male-dominated movements of Fluxus and Happenings, she explored the body as material, personal-particular and social environment.
In her performance Eye/Body, begun in 1962 and performed in December 1963, she placed herself in the center of the installation and juxtaposed her nude body with fragments of 4×9 panels, broken glass, shards of mirrors, photographs, lights, and motorized umbrellas. She incorporated her naked body into her construction through painting, greasing, and chalking herself. The piece was created in response to the experience of being a “cunt mascot” in the heavily male cliques of Fluxus and Happenings. The artist describes the work as follows: “I am both image maker and image. The body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring, but it is as well votive: marked, written over in a text of stroke and gesture discovered by my creative female will”.
In her other performance work Interior Scroll at the Women Artists: Here and Now exhibition at Ashawagh Hall in East Hampton, NY, she stood nude on a table, painted her body with mud, slowly extracted a paper scroll from her vagina and read from it. It was the words from Schneemann’s 1973 super-8 film Kitch’s Last Meal in which the artist recounts a conversation about ‘feminine’ intuition verses ‘masculine’ rationality. She intended to express the manifold potentialities that a woman’s vagina had. She said that she thought of the vagina “physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the sources of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation”.
Not only Schneemann, but other female Fluxus artists such as Yoko Ono, Shigeko K ubota, and Charlotte Moorman, and early cultural feminists such as Hannah Wilke and Martha Wilson used their bodies explicitly in their work.
In 1965, Shigeko Kubota performed her Vagina Painting at the Perpetual Fluxfest in New York City. She squatted on the floor and painted on a large piece of paper with a brush that extended from her vagina. The brush evoked the image of phallus. In this provocative and critical performance, Kubota claimed the assumptions still dominant in the art world at the time which associated masculinity with creative genius. This work is one of many feminist takes on abstract expressionism, a genre characterized by macho male practitioners. Kubota’s Vagina Painting was re-enacted by Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen in her piece Never Mind Pollock performed in various exhibitions worldwide.
Multidisciplinary artist Hanna Wilke also critiqued the relationship between the erotic female body and the male gaze. She situated her nude, female body in her artworks through diverse media such as photography, video, ceramics, latex, ink, and paint. In S.O.S. Scarification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication (1974-75), she made small 'scars’, in reference to the keloid scar used for beautification in some parts of Africa. She also sculpted vagina forms by using chewing gum in particular, but also other materials such as clay and kneaded erasers. She placed the small sculptures over her nude body and captured the image through photography.
Wilke used her body to express the nature of being a women and to critique the male gaze. Her use of her own nude body draws parallels between the act of scarification and the painful beauty regimens Western women inflict upon their own bodies in pursuit of sexual desirability. In assuming the posture of the objectified female body, Wilke’s eroticized body becomes a metaphorical mirror, reflecting a critique of male expectations. In the late 70’s to early 80’s, Wilke made a series of photographs of her mother, Selma Butler, who was struggling with breast cancer. So Help Me Hannah Series; Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butter (1978-1981) shows Wilke looking healthy and her mother looking aged and ill. While Wilke appears beautiful and confident, her mother who has a scar from radical mastectomy is viewed as being less feminine, and devoid of sexuality.
However, the exhibition of Wilke's final body of works, Intra-Venus, shown posthumously at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York (1994), could be read in conjunction with her earlier work, So Help Me Hannah Series; Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butter (1978-1981). Intra-Venus was the series about the last two years of her life taken in collaboration with her husband, Donald Goddard, before she died from lymphoma. In this final project, she used her own body again, in its sick state, ravaged by medical accessories such as drips, drains and bandages. Her photos depict a controlled and confident body, speaking to her audience with power and clarity. This project reflects a melancholic confidence in the body as a means of mediating her subjectivity. Even though her beauty, evident in her early work, had faded, Wilke's subjectivity remained intact. Intra-Venus was recently exhibited with 16 channels of video at P.S.1 in New York.
In the late 70’s to early 80’s, Cuban born artist, Ana Mendieta used her own body and its disembodiment to reclaim the political pressure to conform and to ‘Americanize’. Mendieta's Earth/Body evokes the cultural Mother Goddess and simultaneously her own physical body. In her works, she placed her own body within the landscape and carved her trace in limestone, sand, wood, mud, or burnt it in flames. Through the passing of time her trace eroded and became ephemeral. These performances were impossible to sell, because she created and recorded just for a moment in time and then allowed the work to disappear. In her Silueta series, she sculpted human figures from natural materials such as earth, wood, fire, leaves, and her own body and then took picture of them in a natural setting. Mendieta's vanishings still resonated in the 1990s as a symbolic body of desire, encompassing a spectrum of cultures, genders, and ages.
Austrian artist, Valie Export, in her performance Tapp- und Tast-Kino (Tap and Touch Cinema), allowed people to touch her breasts through a portable curtained contraption for 30 seconds per person. This guerilla performance, took place in ten European cities from 1968 to 1971.
EXPORT (she changed her name to be written in uppercase letters, like an artistic logo) substituted herself for an actress in a movie, the contraption for the architecture of a movie theater, and the passersby for the spectators of a movie. She confronted how desire has been captured by the mass media and questioned the individual’s ownership of sexuality for both men and women. EXPORT reflects on the project: “As usual, the film is ‘shown’ in the dark. But the cinema has shrunk somewhat – only two hands fit inside it. To see (i.e. feel, touch) the film, the viewer (user) has to stretch his hands through the entrance to the cinema. At last, the curtain which formerly rose only for the eyes now rises for both hands. The tactile reception is the opposite of the deceit of voyeurism. For as long as the citizen is satisfied with the reproduced copy of sexual freedom, the state is spared the sexual revolution. ‘Tap and Touch Cinema’ is an example of how re-interpretation can activate the public” (artist web site).
In her 1969 performance Aktionshose:Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), EXPORT entered a porn cinema in Augusta-Lichtspiele, Munich where experimental film-makers were showing their work. With her hair in disarray, carrying a machine gun, and wearing crotchless pants, from which a triangle had been removed, she walked down the row of seated viewers, her exposed genitalia at face-level.
She brandished the weapon and challenged the male audience to engage with a “real woman” instead of the images on a screen. Through this act, EXPORT challenged the objectification of the female form by confronting voyeurs with a body that returned the gaze.
Feminist artists have long argued that the cultural and artistic discourses exclude women. In response, female artists used their own bodies as a mode of challenging the audience to think differently about social, cultural, and historical assumptions concerning the status of women. American writer and activist, Lucy Lippard argues “When women use their own bodies in their art work, they are using their selves; a significant psychological factor converts these bodies or faces from object to subject.” The female body was, and continues to be, the conflicted site of female objectification and emancipation.