There was a time in my life when all I thought or cared about was art. Having idolised the confident, ephemeral gestures of the abstract expressionists at uni, I savoured every ounce of intellectual fodder the world of high modern art allowed. I chewed on concepts as if they were an endless stream of sugarfree gum, stopping only to labour over adjectives that I felt did them justice when writing reviews.
My dewy-eyed obsession faded slowly and inexplicably: perhaps it was because I suddenly had a “real” job? Partly. It was because as a fully-fledged adult (I can confirm that I now worry about things like water bills) I truly understand what it is to be a woman in this society.
Consider any major pre-seventies artistic movement of the 20th century. To name a few: surrealism, cubism, impressionism, and my old favourite abstract expressionism. There’s barely a woman’s name among the heroes worshipped from these epochs. I’m now savvy to the institutional and societal privileges that helped put these men’s names in lights.
To this, The Photographers’ Gallery’s Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s is a sight for sore eyes in blistering agony.
Among 48 international artists and over 200 major works, the all-stars are out in force: Hannah Wilke, Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago, Ana Mendieta and more. Artists may hail from different corners of the world but are yoked together by a single voice that tells of all-too-familiar evils.
The work on these walls has been seminal in shaping the feminist movement through their radical and challenging practice. Talismans from a time when gender equality was a topic angrily frothing atop public discussions and protests, they hold and emanate the rage, desperation, and repression that characterised what it was then to be a woman, alive, and kicking.
Electric and raw, this power resonates decisively with us for its use of the body as a primary canvas. A woman’s basic space to exist in is her body; it is the vessel by which the world ushers her into compromising gender roles and expectations. It can learn to perform identity as masquerade, and can just as easily be torn apart as a meaningless collection of limbs.
Martha Wilson’s 1974 A Portfolio of Models is razor sharp in its examination of “model” roles women can acceptably assume by using the body as façade. Wilson’s stereotypes — Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother, and Lesbian —are so neat that her work leaves not a single crumb for the imagination. Literally and metaphorically she tries each caricature on for size in a bid to make sense of how women can exist in a patriarchal playground, before woefully admitting displacement.
A Portfolio of Models, 1974/2009
© Martha Wilson / Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna.
Used with permission from The Photographers’ Gallery.
Working Girl sits cross-legged in a short skirt and low-cut shirt, peering up at us from beneath a vertical crop of curls. She is poised unnaturally, showing as much of her body as possible. The Housewife is dowdy and demure; the Goddess lunges forward in a silky playsuit vis-a-vis Vogue. Here, repression is evoked as emptiness: there’s certainly no substance holding up these cardboard cutout characters.
Coolly, the artists remind us that for each way a woman is allowed to exist, there is a way for her to be erased.
Renate Eisenegger’s Isolamento (1972) follows a woman systematically obscuring her face using cotton wool and tape. Across eight photos we watch as her mouth, then nose, ears and eyes are hidden from view, before her head and hands are completely covered. The slow and painful witness to her inevitable erasure describes a narrative arch of many women’s struggles: one can be silenced in broad daylight, without shame, and without redress.
Others considered erasure as part of a female identity that is constantly in flux and can be reconstructed with, for Annegret Soltau, a snip of some scissors. Soltau’s 1975 Selbst (Self) follows the artist as she binds her face with black thread, before cutting it off in the last two of the fourteen photos in the series. She is bound and then she is free, and her identity is a fluid total of both experiences.
Selbst / Self, 1975
© Annegret Soltau / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna.
Used with permission from The Photographers’ Gallery.
Walking through Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s feels like therapy. The sense of evil and anger harboured from years of pain and struggle builds almost to the point of retching; all the while, we know how thankful we are for being on the stage that allows this vitriol to escape.
Within these walls, women’s suffering and truths are taken seriously. There is no loud male voice to interrupt us; no judgmental eyes policing the way we speak and appear. As I passed by each and every photo I felt an increasing urge to create a giant neon arrow sign proclaiming “THIS IS THE WAY IT IS” and place it outside the gallery. I hope that exposing this truth will stick to collective thought like glue and cause something to be done about it.
As women, we are all displaced. There are various, intersectional experiences of this displacement but while we are subjugated and oppressed beneath the patriarchy we are displaced in some way or another. Seeing an expression of that displacement, and a conscious and powerful effort to make it a point of contention is the shot of contrition the urges us to carry on fighting.
Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s is showing at The Photographer’s Gallery, London until 29 January 2017
Featured image Installation Image of Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s- Works from the Verbund collection on display at The Photographers’ Gallery at 16-18 Ramillies Street (7 October 2016 – 15 January 2017) © Hydar Dewachi and The Photographers’ Gallery
Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery, London.