‘Words can’t represent the sensation of freedom; the age of freedom will be the age of pictures.’ Frederick Douglass, 19th century
The text at the entrance of the current Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales notes: “Some scholars suggest that Frida first saw herself in a photograph before she discovered mirrors.” Khalo was well aware of the power of photography to fashion and shape ones identity and she used it candidly to construct hers. So was Frederick Douglass, the late nineteenth-century orator and former slave who early on recognised the contradictory nature of photographic medium – both its objectifying and its revolutionary power. Douglass’ relationship to photography was one of the topics discussed in the recent Photography.Ontology. symposium held at the University of Sydney and developed by the university research cluster Photographic Cultures.
“The oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those boundaries.” (Andre Lorde)
Bharti Kher, Hybrid series self portrait, 2007, digital C-print, 45 x 54 cm
She gazes boldly outside of the frame, her eyes fixed on the lens, confronting the viewer with the piercing look. In conventional feminist theory, the return of the gaze signifies resistance – once an object of the gaze, the woman asserts herself as a daring subject; like Manet’s Olympia she addresses the voyeur, challenging his position of power. As such, Bharti Kher’s Hybrid series self portrait is not dissimilar to artworks of western feminists such as Claude Cahun, Hannah Wilke, or Cindy Sherman all of which, like Kher, use the return of the gaze and the performative self-portraiture to assert their presence, reclaim their female bodies and subvert the patriarchal power dynamics. Furthermore, as they use their own bodies and perform variety of roles, these artists point to the fluidity of identity and to its construed (rather than innate) nature. Kher, as noted in the recent Biennale of Sydney catalogue, “sees the body as a literal and metaphorical site for the construction of ideas around gender, mythology and narrative.” Fusing human and animal body parts into “strangely beautiful but quietly grotesque hybrid figurative sculptures,” she creates “mythical urban goddesses, creatures who came out of the contradiction of the idea of femininity or the idea of womanhood … she is the goddess, the housewife, the mother, the whore, the mistress, the lover, the sister … everything’.” Continue reading
In the “Estranged Labour”, Marx argues that capitalism treats workers as slaves, their bodies used as mere machines of production, an activity in which they have no say. As such their human potential is denied and they are kept in their primal, animalistic state. As a solution, he proposes material abundance, the abolition of bourgeois property relations, reduced working time and simplified work. To an extent, these propositions have been implemented in the so called developed western societies of the 21st century where workers are treated far more humanely than they were in Marx’s time – they work for an average of eight hours a day, have paid holidays, superannuation founds, etc. As such, they are left with a decent amount of free time, which in Marx’s view is a time to exercise their humanity, to discover the skills and abilities that differentiate them from animals. However, what Marx does not address in his writing is that the greatest problem of capitalism is that it permeates all spheres of human life, not just the time spent at work.
Zhang Huan, 65KG , 1994, performance, Beijing, China
In ‘Performance art and its constraints’, Thomas Berghuis outlines two distinctive characteristic of Chinese performance art: its reliance on auxiliary medium and its collaborative nature, both of which apply to the work of one of China’s best-known performance artists, Zhang Huan. Continue reading
A shattered human form advances through the space of a gallery, fiercely pushing through the ether while being remodelled by the tension of this pursuit. Tvrtko Buric‘s installation Post Human evokes the old Futurist dream of capturing the psychosomatic effect of the modern, progressive, accelerated age characterised by “universal dynamism”, a concept according to which objects in reality are never separate from one another or from their environment but interact and intersect with all that surrounds them.
“We wish to sing the praises to the men behind the steering wheel,” proclaimed in 1908 the founder and a key figure of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Fascinated with the energy and the power of a racing car, and certain that the world has been “enriched with […] the beauty of speed,” Futurists found their theme in depicting the abstract sensation of movement – the radiance of the moving object and its effect on the surrounding environment. Cars and motorised vehicles were celebrated as emblems of modernity and progress; modern machines par excellence, symbols of the technological ‘triumph’ of humanity over nature. Fifty years later, cars reappeared as popular motifs in the Pop Art, this time as quintessential tokens of leisure and typical objects of consumerist desire. Like Futurists, Pop artists investigated the relationship between the machine and the body, a psychosomatic effect of the mechanized (and commercialized) modern life.