“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
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
Lawrence Weiner, As Long As It Lasts, 1992. Visual statement.
“Ideas alone can be works of art,” proclaimed American Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt in his 1968 Sentences on Conceptual Art, summoning up a new stream of thought that emerged in 1960s America as a reaction to Clement Greenberg’s insistence on formalism and opticality, a stance that art should be experienced solely through ‘visual stimuli’ and in a disinterested manner. In an anarchic Dada style, Conceptual Art (as this new stream came to be known) proposed “perceptual withdrawal” – instead of producing ‘sacred’ and valuable art objects, they offered only brief linguistic description of their ideas or simple visual statements such as Lawrence Weiner’s As Long As It Lasts (Figure 1). If a physical object of some sort was present it was either perplexingly bare or badly executed and aesthetically unappealing. What is more, these artworks mixed a variety of media (including everyday objects and all sorts of rubbish), thus attacking Greenberg’s “quest for medium-specific purity.” Purposefully provocative, conceptual artworks encouraged a renewed enquiry into what art is or should be.
“Mirror of male desire, a role, an image, a value, the fetishized woman attempts to locate herself, to affirm her subjectivity within the rectangular space of another fetish – ironically enough, the ‘mirror of nature’.” Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Figure 1: Louis Pierson, The Eyes, c1864.
A mysterious femme fatale of the nineteenth century Paris, Countess Le Castiglione immortalised herself through a fascinating series of more than four hundred photographs taken over a period of forty years, the majority between 1856 and 1865 “at the height of [her] fame and beauty.” Rather than conventional portraits, these photographs record her elaborate performances in which she either restages scenes from her life or plays a variety of mythological and fictional characters. The costumes, the set-designs, and the overall scenarios were all meticulously designed and directed by the Countess herself, the photographer being there as a mere technician. More than a means of self-expression or signs of narcissism, these photographs could be understood as the Countess’ attempt to take control over her own representation and challenge the narrow, patriarchal view of previously assigned identity inscriptions, thus, asserting herself as an autonomous subject rather than a fetishized object of the gaze.
According to theorist of fetishism and photography, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, such a reading of Countess’ photographs is presumptuous because it is impossible for the Countess to occupy a critical position from which she would desire to overturn the patriarchal principles of fetishisation. As she watches herself, explains Solomon-Godeau, the Countess automatically assumes a position of a patriarchal surveyor and can only relate to herself through this patriarchal gaze. From this position, which is tainted by an inherent patriarchal scopic regime, she is unable to radically reimagine herself as anything but an object of sight. Rather than disavowing patriarchal prerogative, she participates in it and even endorses it. Solomon-Godeau writes: “a living artifact, the countess has so fully assimilated the desire of others that there is no space, language, or means of representation for any desire that might be termed her own.” Rather than an author, she is nothing more than “a scribe”.
Nicole Foreshew and Jacob Nash, Hereby Make Protest, 2014.
“Some experience of voyaging and exile is […] necessary for being’s complete fulfillment,” wrote Martinican literary critic Édouard Glissant in his 1990 book Poetics of Relation. Similarly, art historian and curator Miwon Kwon suggests that it is through traveling and being out of a familiar place that one finds him/herself. For Glissant, this newly found self is no longer connected to a single, unitary root. Once determined by geography of our origin and a single culture, our identity is now unmoored, diffused, and characterised by the “errant thought.” We find ourselves in Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – “an assemblage of connected multiplicities, without center or origin, […] always in process of becoming;” detached, capricious, and able to swiftly shift course.  But this fluidity and flexibility in thoughts and actions is both exhilarating and daunting. Unmoored and unbound, we also crave stability and belonging. Errantry is, thus, paired with melancholia and nostalgia; rhizome experienced as vertigo and tension.
“I don’t believe that gender, race, or sexuality have to be identities, I think that they’re vectors of power.” Judith Butler
Drew Pettifer, The Decisive Moment, 2009.
It is necessary to “radically challenge the entire concept of an identity based upon sexual orientation,” wrote Elizabeth Ashburn in her 1996 publication on lesbian art. Twenty years on, American feminist and queer art theorist Amelia Jones finds it necessary to echo Ashburn in her 2012 book Seeing Differently reminding us to “think beyond […] the grain of binary models of identity in favour of multiple, intersectional, and relational processes of identification.” Sexuality must converge with issues of race, gender, geographical and socio-political location, class, religion, age, etc. to reveal the immense complexity and diversity of subjectivities. Jones likens this intersectional approach to anamorphic viewing which distorts the one-point perspective to reveal a new, previously neglected viewing angle. The result of this perspectival distortion is de-objectification, de-fetishisation, and abandonment “of oppositional othering.” Continue reading
In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, symbols of vanitas and momentum mori signified fragility of life and earthly pleasures. Opulent items such as exotic food, imported wine, and luscious flowers were painted as reminders of inevitable decay and brevity of material possessions. In the twenty-first century, the idea of impermanence is explored in significantly different forms and mediums. The core message, however, remains (more-less) the same.