This week in Kabul, Afghan artist Kubra Khademi was forced into hiding after publicly wearing a metal suit featuring exaggerated breasts and buttocks. The suit was so designed because “this is all that men see of women”, to highlight the sexual harassment of women. After only eight minutes a mob of men shut her down. On the 20th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality, a new United Nations report finds that violence against women around the world “persists at alarmingly high levels.”
On Sunday 8 March civilization celebrated International Women’s Day while a depressingly familiar male sub-class complained about it. Sunday was also the last day of fig-2 Week 9, in which Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle (her all-female experimental choir and performance group founded in 2009) presented Yap! Yap! Yap! — “a celebration of women’s voices. Uncovering the great things that women have said throughout history and also saying new things, now, very loudly, with a roster of incredibly special guests. It’s like the Vagina Monologues only not just about fannies.”
In the same week that Gaggle were in residence at fig-2 I went to a number of different shows that made me aware of the diversity of approaches within fine art and performance that are concerned with gender, or explicitly feminist in theme or intent, or that made me think about the unprecedented number of female artists working today in the UK.
Are there more women involved in and interested in fine art than ever before? The group show Eccentric Spaces (selections from Deptford’s Bearspace Gallery, curated by FutureCity, exhibited at Foyles) featured eight women to four men. Similar ratios seem to apply with the artists chosen for fig-2, and at the Eccentric Spaces private view (perhaps the Yap! Yap! Yap! opening too) there were more women than men.
I suspect that it is the case that at a lower profile women abound but as you go higher up the women disappear, and men predominate. There are some Emins but few. There is a similar case with acting, I believe, with many female actors and few female roles, and I see it in science with many female postgraduates but few female professors. This might chime with examples we find in sociology of the feminization of the workplace in which initially spaces such as the workplace (or by extension fine art practice) are proletarianised at a low level and the work devalued; following on from this devaluation women are suddenly allowed to permeate. I cross my fingers that this analysis is just me being cynical, and that the increased numbers of women creating work at this level will be replicated in time higher up.
One theme that seemed to predominate in the shows I went to this week was space, and spaces, in which women in particular can be, perform, and collaboratively imagine new worlds.
The Eccentric Spaces show seemed to take off from architectural imaginings of space. Similarly, at Mirrorcity at the Southbank in December 2014, Tai Shani’s Dark Continent was an installation and three-part performance taking the structure of an allegorical city of women, exploring feminine subjectivity and experience, complete with a commissioned theme song.
Best of all though, in the same week as Gaggle, was Fannying On, a weekend of installation and collaboration in a reclaimed office space off Chancery Lane. Kayleigh O’Keefe has founded an imaginary country called Gash Land (of which I am a Citizen – apply here!), or imaginary cuntry, that is also a real ongoing collaboratively generated art project, a “Utopian Cunt Wonderland”. Fannying On included Psychedelic Menstrual Huts (where men can learn about what it’s like) and a strongly in-your-face emphasis on female physicality, which, in keeping with the prevailing paradigm of inclusivity, was welcoming of everyone. Radical feminism’s ‘Angry Snatch’ has become the ‘Laughing Gash’. Kayleigh O’Keefe’s videos about flab, fisting, big labia, queefing, pissjaculation, and menstruation, are hilarious. And very NSFW.
What Gash Land, Dark Continent, Eccentric Spaces, Yap! Yap! Yap! have in common is a concern with creating new spaces for female engagement. This relates back to Woolf’s ‘Room of One’s Own’ and female self-determination, and forward to the notion of ‘safe-space’ where gender and sexuality can be freely expressed, but also has a uniquely modern performative element that spins metaphor into reality without ever losing its ideality or its applied real world seriousness: it is ideally political.
This duality was well captured by Deborah Coughlin. Over the week the ICA studio space was used to create a “collage of pop and ideas, great nobodies and brilliant nobodies, clever words and weird noise” with performances and installations. When I arrived for the opening night the space felt the most excitement I’d experienced there yet. The bulbs had all been changed to pink and green, and the space very quickly filled up with people (a queue remained all the way up the ramp until the end). On the walls were quotes from feminist writers from Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks. Speakers blasted riotgrrl bands and anthems, such as the Raincoats’ version of the Kinks’ classic transgender anthem Lola. A drum kit had been set up, and mini stages made ready for the twenty-piece choral force of Gaggle.
It felt like something subversive could actually happen in a gallery space, which was unusual. Perhaps it was the club vibe and my age, or the effects of the free gin cocktail, which this week was called LADY PETROL, and which was INSANE (it involved triple sec, angostura bitters, London dry gin, lemon peel, and, for all I know, petrol).
Across the space the imagery had a hipstery edge to it, garish and a bit gross, familiar from the look pioneered by political-conceptual-theoretical-performative-musical duo The Knife, who must be a touchstone in the intellectual background to Gaggle. The open-mouthed motif that was scattered around Yap! Yap! Yap! is familiar as the Rolling Stones logo from when they had some counter-cultural cachet, as well as having been co-opted by the 1980s kids TV programme ‘Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It’ and is broadly symbolic of freedom of expression and the rebellious speech act. The hooded members of Gaggle rolled in wearing thick black lip makeup that seemed a defiant reclamation of makeup and dress from traditional uses of these to service and please the male gaze.
Between the Gaggle choir’s songs, Ruth Barnes introduced readings. Charlotte Church read from Mary Wollstonecraft a passage part of which was excerpted on the wall: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces.” Paula Varjack read from Virginia Woolf’s essay in which Woolf discusses ‘killing the Angel in the House,’ that tormenting self-sacrificing phantom coming between her and her writing.
Ama Josephine Budge and Dana Jade performed two recent dialogues between transfemale actor Laverne Cox and feminist thinker bell hooks, discussing “liberatory images” in the Normativeheteronormativeimperialistwhitesupremacistcapitalistpatriarchy and whether Beyoncé is a feminist; and the notion of ‘safe space versus risk’ in terms of (trans)gender and love.
Wollstonecraft and Woolf are both pioneering figures of First-wave Feminism, which is concerned with the basic emancipation of women, while Cox and hooks’ concerns are more those of Third-wave Feminism’s focus on queer theory and ethnic experience.
In Week 5 of fig-2, Rebecca Birch’s ‘Lichen hunting in the Hebrides’ studied a women’s community choir who preserve Gaelic women’s work songs. In Week 6 Young In Hong’s ‘In Her Dream’ referenced Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), a classic work of rediscovery of female artists from history. Such acts of rediscovery of historical female figures and practices are familiar as a process of late Second-wave Feminism.
While Young In Hong used these references, the work itself centred on a more third-wavy exploration of the intersection between Western and Korean female experience. Similarly, Deborah Coughlin’s work Yap! Yap! Yap! seems to telescope generations of feminist thought, but with an emphasis on the performative, the socially constructed nature of women through images, that is associated with postmodern feminism, such as you find in the work of Cindy Sherman, where female images are deconstructed but there is also a certain joy in ‘dress-up’.
Too many isms? Too much theory? Near the gin, across one wall the following lines were painted up:
When can I stop
on the wave?
Different place might
be the right time
Overly rigid historically overdetermined delineations of feminism in the arts, such as I’ve employed in separating various impulses out into First-, Second-, Third-wave and Postmodernism Feminisms, don’t seem as helpful as they have been in the past. Structuring the discourse may have hardened it. Perhaps we are moving into a different place, a new space, a kind of feminism in art that includes all the best of the previous waves: emancipatory, historical, multicultural, queer, militant, dadaist, absurd, imaginary, real… This would make it a more postmodern (that is, decentred) kind of feminism than postmodern feminism itself, but with a renewed militancy. Fourth wave feminism? Post-wave feminism?
On another wall, Coughlin spelled it out:
Past – forensic
Present – ceremonial
Future – political
The struggle for equality varies wildly across the world, and we can’t describe one simultaneous female experience, other than a broad inequality with men, which is still a universal truth. Much of the Middle East area still practices sexual apartheid in 2015, which means that feminism occupies a complex position there, directly suppressed but also, where possible, informed by conceptual advances imported from places where human rights have made greater advances, or where they have not been pushed back to the middle ages.
In certain areas, what this simultaneity of intellectual experience and disparity of political position between women across the globe means is that in some places feminist activity and activism has skipped a few steps; if you can imagine the Suffragettes in England over a century ago employing the imagery and means of Pussy Riot. Perhaps the next steps in developing feminism in the arts are characterised by not just the Third-wave’s “ceremonial” inclusiveness and congruence with respect to gender and ethnicity, but also to the First- and Second-wave’s “forensic” means, theories and strategies we employ to move humankind forward: perhaps even, however problematically, a new “political” unifying feminist modernism.
The last word goes to Ruth Barnes: “Let’s have a dance — set yourselves free!”
POSTSCRIPT: One of the Gaggle opening evening’s special guests, Dana Jade, is the founder of Clit Rock, created to raise awareness and funds to combat FGM. The next fundraiser is on March 27.