by Heather MacGibbon
What is Feminist Art This is a question that art historians and critics have pondered in the last 40 years in the wake of second wave feminism in the U.S. and abroad in the 70s. Is it simply work made by women Does it espouse a particular philosophic, aesthetic or critical stance toward society
Lauren Ross answers these questions indirectly with an intriguing look at the work of seven feminist video artists from the last decade in the exhibit she curates,Reflections on the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video, running through January 10, 2010 at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum.
Ross positions video art as the only medium accessible to women and men at the same time in the 1960s with the introduction of portable video equipment. Ross argues that this makes Video Art one of the few equal playing fields in which the genders had equal access to the technology in its infancy.
One artist, Cathy Begien (b.1975, Singapore) offers a disturbing 2004 piece called Blackout. The San Francisco-based artist recounts a strange night out drinking with friends while seated in a chair against a blank wall. While she speaks, men and women force drinks and cigarettes into her hands and act out parts of a monologue describing chaotic events. Particularly poignant is her discussion of the sex club her friend coerces her into attending. Her discomfort is manifest in her physical reaction as people touch her, although she declares, I guess it was alright. The contradiction between what she says and how she reacts shows audiences the social pressures pushing this young woman into acts beyond her threshold of comfort. Begien’s blindfold highlights her vulnerability as she speaks alternately tearful and ambivalent words.
New York-based Jan DeNike (b.1971, Connecticut) presents No Happy Endings, a 2006 comment on mainstream media’s proffered illusion of happiness and completion. Standing by a lake as golden sunlight streams through trees branches, DeNike drops white cards one by one to the ground. They read No HAPPY ENDINGS. The mocking commentary loops endlessly within this classically romantic setting in the same way that audiences experience repeated cookie-cutter endings in Hollywood movies and television sitcoms where everything always works out.
Harry Dodge (b.1966, California) and Stanya Kahn (b.1968, California) live and work in Los Angeles, as is reflected in their funny and fascinating 2005 piece, Whacker. In an abandoned lot in Los Angeles, Kahn sports a dress and heels while wielding a weed whacker in a field. Kahn nonchalantly gazes out over the urban landscape as if looking for an audience. As audiences absorb the scene, they experience the contrast between her high fashion statement and the menial task she performs. The video reflects an absurdist approach to violence and alienation that is common in this duos work.
Blood from a Stone, a 2009 work by Kat Gilmore (b.1975, D.C.), continues her pursuit of awkward physical challenges from earlier works like Anything and Main Squeeze, both made in 2006. In this video, Gilmore lifts heavy white cubes onto dripping shelves that line a gray wall. The strain of moving each cube contorts Gilmores face and body. Her theme is the obsessive compulsive desire many women confront when meeting and overcoming obstacles and expectations they face both self-imposed and societal.
K8 Hardy (b.1977, New York) and Wynne Greenwood (b.1977, Washington) playfully and sarcastically comment on Network News with New Report Morning Edition from 2005. In Art and Research, Chantal Mouffe described the work as subverting the dominant hegemony and contributing to the construction of new subjectivities. The artists use the morning news segment genre to poke good-hearted fun at media’s banality in depicting everyday life and the 1970s feminist movement.
Shannon Plumb (b.1970, New York) highlights her talent for slapstick comedy in the 2002
Commercials. This piece is mocking commentary on modern consumer culture done in Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton style. With 1-800 numbers taped to the blank wall behind the caricatured salespersons, Plumb gives audiences an array of infomercials that exploit female bodies for the purpose of shampoo sales and hawk medicines with fine-print lists of horrifying side effects. This is all brilliantly done in flickering silent film style.
In Paralyzed, made in 2003, Klara Liden (b.1979 Sweden) dances frantically through partially occupied subway cars, seemingly unaware of her audiences’ reactions. In the 2006 Bodies in Society, Liden paces a small white room and beats a red bicycle to pieces with a metal pipe. Liden bursts with the youthful energy and counter-cultural ethos. Her final piece Ohyra from 2007 adds a violent element as Liden stands in a cluttered kitchen literally beating and berating herself for her poor homemaking skills. She alternates self-loathing with reflection on the motion of the earth, the human condition and cosmic order.
The most traditionally feminist in content, Ohyra speaks to Feminist Art’s ability to lay bare womens internalization of social expectations. How can one be expected to understand the complex, often absurd, universe displayed in these videos and keep the dishes washed at the same time
October 15, 2009
Heather MacGibbon is a writer, researcher, and instructor whose PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University specializes in documentary film, feminist film theory, and gender and sexuality. She is author of What a Difference a Decade Makes in The Journal of Bisexuality Vol 1 issue 4 and The Good The Bad and the Unborn: Abortion in American Film in Film and Sexual Politics. Her book, Screening Choice: The Abortion Issue in American Film 1900-2000, is out this year, published by VDM Verlag.
Also see Breaking Ground on Feminist Art: Elizabeth A. Sackler” by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine; Linda Stein speaks at the Sackler Center, Oct. 18, 2009.
See “Women in the Arts: How They Can Change Your Life” by Barbara Kahn in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.