Writing: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s at The Photographers’ Gallery for Art Monthly

The Photographers’ Gallery London 7 October to 15 January

The artist Ulrike Rosenbach stands to the side of Elvis Presley with a gun in her hand and holster around the hip. The artist plays Bonnie to Presley’s Clyde. Scrawled over the image is the phrase ‘art is a criminal action’. The artist’s homage to Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis, 1963, leaves you in no doubt as to its intentions. Inscribed over the quintessential icon of 1960s masculinity, the statement provides an antidote to the sense that art has become little more than a commodity. The question is, who is the gun pointed at? For Rosenbach, criminality is a call for transgression against patriarchy in all its forms – holding power up at gunpoint and dispensing with lengthy negotiation. The artist isn’t in the mood to wait around. The work, made seven years after Warhol’s original, signals a shift towards more direct political intervention.

The image condenses many of the strategies seen throughout ‘Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s’. Co-curated by Gabriele Schor and Anna Dannemann, the exhibition convenes 48 artists from the Verbund Collection in Vienna. Established in 2004, the collection has focused ‘in depth rather than breadth’, acquiring an impressive range of 1970s conceptual and feminist work. It is a rich exhibition, including over 150 works densely installed over two floors with many pieces that have rarely been seen in the UK. Alongside established figures like Hannah Wilke (Reviews AM339), Judith Bernstein, Suzanne Lacy (Reviews AM401), and Francesca Woodman, many less visible artists such as Renate Bertlmann, Linda Christanell and Brigitte Lang are also included.

The curators have split the show into four sections: sexuality and objectification, domesticity, masquerade and the ‘limits of the body’, exploring physical endurance and performance. Taken collectively, the sections map the core thematics explored over the decade. What is striking is that artists working in relative isolation on either side of the Atlantic often share almost identical approaches. Indeed, it can be difficult at times to tell artists apart, such is the narrowed focus. Take the work of Birgit Jürgenssen, Katalin Ladik and Ana Mendieta, each of whom are included in the exhibition with self portraits. In each instance the artist presses their face against a piece of glass in front of the camera. The effect is two-fold. The flattened and distorted face, seen most prominently in Mendieta’s work, counters the expectations of female beautification. Read in another way, both the frame and surface of the image is articulated as a container of historical repression. Jürgenssen’s work, I want Out of Here!, 1977, articulates it best and the ‘here’, as outlined by all three artists, is both domestic and art historical.

Escape, though, isn’t a withdrawal but rather a negotiation of representative terms, and a keenly felt urgency to include what had previously been invisible, excluded and peripheral. It is a theme continued in Helena Almeida’s Study for Two Spaces, 1977, a series of photographs that depict hands leaning out of bars and doorways. Are these the hands of the captive or captor? Are we looking into or outside the metaphorical prison cell? The artist cleverly plays on the oscillation of the two spaces, with the surface of the image becoming a threshold between enclosure and empowerment. Almeida’s implied subject is rendered explicit in Martha Wilson’s photographic series Portrait of Models, 1974. Wilson plays fancy dress with various feminine stereotypes (goddess, lesbian, working girl, house wife, professional, earth mother) satirising these prescribed roles. Through masquerade and role play, Wilson advances a certain slipperiness and, like any good actor, she is all these people and none of them.

In works such as Nil Yalter’s The Headless Woman, or the Belly Dance, 1974, satire plays a role in upending fixed significations. Yalter’s film depicts words from René Nelli’s Erotique et Civilizations scrawled by the artist around the navel of her stomach. The text declares that a woman’s sexuality is both convex (clitoris) and concave (vagina) asserting ‘clitoral orgasm is a perceived act of defiance against patriarchal control’. The headless (and depersonalised) dancing body plays on oriental fantasies, mocking expectations of passivity. If, as Elizabeth Grosz has previously argued, the female body is ‘textualised’ and ‘ready to receive, bear, and transmit meanings, messages or signs’ then Yalter takes the maxim to an extreme, amplifying and inverting the pejorative and claiming something more positive.

The use of the term avant-garde in the show’s title is pointed. These artists were active at a moment when the progressive aims of modernist avant-gardism had fragmented. The often absurdly literal approach of some of the work (Kirsten Justesen’s Sculpture #2, 1968, depicting a naked body crouched in an open box being one example) dispenses with oblique indeterminacy and replaces it with an aesthetics of urgency. If Artforum won’t print Lynda Benglis’s portrait of herself wearing nothing other than a pair of sunglasses and holding a dildo from her crotch then she’ll ask her gallery to pay for an advert of the image instead (Interview AM384). If the frame excludes a certain narrative then these artists make the frame bigger, seeking more mobile and direct forms of dissemination and display. Both Yalter and Benglis’s work suggests that to shift the perception of an obdurate audience, you sometimes have to speak loud and clear.

Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1974, is displayed with added prescience due to its recent and inexplicable inclusion in Adam Curtis’s documentary HyperNormalisation. Curtis’s cursory thesis, that artists (and by implication feminism) turned inwards and away from public political protest during the late 1970s and 1980s seems to miss the point somewhat. As Rosler (Interview AM314) parodies TV cookery shows, assigning each kitchen appliance a letter of the alphabet, she refuses the domestic productivity demanded of her. The work reminds us that the private sphere is saturated with politics, and Rosler foresees a current situation where public and private would become increasingly hard to tell apart. As the artist stabs a knife into thin air, I start to think about a contemporary version that could deal with the idea of the internet of things – a semiotics of the networked kitchen and the increasingly insidious ways that the private sphere is becoming monetised by big business.

While I don’t disagree with Curtis’s assertion that social atomisation has increased, I don’t think that is the fault of feminism. The ‘personal is political’ mantra is not just a politics of the self. In Some Living American Artists/Last Supper, 1972, Mary Beth Edelson collages the heads of female artists over the figures of da Vinci’s famous painting, offering a corrective to historical forms of female invisibility. It is both a partial and personal reflection, calling for a new type of avant gardism defined through a lexicon of femininity and collectivity. Edelson presents a portrait of the art world as polyphonic, turning monologue into dialogue. The picture does much to sum up the best feminist work, defining a self turned outwards to the social, a subject that has the ability to define as much as be defined.

Published in Dec/Jan 2017 Art Monthly

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About georgevasey

George Vasey is a curator and writer. You can contact him at georgegrahamvasey@gmail.com

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