It was in the seventies of the last century when the famous motto the personal is political was created , one that in the artistic field allowed the women to remove the housewives from their holes, to transfer their defiance to those figures of the domestic, denouncing with humor the psychopathologies caused by their pre-determined passage through the stages of life: from chaste bride to happy mom, from seductive pin-up to fiftyish women secluded in the kitchen.
Penny Slinger‘s shameless wedding invitations (the cake-girl with open legs as a nod to the pornographic postcards of the thirties), Birgit Jürgenssen stuck into an oven-apron in which, on top of this, not lacking the bun (in allusion to the English expression “a bun in the oven”, being pregnant), or the Martha Rosler‘s video Semiotics in the kitchen, parody of the cooking television show in which the utensils become threatening objects, are good examples of ethos emerging from a femininity that needs to redefine its place, its subjectivity, to leave the cultural gynaikeion where had been shut up for centuries.
About fifty artists of that emancipation’s decade are exhibited these days in The Photographers Gallery of London. They come from the Verbund collection in Vienna, which explains why Austrian art is well represented. Valie Export, who grew up among the Dionysiac frenzy of the Viennese actionists, soon distanced herself from them to épater le bourgeois without so much drama and from her own body. For example, wearing a travelling theatre around her breasts offering the passer-by the possibility of palpating them (Tap und Tast-kino 1970).
Export’s tactile cinema was a way of taking possession of one’s own body, disturbing the male gaze, as also the contemporary photography that Lynda Benglis published in the central pages of Artforum (the most influential art magazine of the moment), showing naked except for feline glasses and the dildo that hold between her legs. Or Hannah Wilke‘s Starification object series, self-portraits in which sensuality was desecrated by symbolic scarifications made with chewing gum shaped in the form of vaginas.
Until then the women had been nothing more than languid muses, their largest activity had been wallowing in the canvas like living brushes. Obviously there had always been creative women but they had been relegated to footnotes, sad shadows of great geniuses. Mary Beth Edelson, as bold as you like, took the Leonardo’s Last Supper replacing Jesus and the Apostles by Georgia O’Keeffe and a good number of American artists respectively, where also Louise Bourgeois occupied a special position.
Everyday acts such as ironing or intimates ones as removing a bloody tampon (Judy Chicago, Red Flag, 1971) become political gestures, denunciation (ironing as a flattening of the feminine identity, in Renate Eisenegger) or claiming the real woman as she is, with her menstrual flows, her sexual disorders, her desire, the advertising counterpart.
Student revolutions, the critique of patriarchy and the subjugation of otherness (immigrants, women, homosexuals …) were global movements but in each place manifested themselves with their own peculiarities.
In her actions, the turkish Nil Yalter referred to the double degradation of the woman when to her condition of sexual object is added the Orientalist bias. In the video La femme sans tête (1974) recalled the humiliation to which the woman was subjected in ancestral rituals of Anatolia when she disobeyed her husband, joining that remembrance with the belly dance as it is exported to the West, that reduces the woman to exotic product.
The artists fought the heterosexual sexist gaze using the same androcentric instruments. They had the intelligence to parody it by appropriating its language, taking it to absurdity, demolishing the illusion of the perfect woman, the selfless mother, the complacent coquette, the servile secretary.
So much time alienated by those imposed roles they had been assigned, forced to be actresses of their own lives, or extras from the lives of others, they discovered that the only way to find themselves was to bring the artifice to paroxysm. This is what Cindy Sherman did by deconstructing the image of femininity that the television and cinema, advertising and the history of art had been building and adapting to modern times.
Lynn Hershman Leeson took the fictional game further by giving life to alter egos (years before the irruption of the virtual world) as Roberta Breitmore (1974-78), imaginary caracter to who assumed her personality to write letters, to visit the psychiatrist, to publish ads in the newspaper looking for friends… Also had an account at the bank.
Leeson would later develop digital identities by testing her metamorphic abilities, studying scophophilic mechanisms, media addiction and pornography.
All of them were pioneers, when denaturalizing what was assumed as proper of the women, subverting fetishistic languages …, while alleviating art of overloading of solemnity and pedantry for excess of testosterone.
FEMINIST AVANT-GARDE OF THE 1970s
WORKS FROM THE VERBUND COLLECTION
THE PHOTOGRAPHERS GALLERY OF LONDON
Until 29 Jan 2017