Thursday, 31 May 2012

No Skin In The Game - "The Great Wall of Vagina" by Jamie McCartney at the "Skin Deep" Exhibition

When I first heard the title of this exhibition my interest was unsurprisingly sparked, as if calling a work The Great Wall of Vagina wasn't a blatant ploy to provoke curiosity, intrigue and publicity, I was nevertheless, interested to see what it was all about. The idea of casting 400 vaginas and brazenly exhibiting them could either be totally ace or totally awful, and I hoped it would be the former.

I read about the show online before going to see it. The exhibition blurb was curious, as it never mentioned the gender of the artist. This ordinarily wouldn't be the first thing I would be interested to find out, but in this case where who is doing the showing is actually pretty fundamental to the power relations of the piece. Is it a man "collecting" and casting vagina's or is it a woman who is showing a part of herself, of her own anatomy as well as that of people from the same sex as herself. The online blurb quotes Jamie McCartney the artist: "For many women their genital appearance is a source of anxiety and I was in a unique position to do something about that". The phrase "unique position" sounded the first of many alarm bells (throughout my experience of this exhibition there would be many such alarm bells sounding): what exactly is McCartney's unique position? The fact that he is a man or that he is an artist? I can't help finding the idea of a male artist saving women from their patriarchal-made bodily dysphorias a little ironic.

The Hayhill Gallery describes the exhibition: "The humorously titled Great Wall of Vagina grabs our attention, the scale then astonishes and draws us in before we know we've been educated as to how women really look". As I stood reading this with three other women - we all possess our own vaginas, we know how our bodies look - I wondered just who is the "we" in this sentence referring to? I am aware that there are many women who have problematic relationships to their body image, that porn propagates one type of image of the vagina as a neat bald thing, that these vaginas have often had their labia trimmed surgically etc. It is important that women and men realise that what they are looking at in porn is a fiction. Exhibiting 400 vaginas is one way of expressing the polymorphousness of female genitalia, but the claims this show is making and its assumptions about its audience are misguided and expose McCartney's and the Gallery's assumption about gender and sexuality itself. For example, a woman coming to this exhibition who has had any number of female lovers, has no need to be educated on "how women really look"; the same applies to heterosexual men. Even if someone of either sex watches porn and thinks that the images of vaginas represented are somehow the way women should look, they will surely have a rude awakening and (one hopes) this idea will be knocked out of them after spending time being intimate with women whose job is not to fulfil a fantasy.

The supposed humorousness of the exhibition's title reveals the way representations of female sexuality or genitalia fall into either one of two camps, the frighting or the funny. Penises are quite funny looking too but they are not a source of sniggering embarrassed amusement in the same way vaginas are. The splitting off of what is considered funny, sexy, beautiful or erotic or scary is rather depressing. This series of casts was meant to show the diversity of real women's bodies, why then is that not also beautiful, funny and erotic too, isn't variety meant to be the spice of life?

These 400 vaginas are displayed in panels of neat, formalist grids, cast in clean white plaster, McCartney repeats in interviews that they are "not erotic, it's not erotic art". Is then, the display of sex organs that are different to pornified presentations of vagina's unsexy? This is the danger in polarising types of vaginas in this way, what ends up being suggested then is that: pornified vaginas are erotic as they are in porn - "normal" vaginas are not erotic because they are normal and in art. This is rather repressive and seems to go against the exhibition's intentions of "changing women's body perceptions through art".

Although the explanation and commentary of the work rubbed me up the wrong way, I found the panels actually very beautiful. The three dimensional casts were very tactile, the folds of skin, the dips and creases begged to be touched and caressed; now, isn't there something erotic about that too? Many sculptures with this kind of tactile quality are also extremely erotic - think of Louise Bourgeois's bulbous bronze sculptures, her work is often described as being erotic. But there is a big difference between the silly Playboy-style "erotics" and things actually being sensual and/or erotic. Perhaps McCartney himself does not in fact think of vaginas as being aesthetically pleasing and erotic in their own right?

The lack of coherent meaning in this work, suggests that is it is due to McCartney having as they say "no skin in the game", not because he does not possess a vagina but because he clearly does not know how to think about one in a way that doesn't conform to the conditions of the very system he thinks he is subverting, and is in fact clearly a part of. This is starkly brought into focus by his "Physical Photography Series" also on display. These images are created by scanning the bodies of his models rather than using a camera, this technique was heralded by the gallery as evidence of him being an original, innovator, forerunner etc despite the fact of possessing an extremely noticeable formal similarity to the work of Katerina Jebb who used photocopiers to capture her images, most famously in the album cover for Tori Amos' From The Choirgirl Hotel in 1998.Perhaps the assumption with this exhibition, about women's bodies and self image, created by a male artist, is that we might forget the female artists that had the better ideas already and did it first.

Think of Judy Chicago's collaborative instillation, The Dinner Party from 1979, in which an imaginary dinner party is served with stylised vaginas as place setting for 39 historically and mythically important women, such as the modernist writer Virginia Woolf, Writer, philosopher and activist Mary Wollstonecraft, Boudica the warrior queen and the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, to name but a few. Feminist art critic Lucy Lippard says of the piece, "My own initial experience was strongly emotional… The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings" and the art historian, Amelia Jones states: "the piece blatantly subverts modernist value systems, which privilege the ‘pure’ aesthetic object over the debased sentimentality of the domestic and popular arts".

There is something quite suspicious about The Great Wall of Vagina that is actual very unpolitical, that masquerades as having a cause, "intended to change the lives of women", but the whole tone of grandeur and mythologising itself as "iconic" is all about the artist's ego and less about the real lives of women...and their vaginas. It feels as if it's all something just for show, just to cause a stir.

In McCartney's presentation of feminine physicality in the Physical Photography series he seems to have forgotten his grand declarations for the show. In these photographs he stages exclusively young, white, thin women, dancers and yoga fanatics in various postions exploiting their very malleable flesh. He names the works after tragic and beautiful mythical women and goodess: a dead Ophelia and several fallen angels. An odd choice if your intention is to break away from stereotypes, and instead choose the very negative representation of femininities that link beauty with death. (how Victorian poet is that - Oh beautiful dead girls, how swoony etc etc).

Next to the images are the titles of the picture and a description written by McCartney; these read like a catalogue for mail-order brides. Words like "tiny" and "lithe" litter these descriptions. One picture is called "Surface" - a title that perhaps reveals the level at which he views women. He comments: "Cassina, with her gorgeous, long hair and beautiful pale skin reminded me of Ophelia from Hamlet". In another "Joslyn was tiny and lithe, with lovely rich, Hispanic skin tones and shiny black hair...I'd been sculpting her for her boyfriend and afterwards asked if she'd pose for a photo". McCartney's view of beauty is not about the joyous human variety of many shapes, sizes, ages, races etc, but a very restrictive menu of very conventional and stereotypically "beautiful" bodies. The way he lists these women's desirable attributes, long hair, pale skin and the fetishistic othering of the "exotic" Hispanic woman makes them into objects of male visual pleasure - don't forget the line "I'd been sculpting her for her boyfriend", literally making a real life lover into image, an object to be looked at.

How exactly would these retrograde representations of women with their knickers pulled down, dressed in garters and suspenders and corsets change the way women felt about their own bodies for the better? These images simply reinforce the hegemonic idealisation of whiteness, thinness and youth and the hypersexualisation of women. The display of female sexuality here is so narrow that it only manages to speak with the iconography of pornography, a highly stylised and fetishised sexuality as marketable business. These images say nothing of any lived experience of sexiness, of the sexuality of real people in living bodies. Even in terms of their "stripper chic" aesthetic, they possess a very limited sexual appeal. The women I went to see this exhibition with all commented on the fact that the women in these pictures all looked dead, blank expressionless and dead-eyed, their bodies laid out lifelessly as if they were police photographs of crime scenes or of bodies on mortuary slabs. It is as if these images are replicating a fictitious idea of what heterosexual men are "meant" to find sexy. But excluding the usual chauvinists that get off on images of lifeless, bound women, most men do not find coldness and cruelty sexy. Even if they did, would these images be something for all women to aspire to, a clichéd two dimensional sexuality, squashed behind panes of glass in darkness?


Jamie McCartney The Great Wall of Vagina, Panel 10, 2012
Jamie McCartney The Great Wall of Vagina (photograph of exhibition view), 2012
Judy Chicago The Dinner Party, 1979
Judy Chicago The Dinner Party(photograph of exhibition view), 1979
Katerina Jebb From the Choirgirl Hotel (Album cover), 1998
Jamie McCartney, Physical Photography, Fallen Angel, 2012
Jamie McCartney, Physical Photography, 2012

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Fetish & Figure - LUX / ICA Biennial of Moving Images, Martha Kirszenbaum

Martha Kirszenbaum's curated programme of screenings on the theme of "Fetish and Figure" was the highlight for me of the recent biennial at the ICA. Her chosen films were not too literal in their expression of the theme, yet they all played around with the types of pleasures that cinema offers with its objectifying kino-eye. Kirszenbaum says of this programme of screenings: "Fetish & Figure brings together six films and videos by artists and filmmakers that address both the fetishisation of objects and the body. Exploring the theme of tableau vivant, this programme challenges the presence of the human body that disintegrates, allowing objects to come to life on screen as the camera captures them. The proposed works share a common approach in their use of feminine iconography constructed around sophisticated accessories - perfume bottles, enchanting jewellery and shimmering pieces of clothing - while questioning images of voluptuousness and consumption and finally, reflecting on human solitude, existential melancholy and physical disappearance."

The experience of pure cinematic scopophilia was unguarded, laid bare, exaggerated and enjoyed in the films in this screening. Everything in front of our eyes was presented as an object for and of our visual pleasure: these were objects seemingly with souls, possessing an apparent autonomous power of attraction, radiating an allure, desire and "specialness". Even people were not altogether thought of as not being objects here, as in the case of the woman in The Twilight Zone episode Kirszenbaum chose for the end of the screening: a young women in a department store, after getting disoriented and turned around, finds out that she is in fact a mannequin who has been let out to live like "one of them", amongst the "real people" for one month. Oh the terrors: are we real or are we also just objects walking around thinking that it is us who are the real people with real choices living real lives? The joys of The Twilight Zone never get old.

The first film, Kenneth Anger's Puce Moment,1949, was a delirious fantasy space of dreams of an excessive glamour. Twinkly multicoloured flapper dresses flash in front of the screen, a feast of sequins, diamanté, lace and beading. A woman slips on a shimmery blue frock over her pleasingly plump pink shoulders, in dizzy ecstasy. She touches things of the dressing table, things that represent the costumes of femininity. This woman is not ambivalent about these trappings, they do not restrict her or oppress her: she is greedy for them, they are her mania. She lays back on a bed, maybe dreaming of her own deliciousness? The bed moves by itself as if the whole scene is just her fantasy of being "adorned in dreams".

The relationship between women and clothing here is not presented as something natural, but as something manic, exciting and also excessive. The guilty pleasures of this over-abundance of shiny stuff mirror the uneasy way that film covets itself, fetishises itself as object as well as all that it touches.

Other films of note were Agnieszka Polska's Plunderer's Dream, 2011, and Ursula Mayer's film, The Lunch in Fur / Le Dejeuner en Fourre, 2008. In Plunderer's Dream, computer graphics and animation create a world of still-life objects and displays. A floating, surrealist-style gloved hand touches and points at pleasing "things"; a silver teapot, shiny round beaded necklaces, juicy ripe fruit that once cut open has the suspiciously suggestive core of a a single pearl, a tender button. A selection of Agnieszka Polska's films were also screened earlier this year alongside a conference about the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow. In Sensitization to Colour, 2009, she gently takes to task, or simply teases, luminaries of the Polish avant-garde such as Włodzimierz Borowski.

In Ursula Mayer's The Lunch in Fur / Le Dejeuner en Fourre, 2008, an imaginary meeting is staged between famous "second women", the lovers and muses of "great men", but also women who were artists in their own right: these three women (not playing themselves obviously) are Meret Oppenhiem, Josephine Baker and Dora Maar. Standing amongst objects signifying themselves, their history, or fetishes of them created by lovers, each tells tales of identity, time and place. Dora Maar stands in front of Picasso's Weeping Woman,1937, the famous painting of her crying (as a lover of Picasso is it any wonder?)

Meret Oppenhiem and Josephine Baker play with Oppenhiem's sculpture, My Nurse, the upside-down and bound shoes placed on a silver tray. This sculpture epitomises the very idea of what I think this programme is about - our complicated pleasures in looking, and anxieties towards the "things" we desire. Nurse itself is a collection of objects placed together and bound, taking on the significance of Oppenhiem's claustrophobic feelings of desire for her old Nanny/Nurse who apparently wore very tight skirts, underneath which her thighs could be heard to rub together. The bound shoes then become fetishised objects endowed with sexual connotations due to thier significance in Oppenhiem's eroticised memory of her nurse.

Can a fetish ever be free of negative connotations? The surrounding meanings connected to the shoes here, and the dresses in Kenneth Anger's film, seep in to this fun film programme, making the larger problems of power, visibility and the way women are seen inescapable. Can we appropriate a fetish or reverse objectification by choosing it ourselves? Womanliness as fetish makes women into objects like Oppenhiem's shoe, a bound object, served up on a platter to be devoured, but by whose desire? Or are we just devouring ourselves for our own fetishistic delectation?

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives - A Chamber Opera by Wayne McGregor and Max Richter

One of the UK's most experimental and accomplished contemporary modern dance choreographers, Wayne McGregor has now turned his attention to directing his first chamber opera. Teaming up with the experimental composer Max Richter, artist Lorna Heavey and long-time collaborator, lighting designer Lucy Carter, McGregor returns to familiar themes of biological science, technology and metaphysics in this adaptation of the American neuroscientist David Eagleman's book of short stories: "Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives", which plays with multiple possibilities of an afterlife.

McGregor often takes inspiration from works of literature and scientific texts; this piece also incorporates the body, its sounds and movement, with science and art meeting to inform and feed off the qualities each possess, forming a kind a cyborg performance of the biological and technical. Emma Crichton-Miller comments on this trade mark of McGregor's oeuvre "It is not just that he has used video projection, digital and thermal imaging, or screen animation as production tools, but that on a deeper level he has used ideas from digital technology to inspire him. Concepts such as coding/decoding, generative systems, algorithms and cognitive mapping have informed his understanding of the choreographic process and he has also used different computer programmes to generate movement."

For this chamber opera there is no designated seating: the audience waits to be led in by an usher, down to the stage area of the Linbury Studio Theatre, downstairs in the Royal Opera House building. We are told we can sit anywhere we like except for three "reserved" seats at the front. We find four grouped rows of fold-up chairs set up in a grid, all positioned to face the centre of the room where the sunken cubed orchestra pit is. Four high walls surround this intimate space with gauzed screens on each of the four walls. No one knows what to expect, and there is no stage for the singers.

The audience have all chosen their seats and we sit eagerly awaiting what is about to happen. We wait; nothing happens. But then after a while, three very ordinarily dressed people walk in and take the reserved seats. The lights all go out and then come back on with a very restrained amount of smoke machine fog wafting above our heads. Heavy, dense, bone-vibrating bass starts up, a familiar marker that a Wayne McGregor performance is about to start - it's as if he wants to wake us up from the inside out. The orchestra starts up tentatively, a harp is plucked and some icy electronic sounds pulse. A spotlight comes down from above and one of the "reserved seating" guests starts booming out in a deep baritone. The unassuming woman sat next to him seems to want to pretend he isn't there, concentrating off in the distance trying not to look at him, or act self-conscious.

The four screens that surround us throughout the performance project images of offices spaces, lifts, train stations, busy streets, endless lines of coding charging on into eternity, threads getting tangled, maps, cartographical diagrams, human faces reproducing themselves, mathematical patterns, and lots of abstract and rhythmic graphics that reminded me a lot of the early experiments in film of Fernand Léger, Man Ray and Hans Richter in the 1940's.

The singers perform selections and extracts of the short stories from Eagleman's book, sometimes sung individually, sometimes all three together and sometimes spoken like a story or like an instruction. The second story was of how we might remember our time alive, in the afterlife, like lists of activities and their durations: the soprano sings how we will remember spending "thirty years asleep", "two years on the toilet" "three months doing laundry" - and then he sings "fourteen days of pure joy" and the woman sat right in front of me, with a voice louder than I thought humanly possible, also sings out "FOURTEEN DAYS OF PURE JOY!", I nearly fall off my seat. It gives me some shivers that aren't altogether pleasant or unpleasant: her voice is just so loud and high, I've never been that close to anyone singing like that before, but it's quite something.

The three singers move around the space, moving in and out of the rows of chairs, swapping seats, walking around, touching the people they pass. The plan for this piece was for it to be "interactive" with audience participation: we are involved to the extent that we are all physically close together, sat in a small group in a fairly small space with the performers. But when the singers turn to the people sat next to them, to sing to them or to tell them their story, the audience members all freeze up, not quite knowing how to deal with this unusual breaking with the convention of separation between stage and audience. (I'm not sure what I would have done if I had chosen to sit in one of the front rows and had one of the singers turn to me and start singing at me - probably get a bit embarrassed, giggle, give them a wink?)

This experience of being in a little box, surrounded by strange and slightly disorientating projections and being sung moving, funny, sometimes scary songs/stories by these three really incredible singers is really wonderful. The tinted lighting does make the whole room and audience go a bright green colour all over at one point, which is a bit queasy-making, but other than that it is all gorgeous, like being submerged into a dream. Max Richter's score is also wonderful, I don't have the musical vocabulary to describe it but it has a chilly feel to it, lots of violins, Bösendorfer, harpsichord and what sounds like a harmonium organ - it is just lush.

Towards the end, the singers disappear, leaving through little doors at the sides. Then the screens fill with the bodies of two dancers: after all, we can't leave without seeing a McGregor-choreographed dance. The two dancers wrap their bodies endlessly around each other, over and under, twisting and jutting, with awkward elbows and dipping hips - the usual fare of McGregor's moves that are not conventionally beautiful, but strong and sinewy and spiky, battles of attraction and repulsion between the bodies of the dancers. After this, the singers come back to join us in our little cube; they have in their hands little white envelopes that they give out to us. When we open them they contain extracts from some of the stories from Sum, Forty Tales From the Afterlives. (If this sounds precious or hokey, perhaps you had to be there: it was kind of great). As all the notes inside the envelopes are different, everyone starts to have a nose around to see what people next to them have got; at the end I pinch a few that people have discarded. I like a souvenir.

The Book: David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives on Amazon

The Opera: Sum by Wayne McGregor and Max Richter at the ROH

Wayne McGregor's Dance Company: Random Dance

Saturday, 26 May 2012

"The Historical Box", Curated by Mara McCarthy at Hauser and Wirth Gallery, London Piccadilly

This exhibition, it is claimed, "brings together a collection of important performance, film, dance, drawings and sculpture created during the political and social turmoil of the sixties and seventies in the USA. It aims not only to broaden the canon of art history, but also to highlight the contemporary relevance of the issues which these artists confronted three decades ago." On display are works by John Altoon, Judith Bernstein, Simone Forti, Wally Hedrick, Robert Mallary, Stan VanDerrBeek and Barbara T.Smith.

In the middle of the first room is an installation by Wally Hedrick titled "The War Room", constructed of eight canvasses painted black and strapped together to form a large cube: they are meant to represent the "wounded veterans" of the Vietnam war. The intention of this installation was that people would be able to climb into this dark cube of contemplation and reflect on, or feel, alienation, alone in deathly darkness; yet as often happens (to me at least), the enforced quietness of the gallery space provokes one into guilty mischievousness: instead of contemplating the horrors of war I was wondering if I could climb in it and sit down as it was so hot outside. I turned into the naughty school child mode of "can I get away with it though?". How quickly the sublime turns into the banal.

I had a similar experience of a work not quite having the desired effect when Miroslaw Balka's giant steel container was on display at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in 2009. When I went to experience this "alienating pitch black and silent cavernous" installation, I found myself walking up the ramp towards the infinite unknown with the flashing lights from some kid's LA Gear trainers to light my way! Also, as you couldn't see where the back of the container was, walking blindly holding out one's arms to be ready to touch the felt-lined container's walls to save oneself from bumping into them was rather problematic in the dark, surrounded by people, and I accidentally copped a feel of many an unsuspecting visitor. This further added to the feeling of the ridiculous in trying to go off into the dark to experience the "unrepresentable", highlighting the near impossibility of successfully exhibiting historical trauma.

Visible as soon as you enter the gallery is Judith Bernstein's absolutely humungous charcoal sketch on paper, Horizontal (1973), a Futurist-style cock of twisting dynamism that takes up almost a whole large wall. It's a lot of fun, but the real treat of the exhibition I thought was the display of work by Stan VanDerBeek. The selection of VanDerBeek's films, screened on a loop along with his animation frames and collages, was as follows: Mankinda (1957), Wheeeel No.1 (1958), A La Mode (1858), Science Friction (1959), Breathdeath (1963) and The Human Face is a Monument (1965). "Beginning as early as the Fifties", we are told, "and continuing throughout his career, VanDerBeek experimented ceaselessly with emerging forms of computer-based media and rudimentary animation. His works combined film with painting, photography, architecture, and mass-produced print media to create complex compositions in the spirit of Surrealist and Dadaist Collages".
Although the films are very good, with a great feel for rhythm and movement, they aren't quite as clever or witty as those early animations of Jan Svankmajer; the collages are nice but not as interesting as Max Ernst's. VanDerBeek seems a bit saucy, but not as filthy as Jindřich Štyrský. His works appear satirical but not as sharply political as the Dadaist who came more than a decade before him. Nevertheless, plenty of delight was had!

The Exhibition The Historical Box is on untill 28th July 2012

List of illustrations:

Wally Hedrick, The War Room, 1967/68

Judith Bernstein, Horizontal, 1973

Stan VanDerBeek, (video) Breathdeath, 1963

Stan VanDerBeek, (film still) Breathdeath, 1963 

Stan VanDerBeek, A La Mode, 1959

Monday, 21 May 2012

Fashioning The Body Fantastic - "Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed" at The Freud Museum, London

The exhibition at The Freud Museum in Hampstead makes explicit, if it hadn't already been made clear, quite the extent to which Bourgeois's work is, for her, a form of psychoanalysis. Bourgeois returns to the themes of loss, abandonment, anger, and desire. Her work often attempts to disavow her position as a woman who uneasily combined being a mother and wife with being an artist and an individual agent. She returns to that which shames her, frightens, provokes and arouses her. Bourgeois's work displays a compulsive need to return to and explore ways in which bodies' exteriors can be refashioned by the interior struggles of the artist's unconscious, while also possessing an aesthetic of defamiliarisation that can be said to conform to André Breton's famous surrealist dictum, "Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all". The convulsion is a shock that arrests, attacks and violently stirs: it is an experience of the beautiful that shakes one up. As Hal Foster notes, "convulsive beauty is largely the aestheticisation of hysteria": Bourgeois is an artist of the hysterical par excellence, with works that lock together in uneasy communion feelings of pleasure in the beautiful, fraught with disgust and pleasure in the creation of fantasy projections.
Bourgeois's art offers us the experience of being moved sensually and provoked intellectually. One of the works on display, a pink knitted sculpture, gives the impression of a domestic toy doll made of well-worn, tactile-looking, stitched-together knitted wool. The feeling of familiarity evoked by the doll is quickly replaced by an unease: the figure is truncated, missing a leg and an arm. There is a knife instead of a head, adding to this uncanny (unheimlich) effect. The comforting homeliness of a doll is distorted into uncanniness, so that the viewer is confused by the instability of their perception: what was thought safe and secure is revealed as Other. The realisation that this knitted creature is hybrid, part doll part weapon sparks a curiosity that convulses within the mixed emotions of the viewer: along with shock and horror there is desire for one's curiosity to be sated. The head becomes the embodiment of a "sharp tongue": a mind that lacerates, a mind that hurts the body.
Bourgeois fashions hybrid creatures from the realm of the unconscious, embodiments of anxiety made flesh. These fantasy figures take up the binaries of sexuality and power, of male / female, active / passive and the homely / unheimlich of the feminine-inscribed domestic sphere, to turn the polarities of categorisation upside down. These series of fabric sculptures, made from salvaged clothes and fabrics collected from her family history and refashioned into objects of ambivalence (often aggression) against the prescribed roles of mother, comforter and home-maker, disrupt the homely and make it unheimlich. Mignon Nixon explains that Bourgeois's "use of reclaimed materials and simple construction techniques to fashion these life-sized figures implies...a domestic wartime economy of sorting and saving, but also a psychic economy of salvage, separation and loss". So her relationship to her work is cathartic: the construction of sculptures out of objects of the past is a way of overcoming or coming to terms with traumatic memories, in art that functions as a therapeutic "healing wound".
The Dangerous Obsession (2003), one of the few titled works on display, speaks of Bourgeois's ambivalence towards motherhood, a role that restricts her, not quite fitting. In the sculpture, the figure of the mother is held in a bell jar, sacred and untouchable, made of sombre navy blue sewn cloth, with head down in the classical pose of the Virgin Mother. She holds a large red glass ball (the baby), red for Bourgeois also has ambiguous connotations both representing blood and life, but also pain and desire. The glass ball stands in for the fragility of the baby, something that if mistreated could shatter. The flimsy stitched cloth body of the mother is not big enough or strong enough to hold this vulnerable body. The "dangerous obsession" is the mother's unpronounceable fear of failure. Failure at being a mother and at being a woman is a recurring motif of Bourgeois's. Another theme of the "return of the repressed" is a feeling of horror towards the female body, in particular a mingling of disgust and desire for the reproductive body. In many works, the torsos and bellies of her figures are covered in multiple protrusions like the pregnant woman in David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979), whose whole lower body is covered in the egg sacks of her cloned brood. The fear of having one's body taken over, being invaded by pregnancy, is something Bourgeois seems to both fear and desire, as all her sculptures of bodily protuberances are made so deliciously tactile, so pleasingly smooth and round.
In Bourgeois's The Couple from 2003, (not in the exhibition) the fantastic body is used to explore the desire for wilful loss of self in sexual union. The formless torsos of the pair form spirals that seem to undulate and pulse, twisting up to points rather than heads. The impression of rippling movement gives the joined torsos a sensual and erotic aspect. This couple is lost in an erotic union, an embrace that dissolves the boundaries between themselves. This is formlessness as metaphor for the self's abandonment of ego when in a happy communion with another person: a positive shattering of the limits that separate lovers. Writing on Bourgeois in her book Fantastic Realities, Mignon Nixon uses Freudian psychoanalysis as a framework for understanding the ways the internal psyche of an individual can shape the way they experience the world outside: the ways that subjective reality can be used to create art of the unconscious. Nixon states, "The internal world of the psyche derives its complex form from the incorporation and reshaping of objects under the impetus of the drives. An internal reality is being founded even as an external being explored." Thus, in The Couple, the body is being refashioned as fantastical by its desire for a connection with another human being.
Within Bourgeois's arsenal of drives, it is more often than not a masochistic desire that asserts a hold over the way desire functions in her work. It is a masochistic behaviour that leds to fantasies of destruction, to break up and shatter the rational boundaries of the body that is so heavily present in the work of Bourgeois; it seems to crave an alternative bodily reality for herself, or for the bodies of her desire. Such violence to the normalised figure of the body is also quite repressive, and the formless body can provide visibility for a feeling of internal dissociation of one's identity, acting as cathartic release. Leo Bersani remarks: "We desire what nearly shatters us, and the shattering experience is, it would seem,without any specific content - which may be our only way of saying that the experience cannot be said, that it belongs to the non-linguistic biology of human life". Our desires are things almost unrepresentable, therefore the fragmented, surreal and formless fantastical body gives expression (or form) to the abstract emotions. Louise Bourgeois's art as psychoanalysis, is that of a need not to actually hurt herself, by returning to sites of trauma, but as an attempt to understand one's compulsion, to feel, see and touch that which frightens, to neuter the threat, to make it visible, pleasurable and also amusing. Bourgeois also had an arch sense of humour, and hanging the phallic bronze Janus Fleuri sculpture above Freud's famous sofa in his study, proves that so too do the curators of this excellent exhibition.
(Works cited: Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art; Andre Breton, Nadja; Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty; Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art.)
The exhibition Louise Bourgeois: The Return Of The Repressed closes this coming Sunday, 27th May.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Ballet Preljocaj - Snow White at Sadler's Wells 12th May 2012

Last weekend Sadler's Wells saw the return of French cheorographer Angelin Preljocaj to perform his 2008 adaptation of the Brothers Grimm story Snow White here in London. The dance was billed and described by Preljocaj as being a much darker retelling, more explicitly about the desires and psychologies of the characters. The costumes were designed by the king of corseted Marie Antoinette bustle meets stretched vinyl bondage chic himself: Jean Paul Gaultier. The Dance was performed to extracts from the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. All the elements came together to make this a bit of a special performance, the sets were generously put together with lots of detail and imagination and the music suitably set the tone. The performance started with dimmed lights, smoke machines, the dreamy sets were somewhere between places, half in the dark, half in strips of light. A woman dressed in swathes of wafting black enters the stage her body contorting at awkward angles as she makes her way across the floor. It becomes clear that this is to be the absent "good" mother of the Snow White story, laying down kicking out naked white legs from under her dark robes she violently gives birth, in silence and pain to our heroine, she promptly dies. The dance is full of visceral moments and explicit symbols of sexuality, a red scarf being waved once Snow White has engaged in her first sexual encounter during what seems to be a nymph gang-bang on the rocks of a lake during a spot of sun bathing. After this "red flag" has been flown the group of dancers give it a good sniff, just to check. It seems in this retelling, our Snow White is not quite deserving of her virginal whiter than white moniker.

The Queen/evil stepmother is gloriously imagined. She sweeps on stage with the long black (shiny PVC clad) legs of a giant spider, a huge red and black flowing bustle wafts behind her, she is also in what appears to be a cat/gimp mask...and we know that the evil queen has arrived! She proceeds to violently whirl around the stage taunting the people at court who are performing some quite sexless courtly dances. "I bring the terrible desires of adult female sexuality" you could imagine her saying if the dance had dialogue.

During an interview for Sadler's Wells, Preljocaj explains how he had noticed that women in western culture appear younger for longer, hanging on to their youth for as long as possible and even (heaven forbid!) dressing like their daughters. It is hard to ignore the obvious sexism in the Grimms story and it has not been lost in this dance, it has just changed focus. This retelling is not in the way of Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber in which all stereotypes are recast and subverted. What Preljocaj is interested in here is the dynamic of desire and anxiety in relationships between older women and younger women, in a Freudian system of a mother daughter Electra Complex.The message is the simple and tired one: adult female sexuality is frightening. Youth is valued above experience and bad (desiring) women must be punished.

The second to last scene in which Snow White appears as dead is very rum indeed. She has been placed apon a sheet of glass so as to appear as if floating. The Prince in his rather child-like bright orange knickerbockers enters the stage and seeing Snow White on her see-through slab falls to the floor. Then things get very odd, he does not fall down simply out of grief but in overpowering desire! He lays prostrate on the floor, then begins to slide his body up and down, pulling himself towards the body of Snow White, he continues to "dry hump" the stage until he has reached the "corpse". After some gestures of arm waving sorrow, the Prince pulls up the body of Snow White and performs the most curious, morally dubious yet visually fascinating dance-frottage with the lifeless body of Snow White. Her body is pushed and pulled, he throws her and catches her, This is all done with great skill in cherographing her movements to resemble a puppet or rag doll. In someways this is one of the most interesting dance sequences of the night as the akward, ridged movements break away from the stock feminised gestures of traditional ballet that is elegant and graceful at all times. I took great pleasure in seeing this dancer do ugly!

Needless to say, after the necro-romp Snow White recovers and is brought back to life by the healing powers of male desire, hurray! The ballet ends with Snow White and the Prince united in front of the court, the sets of golden brick walls behind flank the triumph of youth and beauty and blessed heterosexual marriage. Amen, or not quite, the Evil Queen is brought in and stripped half naked by the Prince's guards, she breaks free of them and with hair flying she commences a dance whirligig, kicking and punching the air in defiance. The Mahler score sores, then at once her out of control dance looses steam and she collapses. This has something of The Red Shoes about it, the story and the film both, that the vain and wanton dancer will dance her self to death, a punishment for lust and of taking pleasure in ones own body. Despite the disappointing presence of some tired-out retrograde representations that even in an adaptation of a Fairy Tale, could have been modernised and subverted to interesting effect -this ballet was absolutely beautiful to look at and I (sometimes guiltily) enjoyed every minute of its two hour run.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Virgin Post

So, after years of being told I MUST start my own blog, here it! As this is my first ever post I thought I would list the things that do it for me, that will be written about and featured here in the future...
Fat/Old/Mad Ladies. The grotesque, the disgusting, the anti-aesthetic and the ugly. George Bataille and the Informe. Dada and Surrealism. The kitsch and the crass. Silent Cinema. Czech New Wave. Experimental Cinema: black and white, no dialogue please, just snow and destitution. Andrea Dworkin and Angela Carter. Czech Literature, the Rain and Prague, Prostitutes and Mothers. The choreographed ungendered dances of Wayne McGregor,  Hofesh Shechter and Yvonne Rainer. (In-the-closet) Victorian Photography. Hammer Horror and Victorian Gothic. Roman Polanski (god forgive me but I'm too old for him now). Merleau-Ponty and the Marquis de Sade. The Books of Leonora Carrington and Unica Zürn. The Uncanny and the Sublime.

And for jollies, below the fold is a (slightly NSFW) photograph from the Figure Module Series by Jacqueline Hayden: