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?

Illustrations:

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

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