A Spectrum of Difference
Randy Lee Cutler
Feminism continues to be a contested terrain. Mention it in an undergraduate course and a student inevitably asks, “Why are women still so angry?” The feminist project has been idealized, historicized, framed as successive waves or periods, misrepresented as united and harmonious, and, more recently, experienced with ambivalence. Within the realm of feminist art, perceptions are equally fraught and plural. My experience teaching at art schools in the United Kingdom and Canada has shown me that many young art students steer clear of its politics. In general, the F word makes people uncomfortable. In an art world that has increasingly organized itself according to a kind of show business logic—by creating and encouraging artist celebrities as superstars or by presenting hyphenated curatorial themes that appeal to wider audiences as diversified markets—the feminist label has often been the kiss of death for an artist, curator, or critic because of its implied resistance to easy commodification and essentialism. But perhaps these assumptions are finally changing.
In 2002, the Brooklyn Museum opened the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, a space dedicated to and designed for raising awareness of feminism’s contributions to visual art and culture. In subsequent years, numerous events from conferences and symposia to publications and exhibitions, including a spectrum of approaches from the academic to the experimental, have reconsidered the feminist legacy and its continuity. Initiated in 2005, If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution was a flexible curatorial platform consisting of four core events at European art centres that focussed on performative practices in the visual arts.1 2007 was a banner year for feminist-related arts activities, particularly in Europe and North America. Frieze magazine launched its Ah, Feminism issue (March); the Brooklyn Museum presented Global Feminisms _(23 March–1 July), an exhibition of eighty women artists from around the world; and _WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, an historical exhibition curated by Connie Butler that was first installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. While most young women artists around the world do not identify themselves as feminist artists, the confluence of art and gender politics has fostered conversations charged with new levels of complexity. For a study in contrasts, I would like to compare the recent season of feminist art in Vancouver—a state of exception—to the ongoing engagement at the Sackler Center. The difference is one of sustained commitment versus a temporary alignment with a predominantly American, albeit experimental, nexus of artworks. Interestingly, both the dedicated space and the touring exhibition highlight the institutionalization of a project and movement that was initially anti-establishment. What are the ways in which the project of representing diverse practices gets taken up? Is it possible to imagine a fluid space for making difference? While they are both necessary, making difference is distinct from making a difference in that the former celebrates heterogeneity and emergent forms of expression.
The season of exception this fall was initiated by the Vancouver Art Gallery’s presentation of WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, which had been shown previously at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; and PS1 Contemporary Art Center, Brooklyn. In response, many Vancouver artist-run centres entered a citywide dialogue with the touring exhibition by curating related programming. Additionally, some university art departments re-crafted their curricula to address the installation. Despite this flurry of interest in feminism and art, the show also elicited some suspicion within the local arts and feminist communities.
While impressive for its attempts at an international survey, the body of work presented is far from comprehensive. Where the travelling show does succeed is at highlighting a range of material practices with strong representations in sculpture, video, needlework, performance, and print media intervention. WACK! celebrates the dynamic relationship between predominantly American art and feminism between 1965 and 1980. The Vancouver Art Gallery installment attempted to showcase Canadian feminists or, perhaps more aptly, female artists’ work of the Seventies—there is a difference, which the exhibition does not communicate.2 Moreover, the fact that this group show of 120 female artists was shown alongside two concurrent solo exhibitions of male artists raises significant questions about the politics versus the posturing behind the show’s presentation. Critiques of WACK! aside, its confluence of art and feminism productively energized local conversations about related issues.
In our current cultural moment, we might say that there is a spectre of feminist art. I say specter because feminism, feminist art, and political work in general verge on the invisible, much like apparitions, making sporadic appearances and exiting just as suddenly. Rather than constituting a permanent occupation, feminist art seems to haunt the visual landscape. And the embarrassment of riches (i.e. a concentrated season’s worth of feminist art and dialogues) here in Vancouver this past fall confirms that a focus on feminist art is the exception rather than the rule. I am conflicted. While the presentation of a range of work by women artists and artists of colour is necessary, does the separate space and/or programming devoted to this work marginalize or legitimate the project of representing these diverse practices?
A recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum and its Eliza-beth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is a case study in how contemporary feminist art might be understood alongside other traditions and practices. (The museum’s broader exhibition program includes African art, arts of the Americas, arts of the Islamic world, arts of the Pacific Islands, Asian art, Contemporary art, decorative arts, Egyptian, classical and ancient Middle Eastern art, and European art.) The mission of the museum is “to act as a bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures, as embodied in its collections, and the unique experience of each visitor.”3 Founded in 1897, it is the United States’ second largest public art museum. Over a century separates the founding of the museum and the Sackler Center, which opened its doors as an exhibition and education facility dedicated to feminist art—its past, present, and future. Not only does the Center recognize the leading role feminist art has played in the art world over the last forty years, it acknowledges that “dramatically expanding the definition of art to be more inclusive in all areas, from subject matter to media, feminist art reintroduced the articulation of socially relevant issues after an era of aesthetic ‘formalism’ while pioneering the use of performance and audiovisual media within a fine art idiom.”4 The Center’s mission to raise awareness of feminism’s cultural contributions in the past and present dramatically contrasts with the museum’s American decorative arts period rooms, displays of North African textiles, and exhibitions of Impressionist paintings.
To a certain extent, the museum deterritorializes already widely exhibited work by recontextualizing it through a broader set of frameworks including social, cultural, and geographic concerns. Siting feminist art alongside the rich artistic heritage of world cultures allows for entry through a different register or system of thought. Moreover, the location of the Brooklyn Museum, on the periphery of New York City, relocates artworks from Manhattan, an art metropole, to an outer borough’s nineteenth-century Beaux Arts building. Thus, a spatial metaphor of distance arises and challenges the assumptions and authority of a cultural centre by shifting art thinking and experience away from it to an adjacent space. The Brooklyn Museum’s curatorial practice operates in a similar way by reframing artworks through heterogeneous, but, nonetheless, specific critical and historical contexts. According to Jacques Derrida, structure and its centre are created, and not inherent; therefore, the decentring of the transcendental signified is a move to destabilize fixed and stable meaning.5 Perhaps the outskirts are an appropriate place to consider feminist and diverse art practices, especially where they are concerned with political, social, sexual, and intersubjective relations.
The new entryway to the Brooklyn Museum, created by Polshek Partnership Architects, features a fanning semicircle of glass, grass, and steel and acts as a futuristic portal into the past as well as a more contemporary set of sensibilities. The 180-degree embrace of the building transports the viewer spatially and psychically into new territory, shaping and conditioning unexpected encounters for visitors. The reception centre presents a science fiction architecture that resembles a launch pad; its spherical steel form scrolls LED text in electroluminescent messages. Coincidentally, the founder of the Center for Feminist Art, Elizabeth Sackler, echoes the utopian and feminist dreams of science fiction writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Joanna Russ when she states that “oppression, inequity, and prejudice still engulf most women in the world although, in total, women make up half the earth’s population. We will not have reached a post-feminist era until all women—women of colour, disenfranchised women living in poverty and subjected to injustices, women abused or discarded—are saved from bigotry, are rescued from the horrors of rape and the sex-slave market, and at last have equal opportunities.”6
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974–79), perhaps the Center’s most famous and most critiqued work, occupies the fourth floor and over fifty percent of the total exhibition space. Made by Chicago and scores of unnamed volunteers, the immense installation, a landmark in feminist history, produces a strong impression on its visitors, both positive and negative. Its dramatic lighting, radiating labial forms, and numerous female-identified crafts (most prominently, painted ceramic plates and needlework) create a literal reading of feminist art practice. The authoritarian viewing instructions make it clear that there is a “correct” way to take in the installation—entry banners first, then heritage panels (comprising photo-and-text assemblages that recount the lives of mythical and historical women), and, finally, the dinner party’s place settings. I was inclined to choreograph my own way-finding, contrary to Chicago’s directions. Roberta Smith has described the work as a site for one-stop consciousness-raising and as producing a kind of historical immersion into an activist, body-centred tribute to thirty-nine important women.7 Whereas Chicago’s work maintains an essentializing representation of woman, more contemporary practices critique the idea of “woman” as a fixed category, offering up something more fluid, transparent, and variable. In fact, it is the juxtaposition of this historical work with the Brooklyn Museum’s contemporary holdings that make the expedition most thought provoking.
A retrospective of Ghada Amer’s embroidered paintings and objects also on view at the Sackler Center provide one example. Addressing issues of gender, sexuality, and the legacy of modernist abstraction, Amer’s work uses the structure of language, whether repetitive words or images, as an encounter of signification with embodiment. The chain of images she produces allows for infinite substitutions, repetitions, and subversions of source material, whether pornography, Arabic text, or abstract marks. With their evocation of desire in the subject matter and a need to make meaning, the erotic poses in many of her pieces make for complicated readings. In light of feminism, which has often laid claim to gender while gay politics has focussed on sex and sexuality,8 Amer’s works (and others’ at the Center) are equivocal and ambiguous. These images are phantom renderings of feminist subject matter. In Amer’s The Big Black Kansas City Painting (2005), a large black field suffused with light-hued embroidery oscillates between figuration and abstraction. Its sensuality resonates in layers of painted surface, a kaleidoscope of colour, obscured figures of masturbating women, pattern repetition, and clumps of thread that hang from the vertical surface. Like the specter of feminist art, the whole thing might be an illusion: now you see it, now you don’t.
Luckily, this ghostlike figure of the feminist has extended her visit to Vancouver, inhabiting conversations and taking up emergent forms and thought processes. The Vancouver Art Gallery’s WACK! conference brought many women to Vancouver to support their continued engagements with feminist projects and discourses while simultaneously highlighting the absence of a contemporary critique. Even while this lacuna was addressed with local programming, feminism continues to be a contested and vexed terrain. The challenge is to find innovative ways to talk about, create, and show work that embraces diverse practices, sensibilities, and interrogations. Rather than singular or literal forms, liberation can be taken up in complex ways, suggesting the fluid, mobile, and ever-evolving manifestations of curatorial representations without recourse to fixed categories or practices. On the last day of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s WACK! conference, Mary Kelly said that what we seek is a liberation in the decolonization of women’s bodies and imaginations rather than a mere sexual equality that ultimately leads to joining a normative mainstream.9 No matter the material form, visual strategy, or subject matter it takes up, feminism is about making a difference at the same time it marks it.
- The participating venues included Overgaden Institute of Contemporary Art, Copenhagen; de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam; Sala Rekalde, Bilbao; Projects Arts Centre, Dublin; and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. The curators were Frederique Bergholtz and Annie Fletcher.
- The temporal framework of the WACK! show precedes much of the early feminist art that was produced in Van-couver. The programming at galleries around the city addressed this by highlighting a local perspective on feminist art production from the 1980s to the early 90s.
- Brooklyn Museum Collections, http://brooklynmuseum.org/collections.
- See Lucy Lippard, ‚ÄúSweeping Exchanges: The Contribution of Feminism to the Art of the Seventies,‚Äù Art Journal (1980): 362.
- Jacques Derrida, ‚ÄúStructure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,‚Äù Writing and Difference, (London: Routledge, 1980).
- Elizabeth A. Sackler, “About the Center: Benefactor Statement,” Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, “http://brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/about/benefactor_ statement.php”: http://brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/about/benefactor_ statement.php.
- Roberta Smith, “They Are Artists Who Are Women; Hear Them Roar,” New York Times, 23 March 2007.
- See Judith Butler, “Against Proper Objects,” in Feminism meets Queer Theory, eds. Elizabeth Weed and Naomi Schor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).
- Griselda Pollock and Mary Kelly, “WACK! Weekend: A Conversation,” Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, 5 October 2008.
About the Author
Randy Lee Cutler is an educator, writer, artist, and performer. Her research investigates relationships between mediated culture, critical theory, and embodied knowledge. She is Associate Professor and Head of Critical + Cultural Studies at Emily Carr Institute, where she teaches cultural studies, art history, and media theory.