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Thursday, May 24, 2007

8:44 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser 2 comments
Hi, Cindy. . I always have warm feelings about the Brooklyn Museum but they sure dohave a knack for pandering to dumb ideas. John>>

Feminisms in the Singular
John Haberin New York City
The Sackler Center for Feminist Art
Global Feminisms and Role Play
"Global Feminisms" is nothing if not single-minded. Sure, the first word amounts to a demand for pluralism. And, sure, the second gives an already capacious and powerful idea an unusual plural form. However, the Brooklyn Museum knows women when it sees them, and what it sees reduces them to one thing—bodies, especially aching bodies and smiling faces. How many feminisms does it take to light up Brooklyn? All too few.
"Global Feminisms" accompanies the March 2007 opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The works all date since 1990, leaving the future wide open. It also gives Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party a permanent home. With all this, the Brooklyn Museum has made a major effort toward giving women artists their due. Make that an effort unmatched by other museums—or, for that matter, by the galleries. Guess who still gets far more shows?
However, it does neither women, globalism, nor feminism a favor, and it adds up to a stiflingly simplistic exhibition. Women have suffered through enough categories and cages in the past without this one. Meanwhile, "Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited," a group exhibition in Chelsea, looks back to some artists funny and defiant enough to break out.
Solidarity and pain
The Center's curator, Maura Reilly, selected eighty women artists with Linda Nochlin of NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. Nochlin herself did as much as anyone to make feminist art history essential reading. One passes through the Center on the way in, and it creates an imposing context. A long-term display of ceramics, from the permanent collection, affirms that "women's work" belongs in the Brooklyn Museum. Another show, "Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses," boasts of a granite head from the fifteenth century B.C.E. It also boasts of women as authority figures from the beginning of time.
Why, then, does "Global Feminisms" center around two attractive young women clinging to one another and smiling ever so broadly? Boryana Rossa calls her video Celebrating the Next Twinkling, but they could just as well be celebrating their junior-high reunion or their American Express gold card. True, it comes only with the exhibition's fourth and last segment. However, it hangs over the main aisle like guidepost—or perhaps like the head of aerobics class. It also serves as the show's promotional image. More important, it could stand for plenty more works like it.
Melanie Manchot welcomes an older, heavier woman to the celebration, With Blue Clouds and Laughter. Marji Geerklinks rejoices in motherhood, while Miwa Yanagi remembers My Grandmother. In the past, Catherine Opie has faced the blankness of American cities and human encounters. Her self-portrait as a nursing, tattooed, lesbian mother could present an act of defiance or an unsettling of photographic conventions. Here it seems only another happy tribute to mothers of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Tracey Rose's Hottentot Venus gives them a genealogy as long and serious as "Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses."
Others take the woman's collective from inspiration to armed struggle. Michèle Magema presents Congolese woman marching, accompanied by a revolutionary flag and a proud cheer, Oyé, Oyé. Kate Benyon likewise has a Warrior Woman Collective. Amy Cutler's Army of Me—the small, identical figures issuing from herself—lends the march a rare note of irony and self-reflection. One might do well to look again at Magema's army with its heads cut off by the frame. Does the facelessness mock the male gaze and the brutal anonymity of war, or does it repeat and reinforce them?
Not everyone is having a good time, then, not even in Brooklyn. Teresa Margolles sums up both halves of what the show wishes to overcome—"insensitivity to pain, lack of solidarity." Sigalit Landau mimes the former, in her endless dance with a barbed-wire hula hoop. Parastou Forouhar paints torture in Iran, in a cross between breaking news, a Persian miniature, and bunny comics. Milica Tomic depicts a Serbian women's wounds, Mary Coble and Ryoku Suzuki their own painful self-binding. Anna Baumgart remembers suicides, and Rebecca Belmore enacts a ceremony for the abducted in Canada.
Men appear rarely, but they clearly spell trouble. In Julia Loktov's Rough House, the man takes his place on the sofa in front of the TV, while the woman vacuums. For Tanja Ostojic, divorce means a deceived, abandoned woman who loses her EU passport. Claudia Reinhardt's staging of Sylvia Plath's suicide could raise questions about representation and reality. Here it merely plays out the narrative of Plath as victim. Male voices cannot appear, and yet women's voices cannot sound. Once again, an attempt to "complete" feminism with a complementary agenda, here globalization, ends up marginalizing women as incomplete.
Waving feminism goodbye
Feminism does belong in the plural. One often speaks, for example, of three waves—a fluid metaphor that already sets different priorities than for men. That kind of history usually appears, in fact, in debates over yet more conflicting aspirations in the present. Each wave has a legitimate foundation in successive achievements and thus renewed aspirations, and naturally enough each has a rough parallel in art. Nochlin caught them in their early stages, with a pioneering 1971 article, later the core of a book, Why Are There No Great Women Artists?
The first wave refers to struggles for the right to vote and to work. In art, one thinks of women who competed with men on their own terms, from Artemisia Gentileschi to Lee Krasner or Joan Mitchell. The second wave means "movement" feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, with demands for equality, choices, visibility, and a reconstruction of society to match. The same period saw a bolder, more flourishing art as well, with witty, aggressive performances from such artists as Marina Abramovic, Lynda Benglis, Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann, and Yoko Ono. In the Third Wave, one argues over the costs and benefits of making femininity part of the equation along with politics. Appropriations of the 1990s introduced the same themes, with Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Lorna Simpson, and others.
Like most linear histories, this one has problems, especially if feminism opposes male, linear histories. Does the present—with greater diversity but less confidence in the outcome—continue that third wave or begin a fourth, now that anything goes in art and politics has become a branch of the media? Conversely, can one really distinguish the generations so easily? As it happens, I have taken all my second-wave examples from "Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited," a splendid group show at Galerie Lelong, and they look quite as at home as the title says with third-wave role playing and a biting irony. Then, too, so does Gentileschi. Conversely, Lee Bontecou, Elizabeth Murray, and Chantal Akerman found erotic or threatening undercurrents in the first-wave art forms and personal memories that "Role Play" leaves out.
It does not leave out much. Helena Almeida's cry of Hear Me, in Portuguese, or Senga Nengudi's taped body anticipates the Brooklyn Museum's global politics. Adrian Piper's bruised lips, which "embody everything you must hate and fear," uses text and image as effectively as Kruger or Simpson would later, and she reminds one how few African Americans appear in "Global Feminisms." Helen Chadwick turns herself into major kitchen appliances—much the kind that Martha Rossler stands before while slicing and dicing a man's world. Hannah Wilke's nude in high heels and a revolver feels very third wave indeed, and so does her clothed self strutting her stuff from the other side of Duchamp's Large Glass. Birgit Jürgenssen's fox-fur face would fit in a fashion spread by Hanna Liden now.
Mendieta's body imprints, like the pained and lyrical art of Kiki Smith, reflect something else that my brief history leaves out and that the Brooklyn Museum definitely leaves in. It aligns a woman's essence with flesh and blood. "Global Feminisms" has four parts, but they keep coming back to the same thing. "Life Cycles" means nurturing bodies. "Identities" means marked bodies, "Politics" means suffering bodies, and "Emotions" means laughing, crying, or hysterical bodies. Only one work after the ceramics outside alludes to craft and design, and there Tania Bruguera incorporates human hair along with fabric.
The body unites both side of the show, the laughter and the pain. It places the show well within the "eternal feminism" of pharaohs and goddesses—and The Dinner Party. In the late 1970s, back when Abramovic and Wilke were strutting their stuff, Judy Chicago set places for fertile goddesses, Christian martyrs, and mystics along with more modern icons. As a gallery show of preparatory sketches makes clear, Chicago thinks of them all in terms of eternal life and the eternal victim. For example, she describes Emily Dickinson as a textbook case of repression. And each dinner plate bears the stylized image of a vagina.
The Dinner Party is kitsch. "Global Feminisms" is merely monotonous. It also misses a chance to probe the issue at its heart, the puzzle today of reconciling urgency and pluralisms. It cannot ask when globalization opens things up—and when it serves market economies and international art fairs. The show has some high moments. However, they come largely from artists familiar in New York and willing to put more than their bodies on the line.
Sometimes, they allow themselves to play with sexual desire. Ghada Amer hints at porn in an abstract arrangement of threads, and Pipilotti Rist sticks her tongue up through her own grave surrounded by fallen leaves. Sometimes they play with images of women in a media-driven age. Tracey Emin interviews her notorious self, and Tracy Moffatt stages Love as a TV soap opera. Sometimes they play with bodies as pathetic as those in the real world, like Sarah Lucas's The Sperm Thing or Jenny Saville's oversized nude. Sometimes, they just play, as when Sam Taylor-Wood throws an entirely reasonable hysterical fit.
In a show supposedly about gender, Tejal Shah and Oreet Ashery supply the only cross-dressing. In a show about global politics, only Emily Jacir troubles herself with facts—a video record of crossing Israeli checkpoints. In a show about the plural, only Fiona Foley permits layered images and broken text. She builds a screen of words and an image of the body from hanging strips. In a show about confining alternatives, only Priscilla Monge involves the viewer, in a padded cell of sanitary napkins. Each of these artists goes beyond the singular.
This generation deserves a feminism as diverse and witty as the one that "Role Play" found in the 1970s, and for all my talk of waves and changes, it already has one. A museum should not have far to look, but it might have to deal with role playing and global particulars along the way. It could observe social constraints as real as the secret police headquarters or mental institution taped by Jane and Louise Wilson. It could face women in the Third World as frankly as Shirin Neshat. It could face women at the end of the male gaze, like Carla Gannis or Christina McPhee. It could face women at the end of a shotgun, like Maria Epes.
It could allow Janine Antoni's long hair, desires as naughty as those of Marilyn Minter and Nathalie Djurberg, and sexual awakening as risky as for Sue de Beer and Erzstbet Baerveldt. It could acknowledge gender instability and the ugliness of sorting it out, as for Nan Goldin and Judith Eisler. It could include the fluid universes of Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin or the solid ones of Andrea Zittel and Jessica Stockholder. It could consider women who still do worry about "male" forms like abstraction. It could see what happens when a woman appropriates the museum itself, like Amy Wilson. It could include men in feminism, like the take on Edouard Manet's bar by Jeff Wall.
What happens when a museum strips all these from feminism, along with the plural? It ends up with the damaging myth of a female essence lying somewhere between her legs. It ends up with cheerleading. Because of feminism, colleges now count cheerleading as a sport, but it does not count as art. Asked what feminism means to her, one artist in the show, Lin Tianmiao, says that she knows "only individual cases." A more daring and pluralistic show would invite them to dinner.
"Global Feminisms" ran at The Brooklyn Museum through July 1, 2007, and "Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses" through September 16, in conjunction with the March opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. "Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited 1960-1980"ran at Galerie Lelong and Judy Chicago's preparatory work for "The Dinner Party" at ACA Galleries, both through April 28. Related articles in this webzine—along with those linked within the review and others listed here—consider varieties of feminism, men in feminism, Freud and feminism, and difference feminism, the last with a brief bibliography.


  1. Hello Cindy. I'm interesting in your DVD and book "Art Talk, conversations with 15 women artists", that in this moment I can't to buy. I need to know if the Marisol interviewed is Pepa Flores, the actress and singer from Spain, because I've a web about her ( and I want a link for this forum in my web. But I need this certitude... Excuse my poor English. Thanks.
    Guillermo Biaggini

  2. my e-mail in not correct!!!