No Woman is an Island

Written by Harriet Maher

May 30, 2017

Review of exhibition at BLINDSIDE, Melbourne, 10 – 27 May 2017

Carla Adams, Jessie Adams, Emily Besser, Clara Bradley, Frances Cannon, Jessica Cochrane, Zoe Croggon, Anna Farago, Kate Just, Anthea Kemp, Stephanie, Kim Leutwyler, Zoe Wong Curated by Sophia Cai

Clara Bradley, detail from BLUSHINGS (2016)

Your body is yours, take it “We see you, seeing us,” is the first line of text that greets you on entry to BLINDSIDE gallery, where No Woman is an Island is installed. It’s an apt introduction to a show that is, at its core, about looking, but not in the sense that most exhibitions are about looking. You can already sense that you’re not just here to “see” the art, but that other kinds of seeing will be implicated by the artists, the curator, and the artworks themselves. The works are fairly sparsely hung, giving each other space to breathe, but in close enough proximity that you can sense them in dialogue with each other, part of an open conversation about gazes, bodies and gender. Softness and tenderness brush suggestively up against hard-edge, fist-pumping, glaring-neon anger.

The gaze is invoked more explicitly in Kathleen Linn’s essay that accompanies the exhibition; set out like a play of “six quick seens” (scenes), the text traverses feminist theory, visual description and poetry, to tie together the diverse and incongruous practices of the thirteen female artists in the show. Not only are these thirteen (at least) perspectives present in the room, the gaze itself is given its own scene and, perhaps more importantly, a body of its own:

Enter the female gaze; standing steadfast in her body manifest, she looks out at the audience as they, many for the first time, comprehend her. The audience listens to what she has to say as she inhabits the power position around which narrative is framed, explored and conceptualised.

While this is a somewhat utopian vision of the female gaze, the personification of a complex philosophical concept allows you to rethink the way you look at the works in the show, before you’ve barely stepped foot in the door. It also places these works, and the gaze which they invoke, in a position of power. Although this may seem idealistic in the context of the world outside (from the seventh floor windows of the gallery, you can see the hustle and bustle of Swanston Street and Federation Square below), the power structures of “down there” seem to matter less up here, especially with the confident assurance that finally, someone is going to listen to what the female gaze has to say.

The works in the two rooms of BLINDSIDE further strengthen this assurance, taking control of the gaze and directing it back at the viewer. The first work you encounter, adjacent to Kathleen Linn and Sophia Cai’s text, is Jessie Adams’s Ocean Selfie (selkie) (2017). The “selfie” format, much discussed as a tool for artists, particularly female artists, to reclaim their image and be self-defining, immediately complicates the notion of the gaze. You are looking at Adams as she looks at herself (through a camera lens), and she looks back at you from the photograph. She is autonomous, in control of the way she is seen as well as who is seeing her. As an inversion of the male gaze where, typically, women’s bodies are displayed for male consumption and visual pleasure, the work defies expectations of who is looked at, and who is allowed to look.

Kim Leutwyler, Tits Out for the Girls (2017)

Similarly in Kim Leutwyler’s work, hung in the next room alongside hard-edge sculpture and a neon installation by Kate Just, women reclaim their bodies and their own image, resisting co-optation by a male gaze. Tits Out for the Girls (2017) inverts the typical (and deeply misogynous) mantra of “tits out for the boys,” which has been yelled at young women from cars, balconies and street corners for decades. Leutwyler creates realistic portraits of LGBTQI-identified and queer-allied women, carving out a space in the heterosexual, white and male-dominated arena of traditional portraiture. Again, the gaze is inverted; women look at themselves and at other women, rather than being simply objects for visual consumption.

Elsewhere, curator Sophia Cai has proposed two ways of “looking” at the female gaze (pun intended). The female gaze can either be conceived of as the equivalent of the male gaze, where the male gaze is sexualised, or where the female body is looked at from a female perspective. However, she states, she is interested in a broader idea of the female gaze, in how women look at the world, a perspective which doesn’t necessarily have to do with the body or representation. And certainly, there are works in the exhibition which invoke the gaze without the direct use of the body. Anthea Kemp’s abstract canvases conjure up atmospheric landscapes, drawing on memory and personal experience to explore the notion of place from a female perspective. The use of memory as a recording mechanism and a source of inspiration is a unique device, relying on personal anecdote, feeling and subjectivity to allude to a particular place and time.

By a similar token, Anna Farago uses memory to explore place through the often “feminised” method of craft, stitching in particular. While these works are intensely detailed (as suggested in the title Intensively Threaded) and have been created over an extended period of time, they capture a brief and fleeting moment in time. A moment rooted in the past is brought forward into he present by the artist, in turn allowing it to exist into the future. This is, in and of itself, a form of history-writing, though one not usually acknowledged by the canons of history. Women’s work, lives, feelings and memories are too often overlooking in history-writing, so by bringing a seemingly insignificant or brief moment into focus, Farago writes (or stitches) herself and her experience into history, a powerful act indeed.

Anna Farago, Remembering Mignon Falls (2016)

Write yourself. Your body must be heard. The writing of history, particularly of women’s history, is something that has been discussed at length by one of the theorists mentioned in the written text accompanying the show, Helene Cixous. In her powerful essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1976), she calls on women to speak, to use their voice and words as tools of resistance and self-determination: Woman must write herself, because this is the invention of a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history.

Cixous refers to woman (the universal ‘woman’ which, she points out, is somewhat of a fallacy; there is no one typical woman) writing herself into being, into the world and into history. By the same token, one might imagine that the artists in No Woman is an Island are painting, sculpting, crafting and writing themselves in the same way. Text constitutes an integral part of the show, not only through the curatorial script guiding you through the exhibition, but in the works themselves. Clara Bradley’s visually arresting, beautifully installed and subtle work Aurophobia (2017) is an “imagined dialogue” between the artist and her never-to-be-conceived daughter, while Frances Cannon’s Mother Weed, Daughter Seed (2017) stems from a poem she wrote exploring the mother-daughter dynamic in a poignant and highly personal tone. Bradley uses soft, sensuous and tactile silk in dusty “millennial pink”, hand-stitched in the same colour with an intimately personal message to an imagined daughter. Almost painfully soft and fragile, the work is draped from the wall to the floor, anchored by a rough block of grey stone which contrasts sharply with the smooth, unblemished finish of the silk. The work makes its presence in the space known and felt, while maintaining a sweetness and tenderness that belies the strength of its message about a mother-daughter relationship that will never be.

Frances Cannon, Mother Weed, Daughter Seed (2017)

Also exploring maternal ties through text is Frances Cannon’s work Mother Weed, Daughter Seed, a deeply personal painting which draws on a poem written by the artist: Mother Weed grows between the cracks in the pavement Reaching up and up and up Trying to take a small glance At her Daughter Seed as she Flies away in the belly of a bird.

The work touches on intimacy, natural cycles of life, and the body, all viewed through Cannon’s uniquely feminine perspective, using text as a stepping-off point for a visual exploration of the mother-daughter relationship.

Artists like Bradley and Cannon use text in subtle ways to intone personal experiences and to convey a sense of intimacy, while still speaking with an autonomous voice, or, as Cixous would say, writing themselves. Text also appears in the work of Kate Just, in an “outspoken” medium and by way of a bluntly direct expression. Furious (2015) glares at you from the wall of the second gallery of BLINDSIDE, stark and glowing white in neon, an explosion of pent-up emotion. The neon text illuminates Just’s other contribution to the show, Protest/Bitch Fist (2017): a rubber fist inside a glass vitrine, a found object encapsulating the anger and resistance experienced by many women who feel they have to shout to have their voices heard. The fist itself is a sex toy purchased by the artist online, a nod to self-pleasure, perhaps. Or, more disturbingly, Protest/Bitch Fist might be perceived as a comment on the violence so often involved in male sexual fantasies involving women, and the commodification of women’s sexual desire. viewed through the context of the rest of the exhibition (and through the female gaze), however, the work takes on an activist tone, the fist representing unification, anger, protest and resistance, in conjunction with the fury expressed in Just’s neon exclamation.

Kate Just, Furious (2015) and Protest/Bitch Fist (2017)

The continuous thread of exploring female experience from a multitude of perspectives continues in Zoe Wong’s photographic works, hung opposite Just’s insistent and punchy installation. In Boys will gladly go to war for you and I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck (both 2014), Wong explores the two viewpoints from which she sees the world: her Chinese and Western heritage. The two photographs mirror the binaries that our identities are so often reduced to: male/female, East/West, Asian/Caucasian and Western/Other, while trying to find a more nuanced approach to selfhood. By allowing a multitude of voices to speak, and a variety of women to look and be looked at, No Woman is an Island goes beyond the often tokenistic or reductionist format of an all-woman show.

Writing is for you, you are for you The show extends further than the small gallery space of BLINDSIDE through its engagement with feminist theory and the program of events organised around the exhibition. These propel the exhibition into the critical space of feminism and contemporary art, enabling a deeper and more complex discussion to emerge. The program included a feminist reading group in partnership with MONOGRAPH, the reading group for art lovers, and an artists and curator panel which fostered discussion between curator Sophia Cai and some of the artists involved in the show. Taking up both physical and critical space allows the exhibition to go beyond simply a group of young women showing their work together; it becomes an intervention in the male-dominated critical space of the art world, and allows the idea which are subtly hinted at in the works to develop and grow, taking root in current thinking and discussion around feminist themes in art.

“The phrase ‘no woman is an island’ speaks to the interconnectedness of all things, that nothing exists on its own,” writes Kathleen Linn. Not only are you reminded of this as you move through the exhibition space, noticing constant connections and links between artists, artworks and ideas, but there is also a sense that the works are deeply connected to a body of feminist and poststructuralist theory outside of the gallery space. Particularly, the idea of interconnectedness calls to my mind Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the rhizome, that which has no central point but is a network of connections and ideas that is reducible to neither the One nor the multiple. And in turn, this concept sparks a connection to Cixous, and her poetic take on the complexity of women:

If she (woman) is a whole, it’s a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble, a cosmos tirelessly traversed by Eros, an immense astral space not organised around any one sun that’s any more of a star than the others.

Certainly, the network of connections and ideas that No Woman is an Island conjures extends far beyond the margins of this brief essay; suffice it to say that due to its meticulous curation, thoughtful installation, engagement with diverse themes and an ever-present female gaze, the show demands you give it a closer look, a second glance, to make sure you haven’t been blindsided by its subtle, yet powerful feminism (pun intended).

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