Let’s get Pataphysical!

May 5, 2010

The Laboratory of Feminist Pataphyics Presents: Ateliers of the Near Future, the current exhibition at Stride Gallery, proposes fantastical solutions for the cultivation of culture and gardening — two thorny issues that have plagued Calgary for generations. The exhibition consists of 15 dioramas constructed by Mireille Perron, each combining artist studios with community gardens, as well as works by 14 local emerging artists that deal with the future of the environment.

Coined by French writer Alfred Jarry, pataphysics refers to a branch of pseudo-philosophy that extends beyond the realm of metaphysics. To put it simply, it is the science of imaginary solutions. Like other branches of science, pataphysics has been largely dominated by men — Jean Baudrillard, Jean Genet and Marcel Duchamp are a few of the many to carry out the absurdist traditions.

In 2007, Perron presented the LFP’s Emergency Mobile Unit at The New Gallery. The exhibition aimed to recruit members as well as elevate the creative work and inventions of women to the same level of respect that society gives mainstream science. The recruits were inducted by performing annual feminist interventions. Recruits recount their interventions to a statutory member who determines if the recruit’s narration “feels good.” If so, member status is automatically granted to the recruit.

A similar humorous “feel-good” sentiment pervades Perron’s current exhibition.

continue reading at ffwdweekly.com

Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon

February 2, 2010

This post was originally published in the Feminist Book Club’s XX zine issue 2–Girlhoods.

Female adolescence is a time in a girl’s life when she isn’t quite a girl but she is far from being a woman; it is often a time of isolation, fear and confusion. Perhaps some of this confusion lies in the fact that there are very few positive representations of young women. Popular culture often depicts teenage girls as vicious unstable creatures who are prone to gossip and shopping till they drop. They are hyper sexualized but are also expected to be virginal, celibate, and pure. Visual art doesn’t rank much higher in this area. Historically young female bodies have been used to express male sexual desire whether it is in the form of gallantry as in Fragonard’s The Swing, or a more perverse attraction, like drawings by Egon Schiele.

However, there seems to be a contemporary trend of female artists using girlhood as subject matter.  I interviewed two emerging artists working with this theme: Simone Melteson is a New York based artist who works in embroidery and soft sculpture, and Heather Kai Smith is a recent ACAD graduate who primarily composes drawings.

Simone Melteson

JV: What draws you to this particular moment of girlhood?

Simone Melteson:  I’m interested in the time before boys mattered. When friendships with girls were more important than anything else; it’s the moment before puberty when interest turns to boys.

Also, parenting books on teen girls like Reviving Ophelia and Queen Bees and Wannabees are infuriating. Reving Ophelia essentially says, “Your teenage girl will become a total mess,” it’s very disempowering. And Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that Mean Girls was based on, creates a negative stigma about girls’ relationships with other girls. Sure, girls are mean to each other but so are boys. I want to create representations of girls having positive relationships with other girls.

Untitled, by Simone Melteson, 2007

JV: What is the importance of displaying the girls in the wilderness?

SM: I’m interested in the institutionalization of girlhood and girlhood friendships via organizations such as the girl scouts and campfire girls. I think this kind of self-sufficient girlhood could only exist away from a city or suburb, away from the constraints of society’s expectations of what it means to be a girl. The problem with these organizations is that they only take it so far: girls are taught survival skills such as building fires and pitching a tent, but there is tempered by emphasis on traditional feminine domestic tasks. So I create this world of feral girls who live by the ocean where they constitute their own societies and hunt, it’s what I wish the girl scouts could be

From the Beatlemaniac Series, by Heather Kai Smith, 2010

JV:Why are you so attracted to the young feminine girl image?

HKS: I’m really interested in the idea of self-identifying with the media. There is something alluring in that moment when you’re like “Oh I felt myself in that.” Also there is so much access to images of young girls, in magazines and there is this sixth sense of wonder or imagination associated with it.

I’ve always been interested in self-portraiture through not representing myself pictorially but with something that depicts an essence of myself. There is this hand-in-hand relationship with me being a girl and being a young female artist.

When I was still in school I was drawing groups of girls because I was surrounded by [girls in my department] but now I feel kind of alone so I’ve been doing a lot more drawings of girls taken out of a crowd shot as if it were me inside that crowd. These one’s in particular are of girls freaking out for the Beatles.

From the Beatlemaniac Series, courtesy Heather Kai Smith, 2010

JV: That’s funny; the context of her emotions totally changes once she’s taken out of that environment. You can’t tell if she’s freaking out over a celebrity or having an anxiety attack.

JV:How would you describe the relationship between girlhood and the boyband?

HKS: The idea of the groupie as a subculture of a subculture becomes an identity for girls who are not musicians, or who can’t be musicians. There is a history of girls being denied the spotlight and being overshadowed by the male [celebrity]. There is also this idea of worship that goes into the identity of being a girl: worshiping models, worshiping rock stars, worshiping groups.

JV: In these new works you venture away from the saccharine sweet girl image of the 1950’s into a 1960’s tomboyish look.  How does the tomboy fit into your conception of yourself and your own understanding of girlhoods?

I was a tomboy when I was a kid. I think it was because I wanted to belong to this really cool group of boys in my neighborhood. I had a mushroom cut but I also wore dresses. I remember thinking that being a tomboy meant that I was going to be a boy for a day and then I was going to be a girl for a day. I didn’t really understand why I wanted to be like a boy except for the fact that I really wanted to belong… I think that strong desire to belong is also important in girl identity.

Girls in the state of puberty are in this flux period of becoming something. So they can go either way, they’re not permanent women or permanent girls; they’re in this mid-state, and that’s totally intriguing to me as a state of being.

Small City, Big Vulvas

January 31, 2010

This blog begins with an end in mind, specifically with the closing of Judy Chicago’s exhibition, When Women Rule The World. The touring exhibition closed last Saturday at the Art Gallery of Calgary.

Whether you love her or hate her, Judy Chicago is big––in fact, the monumental nature of her work has been her greatest success and repeated criticism. Chicago’s iconic feminist work, The Dinner Party, has come under much scrutiny especially due to its size (the monumental is a quintessential element of minimalist sculptural machismo) and in regards to who was and who was not “invited to dinner.”

Like many other early feminist artists, Chicago conceptually focuses on a universal idea of womanhood, which has proven to be problematic because it often disregards non-gender social oppressors (race, class, religion, etc.). This is perhaps the biggest problem with Chicago’s retrospective When Women Rule The World. The feminist ideas being displayed are dated, trite, and are in no way ironic. For a viewer who has little to no knowledge of contemporary feminism, this exhibition could have possibly reinforced the negative, man-hating, vulva-in-your-face, stigmas of the feminist movement. However, if kept in the context of a historical exhibition (most works were made prior to 2000) one might appreciate the impact Chicago has had on contemporary art and feminism.

Judy Chicago

Filet Crochet 234 x 564 cm. Executed by Dolly Kaminski

Birth, a colossal crocheted wall piece, almost vibrates off the wall with thick black sinuous lines that resonate off a flailing pregnant body. A woman lies on her back with her limbs stretching to each corner. Her vulva extends across her engorged belly and seems to expel a uterine or embryonic abstraction. This is the strongest work in the exhibition; it stunningly depicts the beautiful agony of the birthing process.

Unfortunately the other works in Chicago’s Birth Project series are not quite as striking. Many repeat the same idea and image over and over again while exuding a garish airbrushed aesthetic. While this particular style is a key element in Chicago’s work, it doesn’t make it more palatable.

Mother India is another distinctive work among the ambiguous pregnant women. However, this work is not conspicuous because of its appeal but because it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the series. Rather than depicting a universal woman, as Chicago attempted to do with the other works in the exhibition, Mother India––complete with a didactic panel––displays a condescending representation of Hinduism and its unethical treatment towards women. It is laden with sweeping generalizations of Hindu culture from a dated colonial perspective.

Perhaps Judy Chicago will go down in history like the Sir-Mix-Alots and Dee-Lites of the world––with a catchy hit that outshines the rest of their career. If this is the case, it would greatly benefit Chicago. While some post-dinner party works are indeed captivating, the great majority are well crafted but shockingly bad.

“Feminists at the wheel”

December 1, 2009

Emma Bee Bernstein and Nona Willis interview feminists across the U.S. in their first book Girl-Drive.

Originally published in XX issue one: The Feminist Starter Kit

Curving around Mountain passes and zipping down endless highways has been a common theme in American film and literature, perhaps the most notable is Jack Kerouac’s influential novel On the Road. The book that defined the beat generation was not only male-centric but also laden with sexist and at times, down right misogynistic remarks.

In the last fifty years much has changed in American culture thanks to the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements. It is only fitting that on the 50th anniversary of On the Road, two young New York women, Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein (1985-2008), hit the road in the name of Feminism. Interviewing nearly 200 women (and some men) along the way, Girl-Drive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism documents a comprehensive survey of contemporary feminism in the United States.

The idea for Girl-Drive came along after the death of Nona’s mother, Ellen Willis––a famous feminist writer and co-founder of the radical feminist group, Redstockings––who died of lung cancer in the fall of 2006. Nona and Emma had just graduated from college and were in dire need of self-discovery. Raised by stridently feminist mothers (Emma’s mother Susan Bee is a painter and member at the not for profit women’s art space A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn), both had a strong understanding of feminism.

“The way we saw it,” says Willis-Aronowitz, “being feminists meant being conscious of and angry about gender injustice––from unequal pay and domestic violence to slut shaming and the lack of unpaid maternity leave.” However, living in New York is like living in a liberal bubble where activism and critical intellect are more common; they wanted to know what women in the rest of the country were thinking about.

One of the first cities they visit is Detroit, Michigan where they interview two students of Wayne state who are both in their early twenties. Isis and Violetta are both African-American, Violetta is half Panamanian. Neither really identified with the word feminism because as Isis puts it, “being black usually comes before my being a woman.” This is a recurrent theme amongst racially marginalized groups throughout the book. Many of the African-American, Latina, Persian, and Native Americans recognize gender inequalities in their own communities but feel that race is a bigger issue in the United States.

In rural and heavily conservative areas like Fargo, North Dakota, and parts of Texas woman seem to be more formidable about their feminist identity or reject it all together. The ladies who work for women’s organizations in red states, states that are likely to vote republican, fight hard for women’s health, the right to chose, sex-workers rights, etc. And then there are women with more traditional Christian views who believe that women should be the subordinate in marriage, and having children is a duty that women should fulfill.

One of the most interesting and seemingly contradictory interviews is with Katharine, a 23-year-old nun and self-proclaimed feminist who lives in Chicago.  According to Katherine, nuns are the “ultimate feminists.” While so many girls her age are busy slaving over their appearances and materialistic gains, nuns work, without making any money, to help those who are cast down and burdened.

The trip ends in their home city where they interview key women who have been pivotal in the women’s movement such as Michelle Wallace, Kathleen Hannah, and Erica Jong.  By the end of the book they find that there is no such thing as a common American identity just like there is no single definition of feminism. Feminism is open ended; it is complex and at times at odds with itself. This book is incredibly uplifting, calling feminists to take action and find their own definition but it is simultaneously full of melancholy and sadness.

While in the process of putting the book together, Emma Bee Bernstein ended her life while interning at the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice Italy. Her death was not because of, but in spite of her feminism. Bernstein had been suffering with depression for quite some time. In the dedications page Nona states that her “biggest strength and weakness was feeling everything like a stab in the heart.”


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