Gemma Sharpe reviews a retrospective of feminist video art
As part of this year’s London Short Film Festival, queer feminist film club Club Des Femmes put on a programme called ‘Body of Work’ at the ICA. The programme collected six films made by female artists that exhibit and/or examine the naked female body.
This included a long extract from Martha Rosler’s most pointedly feminist-political film Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained, VALIE EXPORT’s Tap and Touch Cinema, Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance and Marina Abramovic’s Imponderabilia, along with two works by lesser-known video artist Jayne Parker.
‘Body of Work’ opened with Parker’s Almost Out (1984), a film that alternates between scenes of the artist naked before a camera, involved in a scripted dialogue with the camera-operator, and of her mother – also naked – answering and deflecting questions from her daughter, who at these points takes the role of camera-operator herself. Its provocative title – Almost Out – is a reference to unfinished birth and homosexuality, and it is an appropriate title for a film that studies the libidinous entanglements that run through this close mother-daughter relationship. The film is highly ambivalent though, for in directly steering a number of psychoanalytical theories through a very real relationship – that between Parker and her mother – it regularly sways between sincerity and forgery. Parker seems to be impersonating and also evidencing many token principles of psychoanalysis within her dialogues, such that the viewer never quite knows what to believe.
‘Body of Work’ also included Parker’s later work K (1989), a film of fear and abjection that begins with Parker pulling from her mouth a long rope of intestinal matter (a reference to Carolee Schneemann’s Internal Scroll), that she crochets into an occult-like cloak that covers her nakedness. Later scenes show Parker seemingly ridden with fear, repeatedly diving into a swimming pool. Unlike Almost Out, the cinematography of K is highly polished and the film presents a visual paradox in which every gesture – be it a botched dive or a retching of material from the throat – somehow remains elegant and sensuous. Parker demonstrates the capacity of the cinematic medium to transform the degraded body into a poetic object.
Abramovic’s Imponderabilia (1977) sees the artist and her partner Ulay standing naked in a narrow entrance into the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Bologna. There is a jovial unease in the behaviour of the visitors, who must decide whether to face the male or the female body when they pass through the doorway. In this work, nakedness is an affront to the involuntary participants of the performance.
Similarly dependent on soliciting public participation, VALIE EXPORT’s Tap and Touch Cinema (1968) documents EXPORT upon the Vienna streets offering her naked breasts for public molestation. The ‘access’ to her body is exclusively physical, for a box that she describes as a ‘miniature cinema’ conceals most of her torso. Whilst we may flinch at the manner in which EXPORT offers her body for invasion, the timing of her performance is extremely significant. The context of Tap and Touch Cinema was one riddled with public agitation that often saw a violent conflation of political life and social bodies. As Pamela Lee argues, the feminist body in the late 1960s and early ’70’s was ‘biopolitical’: in that it bore witness to a worldwide struggle between violence and enlightenment, between activism and ideology. Like Imponderabilia, this film is a disclosure of context and public reaction.
Made in 1977, Martha Rosler’s Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained examines the reduction of the body (in this case of the female citizen) into ideological doctrine, examining the subsequent abuses inflicted upon it. A lengthy section of the film shows Rosler herself acting as a patient whilst two men in medical dress draw a digram of her body. One measures every aspect of her form with a tape measure and calls out numbers, along with a judgement of its being “standard”, “below standard” or “above standard”, whilst the second ‘doctor’ marks each measurement on paper over an outline of her shape. The pair gradually draw a senseless vitruvian model that includes measurements such as the length of her middle finger, her height whilst on tip-toes and the depth of her vagina – a measurement that demands she recline on a chair in a pose that (perhaps deliberately) resembles the figure within Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946-1966), and Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866). Eventually Rosler re-dresses and in two scenarios becomes attired in a wedding dress and the ubiquitous ‘little black dress’. Later, along with static images of women and medical scenery, there is the repeated naming of such traumas upon the female body as clitoridectomy, rape, forced motherhood and illegal abortion. Rosler includes fetishisation, pornography, domestic servitude and depravation within her circling list of assaults: “crimes against women: bound feet, bound bodies, bound images”. The implication is not that these abuses are equally damaging, but that they are all symptoms of an oppressive orthodoxy at large. “This is a film about being done to,” is one of her opening lines.
The final film of ‘Body of Work’, Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988), united two themes that ran through the programme: that of the mother-daughter relationship and the political agency of the female body. This formally abstract film overlays hazy photographs of Hatoum’s mother with lines of hand-written Arabic: her letters from Beirut. Hatoum reads aloud her mother’s correspondences through which her mother recalls her feelings towards her body, her sexuality and particularly towards allowing Hatoum to photograph her naked. The latter half of the film includes portions of correspondence that address the family’s exile in Lebanon as part of the Palestinian Diaspora. Measures of Distance is a complex, subtle and moving film that carefully uses the unveiled body as a catalyst for dialogue and memory. It has always been one of my favourites.
The naked body was the subject of this programme, which demonstrated that nakedness is not simply a state of undress. Each film examined the capacity of the female body to transgress, disrupt or even ‘denude’ its own context. The concerns of ‘Body of Work’ are highly relevant and for this reason I request a follow up which tests the same questions, but which includes contemporary artists’ work. A resurgence of interest in feminist art practice through various large-scale art shows over the last few years – those such as ‘Global Feminisms’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ at MOCA in Los Angeles – which remained largely occupied with early feminisms, is perhaps contributing to a view that feminism is a concluded project. Whilst ‘Body of Work’ lucidly demonstrated that the questions put forward in earlier feminist art remain significant, it could be a compelling platform for further assessment and discussion.