How do I look in this, on this, doing this, with this...?

Feminist artists have often used the tactic of exaggerating the objectification of women to the point of parody. But Alex Brew questions how subversive this strategy is in practice

Alex Brew, 11 August 2009

Titillation: to excite (another) pleasurably, superficially or erotically
Capitalism: dominance of private owners of capital and production for profit.

In 1974, in an essay called 'Istory of a Girl Pornographer', Carolee Schneemann wrote: "I was permitted to be an image but not an image-maker creating her own self-image." One year later, the artist would become renowned for standing naked on stage, painting her body with mud before slowly pulling a scroll from her vagina and reading it. By 2009, we are over-run with images by women, of women, for women. But are we capable of changing our self-image, or are we just adding to the ever-expanding vat of images of women in this, on this, doing this, with this...?

A successful genre with galleries has been women's use of parody, fakery and exaggeration to display women's realities. In the catalogue to the exhibition 'New Contemporaries', female artists are said to have subverted the usual images of women by outrageously exaggerating the fakery of being a woman. The logic goes that once we notice what's happening to us, we'll choose a more 'authentic' (less image-led?) path.

The strategy isn't new. From 1977-80 photographer Cindy Sherman presented images of herself as actresses from various genres - making obvious the act and performance of being female. Later she used prosthetics to unnerve the viewer. According to the New Comtemporaries catalogue, in 2000, k r buxey in the video A Feeling's Coming Over Me:

parodies a woman from a Japanese porn genre - bukkake - in which groups of men take it in turn to masturbate over the woman's face. By flirting outrageously with the camera, she creates a grotesque moment of excess, the fakery of which is underlined when - still on camera - she dispassionately wipes her face clean.

The advantage (for the artist, gallery, dealer, media and audience) is that the female body is still being shown in galleries and might even be titillating. But what makes it remarkable, according to the critics, is that it now has the ability to provide a dose of analysis. But does it really? Did anyone else spot that parodying a porn movie by flirting 'outrageously' with the camera seems like a strange strategy given that porn stars are already highly valued for their fakery and flirtation?

To what degree would you have to exaggerate the sexualisation and commodification of women's bodies to make it grotesque to the point of discomfort and create a shift in consciousness? The grotesque exaggeration of women's sexual bodies became embedded in our culture over 30 years ago when breast implants, lip augmentation and labia trimming (not apparently the same as genital 'mutilation') became mainstream.

The artist Orlan, between 1990-1993, asked to be nipped and tucked in "nine surgical performances" filmed and broadcast in institutions including the Centre Georges Pompidou. In the mainstream media, Jordan is filmed, photographed, broadcast and published across all major screens and newspapers in the UK.

And 22,041 cosmetic procedures are conducted on us - not to mention the estimated 60,000 Brits who travel abroad for cheaper packages. Back in the 1990s, we laughed at jokes about the uber-rich who got their comeuppance (for being rich) when their breast implants exploded on aeroplanes. We watched Lolo Ferrari - star of Eurotrash - with sick obsession as her breasts grew and grew until she died from (the weight of?) them. But the grotesquery of all this - shown through 'art' or other media - does nothing to subdue the £-making or the cutting. The men and women are drooling.

How can any artist make it dark enough, exaggerated enough, grotesque enough to ever come close to parody?

How can anything art produces possibly out-grotesque that reality? Vanessa Beecroft multiplies objectification by 30 by standing that number of women in a gallery. If the viewer has already dissected the way women's bodies are polished up and used, maybe she'll get it. She might point to how unnerving it is to be faced with dozens of white, skinny, waxed, nude or semi-nude women (usually wearing at least high heels, sometimes a bra, rarely pants) staring blankly at you. Or the viewer may just see a gallery replica of the images of women she already analyses and pores over on a daily basis in her magazines, or her brother's magazines, or pretty much wherever else she happens to cast her eye?

Think of the blank stares of advertising and fashion shots, and the fashion photography of Hel$mut Newton who brought S&M shots to French Vogue. In an online interview he brags: "I was a contributor for Playboy for about 20 years. My work was even too risky for Playboy. They asked me - please do something for us... but nothing as kinky as what you do for French Vogue." Images commissioned by women, of women, for women.

In a cultural environment where a pneumatic drill inside a vagina is a funny comic strip, where real war photos taken by soldiers are swapped for free porn on sites, where it is normal to associate the degradation of women with pleasure, where millions of anorexic women and girls are already making their own dark, painful statement, how can any artist make it dark enough, exaggerated enough, grotesque enough to ever come close to parody? Aren't we simply unable to escape the sticky trap of seeing ourselves through other's eyes as we suck on the addictive safety of the status quo? As John Berger said in 1972, in Ways of Seeing:

Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

It seems to me that rather than nudging our realities forward by keeping our eyes locked on ourselves, we have done little more that taken over the graft of pushing the merry-go-round. And as we beg... just another image, just another shot.... I wonder if anyone really even gives a fuck.



About the author

Alex Brew

Alex Brew helped found FemAdLib Kolektiv, a group of feminist artists and activists creating a space for explicitly feminist work. The group recently performed a city intervention where Mark-It & Sons, a respectable family business selling women for centuries, would have a Buy One Get One Free (BOGOF) sale. In the making of the intervention questions around parody, exaggeration, titillation and the grotesque were argued. The group created visions of real women stacked high on shelves and in bargain basement bins. But when 'customers' arrived at the Royal Exchange, rebel women were already climbing the shop. They had 'shut it down'. The intervention was part of the Two Degrees Festival organized by Arts Admin and The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination with Arts Council funding.

After six months working almost exclusively on the Kolektiv, she is planning to take more of a back seat and focus attention on her own practice. Previous work includes a series of images called 'Asking For It' that have been shown at Aberdeen University as part of the conference 'Ending Feminist Futures?' in 2009 and Ladyfest London 2008 for which she had reviews in DIVA, Lesbilicious and An Schlage. She has had her work published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics. She still gives a fuck but is in therapy to work out why

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