New feature: How do I look in this, on this, doing this, with this…?

// 12 August 2009

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

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?

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