Global Feminisms; or, Emily Dickenson's Vagina is Not Made From Pink Satin & Lace
The first piece that you see when you exit the elevator and enter the recently inaugurated Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum is, "A Walnut" by Valerie Mrejen, a video of a an older woman and a young girl, maybe six or seven (or eight or ten?), sitting at a table. The aging woman is prompting the young girl to sing a children's song into a small tape recorder. The exchange is one minute and forty three seconds long during which time the woman prompts the young girl, offers assistance with lyrics and intermittently starts and stops the tape player to the child's constant annoyance, eliciting from her tiny mouth impetuous protests "no no no ... that's not how it goes etc." The older woman is patient, not explicitly condescending but the spectator can surely sense its undercurrent and the child's reactions are clearly evidence that she knows what is being implied even if she cannot yet articulate it past a series of frustrated and incomplete objections. The poster children for this revolution are two vaguely adolescent, brightly colored females -- as if to imply that feminism is itself youthful (or maybe this is just the product of its makeover?).
This is not to say that Boryana Rosa's piece is trite and adolescent. The significance of this image for publicity purposes, and as a way of framing the show, has nothing to do with the piece from which it was extracted. It is a video still: the representative image is one that has been produced by its removal from the medium with which it was created. There is nothing inherently wrong with reproduction but I would like to argue that this choice of video still is representative of a problematic limitation placed on the exhibit as a whole, not because it is adolescent and catchy (although its marketability is not an insignificant aspect of it) but simply because it is still. And this produces rather troubling implications for feminism by formulating it as a global movement that exists somewhere outside of time and thus outside of history as well. The conversion of video to still image is emblematic of this effort to whitewash the historical by obfuscating time, an indisputable and indispensable dimension of both video and history. While the quality of the image indicates its technological provenance, the temporal aspect of video -- the time within which the action of the work necessarily occurs is entirely obscured. Not to mention their silence: The banner image reminds one of a rather generic photo booth session or a souvenir snapshot of your expression the moment the roller coaster ends its uphill climb and begins to plummet. The video conveys a similar sense of cheap narcissistic entertainment but the subjects are screeching like animals They are not watching themselves be cute, they are watching themselves behave like baboons; a factor that necessarily upsets the passive, uncritical consumption encouraged by the show's tame and recognizable logo. The show is thus framed (the entrance to the museum is flanked by two giant banners bearing this image) by misrepresentation: contextualized by a lack of context.
Feminism is an historical movement. Outside of the context of historical struggle feminism has no significance and by ignoring history the show has voided itself of any meaning as well -- proffering the term Globalism as a smoke-screen for what is actually a trite gesture towards a simplified multi-culturalism -- culture not having much meaning outside of time either.
This is what makes the positioning of "A Walnut" so interesting to me. The first piece that we are shown is not only video, instilling a certain awareness of the fourth dimension in the patrons as they enter, it is nothing less than a parable of inter-generational feminist dialogue; one that is necessary and necessarily temporal as much as spatial (or global to use their preferred term). Here we have the frustration of younger generations with older, an insistence that it must be done our way not theirs. Yet the fact that we know they are wrong, sense it rather, does not allow us to articulate a different narrative -- not quite yet, not while they are still holding the tape recorder, not until we have learned a few more words from them. I am not advancing a pedagogical program nor am I attempting to encourage an unquestioning, reverential relationship to our predecessors, but their engagement is a necessary process. We cannot start from scratch. It is only by the prompting of this older woman that the child begins to atonally chant out a school yard rhyme, and it is the stopping and starting of the tape recorder, the authority of this historical record keeper, that provokes the child to recognize her own potential authority; it is not the illimitable future but the restrictions of the past that provoke the first NO! A "No!" that is furthermore infinitely more complicated for its involvement and necessary dependence on the subject that it has begun to refuse. A "No" that is not reactionary in nature in that it precludes the summary rejection of its object of protest, which is not an object at all but a subjective model; an intimation of a future self; a speaking as opposed to a stuttering subject.
While it is the opening work, in another respect it is as if the show has made an effort to suppress this video image, placing it alone in the entryway and allowing us to ignore what it is saying in terms of anything other than the elevator doors. Exiling it from the main galleries. But although the show, through this gesture and others, makes every effort to avoid the past it resurfaces continually. Not least through their intentionally a-historical or "global categories: "Life-Cycles, Emotions, Politics & Identity." This is how they've chosen to label the four galleries. Suddenly we find ourselves in a strange space that reeks of the nineteenth century, depressed post-war housewives, Redbook articles about infertile unhappy career women .... From 1990 we have moved out of time and into the timeless past time of lashing women's identities to irrational cycles and hormonal urges.
"Politics," at first glance, seems a more relevant category. Upon further consideration however, one begins to wonder what a 'global' politics really means. The politics of what exactly? For a show so bent on diversity and the far flung cultural components of identity, the negative implications of a global politics should be obvious. But instead of addressing the thousand or so red flags that should pop up when we see these words juxtaposed, the curators have apparently turned in the other direction and consequently reinforced one of Western Feminism's most notorious blind spots: the presumption that educated white women have a franchise on meaning; that our politics are politics in general or, more accurately that what falls under the category of political is a matter of Anglo-centric interpretation. Of course the political statements made within the gallery were diverse and their authors from a number of countries, but the point is that two American women decided that these works were "political" and that, by extension, the other three galleries contained works that were not. And what of this third category of "identity" if, as is implied by the show, it is not political? Without the ability to articulate themselves within a political context what could they possibly be saying about feminist identity? Or about women's identity past the 'fact' of its femaleness? This is not solidarity it is pond gazing; not language but mute narcissism; schizoid ramblings that make sense to no one but the individual from whom they issue. Thus they remain segregated from one another, alienated from the movement they have been invited to represent. This is not an identity that I want anything to do with.
But figuring them as bodies outside of any traceable dialogue amongst subjects seems to be the show's other organizing principal. Most of the work does involve bodies in various states of abstraction and masquerade; engaged in speech or parodies of speech but what they are saying means as little as the screeching animal noises made by the poster girls when un-stilled, for they are, every one of them, speaking into a void, or perhaps babbling at a tower. We can talk about them individually but we cannot speak of them collectively without reference to these arbitrary and idiotic gallery titles. And to speak of them as individuals is to encourage voyeurism; instead of engaging the spectator in a complex of social and aesthetic negotiations, suggested by the intimation of dialogue between works, it is inviting us to identify the individual artist; to fantasize about the female body that painted itself with a dick. Or to anticipate the image of our captured expression at the moment our steady stride is broken by the shocking image of an emaciated torso hula-hooping with barbed wire.
But there is a reason for all of this. The blind focus on timeless globalism that has led to such a multiplicity of failures and sapped the show of any revolutionary potential is, unquestionably, a reaction to the looming presence of Judy Chicago's gargantuan ode to biological essentialism "The Dinner Party" and its absolutely dumbfounding, Eurocentric counterpart, the "herstory" gallery. "The Dinner Party" is not technically part of the show (although pictured in the catalog) or any show for that matter (it has its own gallery) but permanently installed in this wing of the museum. Permanently. The space is essentially cursed.
First just let me say one thing; lame as shit. Yes, there it is my reactionary, poorly articulated distaste for stuff like this. Lame as in stuffy and dated and really not as clever, nor as profound as it intends to be. Or lame as in an appendage that once functioned and can now only assert its presence by accidentally breaking dishes from time to time. But if "The dinner party is a senseless, limp arm then the "herstory gallery" is an iron mask. It isn't just some stupid time line with a worn out title, it is a stupid time line that leads up to a stupid Judy Chicago piece; here is our history and just as social relations make little sense outside of time, temporal relationships say very little extra geographically. Or rather, freed from the constraints of material geographical fact, they say exactly what one might want them to say. Which in this case is that the entire history of female production was leading up to a Judy Chicago Vagina ceramic, a cheesy biologically essentialist piece of pottery made by a white woman. One that, at least in this context, is not asking the other, younger women around her to perform so much as stand in awe, their voices appropriately lowered to match the lighting.
This arrangement is not only insisting that "The Dinner Party" was the culmination of artistic contribution by women, but also that it is the source of all that came after it. No matter what the piece, anything of that scale and canonical value would have this effect on the work of lesser-known artists who have had the chronological misfortune of producing anything in this depressingly post-labial era full of silly teenage girls in photo booths. The fact that it happens to be a giant vagina just reinforces the origin metaphor to a comical degree. So it is simply the most idiotic of curatorial decisions ever made for reasons that have nothing to do with the aesthetics or politics of the piece itself; they have limited, extensively, the dialogue between individual works that is the curatorial purpose of a group show. Why bother making curatorial decisions when everything will always appear to be a satellite of this gargantuan vagina enshrined under low lights behind a tri-angular prism of tinted glass? Why bother changing the show at all? Well, they actually aren't going to. Coming in August is, no joke, Global Feminisms Remix which will consist of 40 pieces selected from the current show.
This tomb-like enshrinement should indicate another facet of the installment's oppressive and repressive nature. It must be realized that any canon serves a naturalizing and sanitizing function; by elevating it to the level of great work, i.e., removing it from the collaborative historical process that was its crowning social achievement (the volunteer effort lasted from 1974 to 1979) and hiring a crew of professionals to re-install it over 20 years since that production ended, its protest is lost. The NO! so clearly articulated by the frustrated child has long since transformed itself into the distant echo of tarot card images and mass marketed spiritual self-help books that insist on guiding our womyn-spirit back to its real emotions and original life cycle by introducing it to a howling wolf or something. It is a truly perverse miming of protest; the germ of social dissent appropriated, re-formed and re-imposed as a universal, tyrannical and timeless NO. This is no longer a protest against tyranny but tyranny itself and to this we can only respond with reverential silence or reactionary and pointless tantrums. And this, of course is a matter of social forces reaching far beyond Judy Chicago.
The fact that the show's curation is largely at fault for its failure doesn't, however, let the monstrosity off the hook and while there is no way of knowing whether I would have liked it in the seventies, I like to think I would have hated it just as much. I am admittedly someone who came into cultural consciousness at a time when crystals, Georgia O'Keefe, and old women who wore purple became very popular commodities. I have had about fourteen years to see this already cheapened aesthetic/ethos regurgitated and am incapable of separating this from my judgments. While I do not claim to speak for a generation, I am also not the only person who grew up with the ability to identify "vaginal motifs" and perhaps this fact alone should be enough reason to reconsider the Dinner Party's effect on the space.
Moreover, it might be prudent to consider why this aesthetic, represented by high priestesses Judy Chicago and Georgia O'Keefe was so easily and persistently marketed in the first place. What is preserved is often times not the most radical example of artistic production. And I am not merely the victim of a post-modern squeamishness concerning bodies or materially existing genitals. I am not embarrassed by vag; I am offended by racially and culturally stereotyped vag. Emily Dickinson's vagina is not made out of pink satin and lace. That is an absurd idea. And making Margaret Sanger's vagina red doesn't even count as a decision. I have more faith in my predecessors, in their complexity of thought; in gestures too revolutionary to be repeated in a vacuum. I like to think that Virginia Woolf would have found this to be rather idiotic as well.