Pat Baskett, ‘Feminist Expressions’, NZ Herald, December 23 1993.
For many art lovers of both sexes the notion of feminist art conjures up strident, provocative images testing beliefs about what is beautiful and what is art, about meaning and perception.
The Auckland City Art Gallery’s show Alter/Image does all these things, beginning with its rather tricky title. The smaller print is more elucidating: ‘Feminism and Representation in New Zealand art 1973–1993.’
But a seasonal visit need not bring an attack of intellectual inadequacy. Go there, rather, with the sense that this show is like the gift that slowly grows on you.
For, while the means of art is constantly changing, the end in the artist’s mind has always remained the same: to present a slice of the world to the viewer’s eye.
The disquieting thing is the world—or the slice of it that is presented.
Few would dispute the premise that, from a woman’s perspective, the world has been a male place for a long time; nor that in the mere 20 years covered by this show, not to mention the 100 of the suffrage centennial that is about to end, changes have come about.
Women’s position in art history is an example. Classically they are objects—naked more often than clothed—to be looked at in the same breath as architecture or flowers. Asserting a reversal of this position, presenting a slice of the world viewed from the underside up is, still, a political as well as an artistic act.
It also poses inevitable problems of communication.
Artist Jacqueline Fahey says: ‘If what a woman knows is different from what a man knows, then her art will be different.’
Getting the messages of Alter/Image is a bit like unwrapping the mystery present. Peel away one layer and another is revealed. The process is rewarding, and also fun.
The exhibition’s timing as the show of feminist art for Women’s Suffrage Year is, says, its originator, Deborah Lawlor-Dormer, coincidental. She describes it as a long-term research project which began with a master’s thesis on contemporary feminist theory about art and film.
Lawlor-Dormer works as curator/project manager for Wellington’s City Gallery, and also makes experimental films.
The idea for an exhibition firmed about two years ago when Christina Barton, who was at that time working in the Auckland City Art Gallery, accepted a proposal by Lawlor-Dormer that the two jointly curate a show which would present feminist art practice in New Zealand over the last 20 years.
When the coincidence of the timing became apparent they applied to the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Trust and received a grant of $35,000, as well as grants from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and the ANZ Bank.
Barton, now curator of contemporary New Zealand Art at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, and Lawlor-Dormer together selected the works on walls. The performance art was curated by Barton. Lawlor-Dormer, with the assistance of Deborah Shepard, selected the films.
Auckland is its second venue. It was first seen in Wellington in July, as the opening exhibition in the Wellington City Gallery’s new premises. Part of the package includes the work of contemporary German artist Rosemarie Trockel. Don’t be confused—entrance to alter/image is by way of the Trockel show but the two are separate.
If you’re looking for a guided tour through the stages of feminist thought and its expression in art, you’ll be disappointed. The history is there but you have to work out the chronology for yourself.
Reading the accompanying explanatory panels is helpful. You learn, for instance, that a little less than 20 years ago the director of an English gallery which hosted the first group show of feminist art featuring Alexis Hunter’s Object Series was asked to resign because of the content of the works.
Creating a historical narrative was not among the curators’ objectives. They wanted, rather, to present an historical overview that was less a survey than a sampling of episodic highpoints of the last 20 years.
One of their self-appointed tasks was to present as many different media as possible so that the show would be an accurate reflection of the diversity of the ways in which feminist artists work.
The more conventional paintings on canvas or paper are confined to one room where their power seems the more concentrated for their isolation.
Early works by Jacqueline Fahey express one of feminism’s dominant concerns of the 1970s—the confinement of women to the domestic sphere. In Robyn Kahukiwa’s early paintings this theme is augmented by the dislocation felt by Māori migrants to the city.
Look right in this room and the consistency of presentation is nicely destroyed. The bright, primary colours and warm textures on the end wall come from 52 cloth dolls called Poppets which Nicola Jackson made for each week of the first year of her daughter’s life during 1991–1992. On each doll is written a phrase taken from conversations overheard between other mothers, or from books on child-rearing.
Barton says the show contains relatively little traditional painting and sculpture, reflecting the suspicion many women artists have towards those media, and their consequent broadening into film, video and installation.
But feminist artists have always used materials women have to hand—fabric, fibres, a camera—and worked in ways and on a scale, often according to the size of the kitchen table, that is appropriate to them.
The bias of this selection also stems from the approach of the curators, as younger members of the feminist/arts intelligentsia. Their interest is in language, in photographic and recent technologies, in multiple images, partial forms, in the work of artists who extend boundaries.
It’s a recognisably post-modernist thrust, which Barton and Lawlor-Dormer acknowledge. Is there, perhaps, a similarity between the position of women as marginalised from and subverters of the status quo and that of art theorists who questioned the tenets of prevailing modernism?
Curiously, the description ‘post-modern’ seems appropriate for what some feminist artists were doing before the term was part of art jargon in New Zealand.
Joanna Margaret Paul’s installation Unpacking the Body was first created in 1977. In it she explores the origins of the language of physiology and points out the images the words conceal.
Her lists juxtapose the technical and the poignantly familiar. The mundane objects hanging in painted wooden frames crystallise the metaphor—’head,’ ‘caput,’ ‘cup’—alongside a white colander.
Each grouping of words is invested with an energy that comes not from intellectual inquiry but from the artist’s response to the death of her baby daughter.
Ruth Watson, at 31 one of the show’s younger contributors, hopes people will relax and enjoy the humour of Souvenir, the work she made using 200 aluminium Eiffel Towers stuck horizontally into the wall. They spell ‘Je Reviens,’ the name of a French perfume which means ‘I’m coming back.’
She hopes, too, that people will pick up the connotations of tacky motel decor the lighting gives the words and associate this with the tawdriness of tourist souvenirs which debase otherwise noble monuments, like the Eiffel Tower.
Her other work, Capital, she describes as ‘coming from the more traditional end of my spectrum.’ It is a tondo, or round shape, traditional only in that its convex surface is heavily textured, the top layer peeling back to reveal enigmatic snippets of text.
In typical postmodern manner Watson uses the layers she builds up in paintings as metaphors for the effects of culture which underly language and behaviour.
‘The way in which you say something is intrinsically bound up with what you’re saying.’
People take for granted a whole set of skills which enable them to interpret such things as maps and messages from the media without realising that these are ‘cultural constructs’ which are acquired and not inherent.
In an art gallery, however, Watson acknowledges that sophisticated visual language users can’t apply the skills they’ve used in other areas to help them to ‘read’ what they see on the walls, particularly since the boundaries of painting and sculpture, once clearly defined, have been freed up.
Watson is happy to give a few clues to the interpretation of Capital. The work is actually a big two-cent coin with a giant, messy thumbprint on it. If you stand at the right angle and look for a moment you see the silver profile of the Queen. The title refers to Wellington and the remnants of text are taken from a piece about the city’s history and scraps of maps.
Through the distortions of scale and the partially obscured layers Watson is asking questions about influences and identities and about the way we know things. She says there is no division in her work between the intellectual and the emotional response.
‘I try to create art works that resonate with both. The layers are there. You have to fit them together. I don’t see myself as a feminist artist—feminism has informed my work but I have other concerns as well.’
This is, after all, in many people’s books, the post-feminist age.
Photographer Christine Webster admits to fitting both ‘post’ labels – reluctantly and with a dry snort of laughter.
She prefers not to align herself with any particular didactic position, to keep her thought processes open so that her work remains eclectic, absorbing and distilling things from many different areas, including mythologies, the renaissance and the Bible.
Her large photographic installation is called Decade because it originates from an illustration she did ten years ago for the magazine New Zealand Today to accompany a satirical article on the business world by the late Helen Paske.
The original photograph has been ‘de-processed’ or mistreated by being slashed ‘quite viciously’ with a scalpel and the strips enlarged on cibachrome paper. In reassembling the pieces, Webster mimics the flickering of a movie screen, giving the effect of time passing and of fragmentation. The stock exchange of the photograph no longer exists.
The striped-suited, unidentifiable man has sinister connotations of prison. Webster finds his hands threatening. She describes him as ‘a blown-up sex toy, or a cardboard cut-out of himself.’
The most evocative protagonist in the work is the rag doll but her presence is fortuitous—she happened to be in the stock exchange so Webster used her.
The programme of films and videos which complements the works in the city gallery begins on January 12. It features films by 38 women film-makers, including Jane Campion and her sister Anna, Annie Goldson, Alison MacLean, Alexis Hunter and Shirley Horrocks.
Lisa Reihana is one of the youngest represented. At 29 she is concerned especially to support young Māori women who she considers tend, as a group, to get left behind. She is showing a short experimental video called Wog Features.
Using live action as well as animation and rap music, it consists of a series of language-based vignettes which address issues of gender and race and look at such expressions as ‘you’re getting under my skin.’
The animation she uses is called pixelation and requires the use of sets and puppets which are moved in between the filming of each frame. Reihana’s golliwog collection provided some of the puppets. Others are made from fimo.
Art, says Reihana, is about looking at things and people and ‘wog’ is a term used for people who are seen as different. Art films require a different state of mind from that in which people view feature films or television.
‘You have to keep your mind open, do some lateral thinking and just enjoy things. In Wog Features I don’t want to tell people how to think. I leave it up to the viewer.’
Next year Reihana joins Philip Dadson at the Elam School of Fine Arts to teach the course called ‘intermedia’.
Alter/Image offers a slender catalogue giving brief biographies of the artists who produce wall works. For those wanting insights into the discourses which inform feminist art and an introduction to a wider group of women working in similar way, the curators have produced a book, also called Alter/Image.
It quotes the American art historian. and theorist Lucy Lippard: ‘Perhaps the greatest challenge to the feminist movement in the visual arts … is the establishment of new criteria by which to evaluate not only the aesthetic effect, but the communicative effectiveness of art …’
Juliet Batten, The Simultaneous Dress, Performance Guidelines
Welcome, and thank you for your interest. The Simultaneous Dress is a commentary on aspects of feminist art practice in N.Z. from early beginnings to the present day.
You are invited in.
There are five zones, each of which contains a text and a sound track.
You are invited in.
One person at a time in each zone please.
The space between the zones is for everyone to be in.
Please enter a zone, read the text and use the headphones to listen to the tape.
You may then exit and choose another zone to enter.
Notes for helpers:
Please dress colourfully and be prepared to interact with the audience in a friendly and positive way. The idea is to convey the energy of the market place, full of life and colour, where people barter and exchange with vitality and enjoyment. Think of the markets you have most enjoyed, and this will give you an idea of the spirit in which to do your part.
You will work in pairs. One woman will hold the tray of objects and approach people in a positive way, saying: Would you be willing to exchange something of yours for something of mine? The idea is for them to decide for themselves what feels like a fair exchange. They may need to be creative. They may have nothing but a pen or a coin; on the other hand, they may have a card, a contact person’s phone number, an idea, a poem, a quotation. (There are pens & pieces of paper for these.) Hopefully, they will offer something small enough to go on the tray. Their offering is then part of the total offerings for the next person you approach.
The second woman will put a gold dot on the lapel of the person who has done the exchange and thank them with warmth. This serves to mark the people who do not need to be approached again, as well as to recognise them for their willingness to interact.
There will be a small reserve supply of goodies for the second woman to top up the tray with, but only if necessary & if it feels as if the exchange items are getting a little uninviting.
As an extra help, if you notice that people are reluctant to enter the zones, please encourage them to do so with the words ‘you are invited in’, or ‘please go ahead and enter’.
Thank you for your help and have fun!