The Power of Femininity

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How two artists have portrayed the female perspective on culturally sensitive issues
in the pre-internet age, and what we can learn.

After recent events, it has become obvious again, that to be female puts you at a disadvantage. Apparently, to have been born with that distinctive and formidable extra limb between your legs is still to have been born with an advantage. Trump, I think has acted as a stark reminder that the world isn’t as harmonious or as equal as previously hoped.

But how, In a world of instant messaging and social platforms, a world where everyone has a voice and nothing stays hidden, had people become so blind to the reality that sexism still looms within our society? Possibly it is because of the hysteria of social media, giving everyone the easy accessibility to an international voice. Giving everyone who wants one a platform on which to protest – that this protest had become lost in the noise. Lost amongst everyone else in the world, protesting. Now the opinion that you thought was showing up on a world stage for everyone to see is once again hidden. Social media may preach a voice for everyone, but in reality, it is still the one who shouts the loudest who will be heard. For young women, the notion of not being heard, of having to ‘shout the loudest’ is devastating – as is the uncomfortable truth that if you are pretty you will have more people following you online and therefore willing to listen. So even in this new world of the individual voice, for a woman, there is still the sense that your worth is being decided by what John burger termed ‘The male gaze’ (Burger, 1972, pp.46-47).

Amongst female artists, a sense of protest has always been present. From historic work where the female creator themselves was protesting enough, to post O’Keefe, when the women making art became more accepted and the art found a new meaning as a tool for inducing epiphany. It is common for the work of women in art to be discussed and debated for its credibility in an attempt to protect the patriarchal view. The work of artists like Hannah Wilke and Tracey Emin has always been the subject of controversy and has gone as far as documenting the most personal and devastating events in their lives in order to show the world just what it is like to suffer as a woman and the extent you have to go to be heard amongst the noise. Both these artists worked and came to prominence before the rise of the online world and social media. In the current political and cultural climate, it is interesting to look at how they used their art to raise awareness or protest their situation – to shout loudest.

Hannah Wilke first started to create recognised work in the 1960s, when she was amongst the first artists to create what was termed ‘essentialist art’ (Fitzpatrick, 2009) (artwork that is influenced by the form of the female body). More specifically in her earlier years, she would use various malleable substances like chewing-gum, erasers, chocolate’ and ‘cookie dough’ (Souter, 2017) to create the vaginal form. By the 1970’s she had started to also work with her own body, creating ‘performalist portraits’(Reckitt, 2001, p. 197 ). For example, in an advertisement for an exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (1970), where “She is shown from behind with one leg planted firmly on the ground, while the other foot rests on a chair. Her position looks neither natural nor comfortable, and the effect is deliberately sexualised and confrontational.” “The image is complex and contradictory. It shows Wilke with her back to the viewer as if she is working hard on her art, taking her practice seriously. However, while it presents a woman-as-artist, it also presents a woman-as-object. As Amelia Jones puts it, “she is absorbed in something on her desk and her defiance is marked by her ass-in-your-face pose and her seemingly complete lack of interest in or concern for the viewer’s potentially devastating ‘male gaze’.” (Souter, 2017).

Wilke was often criticised, however, for her stereotypically attractive body, her work was labelled by critics as “narcissistic or exhibitionistic”(Perchuck, 1994, pp. 93-94). When asked about this later on in her life, during her ‘Intra Venus’ series, she said “What difference does it make?… gorgeous people die as do the stereotypical ‘ugly’. Everyone dies.” (Perchuck, 1994, pp. 93-94). The ‘Intra Venus’ series was her last work, which she created while dying of lymphoma (Reckitt, 2001, p. 172). As part of this body of work, she included photographs of her “swollen and bruised body”(Reckitt, 2001, p. 172) that were taken by her husband “Throughout her illness, she had Goddard take photographs and film her.”(Souter, 2017)) as well as “self-portrait watercolours, medical object sculptures and collages made with the hair she had lost during chemotherapy.” (Reckitt, 2001, p. 172).

Tracy Emin is possibly most widely known for her work “my bed” in which she stages her bed in an art gallery exactly as it was when she left it, after a breakdown that lasted four days, and through which she didn’t leave her bed (Tate, 2015). All her work is created from her experiences and is always very personal. Michael Corris, when writing about Emin to go in the pages of her “Love is what you want” book, continuously called the artist in her earlier days, “an artist who was yet to become known as a myth-maker” (2011, pp. 154). This is possibly because of her ability to tell her story through her artwork, and possibly because of the myth she managed to create for herself.
She explains: “For me aggression, sex and beauty go together. Much of my work has been about memory, for example, but memories of violence and pain. Nowadays if I make a drawing I’m trying to draw love, but love isn’t always gentle. Being an artist isn’t just about making nice things, or people patting you on the back, it’s some kind of communication, a message.” (Morgan, 1997, pp.59-60)

In 1990 Tracey Emin had the first of two abortions during what she calls ‘The week from hell’
(Tate, 1999). In 1996 she documented her experience in “How it feels” (Tracey Emin, 2011, pp. 136-137). In its original form, this is a film documenting her as she takes us on the journey she made the day she had the abortion and tells us how she felt and what happened to her that day.
As well as film and sculpture, Emin is also known for her drawings, photographs, mono-prints, tapestries and ‘readymades’ all of which somehow document the story of her life as a female.

Hannah Wilke’s work about her cancer and Tracy Emin’s abortion series show that they both felt there was a need to talk about these difficult subjects. The extent of the public reaction towards this work gives you a measure of just how uncomfortable society was about discussing them.

When Wilke was diagnosed in 1989 (Souter 2017) there was not the level of knowledge about cancer there is today – although there is still much more to learn. By comparison since Emin’s work in 1960, the public stance on abortion has remained largely unchanged, with two fiercely opposing sides – and medical advances have not altered this. In both cases, cancer and abortion have made a journey from being taboo subjects to heavily discussed and engendering a level of hysteria in society. Cancer, because of the promotion of its huge effect on population mortality, and abortion because of religious links and the level of emotion and strong opinions it brings out in people.

For Hannah Wilke, her ‘Intra Venus’ series was perhaps her least feminist work, for Tracey Emin ‘How it feels’ was possibly her most, but the similarity between the two is striking. Both show their need to display the huge and devastating events in their lives in order to raise awareness for others, They both understood their female expectation to stay quiet and prettily optimistic, and saw the need to stamp all over that expectation, shouting “I AM NOT OKAY”.

Because Hannah Wilke had been criticised throughout her working life for the obviousness of her beauty in her art, I think she saw the chance in ‘Intra Venus’ to prove that her work had always really been about by displaying what it is like to have had bad luck thrust upon you. To be born female, to be diagnosed with cancer, and then to turn the situation around, to harness its power for herself. In her earlier work her flirtations poses and countless vaginal forms weren’t subduing herself to conform, it was about taking power for herself, staring straight back at the hypothesised men and stating “I know what you are doing, I know what you expected of me, and because of this knowledge, I have the power”. When she had cancer her work didn’t change, It was still about harnessing her power. Taking her bad luck and employing it to expose truth and weaknesses’ in common thought. She carried on with her flirtatious poses and nude portraits, showing her new body doing exactly what her apparently perfect one had done. Only this time she was so obviously imperfect, in her swollen and bruised cancer-laden body, that there could be no doubt that this work was definitely not about vanity. It was about having power in being female.

For Tracey Emin, her decision to confront her abortion through her art was one she knew would be controversial. you can see this in the film “Tracey Emin on ‘how it feels’” (white cube, 2013) she talks about how she edited the name from “abortion, how it feels” to the current name because she knew that the added “abortion” could cause too much of an immediate reaction before the film it’s-self had the chance to be viewed, stopping people from just seeing it for what it was. She said that she didn’t want people to think that it was about her being pro-life or pro-choice (YouTube, 2013) she just wanted to show how it feels to have an abortion. Adding that she knew the film would probably put some women off, but equally, it would help others who had decided to go through with it, as they would know a bit more about what to expect (white cube, 2013). This is something she knew could help as she tells us that she coped better when she had her second abortion because she knew what would happen. In the film ‘Tracey Emin on “how it feels”’ (white cube, 2013) she goes as far as telling us the date (May 1st) and that in the autumn she always remembers that this is when she would have become a mother. By doing this she is showing us her sense of loss. She doesn’t try to hide the upsetting side of her decision and therefore tells the world that having an abortion isn’t a decision made easily. It is a decision that should be made with the knowledge that the idea of what could have been will haunt you forever. A decision that at the time will go against a very natural drive to be a mother, “and as I said ‘yes’, it was like it wasn’t me saying it, it was just the word ‘yes’ “ I could hear the baby screaming ‘no’.” (white cube, 2013). Because she doesn’t hide the bad or enhance the good, but just tells us how she felt and what happened as she remembers it, she doesn’t allow anyone to criticise her information or call it political propaganda, but she also doesn’t claim it to be gospel truth. It is just what it is, and what you take from it. It is powerful because you don’t quite understand it, and at the same time, there is nothing more to be understood.

If you watch enough interviews with Tracey Emin, you realise that she doesn’t want you to think her work is about documenting the truth, but more about the idea that “it’s got to feel, really feel something.”(YouTube, 2013). As an example of this, she informed us in “Tracey Emin in confidence” that “the other thing about the bed is that it’s not real. I tidied it up.” By saying this Emin makes the point that to much attention is given to the history and credibility of artwork when what should be most important is the effect the work has on you. By focusing too much on a piece’s history you assume that the sole motivation is about some kind of confession by the artist. You don’t let yourself realise what the work has to say for itself, and furthermore what it might have to say for you. “My subject isn’t me, My subject starts with me and then goes on to the rest of the world” (YouTube, 2013). When you approach Emin’s work with this view you realise that it isn’t the autobiography it seems at first. Instead, It is work that uses her experiences to communicate, it’s a tool to talk to the world. And when you see it in this light suddenly truth becomes much less relevant. By creating work that is, at first appearances, harshly truthful – and then admitting openly that it isn’t and isn’t meant to be – Emin manages to create a sense of wonder and confusion about her work. You wonder ‘if its tidied, what was there’. through this confusion, Emin again keeps the power in her hands. She isn’t baring all for everyone to see, but actually showing us a carefully constructed version of something between the truth and an idea. You can imagine that when Tracey Emin read the criticisms for ‘My Bed’ calling her a slag she would have provoked the reaction she was looking for. And in talking about her, she is the one heard and seen above everyone else.

For Wilke, trying to create art that appears realistic had never been an objective of her work. Her art was more akin to commercial photography and traditional sculpture than a documentary. However, showing a kind of truth was something Wilke was trying to portray. To create work that brought out an immediate and raw reaction and therefore could reveal a truth about you and society as a whole. Later on for her “intra Venus” series her art took on a slightly more documentary style or feel. The honest images of her illness and the toll it took on her, along with views of hospital beds and medical apparatus made you feel you had an intimate insight into her life with cancer. However, although ‘Intra Venus” was probably the closest she came to documentary work, it still felt staged (Wilke, 1992). I think this is in part because Wilke knew she had no need to make people think everything was purely truthful. She knew the images of the illness would be strong enough – that whatever she did it would not detract from the startling truth of the horrifying affect cancer had on her body. Furthermore, the views of her posing as she had done in her earlier work but the medical context of her cancer, created a strong juxtaposition that took the photographs from sad, to shocking and uncomfortable. She knew she could dance and pose and pout, it wouldn’t make a difference, for this piece there was no way that her illness wouldn’t be taken seriously and therefore her work as a whole had a newfound credibility, power and sense of reality.

In this essay I have looked at how two female artists addressed two culturally difficult subjects in the pre-social media context, to understand how they went about gaining attention – ‘shouting loudest’ about the female view. In their different ways both constructed apparently truthful images to shock and promote discussion of painful taboo issues.

It will be interesting to see whether the political climate created through recent events, the rise of populism along with the growing unease and levels of protest, will bring about new artists like Emin and Wilke and how they will learn from the past works of these artists, while exploiting today’s media to shout loudest about the female perspective.



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