The Phallus by the Balls
Image: Lucy Gunning, The Footballers 1997
1 Christine Tamblyn,
Recent debates about art practices in London have attempted to situate the so-called "young British art" in terms of its cultural positionality, politics and its relationship to issues of class and chauvinism. When a significant number of artists are making works which raise questions relating to gendered subjectivity, sexuality and experience, what then are the implications for a discussion of art practices which articulate such subjects and how might practices, which are billed under the homogenising phrase "The New British Art" (TNBA), be meaningfully differentiated? Other questions follow. Where are these practices by younger artists located in terms of the context of previous generations of feminist artists? How useful is it to think of such artists in terms of "feminism", which itself is a dangerously catch-all phrase that at once categorises and circumscribes an audiences expectations?
The practices of Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Lucy Gunning, Sam Taylor Wood et al, in varying degrees, all produce cultural meanings which can be read as gendered. Nevertheless, with the exception of Lucas and Gunning, none see themselves and their work as engaged with an explicitly feminist project or theoretical discourse. This is not to dismiss theory as an irrelevance to their work or that it does not operate significantly within a cultural context of theoretical debate. Lucas's work, in particular, has been cited with reference to 'Bad Girlism' with its attitudinising, use of humour, aggressive parody etc. Her early work in this vein predates the curation of the Bad Girls exhibitions, though not the formation of "Bad Girlism" as a critical category1; on closer inspection her work might be said to be have more in common with the Bad Girls exhibitions organised in the United States2 or the work of the American artists in the British Bad Girls exhibition3. Lucas's early sculptures, self-portraits and tabloid exposés (sic) all appropriate the language and gestures of patriarchal misogyny through exploiting the humour of parody and by utilising the frisson of transgression that stems from witnessing the female voice articulating that which attacks the feminine. The use of this brutalising vulgarity de-stabilises the cultural subject positions of masculinity and femininity, forcing them to re-signify their meanings. The cultural specificity of some of these pieces is unmistakable and places her work firmly in the realms of the social experience of sexual politics:
"If I make Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab it's because I live with remarks like that all my life. And I think, well yeah, I can make that same kind of remark just like you can, and I make it look fucking good into the bargain"4
Lucas's sculpture Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab was made by placing the two fried eggs, a doner kebab and framed photograph on a table top in an emblematic arrangement which signified the female body and referenced its slang definition. Consider also Au Naturel (1994) in which a used mattress, flung against a wall, was decorated with strategically placed melons and a bucket no less! More fruit was arranged to represent the male organs and a note attached read ‘Au Naturel’. All this placed the work within a specific cultural context and contrasted sharply with the mattress cast by Rachel Whiteread, entitled Shallow Breath (1991), and her creation of a poetic universality. Writing about this piece by Whiteread Sarah Kent commented:
"Many of life's key experiences happen in bed.... 'times', says the artist, 'when we open up to others, or are most alone and vulnerable'....a testament to human passions and processes in general, a poignant metaphor for the remorseless cycle of life".5
In this comparison, Lucas's work is clearly culturally specific whereas Whiteread's humanist poetics and formalism are universalising.
How different too is Lucas's work from that of the late Helen Chadwick, who was included in the British Bad Girls exhibition. Her sculpture I Thee Wed was made approximately a year later than Two Fried Eggs and A Kebab and used a plinth to display five bronze casts of a phallic vegetable forms representing fingers, each encircled with fur except for the ring finger. As in her other works of this period, Chadwick played a game with the viewer's impulse to see male and female sexual forms in her works; she arranged these in ways which disrupted dichotomies of masculinity and femininity, thereby attempting to transgress gendered subject positions. Whilst both artists make transgressions in their art, the strategies used to operate this differ radically in their meanings. Lucas engages with the specificities of the culture's language and gestures, manipulating these collective representations in a way which doesn't seek to problematise the nature of representation itself but rather the violence of such images. Chadwick's transgressions were underpinned by a concern to disrupt hierarchies of oppositions prevalent in Western philosophy: the mind and the body, male and female etc. and that which is excessive, wasteful and disruptive of such distinctions. Chadwick's later pieces had an aesthetic which increasingly utilised formalist abstractions and moved away from forms of representation which have a cultural currency. Her part of the Bad Girls exhibition thus lacked a visual "accessibility" and a specificity which Lucas craves for her practice. Humour occupies a central role in Lucas's work upon which the transgressions pivot for the viewer; it is the pleasures and sensuality of the materials used which sustain the concerns of Chadwick's later works. These can be understood, from Of Mutability (1984-86) onwards through a reading of Bataille and "New French Feminisms"6, which had in this period begun to increasingly shape the terms of feminist debate in this country and the United States. The works of Lucas, on the other hand, stem from a different impetus entirely, namely the social experience of gendered identity rather a deconstruction of conceptual categories through visual metaphors. A very different relationship to debates about the body exists for her too, it is significant that she has cited writers such as Andrea Dworkin as having influenced her work rather than post-structuralist informed theory. She has commented in interview:
"Certain feminist literature, like Andrea Dworkin, opened up the idea for me of having more subject matter..."4
These contrasting approaches to art-making could be equally shown in the work of other artists too and suggest generational shifts in the way in which artists have responded to debates within feminist practice and furthermore how these pertain to specific social and historical circumstances. By the early 1990s when Chadwick, for example, was established as an artist receiving commissions for exhibition projects, the recession was impacting upon the London art market and radically altered the possibilities for younger artists like Lucas who were beginning to establish themselves, hence she talks of using the Sunday Sport newspapers because of a lack of money and resources.9
A line cannot be drawn, though, in a simple way to differentiate between different artists and their concerns. Some artists such as Lucy Gunning are continuing to draw upon the ideas of post-structuralist thought. Gunning's videos show social conventions or expected behaviours perverted or disrupted in ways which throw into question conceptions of femininity. Whilst being informed by a broadly similar deconstructive critique to Chadwick the aesthetic strategies are different in that there is a direct engagement with social activities: playing football, singing lessons etc. This places her practice between that of Chadwick and Lucas; the former creating an aesthetic which shifts away from directly engaging with representations of social acts or manipulating cultural representations and the latter engaging with them. Furthermore, the concerns of Gunning mark her apart from other recent women artists who have utilised video or photography to create seemimgly similar work. Maria Cook, for instance, in Playing Football (1994), photographed herself and revealed an interest in recording the wasting of time and play, highlighted the lack of professional skills. In contrast with Cook, the female soccer players in the The Footballers, a video by Lucy Gunning filmed in the same year as Cook's Playing Football, invented their own game in a building that was about to be transformed for an exhibition and that was complicated with pillars and debris; the footballers perverted the rules of the game to suit their own space and also disrupted the decorums of so-called feminine behaviour.
Both Chadwick and Gunning encapsulate an impulse to de-stabilise and highlight binaries which have ensnared concepts of gender. They attempt a utopian move to find a space outside masculine and feminine polarisations. Chadwick's works of 1993 displayed the reversibility of male and female forms: Piss Flowers reveals phallic forms where the artist herself had pissed in contrast to the contours produced by her male partner's urination and Mister Pum Pum shows an inverted photograph of the male genitalia that oscillates for the viewer between male and female form. Similarly, the women in Gunning's videos can't be pinned down to feminine and masculine but instead confuse such distintinctions. Theoretical ideas here inform the choices of technique and aesthetics but these theoretical insights are not used to deconstruct or destabilise modes of visual representation itself. Chadwick, though, comes close to this, through her blurring of sexual forms. Her work, however, raises more questions about spectatorship and the ways in which looking is culturally-bounded than it does about the feminine and masculine within art. In contrast, Lucas uses the very imagery, language and gestures of patriarchy to enact her critical impact. Indeed, interviewers are fond of asking her about the 'aggressive' posturing evident particularly in her self-portraits, indicating that she is able to effect a discomfort or unease, an effect that is absent in the work of Chadwick despite her play upon the pleasures and sensuality of looking. Her aesthetic was easy to consume and rarely unsettled the viewer even when her work presented close-ups of meat or pig intestine.
Although many of the women artists who have recently come to the fore resist the label or context of a feminist art practice much of this work could not have taken on the aesthetics and forms that it has without the ground prepared by generations of artists since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Tracey Emin Museum, which opened in 1996, a personal yet political project, housed 'autobiographical' ephemera and artworks which were displayed to construct a history of the artist. During the same period Gavin Turk was exhibiting his own 'portrait of the artist' at the Saatchi Collection. Whereas Emin had chosen to exhibit the embarrassingly personal, for example, a tent entitled Everyone I've Ever Slept With, was covered with names sewn onto its walls of all those she's slept with, a video recounting a story of her being jeered off-stage at a talent contest when a teenager in Margate, to a chorus of 'slag'; Turk represented himself in terms of official parameters of fame and status - the blue plaque, the archetypal male anti-hero himself as Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol's Elvis. The tent resonated with connotations of early 70s feminist art in the United States. She has described it as "a cosy igloo thing, very feminine"10 and crawling into it as "like a sperm going into the ovum" echoing the idea of female architecture that was evoked by the artists such as Faith Wilding in her installation for the Womanhouse project in Los Angeles in 1972. Here a group of artists formulating an early feminist practice transformed a condemned building into a series of room installations. Wilding conceived of the installation Crocheted Environment as a feminine space and referred to its abstract forms of crocheted wool, which criss-crossed the room, in relation to the womb of the female body. The use of sewing is seen in her other pieces such as There's a Lot of Money in Chairs (1994) a chair which she upholstered with texts and used to tell stories this places her work as indebted to some other strategies of earlier generations of feminist artists who appropriated a domestic scale, materials and techniques both in Britain and the United States. The most striking example of this is her quilt which reflects strongly the associations of similar approaches in feminist work in the United States in the early 1980s. This is not to say that she is necessarily attempting to forge a feminist intervention but that it positions itself culturally as allied with such traditions.
The photographs and videos by Sam Taylor Wood similarly owe much to previous investigations of cultural stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. Georgina Starr's work sometimes touches upon this but again it would be misleading to frame her output purely in terms of feminist debate and practice, as with Emin. Nevertheless, she would not be articulating some of the issues relating to gender and sexuality without a history of feminist discussion and the circulation of such ideas. How then can the works of someone such as Emin be considered in relation to this history when their work is not a simple-minded continuation of it? In a sense Emin, Lucas and others are artists whose work shows the evidence of over twenty years of feminist art practice; they have learnt the lessons of this history and have moved beyond some of its dead ends. Emin's Everyone I've Ever Slept With whilst holding connotations of female architecture, avoids the metaphysical and essentialist connotations of Wilding's womb-like space. The social and historical context in which Emin has made this structure is entirely different and the engagement with social codes of behaviour and its place in a the transformed taxi-office that became the Museum give it an edge that has very different implications. Lucas's role reversals in her self-portraits, in which she mimics masculine stances, effect a frisson that seems much more sophisticated than for instance, Sylvia Sleigh's Turkish Bath of 1973. In Sleigh's figurative depiction, six naked men are positioned with references to the pose of the female nude in paintings such as Ingres' Orientalist scenes of the nineteenth century. The painting never has the power one might hope and in a sense it could be a scene of a hippy commune. This is not intended to undermine it but rather show that Lucas effects a change of role that somehow creates a more dramatic shift, flirting as her self-portraits do with connotations of bi and lesbian sexuality as well as masculinity. Lucas' emphasis upon the specificity of her representations in this case takes her into the social space of the lager lout rather than the history of art. The success of Emin's and Lucas' work is achieved through an engagement of form and content with social context.
Gunning, Emin, Lucas and Sam Taylor-Wood in her "self-portraits", such as Slut (1994) depicting herself with a love bite, construct themselves in various roles and play with the genre of the self-portrait confusing its authenticity. The use of the self in these artists' works is one of the more striking ways in which an engagement with gendered identity is played out. Through the constructions of such works a complex interplay of roles, behaviours and gestures coalesce which highlight the social formation of such identities in sophisticated ways. The pieces don't seek to illustrate through visual metaphor as Chadwick does but to expose how patriarchal culture circumscribes gender and sexuality in day to day encounters and activities. These artists don't live out these postures on a daily basis and their authenticity, or lack of it, is a simple issue neither here nor there; their work is certainly not best viewed within the clichés of the postmodernist problematistaion of truth claims. Rather, the roles adopted by these artists show the reflection upon, and rearticulation of, the ways in which patriarchal ideologies inflect the lives of women. The very fact that these are not necessarily authentic is important as it avoids a simplistic re-presentation of experience within visual culture; hence the gestures of oppression are turned back upon the viewer to confront them in ways which are more interesting than some feminist art practices previously. The use of the voice of "experience" had in the past been problematised through theoretical debate as risking a reified and unmediated understanding of the social constructions and ideologies of gender which shape our lives. These artists bring social experience into their works in ways which don't mirror but reinflect it. Thus a different subjectivity is re-created in these pieces out of a relationship to various social spaces as ideologically pregnant with meaning. The problem of aspects of post-structuralist thinking is that language is, at times, over-determined as the source understanding gendered subject positions and their meanings. Many of the works by these artists show the social complexities of these ideas operated through a self-reflection and self-reflexivity. When considered in relation to the simple-minded use of deconstructive critique in visual representation, this offers an interesting move away from an impasse which has resulted in a disengaging with social representation, whilst avoiding some of its pitfalls. Furthermore, the artists have lost the didacticism of some earlier self-consciously feminist works 11. Slavoj Zizek has argued that deconstructive criticism has often misunderstood an Hegelian notion of identity as being impossible; deconstruction always leads to a deferral of identity. For Zizek it is this very impossibility of a closed subjectivity that is the very name of identity itself. He would describe a realisation of the contingency of self in time and space as consciousness, that is something that can never be grasped and that is continually slipping away.12
Thus the authenticity of these 'self-portraits' is not an interesting way of seeing them; the cultural meanings they operate and relate to is. Lucas's photographs of herself are particularly interesting in their oscillations between gendered roles, gestures and appearances that confuse any simplistic idea of male, female, masculine and feminine as working in binary ways; indeed a deconstructive critique might posit femininity as a supplement of masculinity; an undecidable and elusive absence not a symmetrical opposition between two poles.
Many of these recent artists can thus be seen to be operating different strategies and meanings despite the market-led tendency to group them together as a homogenous generation, this has manifested itself everywhere from the media, for instance Vogue magazine, to the artworld itself, witness the Brilliant! line up. What is at stake is that a discourse of difference is not lost entirely in the media-hype as perhaps it already has been by the London artworld which has certainly foresaken many aspects of this that were developed in the 1980s and early nineties, particularly with reference to ethnicity. This is just a starting point for unpicking this homogeneity and the significance for art practices which seek to address the play of gender in our culture. I would argue that there has been a noticeable paradigm shift in the work of a number of women artists which doesn't nevertheless fit into a neat periodisation either. Thus the practices of Chadwick, Gunning, Andrea Fisher etc. can be seen to be related to parameters of theoretical debate that are not present in the work Lucas, Emin et al. Whiteread and Gallaccio produce art which is entrenched in a progression of a formalist aesthetic that seeks to transcend the contingencies of social experience. The point of this is not to argue for certain practices over others but to begin to situate these artists into contexts which show this paradigm shift and consider its relation to art of the past. Whilst post-feminism might be a reactionary media label inappropriate to the material experience of many women whose opportunities have not progressed very far since the 1960s, in terms of art practice the phrase seems to make some sense (one way of reading the Bad Girls exhibitions would be through a consideration of how it 'sends up' some of the more earnest and didactic feminist art through a humour which parodies, mocks and confronts any derogatory critcisms before they are spoken). These recent artists resist the idea that their practices are feminist in the activist sense, common in the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s, and this is entirely understandable. How many would want to be curated in all-women shows or separatist projects or be pigeon-holed in such a way - none I doubt! This is not say that their work does not acknowledge the gendered nature of experience, identity and so forth and that it does so owes everything to the cultural and theoretical writing and art of the last twenty years. The activities of Lucas, Emin et al draw their strengths from art of the past without repeating its mistakes. Inside the Visible at the Whitechapel Gallery was a significant exhibition in many respects for its ambitious overview of the positions of sexual difference at certain historical moments and surprisingly it was a show turned down by all other European galleries that were approached. Whilst this show was in many ways a watershed in its summarising of the positions of women's art practice this century at its close, some of the more recent pieces looked surprisingly locked in the past or within a context which stereotypes women's art. One such context, for example, was weaving albeit one which offers many poetic possibilities for art and writing. Cecili Vicuna's installation Weaving in 'Broken Times' threaded a room with wool fibre to create an environment not dissimilar to that of Faith Wilding twenty-four years earlier. Walking around the exhibition it certainly seemed that some of the most fruitful possibilities for artists wishing to explore gendered subjectivity and sexuality today might lie in the direction of 'Bad Girlism' or with the tendencies evident in recent art practices which are able to inflect sexual difference through the re-creation of the experience of gender identity, whilst not using an unmediated confessional narrative.