The Indexical Form in Feminist Art
The success of feminist art is seen to herald a post-feminist era for women artists who no longer have to muddy the waters of the creative/procreative binary, for instance by gently unfurling a scroll from their vaginas. If accounts of living gendered constraint are less vividly enacted in the contemporary moment, then the performative works of the 1970s and ’80s appear bound by a certain periodicity, and thus too, the impact of feminism itself for contemporary art. Witness the exhibition of Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” (1975) in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, which established the historical importance of feminist art from the late 20th century: alongside a collection of pictures of the performance, the scroll floats, entombed in a long vitrine, unfolding the length of the box like a vertebral column. This ossification of this performative and provocative work in the exhibition’s context safely separates the contemporary moment from a 20th-century artistic movement from which one gratefully inherits something like a style.
But Schneemann’s scroll might bear the weight of another significance, one which demands a different interpretation of feminist art in the contemporary moment: no longer co-extensive with a performative action, the unfurled paper acts as a reverberating index, granting intimate contact unavailable in the original moment of performance, an intimation of polymorphously perverse attachments, and carrying the weight of the absent female body from which it was drawn. In its current form, the scroll instructs us in the art of looking at gender and sexuality from a different angle, one not so closely bound to the terms of the politics of bodily representation.
The charge of promiscuous objects, particularly those which bear the trace of an encounter with the body, have been important to feminism’s account of social life and of the charged spaces where gender and sexuality are inscribed by and entwined with power and vulnerability. Mona Hatoum’s crackling, electrified domestic settings; Mary Kelly’s dyadic artifacts; Ann Hamilton’s fragmented casts—objects charged with family dramas and political divisions, as well as processes of subjection and refusal, are yet objects that remain obdurate, resistant, resilient.
The reverberations of said objects inform some of the most weighty, politically engaged work in the contemporary moment, for example, Teresa Margolles’s “Mesa y dos bancos” (2012), a public picnic bench cast in cement, mixed with the water extracted from cloths used to clean the blood from the streets in Mexico’s ongoing drug war. The sculpture’s aesthetic is hauntingly prosaic, and the intimate proximity of bodily fluids in the gallery space demands response and accountability across transnational dimensions of social life. Heather Cassils’s “Becoming an Image” (2012), where a formidable mound of clay is sculpted through Cassils’s pounding, wrestling, and boxing in a darkened room, lit only by the flash photography which documents the event, offers another compelling example. The clay’s beaten form bears the trace of Cassils’s exertion of the artist’s bodily impact and bodily sculpting. Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (2014) works at the juncture of the material and semiotic—in the tight coupling of racist imagery with the material relations of slavery, and the legacy of exploitation, dehumanization and sickly sweet matter in contemporary American life. That the bitter sweetness and material weight is lost for those who could only respond with racist or objectifying selfies next to the sculpture, oblivious to the sculpture’s matter, only emphasizes the importance of the index to the work’s meaning, and to the stubborn histories of objects and objectification.
In these artists’ works, material-semiotic entanglements, questions of gender, sexuality, and embodied life, are inflected with questions of response and affect, of being quite denuded by one’s relation with others, human and non-human, living beings and weighted historical objects. Feminist accounts of contemporary art must displace the questions of representation with these accounts of relation—relations of power that contain powerful inscriptions of gender, race, and class with real material effects. The trace of a relation in these works are socially charged, summoning aesthetics in the interest of questions of embodiment and alliance.
Decades ago, Donna Haraway asked the provocative question, “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” This extensiveness marks the radical possibilities and pleasures entailed by the confusion of boundaries. Such extensiveness demands responsiveness and responsibility for our attachments with objects and others, and marks the investment of feminism in social justice and collectivity. The materiality of these artworks challenges the normative dimensions of bodily boundaries, and thus engages questions of gender and sexuality, even absent the female body in the work. The framing of the interior scroll is in kind with Eva Hesse’s skin-like suspensions or Louise Bourgeois’s fragile houses—a strange encounter where women’s bodies are nowhere to be found yet gendered embodiment is fully enfleshed. At stake is an encounter where the boundaries of inner and outer, self and other, are challenged by new forms of collectivity and alliance, and where bodies are suspended in a space between objects and others.