Incision: Feminist in Residence Exhibition


Installation view of Incision, with work by Christen Clifford. Courtesy Project For Empty Space.

I’m pleased to announce that the Vagina is back—at least in New Jersey. Not the “pussy” in its pornographic or hat form, but the chthonic orifice that my mother and her friends got intimate with in their Happenings, wielding speculums in the name of the Goddess. Perhaps every generation has its moment to rediscover the vagina for itself, and Incision, a show at Project For an Empty Space in Newark, established by three women under thirty-five as a space for both political and intersectional art, arrives right on time, focusing on incursions upon the body from the perspectives of gender, race, and immigrant status.

In WE ARE ALL PINK INSIDE (2017), Christen Clifford, a performance artist, actress, and monologist, takes video of the inside of her cervix as well as the cervixes and anuses of other people of varied genders. These images are projected as a loop on the canted superior wall of a wedge-shaped room, which is paneled in mirror mounted behind rose-colored plexiglass. The effect is undeniably seductive, making me want to recline into this pink mirrored cervix en abyme tunnel.

She also blows up still images of her cervix and hangs them in the corridor outside the gallery. These stills look like airbrushed, abstract paintings, in shades of pink and blue—one thinks of Marilyn Minter—where water drops can be seen. But the work takes a disturbing turn in an adjacent installation by Clifford, AMERICAN DREAM (1986, 2007, 2018). The viewer sits in a booth behind a black curtain, puts on headphones, pushes a button, and listens to a cassette tape on which several boys talk about a rape one of them has committed. The tape is a relic that Clifford preserved from her own rape as a teenager, a recording that the boys themselves made over a selection of pop hits from the ‘60s titled “American Dream,” and then¾unbelievably¾gave her as a provocation. The audio is chillingly banal as the boys talk and giggle, apparently unaware that what they are describing is a crime, and then the tape slips into “It’s My Party,” by Lesley Gore.

Katherine Touchy, This body is water, II/ Gismee Maya (detail), 2018. Courtesy Project For Empty Space.

Clifford’s work is the most clear and direct in what it wants to say, which may be because she is the only artist in her forties. “This is my body,” she seems to tell the viewer; “this is my history; I will seduce you; I will make you feel my pain.” The contradictory nature of her feelings are separated, one in a shiny room that invites the viewer to recline, one closed off behind the black curtain of American Dream.

The other three artists’ work is more ambivalent, “existing in the space where both violence and healing are present,” as stated in the press release. Chaya Babu uses a photo of a scar from her myomectomy, the removal of fibroids from her uterus, and layers these images with cryptic texts that vacillate between sensual imagery, “flower and smoke on my tongue,” and the language of violence, “rupture,” “wound,” “cut.”

The work of Camille Lee seems to me characteristically millennial in its use of technology as a distancing device. In Untitled, (Do I have an American Dream?) (2018), she uses a a Siri-like voice to narrate a video that matter-of-factly describes her struggle to leave Korea and define her identity as an immigrant woman. In The Oath of Allegiance for Naturalization (2017), she removes words from the oath, and then substitutes other words like “anarchy” and “system,” which are attached to magnets. Rather than applying her own Mad Libs-style interpretation, she invites the viewer to move the word magnets around, re-writing the text of the oath for themselves.

In her work This body is water, II/ Gismee Maya (2018), Katherine Toukhy cuts legs and torsos out of paper, paints them in bright washes of color, and floats them over two blue walls of the gallery. The title suggests that the limbs are in a soothing natural state, when in actuality they are headless and armless; the overall effect is therefore one of uneasiness.

The exhibition succeeds in its mission of connecting with the present in its Pussy Photo Booth Project, designed specifically for the show by the curators, where viewers are invited to hold up signs of their choosing, from “I HAVE WITNESSED GENDER-BASED WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION” to “FUCK YOU/PAY ME,” in order to take photos of themselves on an iPad and share them on social media. The innocence of the gesture worked well at the opening, as if the interactive performance art of the ’70s found a new expression in the era of the Women’s March, and it did feel a bit like a mini-march, one person at a time.


Cassandra Neyenesch

Cassandra Neyenesch is a contributor to the Rail.