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On Feminism (Through a Series of Exhibitions)

In the midst of documenta 12’s dense entanglement of narratives, themes and formal displays interrogating different art histories, the recuperation of feminism and its critical discourses proved one of the highlights…

In the midst of documenta 12’s dense entanglement of narratives, themes and formal displays interrogating different art histories, the recuperation of feminism and its critical discourses proved one of the highlights. Works such as Sanja Ivekovic’s seminal Triangle (1979), which explores the official politics of power and gender in the public sphere in Yugoslavia in the late 1970s, Eleanor Antin’s Angel of Mercy (1977/81), a tragicomic performance and installation featuring Eleanor/Florence Nightingale as a feminist heroine during the Crimean War, or the compelling new film essay by Hito Steyerl, Lovely Andrea (2007), resulted in a robust feminist narrative that recurred throughout the exhibition in a variety of spaces and sites. Lili Dujourie’s spare collages were an exciting discovery for me: simple snippets of paper torn from magazines and sparsely pasted into a large sheet of paper to form pieces of female figures, fragmented and even shattered as a cohesive image and yet rather coolly composed on the white plane. Jo Spence became an important presence in the Aue-Pavillon – her collaborations W ith Terry Dennett in the photographic series Remodeling Photo History (1982) dealt interestingly with the female body and its codification in the photographic landscape, and offered a deep contrast to the another piece by them, The Picture of Health (1982-86), which lost all critical distance in an earnest attempt to recount the ravages of cancer on the artist’s body.

From a curatorial perspective, mixing contemporary work of certain ‘classical’ artists such as Ivekovic, Rosler, Rainer or Mary Kelly alongside their familiar, older pieces, was smart, as it avoided historising ‘feminist art’ and offering a simplistic reading of its relevance today. I would go so far as to argue that documenta 12 marked a turning point in the understanding of feminism, as it made feminism again part of our necessary critical repertoire for reading subjectivity and, simply, for working within contemporary art today. This ‘normalisation’ of feminist critique and/or work, coupled with the fact that approximately half of the artists included in the exhibition were female – and this was not presented as a big deal – was a relief after two-and-a-half years of highly selfconscious projects about feminism and art, and a rather ferocious and often bitter debate which emerged in relation to certain of them. 01

One of the key operat ions of documenta 12 was to incorporate art history while reflecting on the historicising nature of the exhibition itself, as if saying that history is important, but it can’t be dealt with exclusively through documents. Rather it must be approached by way of a willing and knowing adaptation, distortion and activation of that history. As a result, the exhibition display managed to contribute to the understanding of the more contemporary works while allowing the ‘historical’ works to operate as documents or models and, at the same time, as contemporary positions in their own right. The fact that feminism was one of the axes along which this dialogue between the historical and the contemporary was established offers some hindsight about where we might go from here.

One could mark the beginning of this renewed interest as the Venice Biennale of 2005, curated by María del Corral and Rosa Martínez.02 In fact, their iteration of certain tired clichés and essentialist assumption about the materiality of the female body sparked irritated responses, but more interestingly it also evoked a renewed urgency amongst some curators and institutions to rethink the topic from a contemporary point of view.03 Since then, the subject of art and its connection with feminism and its discourses has been intensely visible in the form of a number of recent large-scale exhibitions, such as ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’, which opened at MOCA in Los Angeles in March 2007, ‘Global Feminisms – New Directions in Contemporary Art’ at the Brooklyn Museum in New York (from March to July 2007) and ‘Cooling Out – On the Paradox of Feminism’ in several venues in Europe in 2006. 04 What is going on in here? Are these exhibitions a symptom of an extremely representational moment, or an intensively activist one? And what might this profusion open up for the curatorial and/or artistic space? Speculating on what might be at issue, Polly Staple has noted that ‘what has emerged is rather a desire to address the legacy of feminism as a theoretical achievement, one that reshapes and renegotiates the idea of transformation in relation to society, politics and art, and to elevate discussion beyond engendered body politics and, by extension, the activities of lobby groups’. 05 Interesting times, then.

‘Cooling Out – On the Paradoxes of Feminism’, as its title suggests, is the most self-conscious and ambivalent of the three exhibitions, at least in its curatorial approach. This exhibition in three parts, curated by Sabine Schaschl-Cooper, Bettina Steinbrügge and René Zechlin, examined the influence of media, education and social structures on female identity. It presented feminism as a problematic – as indicated by the ‘paradoxes’ of the title – which the curators located in younger generations’ resistance to the label ‘feminism’, despite the achievements of the movement’s past struggles. As the curators ask in their publicity material, ‘how can a political or social movement create so many positive changes, while simultaneously developing negative connotations?’ 06 Approaching feminism through the proposition of a paradox caused by an insecurity about its public perception seemed extremely odd to me, as it is inevitable that feminism, among many other critical, emancipatory strategies of the twentieth century, be put under pressure by conservative dominant discourses. As Rosi Braidotti says in a recent essay, ‘transformative ethics involves a radical repositioning on the part of the knowing subject, which is neither simple or self-evident nor free of pain. No process of consciousness raising ever is… Change is certainly a painful process. If it were not, more people might actually be tempted to try it out!’ 07

In contrast to this belief, in the Cork version of ‘Cooling Out’ the artists included were definitively not addressing feminism and its legacies in ways that would reflect that struggle. The exhibition included a series of rather intelligent, cool-headed considerations and a set of counter-epistemological gestures which feminism has used as part of its critical repertoire. An interesting example in this regard was a piece by Andrea Geyer and Sharon Hayes, a series of videotaped interviews titled Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel (2000-02) that delved into questions of cultural feminisms, the relations between queer discourse and feminist theory, and the struggle for power and interpretative supremacy in contemporary politics. Each interview comprised an interviewer, an interviewee and an interpreter, but the monitors only showed the interpreters, who through their presence symbolised a general focus on terminology and interpretation – information moved constantly between the three participants, always filtered and reinterpreted in the process.

But, at least, the exhibition unpacked several contemporary ambiguities in relation to women’s position within society, and some of the artists investigated what happens to feminism at a time of what Roger Buergel recently called ‘world-integrated capitalism’. 08 For example, the installation iAusstellungsansicht (2006) by Pernille Kapper Williams offered a portrait of three successful businesswomen involved with the production of cosmetic products: Helena Rubinstein, Estée Lauder and Elizabeth Arden. Within the installation, these women’s positions are presented as ambivalent: they have acted as role models for a generation of independent and successful (business)women, but at the same time promoted deeply limited ideas of feminine beauty. Esra Ersen’s video interview showed two young Japanese girls going through a pile of teen magazines and exposing the depressingly limited variety of young female role models offered by Japanese pop culture. And Dani Gal’s P-Star (2005) video followed a father chaperoning his wannabe rap-star daughter through the streets of Puerto Rico.

Within the exhibition at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, there was also a display of newspaper cuttings from the 1980s and 90s documenting several feminist protest marches and activist events in Ireland. These pointed to a time when Ireland was ‘in convulsions of misogyny’, when reproductive rights and abortion were the battleground on which the power of the church and the state was contested by the emergent secular and feminist generation. 09 The inclusion of this contextual material was important, as it complicated the common characterisation of Western feminism within clearly defined geographical and generational parameters. Ireland in the 1990s, despite its position in the heart of the West, is probably more comparable to Poland in terms of how feminism emerged as an active political movement during the same years out of basic social demands, and not as a result of an intellectual or theoretical interest or a historical legacy.

This leads me to one of the fundamental problems of ‘Global Feminisms – New Directions in Contemporary Art’, curated for the Brooklyn Museum by two well-known intellectuals in the field of feminism, Moira Reilly and Linda Nochlin. The exhibition attempted to open up the feminist discourse in art to a plurality of forms and expressions, in order to map a notion of contemporary transnational artistic practice. This was a show in which politically motivated work such as Lida Abdul’s White House (a video from 2005 in which the artist paints the collapsed ruins of an Afghanistan house in white), Emily Jacir’s Crossing Surda (a video from 2002 recording the artist going to and returning from work, crossing from the occupied territories into Israel in the process), or the video documentation of a performance by Regina Jose Galindo from 2003 titled Who Can Erase the Traces (in which she walks with her feet dripping in blood to the steps of the local police station in Guatemala) were presented alongside works that struck me as indulgent and purely affective. Subjectivity was played out constantly through figurative referents such as the mother (for example, in Catherine Opie’s photographs), the victim (in Claudia Reinhardt’s Killing Me Softly, 2000-04) or the rebellious bad girl (in Chantal Michel’s iund Ich will… , 1997). Surely three generations of women’s studies have given us more interesting framing possibilities than these.

The exhibition sought refuge in a series of clichéd framings and formal solutions which told us a lot about how Nochlin and Reilly understand the world and its feminist histories, but very little about the deeply diverse experiences, contexts and temporal stages in which feminist works are actually produced. The result was not necessarily an unwise or uninformed choice of works, as many interesting pieces were included. But these were shoehorned into categories that showed very little understanding of the spatial qualities of the work and the interplay and juxtapositions that could be established between the pieces themselves, thereby demonstrating a lack of curatorial understanding of the physicality and materiality of the work on display. Because of this, the chosen themes became irritatingly obvious, especially rooms such as the one dedicated to ‘hysteria’. In the end, the whole of this exhibition and its totalising methods oozed First World sentimentality.

Tirdad Zolghadr recently pointed to the problem of trying to think about a globalised feminism at all, explaining that ‘the agendas of, say, First World onlookers and Third World feminists differ too radically. Since facile gestures of solidarity are now so common, this is a point easier made than understood. A compagnon de route simply cannot claim to share the same objective as the people doing the homework, as those collecting the $20 cheques, the signatures and the hate mail, pursuing generational debates on tradition and treason…’10 It seems to me that this is the crux of the problem when trying to make an exhibition about global feminisms: feminism is born from emancipatory political struggles, and these take place in different modes according to different contexts. Any sweeping survey will have trouble communicating that particularity and focus, making it extremely difficult to read the works in terms of their own critical position. Besides that, it was remarkable how the figurative reference was embraced as the way in which the subjective is manifested, to the extent that any other strategies of representations or reading were absent from the exhibition, ignoring a myriad of feminist theoretical legacies of authors regarding anything from the gaze (Laura Mulvey) to the subjective iteration of sexuality (Judith Butler).

The precision and breadth of Connie Butler’s historical survey ‘ WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’, which opened at Los Angeles MOCA almost simultaneously with ‘Global Feminisms’, possibly makes it easier to criticise the latter. However, this comparison is unfair, as Butler set herself to explore a particular historical period – although the notion of limitation is here deceptive, given the extraordinary breath of work that she presented and the lineages she established between known artists or artworks and largely forgotten practices and movements. The exhibition’s premise, as Butler explains in the catalogue, is that a contemporary understanding of the feminist in art must necessarily look to the late 1960s and 70s because it constitutes the most international ‘movement’ of the post-War period, in spite of or perhaps because of the fact that it seldom cohered formally or critically into a movement the way that Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism or Fluxus did.11

‘WACK!’ took six years to organise, and proved extraordinarily and intelligently comprehensive. Butler wisely sought not just to rework old, familiar ground, but also to explore simultaneous, less familiar feminisms, and to understand the cacophony of voices in the heat of political movements and their mobilisation. There were certain totemic works included, such as Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-75) and Night Cleaners (1970-75) or Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll Abkan Red (1969), a series of ‘environments’ or ‘Abakans’ suspended from the ceiling with an organic sensual nature that resonated with the work of her contemporaries Lynda Benglis and Eva Hesse. It was very interesting to find other abstract works interpreted within a feminist frame, such as in the case of Isa Genzken, Nasreen Mohamedi or Mary Heilmann. This feminist framework also offered new light to the work of Susan Hiller, particularly in 10 Months (1977-79), where she reflected on her own pregnancy, incorporating strategies of Minimalism and photographic collage that allowed multiple entry points into a very complex work. The piece adopted a non-hierarchical approach to Minimalism as a mere mode of arrangement, and consisted of photographs of her curved, growing belly displayed in ten grids of 28 black-and-white images, accompanied by excerpts from her diary which reveal her struggle to maintain a sense of herself as an artistic, thinking subject while undergoing this primal biological experience. Chantal Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) was also an important inclusion because of its contribution to filmic experimentation. The film, produced by a crew almost entirely composed of women, comprises three hours in the life of the title character, who performs everyday household tasks (such as taking care of her son and cleaning the house), engages in prostitution and finally murders her client with a pair of scissors. Acknowledging the unavoidable subjectivity of filmmaking, the film was shot by Akerman from her own point of view (which is that of the viewer), as that was ‘the only way to shoot to avoid cutting the woman into a hundred pieces’. 12

(1975). Connie Butler also articulated the exhibition thematically, but here it was productive, perhaps because of the sheer vagueness of the themes (gender performance, abstraction, gendered space, body as medium, knowledge as power, collecting impulses, social sculpture, silence and noise, making art history, taped and measured…), which opened up the narratives in which the works could be read. Hanging almost directly at the entrance of the Geffen Contemporary building was a large-scale work by Magdalena Abakanowicz,

What is palpable in ‘WACK!’, and what makes it so enjoyable, is the rigour, intelligence and sheer variety of practices represented – there is a relentless pursuit of new forms, new experience and new ideas of about to make work. Dara Birnbaum’s experiments with video and television sampling, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978) and Pop-Pop Video General Hospital/Olympic Women Speedskating (1978-79), still seem sharp, resonant and funny. Louise Fishman’s Angry Paintings (1973) rage from the canvas as resolutely as when they were first painted. Looking at these works after thirty or forty years, the critical energy from their original political contexts is reactivated, making this historical survey dynamic and rich. By readdressing some artists’ places within the art historical canon (as in the cases of Judy Chicago and Howerdena Pindell), by pointing at collaborative networks (such as Spiderwoman Theater or the Woman’s Building), or by showcasing an artist individually ploughing her own path (in the case of Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois), Butler’s curatorial approach showed breadth and an ability to deal with the complexities of an artistic movement which wasn’t really a movement. Perhaps such an exhibition is only possible with the benefit of hindsight, but the comparison of either ‘Global Feminisms’ or ‘Cooling Out’ with ‘WACK!’ makes clear that, unfortunately, the more contemporary we are the more tentative we have become.

Lovely Andrea, one of the two films by Hito Steyerl included in documenta 12, draws the viewer into the world of Japanese bondage in a sharp and witty filmic essay on the construction of mythic identities. The artist travels to Tokyo with a film crew in search of an old photograph of herself taken when she posed as a bondage model in the 1980s. While trying to track down the photograph, Steyerl comes across photographers, bondage experts and, most interestingly, a young woman who overturns the traditional subservient role of women in bondage by developing her own theory and act of self-suspension. Questions about the veracity of records, either through still or moving images, sexual freedom or the knowing commodification of one’s own body form the critical core of this piece. But the film could also serve as an allegory for the way that historical legacies (including feminist history) played a part within the exhibition itself. In revolving around a document that is absent for the large part of the film – and whose discovery is notably anticlimactic – Lovely Andrea stages the ambivalence towards history and the historical document that is at the core of the recent attempts to retrospectively represent feminism. In Steyerl’s work this ambivalence becomes productive, both adopting and adapting the label ‘feminism’. We can hope that this example is followed by both artists and curators in the future.

– Annie Fletcher


  • As an example, I would like to point to the staging of the exhibition ‘Women’s Work: Homage to Feminist Art’, at Tabla Rasa Gallery in New York in the spring of 2007, curated by Cindy Nemser, editor of the Feminist Art Journal. The exhibition was organised as a protest to certain exclusions in the exhibition ‘Global Feminisms’ at the Brooklyn Museum, also New York in 2007. See Adam Rathe, ‘Sacklash!’, The Brooklyn Paper, 24 March 2007. Also available at /30/12/30_12sacklash.html (last accessed on 21 November 2007). See also the intense debate that sparked off around Martha Rosler’s collage Body Beautiful or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House or Harem (1966-72), which Connie Butler used for the cover of the catalogue of ‘WACK!’, which she curated for the Los Angeles MOCA, also in 2007. Both ‘Global Feminisms’ and ‘WACK!’ will be discussed in this text.
  • Tirdad Zolghadr, ‘Tough Love. Feminism and its Thresholds’, frieze, Issue 105, March 2007. Also available at (last accessed on 21 November 2007).
  • Cornelia H. Butler, ‘Art and Feminism: an Ideology of Shifting Criteria’, in C.H. Butler and L.G. Mark (eds.), WACK!, op. cit., p.15.
  • Chantal Akerman, in C.H. Butler and L.G. Mark (eds.), WACK!, op. cit., p.212.
  • It is true that there have been exhibitions addressing feminism and feminist art practice over the last three decades – a selected chronology of exhibitions from 1943 to 1983 can be found in the ‘WACK!’ catalogue (Cornelia H. Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark (ed.), WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (exh. cat.), Los Angeles: MOCA, 2007, pp.473-500). However, I would like to suggest that the concentration of large-scale exhibitions in a short period of time in major institutions makes this a remarkable moment.
  • Bettina Steinbrugge, co-curator of ‘Cooling Out – On the Paradox of Feminism’, told me this was her motivation for developing the project. That is perhaps not the case with the exhibitions in the US that are also discussed in this text.
  • Kunsthaus Baselland, Muttenz/Basel (13 August-17 September 2006), Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork (1 September – 26 November 2006) and Halle für Kunst, Lüneburg (16 September – 29 October 2006).
  • Polly Staple, ‘Ah Feminism’, frieze, no.105, March 2007. Also available at (last accessed on 21 November 2007). The theme of this issue of frieze magazine was feminism.
  • ‘Cool Out’ press release, available at (last accessed on 21 November 2007).
  • Rosi Braidotti, ‘Affirmative Ethics and the Question of Pain’, keynote speech presented at the opening symposium for ‘If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution – Feminist Legacies and Potential in Contemporary Art Practice’, 28 October 2007, De Balie, Amsterdam.
  • Roger Buergel, ‘Beyond Identity and Difference’, lecture presented at ‘Eindhoven Caucus’, 11 November 2007, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.
  • Anne Enright, Making Babies. Stumbling into Motherhood, New York: Vintage, 2005, p.6. There were three referenda in Ireland in two decades (1983, 1992 and 2002) centred around the right to abortion.
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