By Rali Chorbadzhiyska
Yesterday’s day off took me once again to my favorite London art gallery – White Cube @ Bermondsey! ‘Dreamers Awake’ , their current exhibition, is ‘a group show which explores the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than fifty women artists‘. Here’s a few of the artworks on display, accompanied by my scattered thoughts and allusions they brought to mind while I was browsing the Cube. If you’d like to see the exhibition for yourself, make sure you visit by the 17th of September, 2017!
♦ Untitled (Tied Up) by Jo Ann Callis
This one reminds me of the new 21st century craze – the Thighbrows! And by that I mean the little line, which arises at the top of the thigh as a result of a woman sitting down.
It is an obsession with the abundance of the female body but maybe has also something to do with containing that abundance. The fact that the internet has come up with a name for such a natural detail of the human body and idealized it is ridiculous. Naming the Thighbrow is labeling the parts of the body and an attempt at containing it through language. On the photograph is visible a similar process – the tying up of a female body with an almost invisible string. It emphasizes the abundance of the flesh that overflows in soft chunks. It is a failed attempt at containing femininity as it spills out the ‘fences’. And to top it all, the pose of the woman combines those two conflicting aspects – she is faceless but she also has power through her comfortable posture. To me this photograph stands for – The body is a piece of art because the flesh is a manifestation of the important essence.
♦ Older Questions of Style by Caitlin Keogh
This artwork by Caitlin Keogh re-imagines the ‘older’ style of Ancient Greece and its masterpiece ‘The Venus of Milo‘.
The original sculpture is famous for its lack of arms, which is a mystery to this date. However, Keogh has decided to purposefully remove one arm and even the head of the female figure. As the White Cube information sheet puts it, ‘Repossessed by it owner, the fragmented, headless body of Surrealism becomes a vehicle for irony, resistance, humour and self-expression’. To me, this deformation is rather violent than humorist and obviously emphasizes the fetishized image of the woman with her intact breasts and reproductive organs.
There are ropes that pierce through the female torso but are not tied at the end – a potential symbol of the futility of this violence, violence for the sake of violence.
The 21st century woman from Keogh’s canvas has one hand and with it, she is holding the robe, exposing what it used to cover in the original sculpture. This could be a simultaneously vulnerable and empowering gesture. Exposing the female genitalia without detail to represent femininity in general but also owning up to it.
I remain confused as to the message of the artwork. It considers ‘older questions of style’ that is a strictly female style, style of treating the female as well. Or can it be the style of expression from the 130-100 BC sculpturing to modern day art?
♦ I Thee Wed by Helen Chadwick
I could not help but laugh at this one but it is probably due to the fact that I am nowhere near being married. Is it really that painful?
The information sheet describes the artwork as a ‘set of 5 cast bronze vegetables, fur, glass and painted plywood’. Those ‘vegetables’ have a very distinct phallic shape that stands for masculinity. Then there is the furry ring around it, softer and suggesting femininity. Marriage is portrayed in this piece as the interlocking of these two, implying intercourse while also subtly reminding of the placement of a wedding ring around one’s finger.
The drastic difference in materials, bronze and fur, emphasizes the unity between two extremes – the male (hard) and female (soft). The bronze figures are embossed and thus suggest that the furry ring must bend around it, must comply.
This collision of forces is interrupted by a curiously ‘divorced‘ furry ring, placed in the middle of the glass table. It allows for a better look at the materials and shapes of the components of the artwork. However, it has left a ‘vegetable’ alone in the background – they must have separated.
So is this the empowering femininity cutting its ties with the demanding masculinity or just an innocent furry ring about to be placed on a bronze vegetable? I believe the unclarity of it is sought after and there is no objective moment in time this single furry ring stands for.
♦ The Kiss by Sarah Lucas
Continuing the theme of re-imagining classical art, here is Sarah Lucas’ rendition of ‘The Kiss’ – an artwork presented through time by different artists in the forms of both sculpture and painting.
This artwork perplexes me with such practical objects as chairs made absolutely impractical, turned into a piece of art (after Duchamp’s model)! They are intertwined like two lovers, offering a modern-Surrealist-feminist reading of the classical model. The chairs are firstly made impractical by being placed in each other and then by having their seats removed. This, however, allows for the artist to emphasize the relationship between the male and female powers.
The objects are visually gendered with the addition of objects that resemble male and female reproductive organs. There is a big phallic figure protruding through the vagina-like opening of the second chair’s seat (exemplifying intercourse). And to highlight the femininity of the second chair, it was given breasts.
The two lovers have no other distinct traits but their genitalia, vulgarly suggesting this is of a real importance to modern society (assuming modern art criticizes/ reflects its immediate environment) as opposed to preceding representations of ‘The Kiss’ and their contemporaries.
Interestingly, those primary and secondary reproductive organs have been made out of cigarettes. Anther very practical, in an ephemeral sense, object that was made completely unusable – how would you smoke a cigarette that has been glued to another one and another one, and another one, etc? I will not pretend to know why the artist chose cigarettes to aid the gendering of the objects, but I do buy its aesthetic and slightly humorist appeal!
♦ Jardin Public by Mona Hatoum
The artwork on the right is the ‘Public Garden’ by Mona Hatoum and it somehow reminded me of a scene from my favorite film ‘500 Days of Summer’ (left).
So I could see people cruising the gallery and politely pausing in front of each canvas, sculpture, artwork… and then I read the materials for this one, including ‘pubic hair’!
An absolutely outrageous and hilarious game with the viewers and their expectations. I felt like people accepted the piece as unquestionable artwork and probably did not even check the materials list (written with a smaller font on the information sheet).
And it reminded of a scene in the film ‘500 Days of Summer’ where the main couple experiments by going to see a modern art gallery and after a few eccentric pieces, they stumble upon this little disconnected poo on the left picture, as part of the exhibition. Then they decide to go to the movies.
I stuck to the gallery, instead of leaving in defeat, but I could not help this notion in the back of my mind – was this really serious? Is modern art ever serious? Is art ever serious?