"Women's body hair removal is strongly normative within contemporary Western culture. Although often trivialised, (...) the hairlessness norm powerfully endorses the assumption that a woman's body is unacceptable if unaltered; its very normativity points to a socio-cultural presumption that hairlessness is the appropriate condition for the feminine body."
"Gender and body hair: constructing the feminine woman", abstract extract
From my personal experience, this fact is even more true in Middle-Eastern culture, would it also be for hygienic or religious reasons.
The two pieces I am presenting for ICareALot were especially made to take part in the debate about Middle East, from a post-feminist point of view. They are both dedicated to the Iranian photographer Mehraneh Atashi who had just been arrested around the same time when I came across the Icarealot call for submission. The two necklaces were made thinking of the women who could wear them as a passive sign of rebellion against a certain male abuse of power. As the two pieces come as beautiful objects to wear and be proud of, my point here is not to reject the depilation practice but to remind us that this should be chosen as a free act, rather than an act of submission to the male desire, to the religion, culture or to simply the weight of tradition. More internationally, the pieces were made to draw awareness on the fact that we are all still under the pressure of culturally accepted stereotypes about women.
Materials: human hair, red copper chain and findings
Representing naked female bodies nowadays in contemporary Art can still be a challenge. In a context of Post feminism/third wave feminism, how can the representation of the female naked body by contemporary female artists be understood and perceived?
In the present essay, we will look at the work of three contemporary female artists in the fields of painting (Jenny Saville - J.S.- , Branded, 1991), performance (Vanessa Beecroft, - V.B. - VB55, 2005) and video installation (Pipilotti Rist, P.R. - Sip my ocean, 1996). Those three pieces were chosen as they offer three different types of representation for the female naked or semi-naked body. References to these works all acknowledge their feminist content, not only because of the official feminist position of their authors, but also because of the questions they raise about very much discussed feminist issues such as ‘objectification’, ‘visual pleasure’ or ‘ideal body’.
In the first part, we will investigate how the works respond to imposed-by-society images of the female body and more particularly to the “ideal body”. In the second part, we will look at how each artist chose a particular way of displaying female bodies while showing an informed awareness of the ‘male gaze’. In the third part, we will explore how they take the ‘lived body’ into account.
The ‘ideal body’
Nowadays in Western societies most women live with an “internalised, invisible, psychological and physiological corset” (Carson, 1998:119), which is an ideal slim and healthy body of eternal youth. The three pieces chosen here present different responses to this idea.
This image of beauty is very much conveyed by fashion industries and there is no wonder why V.B.’s “critics accuse her of exploiting women” (Harding, 2005). V.B. doesn’t deny striving for an ideal body as she “(…) usually (…) [has] a very clean, precise, asexual, iconic idea, geometrical, with reference to paintings.” (Beecroft, Kellein, 2004). However, even if VB55 is far from representing all types of female bodies, it nevertheless shows diversity in age (from 18 to 65 years old) for these women who, this time, are not all professional models. When looked at from far, the group of naked women (fig. 1) gives an impression of uniformity and of a large display of skin but soon, as Bishop (2000) says, one finds oneself “inevitably assessing and comparing the women”.
This is a quite natural cognitive reaction when confronted to a collection of elements. Through the comparisons, the heterogeneity of features visually opens the mind to the idea of an heterogeneity of beauties, each body looking harmonious in itself while different to all the others.
When looking at VB55 and at Branded (fig. 2), the viewer is facing a “veritable landscape of naked flesh” (Smith, 2002) yet, in J.S.’s work, this is the huge body of only one person that occupies the whole very large canvas (fig. 2’) and she “makes the fat female body ultravisible” (Smith, 2002:135). fig. 2 (left) VB55, By Vanessa Beecroft, photo of the performance , Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Apr. 8, 2005 (right) Branded, detail, By Jenny Saville, 1991, oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9cm, the Saatchi Gallery, London J.S. shows a painting of “the female body that is not art-historically based” and that certainly doesn’t participate “in the construction and maintenance of the ideal female body” (Hardin, 1999). Smith (2002) actually draws a comparison in the way J.S. frames her subject to how the ‘fat lady’ was displayed in the nineteenth century ‘freaks’ shows. And when looking at the green, purple and yellow colours of the skin, Nead (1994) sees it as “putrefying, rotting” (fig 3 ).
Fig. 3 ‘Branded’, detail, By Jenny Saville, 1991, oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9cm, the Saatchi Gallery, London
With these references to abnormality, excess, death and putrefaction, it is not surprising that, as Carson (1998) reminds us, J.S.’s portrait falls into the category of “the grotesque body”, with all the fascination this description can imply. But, as Nead (1994) notes, “Saville’s work is no simple celebration of the transgressive female body; indeed, it expresses a deep ambivalence towards the body (…).”. Even though she is denouncing the societal pressure of the ideal female body, the sense of disgust that comes with this unconventional self-portrait also communicates a sense of “self-hatred” which is deeply disturbing and rather ambiguous.
Compared to V.B. and J.S.’s quite dramatic atmospheres, P.R.’s video installation comes as much more lighter and cheerful. It is described by Williams (1996) as a “quirky, glamorous, entertaining” video. Contrarily to V.B. and J.S., P.R. also seems to respond very positively to the ‘idealised’ body. She doesn’t reject stereotyped female images and, as Williams (1996) puts it in a witty way, she even shows “cuts-out of dozens of other scantily dressed pin-ups to her own devilishly bikini-clad self-portrait, as if admitting that yes, these are pleasurable pictures of near-naked young women; let’s move on to the next thing.” (fig. 4)
Fig. 4 stills from Sip My Ocean, Pipilotti Rist, 1996, video installation, sound, 2 video projections reflected in the corner of a room, audio system, 8 minutes.
On one hand, unlike J.S., she doesn’t denounce the tyranny of the imposed-by-society perfect body but on the other hand, doesn’t strive for a physical perfection like V.B., even allowing herself to show amusing views of her face (fig. 5).
Fig. 5 stills from Sip My Ocean, Pipilotti Rist, 1996, video installation, sound, 2 video projections reflected in the corner of a room, audio system, 8 minutes.
In this video, P.R. proves having complete awareness of the stereotyped ideal female body but also demonstrates a perfect control over this quite narcissistic image. As Williams (1996) says it: “Rist can manipulate her image and the video screen with an ease as pleasurable as a perfect love affair”.
Under the ‘gaze’
Referring to V.B.’s performances, Cameron (2007) is asking : “Do some female artists reinforce male objectification of women’s bodies through their sexualised imagery ?”. We will see how in these works, different strategies can be read that seem to give back to the female body its position of “subject”, while still keeping the viewer in an ambiguous if not disturbing position.
When painting her self-portrait, J.S. is far to let the viewer freely enjoy the sight of a naked female body. The size of the canvas nearly all covered with flesh is imposing. The subject is looking down at the viewer in the same return of gaze (fig.6) which, according to Berger writing in 1865 about Manet’s Olympia, broke “the ideal” of the objectified female body in painting.
Fig. 6 ‘Branded’, detail, By Jenny Saville, 1991, oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9cm, the Saatchi Gallery, London
As if this was not clear and disturbing enough J.S. has added a proper ‘message’ on her body : “(…) words such as “decorative” (fig.7), “petite”, and “supportive” (fig.8) are cut into/written onto her breasts, stomach, neck, and torso, marking her with the cultural identities imposed upon the female in society.” (Hardin, 1999).
Fig. 7 ‘Branded’, detail, By Jenny Saville, 1991, oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9cm, the Saatchi Gallery, London
Fig. 8 ‘Branded’, detail, By Jenny Saville, 1991, oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9cm, the Saatchi Gallery, London
As Hardin (1999) notes, by inscribing such words on such a body, J.S gives us to read “(…) her reading of the female body in Western culture in much the same way as we would read Barbara Cruger’s work.” In Branded, far to be looking at a passively offered female body “we are [actually] made aware of being ourselves assessed, of being caught in the act of staring and judging” (Nead, 1994).
But what about the one hundred women standing in VB55?
In his critical article about VB55, Harding (2005) asks this provocative question: “Is it challenging art or merely soft porn for intellectuals?”. As Ravenal (2002) says about Sip My Ocean, VB55 “could [also be] easily (…) [understood] as a projected fantasy of (male) desire rather than post-feminist statement.” For her performances, V.B. has set a number of rules: the audience (fig. 9) has to keep some distance and stay quiet, the women are not allowed to move, only change position and they can’t look directly at the audience, which, according to V.B. make them appeared “removed and detached from the audience” (Harding, 2005). V.B describes this detachment in a particular way: “You stand there, you are about to be taken, but you are not. (…) Nothing is pleasure. (…) It is life on hold.”. About the audience, writers report its embarrassment (Bishop, 2000; Harding, 2005; Beecroft, Kellein, 2004). “VB does revisit the tenured debate over the effects of the presence of the female body” (Killam, 1997) and by confronting the viewers with an eroticised display of real naked women in a theoretically non-sexualised context, she directly confronts them with their own sexuality.
As for VB55, with Sip My Ocean, the subject of sexuality is raised. In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), Laura Muvley argues that: “the voyeuristic pleasures of cinematic fantasy constructed women characters and female stars as fetishised objects of a ‘masculine’ gaze irrespective of the spectator’s gender.” (Carson, 1998:121).
By showing glamorous and erotic images of herself (fig.4), P.R. seems to perpetrate this observation as she “might appear to act out a male fantasy uncritically” (Ravenal, 2002). At several times, P.R., looks back at the viewer (fig.5): is it part of a seductive act or is it showing an awareness of being watched, like J.S. in Branded? Ravenal (2002) asks: whose vision are we experiencing here? The dream-like and under water atmosphere alludes to unconscious contents, which gives very much the sense of seeing “into [P.R.’s] mind’s eye” (Ravenal, 2002) and being given access to, as P.R. (2007) points it out, her inner body experience. In Sip My Ocean, P.R. is playing with the ‘gaze’ at different levels. The viewer’s identity, his or her location and his/her relationship to the artist, as mentioned by Ravenal (2002), are questioned.
Writers record a wide range of emotions and physical reactions when encountering the three pieces presented here. Viewers back away from J.S.’s self-portrait (Hardin, 1999), Bishop (2000), going to one of V.B.’s performances confesses that she had “a wave of nausea as [she] registered that all this skin belonged to real women” and Williams (1996) found P.R.’s sound track “almost overwhelming”. In this third part, we will see what provokes such reactions.
When Bishop reports feeling sick as she realises that the naked bodies she sees are of real women, she actually had the expectation of seeing “Mueck or Ray style mannequins” (Bishop, 2000). V.B. works with real women’ bodies as a material. She describes how she assorts them by colours, textures, “as though they were objects” (Kontova, Gioni, 2008) and, at the performance, she expects them to render the perfect image she has in her mind. Then, “the girls come in, and they’re real, they’re physical, they have hair, heir-dos, make-up, and all that vulgarity destroys it.” (Beecroft, Kellein, 2004). At that point, V.B. has to give up her iconic ideal and the other side of her interest in the women appears:
“Once the girls are there, they soften and humanize the performance. They get tired, they start to look at us (…) That is beautiful. (…) As the girls stand in a group as a piece they liberate it by themselves.” (Beecroft, Kellein, 2004).
Live performances can be very powerful experiences as they implicate strong direct identification with the performers. When V.B. puts the viewer into a sexualised interaction with objects that soon show their humanity, she ambiguously reaches deeper libidinal contents referring to our human condition.
The human condition is certainly also what J.S.’s work refers to, yet on a somehow different register.
The choice of the self-portrait pushes the viewer to identify with J.S. but by painting it in such disturbing way, she faces him/her with “the intimacy and brutal exposure of compulsive confession” (Smith, 2002). The identification is then rejected but compassion has been felt, which may drive Godfrey (1994) to write: “What is most noteworthy is the way they convey the uncomfortable presence of human beings with all their physical grossness and vulnerability.” (Godfrey, 1994). Beyond the female body that would have been traditionally given for pleasurable viewing, Branded, with its cadaverous aspect, reminds us that when facing death, our flesh is not sexualised anymore.
When looking at Branded, Smith (2002) notes that “this body of excess (…) threatens to dissolve into formlessness” as that its “borders and surfaces seem to dissipate” (Smith, 2002). This sounds very similar to how Carson (1998) refers to Luce Irigaray’s symbol of ‘volume fluidity’ : an “open container, [a] volume without contours, as opposed to the controllable closed volume of the female and maternal body of masculine fantasy.” (Carson, 1998).
This image of ‘volume fluidity’ can be applied to Sip My Ocean too : the dream-like aquatic atmosphere evocating P.R.’s inner body experience can also be seen as a metaphor of “mutability and transformation” (Spector, 1996).
The sea creatures, the liquid state and the symmetrical images (fig.10) allude very much to female anatomy and the fluidity in the change from one view to another makes one think of “a body with no boundaries, a body with multiple and autonomous erotic zones” (Spector, 1996).
Fig. 10 stills from Sip my ocean, Pipilotti Rist, 1996, video installation, sound, 2 video projections reflected in the corner of a room, audio system, 8 minutes.
“The pervasive sensuality […] suggests the elusive state of jouissance – unadulterated, boundless, pre-Oedipal pleasure.” (Spector,1996). When considering the scale of the installation (fig.11) and adding the effect of the suave sound track it is easy to imagine how viewers are completely immersed in P.R.’s work. There is no wonder why Spector (1996) says that Sip My Ocean offers “captivating audio and visual stimuli that invite corporeal, if not libidinal, identification.”
Fig.11 photos from Sip my ocean, Pipilotti Rist, 1996, video installation, sound, 2 video projections reflected in the corner of a room, audio system, 8 minutes.
In 2009, “Feminism” has many different voices. In the present essay, I tried to explore my own questions as a female artist using my body in my work. I have found extremely interesting to realize how complex the representation of the female naked body is in Art nowadays. After all the feminists’ fights to take the female body back from objectification and stereotyping, it is very fascinating to observe how choosing to display attractive women in seducing situations has become a problematic challenge in itself.
In the first part, we saw that in her terribly deformed self-portrait, Jenny Saville denounces the pressures of an ideal body while giving an impression of self-hatred at the same time. Vanessa Beecroft and Pipilotti Rist, by deciding to show women responding to contemporary beauty stereotypes, were confronted to critics.
In the second part, all three artworks appeared to be particularly good at blurring the boundaries between subject and object. If Pipilotti Rist plays with her awareness of acting out male fantasy by questioning the location and identity of the viewers, Vanessa Beecroft flirts with controversy and keeps them in an ambiguous situation. As for Jenny Saville, she manipulates the audience with her imposing figure and scale and by returning its gaze.
Finally, in the third part, a new undestanding of the female body was evocated with Jenny Saville and Pipilotti Rist’s works while Vanessa Beecroft’s interest in her performers’ emotions was explored. Beyond any sexualised image, it was also acknowledged that Branded, Sip My Ocean and VB55 reminded us of our human condition: men and women are made of emotional and mortal flesh.
 Naomi Wolf quoted by Carson F.  100 naked women, from 18 to 65 years old, presented barefoot on the stone floor for three uninterrupted hours, wearing sheer panty hose, their heterogeneous bodies lubricated with almond oil  quoted by Carson (1998:121)  quoted by Harding (2005)  Term borrowed from Carson (1998:117)  seven of J.S.’s paintings including Branded, at the Saatchi Gallery.  Interview : “Pipilotti Rist talks about her video installation ‘Show a Leg’ (2001) at the Tramway gallery in an edition of Channel 6 Broadcasting’s television show, ‘Art in Scotland’.” Online resource accessed January 2009 : http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1el2b_pipilotti-rist-show-a-leg_creation
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