September 2016 / Conversation Four Ways
ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In the September column we are please to feature Sheilah Wilson an artist born and raised in Caribou River, Nova Scotia. Her recent work investigates the possibility of history and identity as fictionalized states of becoming. Wilson received her MFA from Goldsmiths College and a BFA from NSCAD University. She is Associate Professor Photography at Denison University, Granville, Ohio, a mother and an artist in residence at Headlands Center for the Arts.
CONVERSATION FOUR WAYS
A conversation was sparked between four artists around ideas brought forward in the recent show Repeat Pressure Until curated by myself at the Ortega y Gasset Projects and the concurrent release of the zine, Mother Mother. The show utilized ideas of insistence as both strengthening through emphasis, and falling apart through over-repetition. The gendered female body is presented as benignly understandable and simultaneously profane. Understood reference points become radical because they imply that all knowns have the potential to be made strange. A space opened up by testing the limits of ideas and materials. The publication, Mother Mother, available through Printed Matter New York, was a venue for artist and writer mothers to translate the act of being a mother via image and text. There were no formal parameters about what the work needed to address. Mother Mother was simply the container in which to see what might emerge. Conversation Four Ways was borne out of a desire to continue the conversation with artists from the show and the zine publication. The idea was to create yet another kind of container that could hold thoughts and ideas in response to questions that I had after working on both the show and publication. Artists participating in the conversation are Dana Hoey (DH), Leeza Meksin (LM) and Carmen Winant (CW) and myself (SW).
SW: I am curious about your relationship to feminism? Can you talk to me about it?
Dana Hoey: I had a critical take on feminism when I was young, although I considered myself a feminist. I was repelled by the focus on victimhood, because I believed men were never, ever going to change and give up patriarchal power, so why bother even complaining about them? My feminist proposition early on (and still now in some ways) is to be rigorously, internally critical and productive, and also to be in a way completely separatist (which is a little silly for a straight person but that’s the way it played out). I now have a better understanding of the need to describe oppression and yes, victimhood, and I am also more aggressive about presenting myself as a feminist - I talk about it all the time, label myself as such when I teach or lecture etc. I do have a problem though, when feminism gets exclusionary regarding trans bodies. I hope we can incorporate the gender futurism of young, wonderful people.
SW: What changed, why did it become something you started to embrace, openly declare yourself as?
DH: I never denied myself as a feminist (always shocked when people do). I just wanted to update what I saw as a self-destructive part of the ideology, and I believe criticism is the key to advancement. I am an “agonist” (I believe in conflict as progress). Definitely as I have aged I’ve gotten more grumpily, classically feminist, because I lost the blinders brought on by straight male favoritism. Ick. Not that fun to report, but true.
CW: My mother has deep roots in feminism, particularly regarding abortion/reproductive rights (an area that became her profession); feminist ideology was threaded into how I grew up. My parents talked about it over dinner, took us to marches on Washington, so forth. I remember holding a sign I made at one such march, around 6 years old, of a wire hanger with a big red strikeout symbol through it. Only later did I realize that this kind of upbringing was somewhat...unusual. Ultimately, it’s informed most everything I do -- relationships, the way I make art and teach, etc. -- and consider myself lucky for the consciousness. But I do have moments (and maybe this says more about my relationship with my mother than anything else) where I find it tricky to untangle my own ideas/thoughts/ political credos from those I grew up learning, those that belong to my mother. My feminism is, unsurprisingly, really identified with the 2nd waver’s, which also puts me out of step with the current moment. In my art and my life, I spend a lot of time and energy trying to reconcile those inner and outer politics.
SW: What do you mean by inner and outer politics?
CW: Right -- I guess “inner” and “outer” politics is not quite so clear. I mean to say that it can be difficult to 1) find my own politics inside of my mother’s influence/reach, and 2) that my feminist politics/brand of feminism feels distinct from those belonging to the current moment. Reconcile these feelings can be a challenge.
SW: What do you see as the current moment of feminism?
CW: This question of what third wave feminism “is” is a huge one, and I imagine, varies greatly depending on who you ask. This is part of the point, no? And perhaps, the problem. Young feminists now doggedly refuse to be defined; undoubtedly pushing back against the essentializing dogma of the 70s-era movement. Certainly there is an emphasis (at least in this country) on power being asserted through self-authorship; an owning of one’s own image and, in fact, one’s own objectification. But this open-endedness also holds problems, nicely defined by bell hooks over fifteen years ago in Feminism is for Everybody: "Lifestyle feminism is the notion that there could be as many feminists as there are women. Suddenly the politics is slowly being removed from the feminism....This way of thinking has made feminism more acceptable because its underlying assumption is that women can be feminists without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the culture." Anyway, it is a thorny issue -- whether or not contemporary feminism should have “rules” or not -- and certainly a single paragraph doesn’t do it justice.
LM: I think that in some ways the different waves of feminism work against the real issue - which is that things are still far from being equal. The qualification of different waves implies discord between various feminists, and diffuses our abilities to fight the patriarchal order. For me feminism has always been a drive for equality, to be considered human, rather than “female.” I often find that the perspective and taste espoused by male artists gets read as universal, as something that all humans can relate to, no matter their gender or sexual orientation. The same is not true for art made by women - it continues to get defined through the gender of its makers.
SW: Yeah, this is something I wonder about. How this potential diffusion or hyper individuality of politicality influences the artmaking? I often get the sense there is a palpable discomfort in the art world for overt politics -- ostensibly a fear of didacticism, but perhaps a fear of commitment to a larger politics. Have you sensed this? How does this affect the way you make work, or does it. What becomes or remains urgent?
CW: For me, it remains urgent to be critical, rigorous, sensitive to the movement’s aims and values. To understand that feminism is and should be hard, that its practitioners must (be willing to) challenge the dominant patriarchal authority. I believe that we must do away with “lifestyle feminism”, including, but not limited to, marketplace feminism, in which the political ideology becomes reduced to a commercial tool. We must not only visualize -- and hopefully realize --strategies for equality, but also, for what Helen Molesworth describes as a kind of “counter-rebellion” (what after all, does ‘equality’ look like within a bankrupt system?). This requires bravery, and real effort. It requires a willingness to be really un-trendy. It requires an understanding of feminism as vastly intersectional. In other words, having underarm hair is not enough.
LM: I agree that the willingness to be un-trendy is crucial to continuing feminist progress. There are people who’d like to portray it as unimportant, passé, counter-productive or downright wrong. Feminism isn’t only about equal pay and equal opportunities for women. It’s also about fighting the general oppression and intense violence geared towards female-bodied humans. Millions of women are raped, beaten, tortured and killed. Often by members of their own families or their boyfriends. The ultra violence that women, and feminine men, are subject to all over the world is the result of their status as inferior second class citizens unworthy of basic human rights. I feel rage every time I read yet another story of a gang rape in India, a disappearance in Mexico, or the recent murder of a 14 year old pregnant girl in Afghanistan who was burned to death by her in-laws. I don’t think it’s possible for women in industrialized nations to have true equality until women all over the world are given human rights and treated with dignity. This may seem as not specific to feminism in art, but I think it’s such a huge issue that it needs to be at the forefront of feminism no matter what professional realm it’s seeking to improve.
SW: You are telling me the urgency still exists, and I agree. It becomes the need and desire to reveal the inequality, racism, social stratification, and institutional biases vis- à-vis gender without re-ingesting it to become a commodity or safely ironic. What artwork do you see emerging that you are encouraged by?
CW: I think a lot about this. No feminist artist can take on every feminist mandate, but the stakes must often go deeper than they tend to do these days. It can be depressing what qualifies (in my mind) as “feminist.” I offer a few examples of work that goes deeper:
The next two photographs are images of the incredible, young performance artist MarcelaTorres, 2016. You are seeing stills from labor performance in homage to her Brasero family. In an exhibition context, one pays the going rate of field labor to view these videos (and there are many more layers to her work). She is brilliant.
Below is a still from my new video featuring Marcela Torres and Res. Res can currently be seen gracing the cover of Matte Magazine, and their incredible work is inside. Watch out for this young genius too.
SW: Leeza, If you had to shoot an arrow through the heart of what unites the work you have chosen, what would it be? And where does that arrow fall in your own work?
LM: The concern with the body and the belief that the body possesses a higher intelligence than the mind.
SW: Will the revolution happen through the body? Do you see action of the body as necessary to unsettle and destabilize?
DH: What a great question. I don’t know for sure - you know I live totally in the woods so it’s hard for me to make an observation about the revolution. In my own life I am committed to being guided by my body. I notice with my young colleagues the same priority, and a far more advanced notion of the meaningless of gender and really, all such categories. I’m a little sad about that. I ate lunch in P-Town today and an elegant butch older women helped my 82 year old mom down some steps; she was a perfect gentleman. Did I mention I loved her? I’d be sad if that kind of play with archetypes died but I don’t think it will, and I am fascinated with the future.
CW: I teach a feminist art history class to undergraduates and we spend a lot of time talking about this issue. The class focuses on the feminist art movement proper -- late sixties through early 80s -- and is sectioned into themes like ‘“the body in trauma”, “the body performs”, “the body in labor”, etc. My students asked very early on: must feminist art be tethered so overtly to the body? Is work about feminist concerns automatically about the female body? What happens when the body itself does not actually appear? It is such an interesting question and one that I think shifts over time. Certainly this must have to do with how the body is being used in culture, and what is being reacted to and upon. For instance, we actually spent a lot of time talking about Mary Kelly and her refusal to depict the female body at all (for some time) in her work, insisting that it has effectively been “used up” and out. The feminists before her were really insistent upon using their bodies, showing them, as they didn’t appear in culture in diverse or dimensional ways. So, I suppose that feminist art can occur without the body, though can never be totally devoid from it (by not showing the body, Kelly’s work was, in some sense, ever more about it).
SW: It seems appropriate to have it come to a discussion of Kelly’s work. I remember as a student being perplexed by it, then getting older and becoming more aware of its power. It was really when I became a mom that I realized it was some of the only work that addressed the identity of mother specifically. As I was curating and formulating language for the recent show, Repeat Pressure Until, at Ortega y Gasset Projects, I experienced an uncertainness about how direct to be about the relationship of mother and artist. I think for fear of being taken less seriously, or being quickly categorized. Kelly was perhaps my first known example of being able to address this in a way that allowed the angst and essentialized vision of motherhood to be pierced and leak out shit, urine, and anxiety. In some ways this was the question I was thinking of in relation to the work in the show; What comes out when you press on these known containers of identity or body?
CW: I likewise grew into Mary Kelly’s work, which I did not relate to at all initially; same with Julia Kristeva, whom I read (believe it or not) for the first time as an undergraduate at UCLA in Mary Kelly’s class. Only a few years later did I begin to understand the power and consequence of a writer -- a female writer -- seriously considering the meaning of bodily emissions, the division between self and its other, the inside turning out (put bluntly for the sake of space!). This came to mean a lot to me as I made work about the conditions of my body in my 20s, and even more so when I had a kid in my 30s. Kristeva writes about the abject not only as that which the body rejects (shit, piss, blood, etc.) but as marking the moment in which we become separated from our mothers, in which the boundary between me and mother, or “(m)other”, is made distinct. Certainly both have something to do with my 6 month old son, who both emits constantly and is a kind of emission from my own body. I don’t know if this is answer to the question of what comes out of the body when pressed on exactly, but rather a brief consideration of the models of thinking for me around it. I don’t always agree with Kristeva -- in fact, I tend towards thinking about abjection as a kind of binding agent between the two of us, mother and son -- but I find her a useful and important guide.
SW: Yes, I was thinking that perhaps the unity of subject is dissolved in some way. Evidence that the solitary subject does not have to be our norm, that the embodied form or subject can hold more than one, become another, become an “in relation to”. How can these unsettling moments, when the Self becomes non-continuos, be examined? How can the marks of this movement, this out of sync time, be made visible? The artists involved in this conversation examine this, as an engagement that is, as Blau DuPlessis states, “Ongoing. Curious. Situated. Rapid. Rabid. Marked with one’s markings. Not uniform. An exposure. Incomplete. Unsafe. Even deplorable.” (Blau DuPlessis 1990: 61) An engagement with no commitment to a single answer. A forever stuttering and hiccuping towards a site of further formation(s) of subject(s).
Dana Hoey is a feminist artist who has exhibited and taught since 1996. She works in photography and video and is represented by Petzel Gallery, NY. She has presented solo museum exhibits at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, The Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, and The University Art Museum at the University at Albany, NY. Her most recent exhibit was a large video installation “Fighters” as part of “Photography in the Expanded Field” at MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA. In 2017 she will present "Five Rings" a fight training event in homage to Eric Garner at the Depe Space residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit. She was professor at Columbia School of Art from 2001 to 2007, and currently is visiting artist at The Cooper Union, NYC and Bard College MFA program. Three books are available on her work, “The Phantom Sex” with essay by Johanna Burton, “Experiments in Primitive Living”, with essay by Maurice Berger, and “Profane Waste” in collaboration with the writer Gretchen Rubin. The persistent questions in her work regard representation, beauty and the possibility of political art.
Leeza Meksin is an interdisciplinary artist, who makes paintings, installations, public art and multiples. Born in the former Soviet Union, she immigrated to the United States with her family in 1989. Meksin received a MFA from The Yale School of Art, a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a joint BA/MA in Comparative Literature from The University of Chicago. She has exhibited her work at Regina Rex Gallery (2011, 2014), Airplane Gallery (2014), Primetime (2013), Adds Donna (2011) and Thomas Erben Gallery (2009). Meksin has created site-specific installations at The Kitchen (2015), BRIC Media Arts (2015), Brandeis University (2014), the former Donnell branch of the New York Public Library (2011), and in a National Endowment for the Arts funded project in New Haven, CT (2012). Her work has been featured in BOMB magazine, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. She is the recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist grant (2015) and the co-founder of Ortega y Gasset Projects, a gallery and artist collective in Brooklyn, NY. Meksin lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University School of Art.
Carmen Winant is an artist and writing working in Columbus, OH. She received her BA from UCLA and Masters degrees in Critical Studies and Fine Arts from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA. In 2010, she was a resident at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Her recent projects include solo shows at Skibum MacArthur (LA) titled "Pictures of Women Working" and at Fortnight Institute (NYC) titled Who Says Pain is Erotic?, an artist book with Horses Think Press titled My Life as a Man. Winant curates, and participates in, a series of experimental lectures titled DISCIPLINE, performed in 2015 at COR&P (Columbus), MoCA Los Angeles, Regina Rex (NYC), Printed Matter (NYC), 356 Mission (Los Angeles), and the University of Cincinnati. She is currently at work on an experimental book about practice.