The women-only exhibition, I Touch Myself, by five Latvian women artists – Ingrīda Pičukāne, Rasa Jansone, Inga Meldere, Eva Vēvere and Anda Magone – was exhibited to museum-going audiences at the Latvian National Museum of Art from the 9th of March to the 23rd of April, 2017. The show was curated by Jana Kukaine, whose book Daiļās mātes. Sieviete. Ķermenis. Subjektivitāte (The Beautiful Mothers. Woman. Body. Subjectivity) was released by the publishing house Neputns in 2016. An all-women team and a title which borrows itself from Luce Irigaray’s quote “You become whatever you touch”, promised an attempt to interpret touch, not only through the vocabulary of sexuality, but also as a “precondition for identity construction”.[i]
Anda Magone’s photographs from the cycle Twins (2006-2016) is a result of a decade-long project, where the artist has collaborated with her friend and artist living in Germany, Ieva Lando Jansone. One large-scale digital print, and numerous contact print copies in black and white, show both artists in various environments, but mostly at home, posing naked for the camera. According to Magone, the impulse for the first photo session was “to be photographed naked”[ii] every time they met, in order to see how their bodies aged and changed. This durational life-affirming performative work, lasting for 10 years and resulting in photo portraits, celebrates female friendship and intimacy. At the same time, it documents traces of time – how bodies change due to aging, childbirth and motherhood, which are all part of female experiences.
A similarly autobiographical and diaristic impulse is revealed in sketch albums made between 2014 and 2017 by Inga Meldere. Her visual diaries in tempera and oil are reflections on the artist’s “body, relationships, sexuality, daily observations and feelings”.[iii] Many critics have seen the diary format as a legitimate autobiographical form for women, illustrating that women have kept diaries for centuries and have done so to a greater extent than men. In feminist discourse, private writing is seen as a medium that affords women a place to express their feelings about the limitations placed on their lives more fully, or the different standards used to evaluate women and their place in society. For example, Adrienne Rich asserts: “diaries are profoundly female and feminist [in] genre.”[iv] The diary is often also coupled with the confessional. Rita Felski finds the confessional discourse an especially useful category of discussion because it “exemplifies the intersection between the autobiographical imperative to communicate the truth of unique individuality”[v], and therefore the most important features of the diary form are its authenticity and truthfulness. In this aspect, Meldere’s work resonates Magone’s photographic series previously mentioned, because a diary also reveals an individual the way they are, which is similar to being naked, uncovered or shielded by clothes and, is thus, more open and vulnerable. A diary is usually meant for private reading or viewing only, and is not necessarily anticipated to be read by a wider audience. Meldere’s sketch albums, too, are not meant as finished works (traditionally, oil on canvas), but rather they present a compilation of fleeting impressions or feelings of the day, not articulated verbally, but by a brushstroke.
However, there is a difference in terms of individual agency, control or ownership between creating yourself as a “sight-to-be-looked-at”, to borrow John Berger’s terminology, and being made into an object, which someone else enjoys. Criticism of stereotypes surrounding images of women have been central to several disciplines, including feminist film studies, feminist work in cultural studies, visual culture theory, post-colonial theory, queer theory and feminist critiques of psychoanalysis. The emphasis in feminist analysis is upon how women are “objectified”, that is, made into an object, judged solely on appearance and according to specific (often-male-defined) standards of beauty. By contrast, their actions, being and thought, are disregarded and thought to be less important. Feminist criticisms of objectification claim that this process degrades men and women’s perceptions of who women are and ought to be.[vi] There are a number of industries which contribute towards continuous efforts to conform to these standards: cosmetics, grooming, the beauty industry, the fashion industry, and, of course, the publishing industry for publishing beauty and lifestyle magazines.[vii]
This aspect of stereotyping is touched upon by Ingrīda Pičukāne in her video performance entitled I am Beautiful, (2017). In this video, the artist filmed herself over the course of a month proclaiming “I am beautiful!” into the camera; however, the last video entry ends with a slogan saying “I am great!” Pičukāne admits to trying this repetitious task for raising self-confidence after following recommendations from a woman’s magazine. The artist appeared to be wearing no make-up, presenting herself and in her home environment. In terms of the pattern, the video is reminiscent of Marina Abramovic’s performance Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975), where she combs her hair forcefully, without pause, for more than fifty minutes repeating the mantra “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful”. Although both works are intended to critique society and culture, Pičukāne’s video can be seen as a self-testing tool to ascertain whether there will be “any external and internal changes induced by this activity”.[viii]
Pičukāne also had another work in this exhibition – a short video entitled The Scream (2017), consisting of women screaming into the camera as a gesture of being “unconstrained by social expectations and gender standards”.[ix] This work, also, quite literally resonates with another of Abramovic’s performances, AAA-AAA (1978), where she and her partner Ulay screamed intensively, if not aggressively, at each other for 15 minutes, at times losing their voices. Scream as a form of unleashed energy was also utilised by Pičukāne. Although in terms of the artistic vocabulary this particular choice seemed like nothing extraordinarily new, the scream of many women obtained a new meaning through the lens of feminist discourse. The scream symbolises the return to one’s true self “transferring the contemporary woman from the civilised world to an archaic and wild state”,[x] but it is also often the sound, which accompanies childbirth. It is a bodily reaction not only to pain, but also a breathing technique, which can help during this process. Thus, the scream of numerous women can bring up a totally new context; one of birth – both physical and spiritual.
It must be noted that her video, The Scream, was paired with an object called The Trumpet of Silence (2017) made of veneer, foam, paper and rubber, which offered its audience an opportunity to scream into it. A trumpet is not only a musical instrument, but can also be a tool to attract one’s attention or to raise an alarm, like in the case of ‘trumpets for war’. Yet, Pičukāne’s trumpet functions in the complete opposite way; the scream is inaudible, since the sound is absorbed. As a mechanism that turns one’s voice down or completely silences it, The Trumpet of Silence serves as a powerful reminder of the voice and agency of women that has been silenced by the system, by politics, culture and society. On an associative level, The Trumpet of Silence also evokes the silent scream of the suffering mother in Bertold Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children (especially the timeless photograph where Helene Weigel plays Mother Courage).
One of the most eye-catching works of the exhibition was an installation of wooden shelves filled with glass jars of preserved food by the artist Rasa Jansone. As an artist, Jansone has been known to touch on the subject of female experiences due to her series of large-scale paintings of children and close-ups of mothers. This time, in a work entitled Diet (2016-2017), Jansone switched to more of a non-traditional media, preparing approximately 400 glass jars containing home-made food. Jansone grounds her work in the experience of her grandmother and later her mother, who spent the last days of summer making pasteurised food to survive through the winter. The jars are adorned with labels which do not reveal their ingredients or the year of product contained. Instead, they are inscribed with quotes from literary works and conversations, associating the work with “scripto-visual” techniques which present work in image-text or object-text form. ‘Scripto-visual’ as a concept was developed by art historian Griselda Pollock to refer to Brechtian strategies of montage, yet it was also a concept that feminism was associated with in the mid-1980s.
The last work in the exhibition was a 16-minute long video by Eva Vēvere entitled Circa (2017). The work is implemented as a poetic reference to Vēvere’s personal notes and to Luce Irigaray’s quote: “You are moving. You never stay still. You never stay. You never “are”. How can I say you, who are always the other? How can I speak you, who remain in a flux that never congeals or solidifies?”[xi] At the centre of the video there is a female body, at times two bodies, which look as though they are moving forward when, in fact, they remain in the same place. This illusion of movement comes to stand as a symbol for necessity or an incapability to move. Similarly to Pičukāne’s Trumpet of Silence, Vēvere’s work also addresses the invisible restrictions and limitations that make one remain still, contrasting it with the self-dictated necessity to move on.
Overall, the exhibition can be labeled as ‘feminist’ due to its topics related to physical and spiritual female experiences, and due to its rejection of traditional media, embracing video, performance, installation and photography. Yet not all works have an overtly feminist message. Karen Hindsbo writes in The Beginning is Always Today: Contemporary Feminist Art in Scandinavia (2013) that “in trying to explain what we mean by ‘feminist art’, it is important to distinguish it from ‘art created by women’. These categories can overlap, but not necessarily. Feminist art can be characterised as artistic practices dealing with feminist issues. One need not be female to engage in feminism or make feminist art. Many men have declared themselves to be feminists. Today’s feminist artists pay as much attention to themes such as stereotypes, power, subordination, minorities, culture, history and rights, as to the themes related to gender and gendered constructions”.[xii] Seen in this light, the question of whether feminist art can be defined as ‘art about, by and for women’ still remains.
As such, the concept of art “informed by feminism”[xiii] can be suggested as a more reasonable choice to define these steps of Latvian artists towards certain aesthetics, topics and tropes. ‘Art informed by feminism’ is a complex form of cultural analysis, which looks at the many factors in art production and art reception and moves the discussion of feminist art away from its association with a label, the gender of the artist, a particular type of art, a category of art-making, or a feminist reading, thus offering a different approach to knowledge produced by women and about women.
[ii] The exhibition’s leaflet.
[iv] Joanne Tidwell. Politics and Aesthetics in the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Routledge, 2008, p.36
[vi] The supporting materials on feminism were provided by the international feminist art journal n.paradoxa’s mass open online course available at http://nparadoxa.com/.
[vii] Or Instagram as a social networking site, which is often used as a self-promotional and self-branding platform.
[viii] The exhibition’s leaflet.
[xii] Karen Hindsbo in The Beginning is Always Today: Contemporary Feminist Art in Scandinavia. Sorlandets Kunstmuseum,2013, p. 193
[xiii] The supporting materials on feminism were provided by the international feminist art journal n.paradoxa’s mass open online course available at http://nparadoxa.com/