In so many aspects of our culture – fashion, film, all forms of art in fact – the human body, particularly the female form, has become sexualised. To many feminists, the idea of the male gaze, for example, where men gain pleasure from looking upon a passive female subject, is symptomatic of male oppression and female objectification.
It’s no wonder that in the era of the #metoo and “Time’s Up” movements, together with International Women’s Strike and suchlike, all-female art shows have become popular forums in which to address such issues.
When curator Camilla Cole discovered, by chance, Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem, I Sing the Body Electric, she was struck by the way the poem celebrates the physical body in an ungendered and unsexual way. The poem takes different parts of the human body, extolling each and arguing that the body and the soul are inseparable. This defied the prevalent Christian idea that the body corrupts the soul.
Whitman also included a number of female attributes, most notably emotions, into the mix of the body, and therefore the soul. As this year marks the bi-centenary of Whitman’s birth, Cole couldn’t resist tying his democratising of the body to what women have been objecting to in terms of gender and racial discrimination.
She has assembled the works of 14 female artists from around the world, with an age range of 18-60, all dealing with parts of the body in their own distinctive ways.
For example, Whitman refers to the “naked meat of the body”. This influenced Danish artist Marie Munk to create the sculpture Block, above, that consists of silicon mixed with minced meat. We’re all made of naked flesh, no matter who we are, is its message.
“The idea behind this show is to create a new angle on it and to see that we’re all the same under it all within the naked flesh needs of the body as Whitman says,” Cole tells me. “They (the artists) are saying there are other elements to us and it’s not just feminine ideals. None of the artists in the show are saying particularly feminine things about their boobs or anything like that. It’s actually quite the opposite.”
French artist and photographer Alix Marie’s works are the most risqué in the show. Among her exhibits are rubber representations of sex toys made inside out that ask us to think about how technology, often devised by male engineers, can influence ideas on sex. In Dirty Dancing, above, she reinterprets a scene in the movie of the same name in which two female pairs of legs in tights try to mirror each other dancing. In her version, the legs are in the same pair of tights and make the dance impossible. She’s referencing gender stereotypes portrayed in art generally down the years.
On the subject of women’s tights, Enam Gbewonyo who describes herself as a textile and performance artist, has made a study of hosiery. A Brit, she is the daughter of Ghanaian parents and tells me that it’s only recently that lingerie brands have catered for women of colour.
Her artwork, Teetering on the edge of visibility, the invisible disguised as visible IV, is decked with black mesh tights which black women in the west were restricted to wear. Beneath the textile are miniature fashion photos depicting the seedy side of the hosiery industry in which white women’s bodies are overtly sexualised. There are also photos of her mother who, as a nurse, wore tights as an obligatory part of her uniform. Their chocolate colour clashed against her skin tone. It’s a multi-layered piece involving notions of beauty, womanhood and how black women coped with marginalisation.
We hear a lot these days about Artificial Intelligence and how it will change our lives both for the better and the worse. Another Danish artist, Stine Deja has contributed an installation, Hard Core, Soft Body 2, comprising a video of a fragmented body that rotates and consists of a contact lens, a spine and a liver. She’s asking what our bodies are going to be like in the future and at the point the terminology of the binaries isn’t going to be male or female but male or cyborg. A disturbing thought. The screen is mounted in gravel which, as with other of her works, symbolises a graveyard. It’s goodbye to humanity as we know it or perhaps goodbye period.
The other artists featured are Juliette Mahieux Bartoli, Ingrid Berthmoine, Bex Isley, Laila Majid, Stacie McCormick, Fern O’Carolan, Cherelle Sappleton, Karolina Stellaki, Rebecca Wallis and Katarzyna Perlak, whose sculpture Skintight is the image at the top and comprises cotton pads and wipes that have been used for applying and removing make-up, questioning the mask that females wear on a daily basis.
Camilla Cole has brought together a lot of works that you rarely, if ever, get to see. It’s a diverse collection that makes interesting points in innovative ways. It’s showing at Gallery 46, a Londonewcastle project space housed in two Georgian houses knocked together with eight rooms on three floors. It’s tucked away behind the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, on 64 Ashfield Street, London E1 2AJ.
The exhibition runs until 28 August and all images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.