Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Terrains of the Body.

The full title of the Whitechapel Gallery's current show is Terrains of the Body:Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It's the kind of title, and the kind of museum name, that seems to provoke a certain type of man, normally one who thinks he's making a hilarious and original point, to ask, in mock or genuine outrage, "Museum of Women! Why isn't there a Museum of Men?"

We've seen a very clear example of this kind of behaviour in the last few days when the odious and oily toad Piers Morgan criticised the Women's March in much the same way. Well, the reason there was a Women's March and not a Men's March is because the US has just elected a sexist, openly proud sexual abuser to one of the highest offices on the planet and because, historically, men have had a better deal of it than women. Especially men like Piers.

The reason there's a National Museum of Women in the Arts is very similar. Men have traditionally been hugely over-represented in the arts world. If you doubt this make yourself a list of all the female artists you've heard of and then one of all the male artists. Obviously as subjects, particularly nude ones, and 'muses' women have been pretty well represented but what the Whitechapel show aims to do is present female photography from the perspective of both subject and object. Female artists aiming their cameras at female bodies to express identity, communicate experiences, and give life to imaginations. Seems pretty admirable to me and along with recent Photographers' Gallery shows like Feminist Avant-Garde of the 70s and Simon Fujiwara's Joanna it all helps to go some way towards creating a necessary corrective to a prevailing hegemony.

If that didn't piss off the alt-right apologists enough many of the seventeen artists exhibited here are foreigners too. Haven't they heard? Brexit means Brexit! Five continents are represented in these photos all showing women as both observers and protagonists. But are the photos any good? Well, like most other collections, some are and some aren't. They're certainly difficult to take snaps of without reflections of either yourself or other works in the background!

Nan Goldin's Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, New York City (1983) attempts, and succeeds, to portray an intimate yet uncompromising private life moment. The body language speaks louder even than the expression on Nan's face. It's hard to know what to make of German photographer Candida Hofer's Palazzo Zenobio Venezia III (2013, below). It has more in common with the widescreen architectural surveys of her compatriots Andreas Gurksy and Thomas Struth than the other artists on show here and, as such, despite being pleasant enough, is something of an outlier here.

Justine Kurland's Waterfall Mama Babies (2006) seems to be informed by rural idylls, visions received in the wilderness, covens even. She claims influence from Julia Margaret Cameron whose pioneering role as a female photographer looms large over this exhibition. Kolobrzeg, Poland, May 23, 1992 by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra is an uneasy portrait of females who are no longer kids but not quite adults. When discussing with my friend Claire, whose company I had the pleasure of enjoying on this cultural visit, which one of these photos I'd have on my wall it was decided that this would definitely be the most inappropriate.

Also from Holland Alkmaar born Hellen van Meene presented us with a series of untitled portraits. The one above, taken in 1999, appears to be a warm, relaxed, snapshot taken casually but is in fact painstakingly planned and executed. Me and Claire discussed Janaina Tschape's He Drowned In Her Eyes As She Called To Follow Him (Capri Interior) (also 1999) at some length. The hyper-realism appealed to both of us. It really captures the aesthetic qualities of the cold marble floor and the beautiful turquoise colour of the model's dress. It was at this point that I realised that maybe complimenting a sitter on their dress in a theoretically feminist show might've been missing the point a bit. Still, nice dress though. But what's she got on her hand? We looked for ages but couldn't work that one out.

Probably the biggest name in the show was Marina Abramovic and, contrary as ever, she's used this chance to pay homage to one of the men in her life. Her father. A Yugoslav partisan in World War II. Eve Sussman and her collaborative team Rufus Corporation are represented by a freezeframe from their 80 minute video The Rape of the Sabine Women (2005). The still of Greek actress Themis Bazaka seated by the deck of the modernist Lanaras House near Athens offers an odd sense of perspective and is the presence of the cage a rather obvious, even slightly clunky, metaphor? At least Themis isn't in the cage!

Icelandic Love Corporation sound like purveyors of tastefully pedestrian house music for dull wine bars in Putney so it was fitting that their work Where Do We Go From Here? (2000) alienated me at first. I felt a little uncomfortable at seeing a grown woman with bright red lipstick wearing soft white mittens and a bonnet more suitable for a babe-in-arms. It was Claire who pointed out to me this may've been the intention of the artists. I'm a bit slow on the uptake at times.

The South Korean Nikki S Lee, in her 'Projects' series, adopted the dress, gestures, and styles of diverse American subcultures. From Buckeye trailer park dwellers to friends and followers of Queensbridge Houses hip-hop duo Mobb Deep. It asks, intentionally, a lot of questions about cultural appropriation and in both style and execution owes not a small debt to the work of Cindy Sherman.

Your hair just doesn't fall like that of the model in Daniela Rossell's Medusa (1999). On the surface of it an idealised portrait, a masquerade even, but further investigation reveals it to be slightly disturbing. Who or what is the person with the infant's body and the grown man's head tied up in some native American shawl lying next to Medusa on the bed? What does it all mean? It's intriguing. A photographic counterpoint to the surrealist paintings of Dorothea Tanning.

The exhibition comes to a close with a look at the, often dark, history of the female body as a political and cultural background. Arguments about veils, hijabs, and niqabs today just one example of how this is as relevant as ever. Adriana Varejao's Qualquer Coisa (1998, above) shows a painted, possibly tattooed, hand reaching through an opening in a white background. The motif on the hand is based on historical Chinese export porcelain, something Brazilian Varejao regularly incorporates into her work as an emblem of the Portuguese colonial trade that did so much to shape her homeland.

The fact that Iranian born visual artist Shirin Neshat chooses to live in New York to work speaks volumes about opportunities for women in Iran although the work represented in this group show, On Guard (1998) is, sadly, a bit weak. That certainly can't be said for Mwangi Hutter (husband and wife Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter) and their Shades of Skin series from 2001. The welts on the back are upsetting to look at and speak of centuries of slavery and female servitude. As women of colour will no doubt be feeling the brunt of recent political developments as well as hopefully being at the forefront of the resistance it's an appropriate and powerful way to close out a small but compelling show.

If you, like Piers Morgan, are the sort of man who thinks that giving women the same freedoms men already have somehow emasculates you then you're clearly a very very weak man in the first place. Piers Morgan may think feminists hate him because he's a man but, if I can be so bold as to speak on behalf of women for one brief moment, I think they just hate him because he's a moron and a twat.

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