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Outside is finding its way in. It’s breaking down the walls, girls, in so many ways. | image: “Angus” sculpture, part of the Lady Sasquatch show, Allyson Mitchell

Outside is finding its way in. It’s breaking down the walls, girls, in so many ways. | image: “Angus” sculpture, part of the Lady Sasquatch show, Allyson Mitchell

Ideas

the arts where she is standing getting, showing, and keeping feminist artwork in galleries, archives, universities and elsewhere

by Jude MacDonald | December 12, 2008

Where is “she” standing in the Ontario’s public art galleries, archives, universities and other public institutions? Where has she stood over the last 35 years? How is feminist art defined and different? Has it changed the institutions that house it? Is its history being preserved?

On December 3 and 4, 2008, a two-day symposium addressed “issues, contradictions and paradoxes around the exhibition, acquisition, and preservation of feminist artwork by Ontario public art galleries.” The symposium was called Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic, and was presented by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries. It was organized by independent curator Carla Garnet.

The following is a taste of day two of the symposium.

Suzy Lake: what it feels like to be put on display

Things have really changed, and things have changed for the better. I don’t think the [feminist] project is over.

— Suzy Lake, artist using performance, video and photography

With Art Gallery of Ontario assistant curator of photography Sophie Hackett, artist Suzy Lake discussed her experience and observations of the development of feminist work from the 1960s to present day. Lake brings a lot to such a conversation, and it showed.

There was a slow realization that I might be speaking in a different voice than my male colleagues.

Lake moved from Detroit to Montreal in the late 1960s. Of this shift, she said, “Unlike my radically polarized experience in the States, I did not have to fight to stay in the same place. I could grow. And as an artist, I could investigate what I/we had become. My work turned to the body as a device to understand how this change internalized.”

She spoke of the response of critics, curators, contemporaries and audiences to her early works – then and now. One example: her decision to focus on performance, photography and video has since been explained by theorists and historians as part of women artists’ move to new media “because it had not been staked out by men,” rather than it being a shift Lake and others had made in a contemporary context for their own reasons.

Another example really brought the point of male-centred assumptions in the arts home:

I tried to figure out the difference of why my work was called women’s work, yet [Vito] Acconci masturbating in a gallery under floorboards [in 1972] was called art without gender designation. It was more then that I began to understand issues of audience – who and how work addresses the viewer. And I began to see that the work was seen as female as subject because I was subject matter in the photo, not as a device for meaning.

At the end of this talk, Lake and Hackett discussed the piece Rhythm of a True Space, which showed this year at the AGO. The decisions about subject, location, size, material and context were developed creatively between curators, institution and artist. While some reviewers saw the finished piece as a criticism of the gallery’s renovation, Lake described it as a positive statement, with the images of her sweeping as a reflection of “cleaning one’s own house” and starting again from scratch. The thin cotton slip she wore for the image “has tensile strength.”

It was great to hear what are often seen as weak female attributes and fashions and boring chores described as powerful and positive.

Emelie Chhangur: concrete curating – no. it is opposition

Carla [Zaccagnini] does not make work for experts, she makes it for the curious.

— Emelie Chhangur, assistant director and curator, Art Gallery of York University

Emelie Chhangur is an artist, cultural worker, and curator in Toronto. She is all about process. Listening to her talk about how she approaches the job of pulling shows together for her gallery gave a powerful sense of how feminism can dramatically shift the notion and experience of art. It felt like she could change the world, one exhibit at a time. She works with artists in a very direct and personal way, to such a degree that the line between the roles is blurred or non-existent. Chhangur used her gallery’s most recent show, no. it is opposition, by Brazillian artist Carla Zaccagnini, as an example of this process.

no. it is opposition
no it is oppositi .on

The show’s name began the game, the play, the challenge, the merging and mirroring of roles that brought viewers in as collaborators themselves. Just as the title was a kind of looking glass, the gallery rooms and objects were designed to repeat and reflect themselves, though not exactly. So, walking through the gallery, you would find yourself in the room you had started in. Except this room was somehow different, yet so similar. How? The viewer had to look, then look again, breaking out of the usual straight walk-through to loop through the gallery in a figure eight.

The curator has this to say about artist Carla Zaccagnini, and the relationship the two of them developed:

[T]he artist’s collaborative practice demands a different role from the curator. Consequently, the limits and boundaries of exhibition making are eroded as the roles of artist and curator are inverted and the institution itself is implicated. In the case of no. it is opposition, this situation is complicated by the fact that the artist is also an institutional curator and the exhibition curator is also an artist.

Throughout the exhibition making, their roles are periodically inverted in such a way that the outcome serves as an interpretative tool for the viewers, who themselves now are implicated as collaborators. This is something the viewers discover only in the middle of the exhibition, where they come to a point where the exhibition seems to repeat itself. They are now implicated, having to go both forwards and backwards again, in a situation where the exhibition set-up, the institution, and the viewers themselves are put on view.

Having arrived at the crossroads from where artist and curator have eliminated or inverted their respective powers of legitimation (thus at the question, who legitimates what?), the viewer now assumes equal power in the making of an exhibition and the interpretation of an artist’s work.

During her discussion, Chhangur made it clear that this relationship and blur went even further, to include students in various university departments, woodworkers, archaeologists, airline stewards and, of course, the people who came to see the show, only to become part of it. This was an incredible exploration of a dramatically democratic, participatory art experience.

Words fail. In this case, feminism in art, happily, did not.

Allyson Mitchell: deep lez

Deep Lez is an experiment, a process, an aesthetic and a blend of theory and practice. Deep Lez is right this minute and it is rooted in herstories and theories that came before. It takes the most relevant and capable ideas and uses them as tools to create new ways of thinking while simultaneously clinging to more radical politics that have already happened but definitely aren’t over yet. Part of the deep of Deep Lez is about commitment, staying power and significance. Part of the deep of Deep Lez is about philosophies and theories, as in “wow man, that’s deep.”

Deep Lez uses cafeteria-style mixings of craft, context, food, direct action and human connections to maintain radical dyke politics and resistant strategies. Part quilting bee, part public relations campaign, and part Molotov cocktail, Deep Lez seeks to map out the connections between the second position feminisms that have sustained radical lesbian politics and the current “third wave” feminisms that look to unpack many of the concepts upon which those radical politics have been developed.

— Allyson Mitchell, in her womanifesto, Deep Lez I Statement

The image featured in this article comes from artist Allyson Mitchell’s show, Lady Sasquatch – giant, sexy lady monsters and odd pink animals, cobbled together with 1970s-style craft material. Mitchell mostly works in sculpture, installation and film, though she is also currently curating an exhibition of Judy Chicago’s textile-based work for the Textile Museum of Canada.

Like Chhangur, her energy seemed unstoppable. And fun. Mitchell’s radical, inclusive approach to feminism felt more like a potluck party than a lecture that was good for you. So it’s no surprise that her philosophy, Deep Lez, has been spreading.

The objects and environments that I create are about articulating some of the ideas and imaginings from second-wave feminisms that are so foundational to me, while still remaining committed to an inclusive third wave theory and practice. In a short time, the idea of Deep Lez grew beyond my own practice, and took hold among a variety of local and international communities in a viral way.

This approach quickly caught on outside institutional walls. Deep Lez has found its way to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Camp Trans, a potluck performance night in San Francisco and beyond. With her collaborator, Christina Zeidler, Mitchell has been showing films, performing, and hosting art show-and-tells in the U.S. and Canada.

Yet the sweet infectiousness has also caught the attention of art institutions. Outside is finding its way in. Mitchell has upcoming shows at the McMaster University Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Peterborough.

She ended her talk saying she wants to open a new feminist art gallery: “You are all invited to guest curate, exhibit and certainly come to the opening of the Centre for Fucking Patriarchy.”

Consider yourself invited. Be sure to bring something delicious.

conclusion

If a space can be gendered, then it can be fucked with ... And if a space can be fucked with, then it can be re-gendered.

— Johanna Householder, member of the 1980s satirical feminist performance ensemble, The Clichettes, a founder of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art, professor in the Integrated Media Program at the Ontario College of Art and Design, during an open discussion at the symposium

Conclusion? There’s no conclusion. Just a new appreciation for process – the getting there – and how it continues for feminist art, as it does for feminism elsewhere. And a new sense of how fun that process can be, working together.

It’s breaking down the walls, girls, in so many ways.

The Vancouver Art Gallery is showing WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, until January 11, 2009.

The title of this article was inspired by Maggie Helwig’s novel, Where She Was Standing.

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