Tag Archives: art

The (Female) Artist is Present – Marina Abramovic vs. Maeve Binchy

clearly not an icon: marina abramovic for v magazine

I am not very familiar with Abramovic’s art. I came across her work a few times at art exhibitions and, most recently, in a news article which stated that she does not identify as a feminist, because she never felt she had to struggle more being a woman. Yet this afternoon, as part of the Meltdown Festival in London, she gave a lecture to a women-only audience at the Southbank Centre. Considering her previous comments, I can only assume that this decision came from artistic rather than political motivations. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but in any case, I was intrigued. Continue reading

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Representing Rape Culture – The Dangerous Art of Rafal Karcz

Trigger Warning!

The latest series of works by the Polish artist Rafal Karcz is called “I wanna kill Cindy Sherman” – is it a coincidence that he references a female artist who has been viewed time and time again as a feminist icon problematizing the relation between woman as object and female subjectivity?

cindy sherman "untitled #86" (1981)

Karcz’ entire series (you can find some images here) is rather eclectic: dark, yet rich colours, hip content, psychedelic imagery, some of which could easily be found projected onto the walls at a VICE party. But some of the pictures stick out as more unusual, more disturbing and more revealing of an implicit critique the series may offer, a critique more direct and palpable than the questioning of “the mentality of the contemporary human being and the condition of his emotions“.

all art by rafal karcz "i wanna kill cindy sherman" (2011)

The images I am referring to are seemingly blurry, grainy pictures of young women drunk and/or passed out on the floor, at parties, in bars… These women are clearly the objects of the gaze; the spectator cannot help but become a voyeur at best, an attacker observing his or her prey at worst. It makes you feel uncomfortable, to say the least. Because these women, in their state of vulnerability and defenselessness, are not simply the victims of their own inebriation. They do not exist in a vacuum. They exist within a rape culture that identifies them as the potential victims of sexual assault. The “shot-on-a-cell-phone-camera” aesthetic only adds to this eerie atmosphere of an impending violation. As the observer, you have become complicit and you feel caught, but you cannot prevent your imagination from pursuing the sad narrative to its potentially cruel outcome.

But the damage has already been done. In capturing their lifeless bodies, the women have been turned into objects and anonymous victims. The potential for self-invention and subjectification, which Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits do allow for, has been erased.

Karcz used specially mixed acid-based chemicals to distort the photographs he took on his cheap digital camera – and to kill the “Cindy” in the pictures: the object-like human figures caught in the moment but taken out of their context. To me, however, it seems he channelled Sherman in a different way; in capturing woman as an object of desire and violence, in a constant state of vulnerability – a constant reminder of the dangerous world we unfortunately live in.

Many thanks to Rafal Karcz for providing these images.

Portrait: Sibylle Ruppert (1942-2011)

How strange that I had to read an American book about the incest theme, published in 1987, to discover the German artist Sibylle Ruppert, even though she passed away just this year. Perhaps her death did not generate much attention because she lived very much in seclusion during the last years of her life. Perhaps her art, which I would describe as mix of Hieronymus Bosch and HR Giger (the creator of the original Alien) doesn’t feel very contemporary anymore in an age where art has become either a lot more abstract or a lot more literal.

"la décadence"

I could only find very little information about her online. She doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page (a future project perhaps?). She was born in Frankfurt in 1942 during the height of the 2nd World War and grew up to become an extremely talented artist with a dark soul (the first image she ever drew, at age six, was a fist striking the middle of a face).

She learned ballet in Paris, became a revue dancer barnstorming all over France, but she never turned her back on art. She found inspiration in the great French writers of the morbid and the obscene, creating visual interpretations of the works of de Sade, Bataille, and Artaud, and she dedicated her paintings “Black Light on White Shadow” (see below) to Austrian enfant terrible Thomas Bernhard.

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Her style and themes can be described as traditionally “masculine” as her influences, in that they are grandiose, violent and nauseating. But she also reminds me of the taboo-breaking postmodern literature of Kathy Acker, dealing with sado-masochism and female desire.

"hit something" 1977

You can find the most comprehensive information about her here.

Portrait: Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002)

I was first introduced to Niki de Saint Phalle through my art teacher back in high school, who was a big fan of those “voluptuous feminine qualities” of the artist’s well-known Nana figures. She showed us a documentary about Saint Phalle’s life which, I believe, everyone found rather boring, too esoteric perhaps, or too feminist. I, however, was fascinated, not so much by the brightly coloured, round sculptures my teacher loved so much, but by those wicked collages, the so-called “Shooting Paintings”. Tir à volonté, she called the series from 1960-1963, “Fire at will”.

Niki in action

These works consisted of assembled things, seemingly random artifacts, that hid pockets filled with different-color pigments. The artist then would position them, so that they could be shot at with a rifle. The bullet would explode the pockets, causing the paint to splatter and run all over the collage. Saint Phalle would later describe her motivation as follows:

“In 1961 I shot at daddy, all men, small men, large men, important men, fat men, men, my brother, society, the Church, the convent, the school, my family, my mother, all men, daddy, myself, men. I shot because it was fun and gave me a great feeling. I shot because I was fascinated to see the painting bleed and die. I shot for the sake of this magical moment. It was a moment of scorpion-like truth. White purity. Victim. Ready! Take aim! Fire! Red, yellow, blue, the painting weeps, the painting is dead. I have killed the painting. It has been reborn. War without victims.” (Kempel, Ulrich: The Political Universe in the Art of Niki de Saint Phalle)

Not only is this the statement of a visionary artist, it is also the testimony of a woman, a woman who had to deal with and overcome immense restrictions and suffering at the hands of the men in her life, as well as her health, her faith…

Nike de Saint Phalle was born in 1930 close to Paris and grew up in New York. She got married at the tender age of eighteen and had two children. The marriage was a happy one as long as it lasted, according to her former husband Harry Mathews, but recurring illnesses turned her into an invalid for long periods of time. She suffered a nervous breakdown and underwent electroshock therapy, and she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism in the late 1950’s, all of which affected her marriage as well as her artistic development. She and Mathews separated in the early 1960’s, around the same time as she started firing at canvases.

Harry Mathews in an interview from 2008:

“During all that period of illness I had to take over everything. I thus developed a habit of trying to run her life for her – something that, when she was healthy again, she didn’t need or like. The subsequent hostility towards men, and me, began expressing itself at this point, and it manifested itself in her work […].”

While Mathews can tell only his side of the story, I see a certain truth at the core of his statement: the artist’s frustration about her lack of agency, which was certainly heightened by her state of illness. At the same time, however, one needs to take into account the constraints placed on her by the society of the 1950s, her conservative family and her catholic upbringing and education, followed by the difficulties of being a female artist at a time that was not at all welcoming towards women’s endeavors outside the home, artistic or otherwise. Later in her life, Saint Phalle also came out about the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her own father.

Niki as an icon of female empowerment

In order to attain her empowerment, she seized a powerful tool: a weapon with the ability to kill all of what was holding her down. However, she did not resort to brute violence, appropriating “the militaristic tools of the patriarchy”; instead she “shot” a painting which only came alive after being shot. The aim of the shootings thus became not only a symbol of her oppression, but also a stand-in for the artist herself who, in the liberating act of shooting, killed herself only to be revived in the process: the (re-)birth of an artist. Her majestic, larger-than-life Nanas can be seen as the result of a successful healing process, generated by the power of creation and destruction, the assertive act of reclaiming agency.