Does gender matter?
Radio Channel 1, Poland, March 2012
Does gender matter? Today we're focused on visual arts. Art is a she. Or is she? Does gender matter - for an artist? Please stay with us and we'll try to clarify the matter.
[a song To Be A Woman]
Though today, we won't talk about making pancakes, as did the song, we will - about peeling potatoes. But most of all, we will talk about women - contemporary visual artists. Before we get to our times, however, an art historian, Ewa Toniak, PhD, will tell us a little about the beginnings of Women's Art.
- Ewa Toniak, PhD: It was in the seventies, the years of the Feminist Revolution. There was a collective need, then, to talk about self-expression in the patriarchal culture that we live in. The dominant culture. The culture we are bound to exist in. The one we have to carve in with a chisel. To win our living space.
It started with American and French feminists. What is very interesting is that Polish artists, such as Natalia Lach-Lachowicz or Ewa Partum or even the generation-older Maria Pninska-Beres, took, in the late seventies, part in the most prominent exhibitions of female art in Europe and the States. Their art, talking about the experience of femininity, of women's place in the world, of bodyness, was very well-perceived there. Yet, these same artists where living in a void here in Poland. Firstly, it's hard to stay whether Women's Art or Feminist Art applies here - though I think Ewa Partum would consider herself a Feminist, that she does, in fact, do Feminist Art. She is most clear-oriented of the three. Natalia is always distanced.
Let me tell you an anecdote: in the seventies, one of the key Feminist activists, Lucy Lippard, wrote to Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, enclosing the Feminist Manifesto of Gisela Kaplan. She asked, or even prompted Natalia to become the leader of the Central and Eastern European Feminist Movement. But was there a Feminist Movement to be found here? Surely not in the seventies. Natalia herself talks about it, ironising on this correspondence which, what I find symbolic, was flushed away by the Odra river during a harrowing flood of the eighties. So we didn't even what did Lucy Lippard actually wrote, what was the actual letter about.
We, art historians dealing with artists from the period, dealing with feminist artists of the seventies, have trouble defining what it was - was it Women's Art that they were doing? If so, then there should be more artists doing it. There should be a group. Only now do we have the tools to interpret the narratives that artists wove into their art in the seventies.
We will find artists that surely weren't aware and didn't practice, wouldn't even think of practicing Women's Art: Alina Szapocznikow, for example. Still, we can talk about issues of bodyness, sexuality and illnesses in their works. It seems to me that to say all women have to practice Women's Art would be an over-statement. That would be a generalization to say that just because they're women, they belong. To practice Women's Art requires a certain consciousness of the limitations inherent in being a woman in patriarchal culture. To play with these limitations, to look for a language to express them, for spaces where these works can be shown and examined [is central to being part of the movement].
-But Women's Art, that's an issue of the nineties in Poland, not so?
- Ewa Toniak, PhD: It seems to me that female artists became really aware of themselves at the beginning of the XXI century in Poland. That is already Post-Feminism. These young artists are aware of the cultural limitations of being a woman, of her role in patriarchal culture. They make it their weapon. They are deeply aware of their image, they don't shy away from the masquerade of femininity, the dressing up, the make-up. They treat their bodies as texts of culture. And they're aware of it.
-A perfect example of a contemporary, self-aware female artist is Agnes Janich. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, who uses photography, film, multimedia installations and performance. We can see her current show, I Hate My Body When You're Gone, in the Refleksy Gallery in Warsaw. Please listen to how she answered our most important question today.
-Do you feel gender matters for an artist?
-Agnes Janich: I think it matters for a human being. Artists living in the XXI century are fortunate: many doors have been opened by our predecessors. Still, 80% of them remain to be opened by us. I create as a human being, not specifically as a female artist - though I don't think it's a shame to be female, of course. I find it vital to remember that we don't have equal chances yet. Our way of seeing the world is different then men's so we will always walk parallel paths.
-Do you identify with the term: Women's Art, remembering it's not just a descriptive phenomenon in art criticism?
-Agnes Janich: On the one hand, this label forces itself upon me: I make projects about bodyness, about relationships. I am a woman. I use my body. Both Body Art and Performance Art are, by definition, close to what is described in reviews or critical essays as Women's Art or Feminist Art. I'm not a fan of labels. Even though I'm definitely a Feminist, possibly even a Radical one if we judge by Polish standards [laugh], I still think most of all I am a human being who believes people deserve certain rights. This label is just as imperfect as any other one. Still, I don't mind.
I would say I'm always inspired by my very private, intimate feelings. Be it Annihilation, the experience of being an object, which I used to deal with a long time ago, or Family, the works are always drawn on my personal emotions. Usually negative ones, traumas I need to overcome. After the initial concept phase, I conduct a long, 2-5 year research, during which I look to Art History or Feminist Theory. They are meaningful to me, but what is crucial is the process of observing the world, of understanding what really happens in myself and others around me. So the hands-on sociological research is important, still, the inspiration always comes from within.
-When did you decide to deal with Visual Arts?
-Agnes Janich: I was seventeen. I realized that being an Art Historian, an academic, can not, as I originally thought, be meaningful to me. I found my only way of being in the world is to do Art. Again. I think it was an intuitive decision, one that has really been made in me, not by me. Then, of course, things get tough, but thanks to this they're so much more interesting! Being a female artist now rather than in 200 years is so much more enthralling. There has been a certain number of Picasso's and Caravaggio's, a few, a dozen or a few dozens depending on how you look at it. Great male artists - and great female artists? Few, or less than few.
-How did you arrive at the topic of bodiness that we can now see in Galeria Refleksy, I Hate My Body When you're Gone?
-Agnes Janich: This project is pretty abstract in its form. My works are always open for interpretation. It can read as a project on loneliness, on abandonment. It can also be read about a pondering on the absence of someone, a void in the place of parents or a female friend, an empty, uninhabited role. Then it can be read as project on loneliness and the inability to deal with one's body, on channeling emotional violence one is subject to into one's body.
-True, these photographs are really violent!
-Agnes Janich: Yes. So it is. The violence in them is a hyperbole of the violence I observe, fall prey of or inflict. My optic is focused on my interest, that what touches me the most. It seems common around artists, to focus on one specific topic. For me, whether I deal with Annihilation, Love or the Family, this topic is violence.
-What is interesting is that your character seems to be predominantly be set as a victim?
-Agnes Janich: I wonder about that sometimes. On the one hand, reading those works one can't forget about that they are done be a woman. Even though I get feedback from male viewers that they identify, that this how they felt after being abandoned, and I'm thrilled to hear that, the works are done by a woman. She might disagree with being a victim, and I most certainly disagree. It is probably evident in my career. Still, in the male-female dichotomy in society, it is usually the woman who's the victim. Then again, I'm Polish, raised and living all over the world, but very Polish. And there is a paradigm of a victim that is inherent to Polish culture. I think that helps me see that a woman very often is a victim - as a mother, as a person with a career in a couple of equal careers. I don't complain about it at all, it's just a context here that I find interesting to explore.