On Saturday 9th May 2015 #NoFilter was performed to the public within the Usher Gallery in Lincoln City, United Kingdom. With strong influence from Marina Abramovic’s practice to utilise and push the physical boundaries of the human body as seen in her performances, The Artist is Present (2010) and Rhythm 0 (1974). #NoFilter was based on extensive research into the representation of women in art, poetry and the modern media. Using artworks and sculptures of women found within the Usher Gallery, starting with the inspiration of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty and fertility; we created a performance that explores the struggles that women face to achieve a perfect version of themselves.
During our exploration of women presented in art and poetry throughout the ages of time, we have come to realise a clear reflection of how women are seen in today’s modern media. Often seen as limited and unrealistic the depictions of women as domestic housewives, parents, sex objects and their dependency on men have been clear in our findings. There is also a very noticeable theme that is missing or under-represented which is the role of working women within society. Focusing on the “physical and mental limits in the works that ritualize the simple actions of everyday life’ (Lisson Gallery, 2015) as a woman; Abramovic’s practice of allowing her body to be exposed to pain became a key inspiration for our performance development.
Pushing our own physical limits, our two hour durational piece wished to highlight the ugliness behind beauty as well as challenge the under-representation of the working woman demonstrated through our physical expression. We have taken influence from our own perspective as young women and the process we force ourselves to go through to try and make ourselves appear more beautiful. Exhibiting not only the image of a woman within the gallery, but our own individual process to achieve our role as women in the first world society.
(Site specific performance)
Site Specific performances should create an alternative perspective of the site and give “it an unsuspected power, and places the audience at an entirely different relationship to the text, the place and the purpose for being there” (Pearson, 2010, 7). The Collection Museum and Usher Gallery exhibits work and artefacts found and made within Lincolnshire. The nature of this site meant that we followed a code of conduct against certain limitations such as use of liquids within the space. Respecting our site was essential in our devising process and knowing specific rules that the gallery had in place enabled us to work around any obstacles that we encountered. Performing in a site filled with historical content allowed room for new myths to be “imagined, created and acted out” (Goroian, 2001, 234). There are many ways in which a site can be given a new purpose and it does not have to involve a huge space. In a museum or gallery it is possible to bring a new interpretation to the art or artefact and its purpose within the site rather than perform an entire room’s content or the building.
John Gibson’s sculpture, “Venus kissing Cupid” (1930), featured within the Usher Gallery was the focal point within our performance. We were drawn to the piece through its display of the woman’s physicality and the maternal embrace between a woman and child. Researching the relationship between the two Gods I discovered that they are thought to be mother and son. With this new context of the statue in mind our interpretation of the piece, which was initially focused on Venus’ breasts, changed and appeared to be a more respectful image, showing a loving relationship between mother and son.
Referring to the story of Cupid and Psyche, however, aspects of Venus’s jealous and dark nature can be exploited. It is said that the goddess of love grew jealous of the attention psyche was gaining from her on-lookers, therefore she asked Cupid to shoot her with one of his arrows so that Psyche would fall in love with a monster. Once Cupid saw how beautiful Psyche was, however, he “dropped the arrow meant for her and pricked himself, and fell in love with her” (About.com, 2015). This story clearly displays the ugliness in physical beauty, represented through the envious nature of Venus, which can often be seen in modern society. Jealousy, envy and even hatred are closely linked to beauty in that many people can feel it toward others, or that individuals feel it towards themselves for not being the society’s deemed version of what is beautiful. Starting our process by asking questions such as, what defines beauty? What makes someone beautiful? And is beauty biological or created? These questions were an important starting point in our rehearsal process.
The cliché of wearing make up to enhance beauty is a given, but what I wanted to explore was how a person becomes a more beautiful version of themselves; the process of creating something beautiful. It seems as though there is no desire for women, or men for that matter, to explore this process of creating beauty. Let’s say how many hours a super model spend in the gym? But wouldn’t it be interesting to smell the stench left after that work out, yet all we see is this perfected image on the screen, often edited to make the model skinnier than they already are. It makes you wonder whether true desirable beauty displayed all over the media is realistic, if these ‘perfect’ faces shown all over our magazines are being edited, is the modern idea of beauty an unrealistic and unreachable target. Women desiring to be these icons that they see seem to be chasing an unattainable prize.
In the first stages of our performance’s development we wanted to challenge the male gaze that is presented in the artwork found in the Usher Gallery. Therefore we focused our research mostly on feminist performance artists and researchers to help us develop an understanding about how we can interpret work from this angle.
Laura Mulvey discusses the role of the woman within society and in particular, how the role is demonstrated from the male’s perspective within cinema:
“In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed,
with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness”
Mulvey explains her point further and argues that within cinema women have always been portrayed as “signifier for the male other” (Mulvey, 1975). It is featured in many genres of films, whereby the main male character seeks his prize (the leading women role) and typically wins and thus lives out “his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command” (Mulvey, 1975) of the woman. Sigmund Freud’s initial thoughts about scropophilia can be identified within our study of the female representation seen within the Usher Gallery. This notion of “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey, 1975) best describes the objectification of women within cinema and society.
This idea that the female is simply there to be looked at by others is something we wished to develop further. Annie Sprinkle’s presented herself as “the complete sex object [who was] empowered by her sexuality” (Warr et al, 2000, 110) in her performance Post-Porn Modernist Show (1992). Sprinkle’s relaxed approach toward the topic of sex and sexuality presented in her work got us questioning whether we wanted to challenge the male perspective on women, or whether the women’s view on herself and of other women. The fact that Sprinkle openly discusses her sex organs as if they are what defines her as a woman was something that we wanted to deter away from, yet take a small influence in our own rehearsal process.
Self-image is prominent in the media in particular advertisement that constantly attack the female physique and appearance. We discussed the influence of media on society, not only women but men too based on Freud’s idea of the mirror phase within child development. Freud’s explanation of the mirror phase being the phase upon which a child recognizes themselves in the mirror. He describes the occurrence as “the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image. His exploration of this phase provides meaning for the media’s use of image and the importance of appearing to others in a certain way. It was an interest of ours to explore the male influence as well the perception and expectation of women regarding appearance, physique and mannerisms; and whether they are highly influenced by media forms.
Cutting out images of women found in magazines ranging in genres of men’s health to a child’s Barbie magazine, it soon became apparent that women are still subjected to being sexual objects for men to gaze and for women to idolize. From ages groups as young as three years and above, girls and woman alike are pushed into seeing the ‘ideal woman’ by the media’s influence. This task gave us an insight into the possibility of subjecting ourselves in our performance in order to create a clear message; to exploit this notion of being the ideal woman or the perfect self-image to adhere to the male gaze. Placing these images around the sculpture enabled us to see how the image of women has changed, and the ideal version of beauty differs in each one of these images showing the conflicting struggle between what is deemed the right form and beauty and what is not.
(All talk, no action. Is it biological?)
Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus, Do men and women really speak different languages? discusses many myths, stories, theories and said to be scientific facts about male and female differences. When reading the biological differences and similarities, what stuck out to me was the concept that women are the ultimate driver in the creation of verbal communication. Scientists are said to believe that during early human development, the females would verbally communicate with other women, children and other tribes/groups of humans and therefore they would have developed languages more so than their male companions, who would presumably be hunting and gathering, often in silence.
For a good part of our rehearsal process we found ourselves falling into the stereotypical idea that “men do, women communicate” (Cameron, 101, 2007). We spent much of our time discussing ideas, developing them, creating an ideal version of the performance in our heads and searching for the end product, without attempting our ideas along the way. We were repeatedly acting as the stereotype that we were attempting to challenge and break the boundaries between in the modern society.
During our process we were constantly hitting this brick wall of verbal communication and no action. Is this mentality an innate quality we all share as women, would our performance process take a different path if we had even one man in our group? As a women who believes in feminist equality to all, why am I myself falling into this imaginary barrier created between the sexes, and how can we break this stereotype if it is innate.
(Putting theory into practice)
Once this boundary between communicating and doing was achieved we focused our rehearsal on Marina Abramovic’s physical boundaries when challenging the body and mind in her work, The Artist is Present and Rhythm 0, inspired us to challenge our own physicality within rehearsals. Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh A Year Spent tied Together at the Waist (1983-4) motivated us into thinking of ways to physically connect ourselves within our performance. Using string we experimented with the idea of the group being connected to one another through a mutual understanding that we are all women. Exploring the effects of movement we provoked physical pain on each other through pulling notions and simply walking in opposite direction. Attempting this exercise using various body parts such as the waist, the ankles and wrists we explored how our body moved within our rehearsal space and more importantly the effects that our actions had on each other’s ability to move in the space.
The Artist is Present (2010) got us thinking about how we could exhibit ourselves in the gallery and in turn represent the process of female beauty. At first we were being too literal in our approach by thinking of the stereotypical regimes we all have; putting our make-up on, fake tan and perfume for example. To delve deeper into the ugly process behind the finished image of beauty we collected everything that we used on a daily basis, spanning from our make-up wipes to the dead skin off the bottom of our feet. Exploring the content that we were collecting, we tried ways in which we could exhibit the items on the string lines attached to us. Attempting this as one unit proved to be unsuccessful as we were finding ourselves tangled in the lines and it did not possess purposeful movement or physical challenge that we were trying to achieve.
Following rehearsals developed this idea of hanging our evidence on the string, almost like the idea of hanging out our dirty laundry. We fixated on the repetitiveness of hanging and taking down the items. This ritualistic aspect became present in rehearsals and reflected our initial research regarding the constant strive women have to be beautiful. In order to respect and protect the gallery we obtained the items in a transparent bag so they were clearly segregated to display on the line.
Thinking about our physicality, we participated in tasks to challenge our strength. One of these exercises was to place an item in front of our mouths and speak to one another about our past break ups whilst obtaining the same pose as the sculpture. Trying to talk whilst in this position was tiring and was short lived, but as a task, it stemmed ideas about developing a performative text to translate what we wish to challenge. For our individual development we researched the depictions of women in poetry and stories from different time eras. Using the content found from various poets and academics we devised poems representing different eras. The representation of the domestic housewife and sexual objectification was prominent in most of our findings. Utilising this aspect within the poems incorporated sounds of domestic activities to juxtapose the liberating lines in the poems, and to highlight the issue of the old fashioned perception of domesticated women.
The final challenge we experienced when devising #NoFilter was to withhold our desired positions for a long period of time. The first time we tried our performance with the time limit was in our dress rehearsal. Surprisingly the positions did not hurt as much as anticipated at first, however, once I began to think about being in pain I felt my body ache more. Like many times in rehearsals before we found that at times our hands were going blue and the lack of circulation was causing our arms to fall. We made one change to our performance during the dress rehearsal, which ended up being our most aesthetically pleasing position, which mimicked the position of Venus shown in the sculpture. For me this image challenged our bodies most and presented the struggling image that we were looking for within our performance.
Our performance #NoFilter was situated on the first floor of the Usher Gallery. We were dressed in control wear pants, a push up bra and heeled shoes forming a triangular shape around Gibson’s Venus kissing Cupid (1930) sculpture. String was tied around three members of the group’s hands and were connected to one another forming a boundary between the spectator and the sculpture. Sounds of women conducting in domestic activities such as hovering and cleaning were playing amongst verbalised lines of our devised poems. The poetry was influenced by poets spanning across the ages from the Ancient Greeks up to the 20th Century. The poems content varied depending on the way in which women of the era were portrayed. Although many poems that were found depicted the woman as a domesticated wife or in a promiscuous manner, there were lines that spoke about liberation for women, even by male poets such as Euripides. The performance did not require a specific number of audience members as it was open to the public and welcomed all that were willing to watch and listen. The age of spectators varied and it was interesting to see the involvement and even the lack of involvement that some people were willing to give us. Some audience members stayed for durational periods of our performance whilst others came in and merely glanced at us. Those that were curious viewed closely the content of the bags and circled the performance investigating the items as well as ourselves.
Observing the audience it was clear to see that mostly men were present or willing to show an interest in what we were trying to achieve, whereas although some women were as enthusiastic, many women would not enter the room once they saw a glimpse of us standing in our underwear. I believe that if we were to do the performance again, maybe a change in costume or a clearer explanation on our notice outside of the room would be required. This change may engage women’s interest regarding our intentions behind the performance rather than feeling uncomfortable at our appearance.
Our performance was devised by women for women, but also wanted to engage a male audience to listen and observe the pressures that women put themselves through to try and achieve perfection. The repetitive nature of hanging the items we had chosen to exhibit and the looping sound of the disconnected poems and domestic activities gave the performance an underlined tone of liberation and entrapment that society has placed on women. Our physicality and held stances demonstrated real physical pain and accomplishment which challenged the audience to watch us suffer. I believe that our intention to present the struggle of beauty was achieved by holding the awkward and powerful images we had chosen, often linked to the topic of enslavement and one that mimicked the position Venus was holding in Gibson’s Venus Kissing Cupid (1930).
If we were to do it again we could create a more interactive relationship with the spectators by having them bring in items. Taking influence from Joshua Sofaer The Scavenger Hunt we could have created an interactive process with a group of participants. Doing this would potentially provide us with more documentation and content to exhibit within our performance and create a rounded representation of the women within Lincoln/Lincolnshire.
Bringing artwork to life through means of presenting a socio-political issue in modern society has challenged my understanding of Site Specific Performances. Performing rather than acting in a non-theatrical space has tested my ability as a developing performer/actor by breaking boundaries between real life and performance. The belief that Site Specific performances should respond to the “history and politics of the particular place and with resonance of these in the present” (Pearson, 10), was prominent in our research and within our final performance. Creating such work within an environment filled with history enabled us to challenge the reasons behind why the content is preserved but why and in what context it was created; in turn allowing us to form an alternative perspective relating to the modern issue of self-image and beauty.
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Cameron, D. (2007). The myth of Mars and Venus. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Gallery, L. (n.d.). Marina Abramović | Artists | Lisson Gallery. [online] Lissongallery.com. Available at: http://www.lissongallery.com/artists/marina-abramovic [Accessed 5 May 2015].
Garoian, C. (2001). Performing the Museum. Studies in Art Education, 42(3), p.234.
Mulvey, L. (1975). 1st ed. [ebook] pp.6-18. Available at: http://imlportfolio.usc.edu/ctcs505/mulveyVisualPleasureNarrativeCinema.pdf [Accessed 20 Apr. 2015].
Pearson, M. (2010). Site-specific performance. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
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