June 1, 2021

Feminism in Modern and Contemporary Art 5 | Photographic Self-portraiture and Feminism

Photographic Self-portraiture and Feminism

Sanja Ivekovic

Sanja Ivekovic‘s Double Life series concern with similarities, parallels and distortions between the private photographs of her taken from family albums and photographs of models from popular fashion magazines. There are similarities in clothes, gesture, background, etc. that makes us think that she mimics or sometimes parodies mass media representations. However, the viewer soon realises that the artist’s portraits were taken before the fashion photographs. This creates a strange sense of déjà vu or uncanny doubling. The works deal with how media constructs images of femininity that on the one hand, are feeding off of women, and on the other, creating an idealised image to strive towards. Double Life might also refer to the fact how Yugoslavian women were exposed to Western fashion trends and consumerism while living in a socialist state.

“I wanted to show the power of mass media not only in the identity construction of some intangible women but also to analyze my own personal role as a woman in society, and specifically in a society in which — in spite of its officially egalitarian policy — patriarchal culture was still very much present and alive, and in which the consumerist dream was a part of everyday life.” Sanja Ivekovic

Ivekovic’s work below deals with how women’s bodies are monitored and controlled by the patriarchal state
apparatus. It also exposes the mechanism of repression used by Tito’s regime, while simultaneously raising questions about women’s rights and power relations around gender. The artist stated that feminism was considered a ‘bourgeois import from the West’, which made her self-identification as a feminist artist a transgressive gesture.

“The action takes place on the day of the President’s visit to the city, and it develops as intercommunication between three persons:

  1. a person on the roof of a tall building across the street from my apartment;
  2. myself, on the balcony;
  3. a policeman in the street in front of the house.

“Due to the cement construction of the balcony, only the person on the roof can actually see me and follow the action. My assumption is that this person has binoculars and a walkie-talkie apparatus. I notice that the policeman in the street also has a walkie-talkie. The action begins when I walk out onto the balcony and sit on a chair, I sip whiskey, read a book, and make gestures as if I perform masturbation. After a period of time, the policeman rings my doorbell and orders the ‘persons and objects are to be removed from the balcony.’” Text accompanying the artwork.

“The important advantage of living and working in socialism is that you learn very early on that nothing is independent from ideology. Everything we do has a political charge, and the division between politics and aesthetics is entirely erroneous. I have repeatedly asked myself what is my position in the social system, my relationship with the system of
power, domination and exploitation, and how can I respond and act meaningfully as an artist. The political and activist attitude is the result of this dilemma: I want to be deliberately active rather than a passive “object” of the ideological system. In Triangle I played my own politics of display against the state’s politics of display.”

Instructions No. 1 by Sanja Ivekovic is a sequence of stills presented in a video format where arrows are drawn on the face, which look like the pen marks you might expect a plastic surgeon to draw on a patient before surgery. They could also be contour lines as soon in the application of makeup to sculpt the facial features. The stills appear pixelated in large squares. Once the arrows are complete they are rubbed out with the hands, the gestured reminded me of those used in face yoga to form and again sculpt the face.

In this work, Iveković stares into the video camera and uses its lens as a mirror as she methodically draws arrows in black ink on her face and neck. Negating the everyday ritual of applying makeup, the artist mocks the “how-to” language of advertising with stoic intensity, evoking instead the application of war paint. When she attempts to rub the ink away—or massage it into her skin—it leaves behind a smeared, grimy residue. The work is both a comment on the unrealistic standards of feminine beauty enforced by mass media and a protest against the systematic implementation of gender codes in consumer society.” MOMA.org

1982 Sanja Iveković presented Personal Cuts on prime-time Yugoslavian national television.

In the video she confronts the camera wearing a translucent black stocking mask pulled over her head, terrorist-style. Using scissors, she cuts one hole after another into the mask, revealing one section of her face at a time. Each cut is followed by a short sequence of archival footage culled from a television program on the history of Yugoslavia, produced by the state shortly after Marshal Tito’s death, in 1980, and chronicling 20 years of the socialist republic. Cut by cut, in sequential shots, Iveković exposes her face and suggests the insidiousness of national propaganda—mass rallies, a public address by Tito, and monuments, all promoting the socialist way of living—thus demonstrating that historical events are inextricable from human ones, and ending with the artist’s face fully uncovered.

Personal Cuts is modeled on a television documentary, but formally and conceptually it undercuts the totalizing, unified picture of official history; history is presented as broken inscription rather than linear narrative. Iveković infiltrates media space and disrupts the official narrative, reshuffling it, using the cut as a leitmotif and a reference to the editing and montage strategies that have informed her photocollages and video works.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is most famous for her Untitled Film Still series (1977-1980). Predominantly, the images focus on the artist posing as different fictitious film characters, referencing 1940-1960s movies (especially American film noir genre, but also B movies and European art-house films). The format, scale, and quality of her photographs resemble promotional stills (which are often staged). There are also references to recognizable television and other mass media representation of women. However, these photographs never borrow the images directly. Every situation is carefully manufactured.

“Everyone thinks these are self-portraits but they aren’t meant to be. I just use myself as a model because I know I can push myself to extremes, make each shot as ugly or goofy or silly as possible.” C. Sherman

“I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear.” C. Sherman – This quote reminded me of John Berger’s theory about the nude v naked models. To be nude is not to be oneself. This is essentially what Sherman is saying, that by posing for the camera she is no longer her true self just like the nudes Berger referred to.

Here Cindy Sherman is parodying fashion photography. She’s used a crumpled badly hung backdrop, awkward pose and has cropped the image awkwardly across the feet. The artist’s posture and facial expression are both awkward and comical. These elements exaggerate the point Sherman is trying to make as she criticises contemporary culture.  “I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful…I was trying to make fun of fashion.” She is challenging the illusion that fashionable clothes can impart glamour, sophistication and elegance.

The photograph below is part of her series titled the History Portraits, created in 1988-1990 (35 works).
They reference recognisable images from the history of art – Old Master paintings (the Renaissance, Baroque, and
Rococo periods). This particular image cites Caravaggio’s famous self-portrait as Bacchus (Roman god of wine).
She uses prosthetics to alter her face. She poses as a male artist who poses for a self-portrait in the role of the Roman god. The image questions the art historical canon and marginalisation of women within it.

Claude Cahun

Claude Cahun used a wide variety of means of expression to convey her obsession for the themes of identity and self-image. Although she was forgotten after World War II, her work was rediscovered and widely circulated in the 1990s. The cross-dressing experiments she documented in her self-portraits have since become of considerable interest beyond the history of photography, in the field of Gender Studies and post-modernist theory.

Hannah Wilke

Hannah Wilke, S.O.S (Starification Object Series) 1974-1979;

Hannah Wilke‘s work has largely centred on her use of her own body as a medium. In her S.O.S. series she often
poses as a fashion model, assuming more erotic poses and frequently topless. She called these “performalist self-
portraits”. She was criticized by a number of feminists because of her specific use of erotic imagery to question women’s roles and place within the society that was deemed not challenging the stereotypes enough. This can be debated, as Wilke exposes fetishistic/consumerist desire centred on the images of women.

Wilke first performed S.O.S.—Starification Object Series for the public in 1975. Visitors were given colored gum, which they were asked to chew and then return to the artist, who, topless, stretched and folded the pliable wads into small, labia-shaped sculptures and stuck them to her skin. These handwrought anatomical forms have been read as both sensual fetishes and unsightly scars emblematic of the power, and also the stigma, of the female sex.

Interested in how these transitory actions could outlive the moment, Wilke posed for photographs for the S.O.S. series, making what she called “performalist self-portraits.” She hired a professional photographer to take editorial-style portraits of her while she expertly performed rote poses from fashion and advertising: hand on a thrust-out hip, mouth suggestively agape, fingers buried in voluminous hair. These facile displays of her sexuality are clearly farcical, yet she pointedly harnessed the simple truth of her good looks. Here Wilke challenged the viewer-voyeur to resolve the tension between revulsion at the sight of the gnashed forms scarring her body and pleasure at being given such access to her beauty. As the title of the project suggests, Wilke explored the relationships between prescribed constructs of beauty and femininity, states of seduction and distress, and the entangled roles of victim and aggressor.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum
of Modern Art, New York
(New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)

Pipilotti Rist

Ever is Over All, two-channel video with overlapping projections and sound installation (colour, sound with Anders
Guggisberg), dimensions variable, 4:07 min. loop. Installation view at the National Museum of Foreign Art, Sofia (1999).

We discussed this in the group and noted how the installation had a dreamlike quality. It was like an advert, floaty and serene with the juxtaposition of smashing car windows. Dream and reality blur. The artist has chosen to attack capitalist consumerism and individualistic travel/comfort with a feminine (yet phallic) flower/nature. There’s a vibrant contrast of colours and we learnt it was shot in a single take. The flower is thought to be a Red Hot Poker – phallic and masculine. The female police officer seems to agree with the vandalism, almost encouraging it to continue.

Recommended reading:
Excerpts from: Rice, Shelley (ed.), 1999. Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman. London and Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Further reading:
Sanja Ivekovic’s interview with Flash Art: https://flash—art.com/article/sanja-ivekovic/

Useful source on Cindy Sherman: