Warsaw

If You Don’t Know Me By Now, You Will Never Never Never Know Me at Fundacja Arton

In light of Monday’s women-led strike in Poland, in which thousands of people in over sixty cities gathered to protest the government’s proposal to completely ban abortion, If You Don’t Know Me By Now, You Will Never Never Never Know Me at Fundacja Arton seems exceptionally prescient. The exhibition brings together seven works of film or video made by women between the years of 1973 and 1982, presenting a small but influential selection of startlingly direct explorations of femininity and culture.

parente

Letítia Parente. Task 1, 1982; video, color, sound; 1:56.

Of all the works in the show, American audiences will be most familiar with Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), in which the artist dons an apron and demonstrates the uses of an abecedarium of kitchen implements: bowl, chopper, dish, eggbeater. This is a straight-faced inventory; Rosler simply announces the name of each tool and then pantomimes its use. But unlike a cheerful Julia Child–style exposition, the violence in Rosler’s gestures exposes the resentment behind the toil of household drudgery. When she announces ice pick, she stabs it dramatically into a chopping block like a modern-day Clytemnestra.

In a similarly domestic vein, Letítia Parente’s Task 1 (1982) shows a woman in light-colored clothes lying face-down on an ironing board; a woman in a black dress proceeds to iron her body. As the second woman moves the hot tool over the first’s back and legs, she uses her free hand to smooth the folds of cloth, communicating care for the woman underneath the fabric while firmly auditing her appearance. The double-edged message will not be mysterious to any contemporary user of the internet, where “fitspo” memes, slut-shaming tweets, and gender-policing Facebook posts show that women continue to be harsh judges of each other’s appearance and status, often under the guise of “just wanting to help.”

Sanja Iveković. Make up, make down, 1978; video, color, sound, 5 min.

Sanja Iveković. Make Up, Make Down, 1978; video, color, sound; 5:00.

Sanja Iveković’s Make Up, Make Down (1978) displaces the fantasy of ideal beauty from the frame. To a soundtrack of disco music, the artist applies foundation, mascara, eye shadow, and liner to her features—but her face is offscreen, and only her white-camisole-clad torso is visible. Well-groomed hands uncap the various elements of maquillage and sensuously twist up their contents, as though for an advertisement or other commercial display. Yet by withholding her face, the artist implies that her actions are meant to please herself alone.

In a completely different direction, Ewa Partum’s Tautological Cinema (1974) explores the conventions of structural cinema, beginning with text counting the meters of celluloid used to film “1 metr,” “2 metry,” and so on; but after three, the title card reads, “etc.” In another shot, the artist plucks the leaves off a small branch, going slowly down the left side, yanking the leaf at the tip, and then up the right, but before the branch is stripped bare, again a card reads “etc.” The middle sequence shows the artist herself, holding a finger to her lips, plugging her ears, covering her eyes, or with tape in an X over her mouth—with these incomplete and blocked messages, Partum asserts that the intention of the artist can’t ever be fully communicated.

Jolanta Marcolla. Kiss, 1975; 16 mm film, no sound; 1 min., 51 sec.

Jolanta Marcolla. Kiss, 1975; 16mm film, no sound; 1:51.

This may also be the case in Jolanta Marcolla’s Kiss (1975), in which the artist repeatedly kisses her index and middle fingers and then moves her hand toward the camera. Each iteration of this action is followed by a flash of white light. Standing outside against a brick wall, she smiles and makes eye contact with the viewer. Although the gallery materials claim the work “refers to the objectification of the female image in popular culture,” the artist seems less to be enacting a critique than simply enjoying herself; as she blows kisses and a breeze casually ruffles her dark, curly hair, her happiness seems genuine and unforced.

steele

Lisa Steele. Birthday Suit with Scars and Defects, 1974; video, black and white, sound; 12:00.

The objectification of the nude female body, so deeply entrenched within our systems of representation, is upended in various ways in the exhibition. Lisa Steele’s Birthday Suit with Scars and Defects (1974) begins with a distance shot of the naked artist, who walks toward the camera and then points, in close-up, to the scars on her body. She matter-of-factly recounts the incidents that produced these “defects,” such as an emergency transfusion as a baby, multiple childhood accidents on bikes and roller skates, and then finally, to the scar at the base of one breast from a 1974 surgery to remove a benign tumor. At the end, she steps away from the camera again, sings “Happy Birthday to Me,” dresses herself, and walks out of the frame. The soberness of this display points toward mortality rather than eroticism. Natalia LL’s Impressions (1973) mainly shows the artist’s naked torso as she harshly manipulates her breasts by jumping, squeezing, and lifting/dropping them. Although the gestures mimic the conventional ways in which porn actresses touch themselves, the artist’s maneuverings look painful instead of seductive. Other, shorter shots portray her belly, sucked in and then distended, or her shoulder, armpit, or ear; there are quick cutaways to a figure moving in a living room, but the footage is so grainy that it often takes a moment to identify which body part is filling the frame.

What unites these works, beyond the gender of their creators and a willingness to explore certain patterns of identity constructed around femininity, is the invitation to viewers to complete the scene in some way, whether to stand in for a lover who receives blown kisses, to visualize a woman’s made-up face, or to mentally keep the film rolling in order to fulfill the potential action implied by an “etc.” Is it a stretch to say that the acts of mental extension required by these works share, in some small way, common cause with Monday’s protest? Having stood for hours with a crowd of 30,000 people in Warsaw, it strikes me that both the necessity—and ability—to envision a world in which women are equal to men, and in control of their own bodies, reveals the ultimately political nature of the imagination. This exhibition and Monday’s protest both illustrate that poignant imaginings and simple but meaningful acts by women, even when not specifically aligned with feminist politics, can constitute a powerful indictment of inequality.

If You Don’t Know Me By Now, You Will Never Never Never Know Me is on view at Arton Foundation in Warsaw through October 30, 2016.

Share