Feminist Art and the Female Body
Written by: Ilana Teitelbaum
Before my life was overtaken by the twin storms of packing and moving, I attended a series of lectures by artists at Anna Ticho House in Jerusalem as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival. The topic was Feminist Art and the Female Body, and the event was starring the Viennese artist VALIE EXPORT. (Yes, it is in capitals, like that.) Two other Israeli artists, Noa Sadka and Hila Lulu Lin, spoke afterward on the same topic.
I confess, I did not go to art school and may have missed nuances that someone more intimately involved in the art scene would have picked up. What struck me was the intense preoccupation with the body that characterized these artists’ work. Speaking of her work, VALIE EXPORT said, “I want to explain everything through my body.” This extends even to filming her own vocal chords by inserting a camera into her throat through her nose.
The exhibitions at Anna Ticho House of EXPORT’s include a video of her outside a theater in Vienna with a box around her body, a curtain obscuring her bare breasts. This was a “theater” into which random passersby could insert their own hands.
In another piece of performance art, now famous, EXPORT entered a theater showing pornographic films wearing crotchless pants and carrying a machine gun, to represent a woman who is at once a sexual being but is nevertheless not a passive target for the male gaze.
Noa Sadka continued the theme by speaking of her aversion to the way women are so often portrayed in art—idyllic, sanitized, and idealized. She countered this image of the female body with one relentlessly raw and unsanitary. Sadka speaks of how it became important to her, as a student contemplating the importance of the body, to save all “remnants”—hairs, fingernails, mucus, etc. (I don’t remember anything about fecal matter, and I’m just going to assume that it didn’t go quite that far.)
I had a complex reaction to this series of lectures. I’m aware that as an Orthodox Jew, my upbringing purposely omitted education in matters of the body—not just in obvious ways but in more insidious ones as well. (The more obvious way being an omission of sex education until a few weeks before marriage.) Orthodox Jews in general—not just women—are educated to develop their minds almost to the exclusion of all else.
While our education pays lip service to the sensual experience, claiming that pleasure is important in Judaism, this message lacks any sort of material underpinnings in an Orthodox Jewish child’s daily life. Jewish children are rewarded almost exclusively for their ability to perform from the neck up. The smarter, the more intellectual you are, the more you are worth. Our culture produces fine minds that may as well belong to disembodied heads.
Female body awareness in Orthodox Judaism is a peculiar thing. Jewish women are acutely aware of their dress size—in other words, how they look—but not necessarily aware of what feels good for them. So it was only later in life—upon reaching adulthood, really—that I began to develop the senses more. I simply didn’t value them as much as I valued my ability to reason, to perform literary pyrotechnics, and to achieve in the classroom. But I’ve discovered that introducing physicality into my life—through exercise, through getting my first ever massage, through exploring foods—has enhanced my life, and my mind, more than I could have imagined possible.
When Sadka spoke of what bothers her in art that sanitizes women or objectifies them, there was much that I could identify with. Her example of a photo that she hated was one of a pregnant woman lying in a swamp. Sadka relates that her male teacher wanted to discuss the technique of the photograph, but didn’t address the question, “Why did the photographer put a pregnant woman in a swamp?”
But Sadka’s response, to focus on the female body to the point that no “remains” should be discarded, and to become preoccupied with the body—this seems to me to leave the territory of originality and enter into self-absorption. An approach to art that focuses exclusively on the body is, by definition, leaving a myriad of other issues out of the discussion.
In the case of VALIE EXPORT, I pondered the fine line between fighting objectification and becoming an object. While I realize that her “theater” of bare breasts was a commentary, wasn’t she, in effect, catering to the male obsession with the female body? As for her crotchless, machine gun toting getup—hasn’t popular culture shown us time and again that women and violence are linked in many male fantasies? How then does it free women from the male gaze to bring that fantasy to life?
So while the experience of this discussion raised my own awareness of the limitations of my upbringing—the way I instinctively raised an eyebrow every time “the body” was mentioned so reverently—it left me with more questions about art and the female body than it answered.