A Review: 'Unfinished Business' / Ronlee Korren
Unfinished Business, forming part of the “Big Picture” series of exhibitions at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, aims to animate discussion about the relevance of feminism in modern Australia. The exhibition offers some interesting reflections on intersectionality, but feels more like an homage to the pioneering feminists of the second wave than a space for genuine reflection.
On first impressions, Kelly Doley’s “Things Learnt About Feminism” (2014, above), an enormous tapestry of posters, offers an introduction to the cacophony of voices and statements defining modern feminism. Part of its effectiveness, however, comes from its placement- first in an exhibition where the domination of words, slogans, and pop-culture aesthetic becomes increasingly repetitive and familiar.
Historically, much of feminist art has been about reclaiming: our bodies, our respect, our control. One of the methods of re-establishing this control over traditional feminine ideals has been the wry appropriation of cultural elements (posters, billboards, advertisements), mediums (sewing, embroidery) and aesthetics (pinks, purples, florals) formerly associated with the oppression or belittlement of women. However, in an age where feminism itself is becoming marketable and visible in the mainstream (think of advertisements for personal hygiene products such as Rexona and Dove), these methods no longer have the same subversive quality as they did during the Second Wave, and can even serve to alienate.
The current wave of feminist discussion has established new boundaries essential for its continuing relevance, particularly with regards to intersectionality and transgender issues. Also of importance are the ways in which patriarchal stereotypes for men (domination, strength, ambition, callousness) have negatively affected the male psyche. Maintaining focus on the old ideas and aesthetic reinforces the anachronistic dichotomy between "feminine" and "masculine", alienating those who don't feel included in those two categories, or who have already acknowledged their irrelevance. Reappropriation has its place, but can never fully extricate itself from the burdens of the past. The changing borders of modern feminism, and its integration into mainstream thought, demand a new visual vocabulary.
An example: the billowing black material Cigdem Aydemir places into the familiarity of the urban landscape in her video series “Extremist Activity” (2012). The movement of the material, reminiscent of the Islamic burqa or niqab, evokes both a sense of inscrutable beauty and vague unease- a blank, unknowable space inserted into a familiar background. The result is a sense of both curiosity and discomfort, mirroring the complexity of modern beliefs and discussions regarding the place of these religious garments in Australian society. Aydemir’s work satisfies the changing demands of modern feminism by responding to intersectional feminist issues in a way that is both visually and intellectually stimulating, without resorting to over-explanation or didacticism.
“Extremist Activity” feels refreshing in an exhibition where the most persistent recurring element is text; in the form of posters, placards, books, manifestos, a contract, magazines, visual poetry, and testimonials. Viewed from a broader societal perspective, the oversaturation of text in feminist art reflects a perceived necessity for explanation and self-justification. This stems from both the lack of attention historically afforded to female-centric art, and a societal expectation that women who “speak up” about their experiences of oppression or abuse must be prepared to offer extensive self-justification in order to be believed or respected. When it comes to justification, the most natural and unambiguous method is language. It defines and specifies meaning, but can also serve to constrict it, depriving the viewer of the opportunity to fully engage with ideas on their own terms, subjectively or empathetically.
In Shevaun Wright’s “The Rape Contract” (2016), the artist has written a narrative detailing her rape in invisible ink (UV) over a legal contract. The subtext is clear- women’s experiences of sexual abuse often go unheard of, disbelieved, or are drowned in the bureaucratic process of legal retribution, a process which can be brutally dehumanising. The content of the work demands empathy, but the only method used to instil it is extensive explanation. In the age of #metoo, where accounts of sexual abuse are constantly surfacing, Wright’s story feels disturbingly familiar, but the method itself favours elucidation over emotive impact. To use art as a conduit for transmitting personal experience, particularly with a subject as sensitive as rape, the artist must place an enormous amount of trust in the viewer. In choosing to examine her experience through the largely unambiguous medium of (explicative, not poetic) language, Wright asserts ownership and control over her experience. She also, however, inhibits the full potential for visceral, immediate engagement with the topic. It is symptomatic of a wider tendency in feminist art to state rather than evoke (i.e. Sarah Goffman’s “I am with you”, 2017 and Linda Dement’s “Feminist Methodology Machine”, 2016), a tendency which limits impact and audience, and was subject to overrepresentation in Unfinished Business.
In notable exception is the third room of the exhibition, painted black, and absent from any words or dialogue. Salote Tawale’s work “Burebasaga maramas” (rough translation, “woman chiefs”) (2017) combines elements of painting, installation and video, creating a psychological chronology. It unites images of womanhood drawn from past, present and future, and links closely with Tawale’s cultural heritage. Fishing rod in one hand, the female figure retains her power and purpose- even in a raw and unforgiving environment, filled with corrugated iron, blocks of wood and plastic sheets. On the opposite wall, Atong Atem’s hand-coloured photographs document life in South Sudan with a similarly captivating strength and vulnerability. The overall impression is a more nuanced portrayal of feminist ideas, drawing from elements of the female experience beyond power and sex. It supports a view of womanhood that is beginning to separate itself from the reactionary politics of the Second Wave (or was never included in it), and is carving a new direction for itself.
In comparison, the final space feels like a regression. A series of photographs track the progression of Elizabeth Gower’s identity as artist and woman from present to past, and tapes and a manifesto are included from radical feminist group SCUM, active in the 1960s and 1970s. The manifesto, hilarious but very much centred on a view of womanhood linked to the upper-middle White classes, opens with a call to “eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex”. The room is a nod to the legacies of the past, but can’t help feeling claustrophobic and exclusionary. Considering how far feminism has come in the past decade, the parting message seems out of place with the optimism of Kelly Doley’s opening piece, featuring statements such as “learning the art of gender transcendence”, “beware the cavern of reversal”, and “positivity over angst”.
Unfinished Business leaves us with only a tentative imagining of what the future might mean for feminism, maintaining overwhelming allegiance to outdated visual motifs. The result is thought-provoking, but lacks the ambition to establish a meaningful equilibrium between ideas of the past and visions for the future.
Unfinished Business runs until the 25th of March at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Southbank.
Ronlee is studying Arts at Melbourne University. She has no formal qualifications to write about art, but it's good fun and she likes to give it a go. All opinions are her own, and not those of the publication itself.
Images sourced from https://acca.melbourne/exhibition/unfinished-business-perspectives-on-feminism-and-art/