The title is so exuberant because when Crowfoot and I finally started trying to talk about the feminist art exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery (also known as the VAG 😉 ) we just kept saying to each other, “Yes! Yes!”
It’s an excellent exhibit, and if you live anywhere near it you should go. It’s also so thought-provoking that we knew it would be a million years before we could write some proper posts about it. To at least get started, we decided to IM each other and record the conversation. And so, I present to you: the highlights!
Well, sort of. It’s a bit long, but I figure you guys don’t mind that.
eloriane: So, I think the most striking thing was Yoko Ono’s performance piece.
eloriane: At least, that’s the one that’s stuck with me the most.
Crowfoot: Yeah, that one affected me the most too. It was deeply uncomfortable to watch.
eloriane: I thought it was striking to see how things degenerated, sort of
eloriane: like, the first person to cut a piece was female, and she was very, very timid
eloriane: she took a tiny square from the shoulder…
eloriane: the second person was also female, and she wasn’t timid, exactly– she cut right into Yoko’s sleeve– but it wasn’t…creepy
eloriane: it wasn’t like she was eager
Crowfoot: she was just businesslike
eloriane: she knew how to use the scissors, so she did
Crowfoot: yeah.. like she was trying to do something, participate in the art in some kind of meaningful way.
eloriane: but that last fellow…
Crowfoot: I seem to recall that the first few people were a mix of women and men, first one then the other
eloriane: and the first men had a very similar tone to the women
Crowfoot: then it started to degenerate, with the last man being.. vile
eloriane: some were timid, others were just businesslike
Crowfoot: right. respectful
eloriane: but the men started getting really into it
eloriane: that one man who just pinched at the fabric at her breast, and cut out a nipple-circle
eloriane: he was the first, I think, to sort of cross that line
Crowfoot: yeah! Although looking at it later it looked like it might have been slightly below her breast – but only slightly. It was a much more intimate part of her clothes to cut off. It felt more… violent somehow. The others had been cutting off strips from the edges of her dress, but he reached right into her bodily space, pulled out the cloth and cut a hole right in the middle.
Crowfoot: From there it seemed to degenerate more, and there seemed to be fewer women cutting off her clothes
eloriane: the scissors really started looking DANGEROUS
eloriane: in the women’s hands, they looked like tools
Crowfoot: And all this time Yoko Ono sits silently, her breathing coming in a bit harder, her eyes starting to dart around a bit more.
Crowfoot: yes! dangerous
eloriane: but later you couldn’t help thinking that they could really easily cut flesh, not just fabric
eloriane: in the men’s hands, they looked like a weapon
Crowfoot: I wonder if that may have been a part of her point – how men and women might go about this differently, how it might start to feel decidedly different when the men were cutting, especially as time wore on and she was exposed more and more.
eloriane: I think the women understood more how scary it was for Yoko
eloriane: whereas that last fellow seemed completely oblivious to how uncomfortable she was
Crowfoot: our perceptions of the actions of the people started to change, I think. At first it was rather business-like, as you said, but as she became increasingly made naked the actions started to appear increasingly threatening.
Crowfoot: and yeah, the last man was utterly oblivious to her feelings, to her exposure, to her vulnerability. He grinned back at the audience and cut and cut and cut and cut, making her move her arms so he could get at her clothes. Deeply creepy
Crowfoot: one of my co-workers has gone to see the exhibit several times now – she was the one that told me about this particular piece. She says that Ono was in tears by the end, but I’m not sure if I saw tears. She was certainly nervous, certainly increasingly upset. She certainly looked like she was about to cry, if nothing else.
eloriane: I mean, I thought it was too much when he was cutting down the front of her slip
eloriane: too close to her cleavage, what if he slipped?
eloriane: and then he cut the straps
eloriane: and then her BRA straps
Crowfoot: exactly! that’s a slightly intimate area there dude
eloriane: but then he kept cutting down, all the way into her lap
Crowfoot: right! god. he just kept going! others just cut small pieces, or made long strips in her sleeves, but he cut off 1/2 of her clothes
eloriane: and I think that’s why I, as a woman, immediately thought, “I’d never be brave enough to do this kind of thing.”
eloriane: because all it takes is one guy going too far
Crowfoot: exactly. I thought the same thing. I couldn’t have the courage to do that piece
eloriane: and it’s…not taught, exactly, but not discouraged for men to invade women’s space
eloriane: especially bodily space
eloriane: there is going to be someone who will enjoy hurting you by taking it too far
eloriane: well– he clearly didn’t change his behavior based on her fear, but I don’t know if that’s because he somehow didn’t notice, or just didn’t care
Crowfoot: I think there’s a continual current (or undercurrent) of women not being allowed to truly have their own space. Women must always be available. Or, at some kind of woman must always be available
eloriane: and I think men also can’t quite understand the fear that women live with
Crowfoot: it looked like he didn’t care enough to notice, thus didn’t care at all
Crowfoot: agreed! I’ve had arguments with my brother about this. He says he’s just as afraid as I am to walk down the street at night.
Crowfoot: but he doesn’t fear being alone in an elevator with a woman
eloriane: but maybe, as a man, he’s not afraid for his own body, so he didn’t think to wonder if it was scary for her
eloriane: the fellow at the end, I mean
Crowfoot: he might have fear of some yahoo mugging him, or some teenagers jumping him, but not of being cat-called and chased by women
Crowfoot: it looked like the last man cutting was seeing her as an object. What she felt was immaterial
eloriane: actually, it makes me think of going through airport security in India
eloriane: everyone had to be wanded, but there was a separate line for women, so they could be sure to be wanded behind a screen and by a woman
eloriane: I actually really appreciated it, and said so to my dad
eloriane: and he just looked at me like, “what? I don’t have any problem being wanded by a woman.”
Crowfoot: exactly! because men invading a woman’s physical space is so much more threatening
eloriane: and I just said, “Yeah, and how many women are two feet taller than you and strong enough to throw you into the wall?”
eloriane: he actually got it, I think
eloriane: there’s this extra baggage when it’s a man throwing his power around
eloriane: the cultural context makes it scarier
Crowfoot: yay for dads heh. That’s a really good point you brought up, the size difference
eloriane: but even without size, men sort of have this unspoken threat
eloriane: that they COULD do whatever, and they wouldn’t have to face any consequences
Crowfoot: agreed. I’ve always felt this undercurrent of… possible threat from men.
eloriane: and I can’t even articulate what the threat is of– rape? murder?– but it’s very, very present
Crowfoot: I think it’s in part a result of how much bigger they are to most women, but also the cultural powerlessness of women
eloriane: and I felt it extremely keenly watching Yoko’s video
Crowfoot: I’m trying to articulate it too
eloriane: yeah, it’s not just physical
eloriane: but I couldn’t even articulate WHAT I was afraid of for her– cutting her? stripping her naked? rape?– but again, it was very, very present
Crowfoot: it’s like male oppression writ large, made manifest by a performance art piece.
Crowfoot: there was a degree of violation involved with what people were doing to her. The more they cut, the more she became just an object, the more she became powerless. And finally, the more that the (mostly) men felt they could cut
eloriane: and she just has to sit quietly and take it
eloriane: and take it, and take it
Crowfoot: and say nothing
Crowfoot: at what point would people stop? at what point would that man stop? would he have, if given the chance to continue?
eloriane: I noticed, she would look straight ahead, except when someone was cutting particularly close, like the man who took the circle off her breast– then her eyes start darting back and forth, like she can’t look ahead but also can’t look at what’s happening to her
Crowfoot: yeah I noticed that too. It also looked like unconscious anxiety.
Crowfoot: it was truly, a brilliant, brilliant piece of work. There’s so many things that come up when thinking about this piece, and it’s so hard to articulate
eloriane: it was really ominous, the way it ended right after the man who took it so far. I’m not even sure if he had left the stage when the video stopped.
eloriane: but yeah, a really powerful piece of art
Crowfoot: and Ono looked right at the camera at that point
Crowfoot: it almost felt like a test, of the audience (not us, afterwards, but the cutters). And the last man seemed to have just completely proved her point
eloriane: oh, I can see that
eloriane: they knew they were being recorded
eloriane: but he still couldn’t quite restrain himself
Crowfoot: exactly – it was for show, and he, well, he showed, them, didn’t he?
Crowfoot: his grinning was completely creepy. that was almost worse (but not quite) than the cutting. How much he enjoyed it
Crowfoot: I kept being reminded of that news item not that long ago about a woman being sexually assualted onstage during a comic’s performance. She was pulled from the audience (as was some others) for the “show” and told to lie still. Then he groped her and threatened her.
Crowfoot: I remember there was a good deal of talk from various circles about how it was a “performance” and people… kind of just watched. Not knowing what he was doing? Thinking it was a part of the show? Someone in the audience yelled “get him off of you!’ as if it was her fault
Crowfoot: I’m pretty sure there was a post at Shakesville about it
eloriane: and I guess people were like, “oh, it’s a performance, it’s okay” in both cases
eloriane: yeah, I remember that
Crowfoot: Anything is allowed for a show. Calling it “art” somehow makes the action not real.
Crowfoot: I think it speaks to an extreme level of objectification, a kind of Roman coliseum spectacle where the pain of those in the ring is secondary to the “entertainment” of the act
Crowfoot: we separate ourselves from what we watch somehow
eloriane: I think there’s a similar kind of dehumanization in popular media in general
eloriane: I’m trying to think of a good example
Crowfoot: I was just going to say that! heh
eloriane: but the images we see in ads, a lot of the time
eloriane: absolutely wouldn’t be acceptable in another context
Crowfoot: bits and pieces of women’s bodies
Crowfoot: women are routinely dehumanized in popular media. Women are routinely displayed as objects. This has a deep effect on how our humanity in general is perceived.
eloriane: I feel like a lot of the exhibits spoke to that idea
Crowfoot: women are routinely on display in media.
Crowfoot: yeah, most definitely
Crowfoot: there was a great deal of critique of standard femininity. The constricting and artificial nature/quality of our concept and expectations of the feminine ideal.
eloriane: although the others that really struck me were along other themes
eloriane: like the paired photographs, of the baby and cutting the baby’s toenails
Crowfoot: yes! that was beautiful
Crowfoot: Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Red Abakan was gorgeous as well. That giant red cloth… mask.. or genitals.. or hat… lol
eloriane: haha, yeah!
eloriane: I loved how it changed
Crowfoot: yeah! brilliant!
eloriane: and how they could all be connected to femininity
eloriane: even the witch’s hat
eloriane: but my favorite was when it looked like a vulva
eloriane: a big, red, happy vulva
Crowfoot: lol ok I’ll try and say something other than “Yes!!”
eloriane: But that was kind of my response to the whole exhibit.
eloriane: Just, yes! yes! yes!
Crowfoot: I really like the photograph of the piece on the VAG webpage, with the woman sitting in the chair in front of it, contemplating it
Crowfoot: I’m still kind of taken aback to see the words “Feminist Revolution” in giant letters in Vancouver’s mainstream, status quo, largest, possibly run in part by funding from the government art gallery
eloriane: It was so fantastic, seeing so much bold feminism so PUBLIC
eloriane: and completely unapologetic
Crowfoot: so wonderful… it’s hard to describe. It’s like I can breathe a little easier
eloriane: Like we’re making some kind of progress, like feminist ideas are a little more common
Crowfoot: completely unapologetic AND declaring that feminist art was the preeminent art movement since the war
Crowfoot: not “feminazi” not ridiculous, not a farce
eloriane: yes, important
eloriane: and especially in the art world that’s impressive
eloriane: what with the whole “does a woman have to be naked to get into the Met?” devaluing of female artists
Crowfoot: I don’t think it’s completely sunk in, really. That the Vancouver Art Gallery has a giant show celebrating feminist art
Crowfoot: yes! impressive indeed. the Gorilla Grrls won’t be protesting this one!