ART INSTITUTIONS AND THE FEMINIST DIALECTIC


Organized by Carla Garnet for the Ontario Association of Art Galleries 
Funded in part by the Museums Assistance Program, Canadian Heritage, Government of Canada 

 

Emelie Chhangur 

Christine Conley 
Pamela Edmonds 
Carla Garnet 
Sophie Hackett
Johanna Householder
Kristina Huneault
Suzy Lake 
Allyson Mitchell 
Camilla Singh

Looking back over the past 35 years, ART INSTITUTIONS AND THE FEMINIST DIALECTIC aims to explore through working groups and a series of dialogues the unique challenges and opportunities presented by the exhibition, acquisition and preservation of feminist art work by Ontario public art galleries, archives, universities and other public institutions. In an immersive, retreat-like environment, registered delegates will actively contribute to the symposium in working groups, leading to analysis of the following questions: 

 

  • How is the art museum a gendered space?

  • How does feminist work affect new reading(s) of the public museum?

  • What strategies have art curators developed for the presentation, housing and maintenance of feminist art?

  • What challenges and opportunities does performance-based work present to public art institutions?

  • Can the art museum successfully re-enact performance-based work?

  • How do public institutions gain from a conversation with artists about works made as activism? 


The symposium is funded in part through the Museums Assistance Program, Canadian Heritage. Participation by eight unaffiliated delegates including post-graduate students and professional artists is being supported by sponsorships received from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Pacific Art Services (PACART), the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art (CCCA), the Rivoli and the Queen Mother Café.
 

ART INSTITUTIONS AND THE FEMINIST DIALECTIC2

Program Description

Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic aims to explore, through panel discussions, working groups, and a series of conversations, the unique challenges and opportunities presented by the exhibition, acquisition, and preservation of feminist artwork by looking back over the last thirty-five years in Ontarioʼs public art gallery practice.

What feminist artwork has come into Ontario collections?

Both Museum London and the McIntosh Gallery are acquiring major pieces by Rae Davis and, in recent years, a number of Ontario public art galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Textile Museum of Canada, have mounted major exhibitions and acquired significant works of art that take up a feminist dialectic. Performative or performance-based works by Rebecca Belmore, Jana Sterbak, and Janet Cardiff have recently been chosen to represent Canada at the Venice Biennial, while Lisa Steele, Suzy Lake, and Colette Whiten are featured in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, a major international exhibition of feminist art organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Given that artworks that arose from the activism and social consciousness of the late 1960s and that addressed civil rights, war protest, and feminism have been entering public art galleries and museums in recent years, a new discussion of how feminist work performs in the museum space is timely.

This two-day symposium will address issues, contradictions and paradoxes around the exhibition, acquisition, and preservation of feminist artwork by Ontario public art galleries.

 

The Symposium as Dialectic

In his essay “Philosophy and Art”, G. W. F. Hegel explains that dialectic thought presupposes that everything contains its opposite and that human history develops out of constant contradiction.3 For Hegel, the dialectic constitutes a
process that progressively sharpens the theoretical paradigm by way of an oscillation, in which a proposition is followed by a counterproposition, creating a third theoretical space where the tension between opposing thoughts or
constructs is negotiated and resolution becomes possible.

 

The Art Institution

In “The Art Museum as Ritual”, Carol Duncan writes that, “to control the museum means precisely to control the representation of the community and its highest values and truths…. Those who are best prepared to perform its ritual—those who are most able to respond to its various cues—are also those whose identities (social, sexual, racial, etc.) the museum ritual most fully confirms.”4  Arguably, a shift has occurred, from the conception that art—and, by extension, the museum—is private and symbolic, to one that both are public, in which encounter and negotiation can occur and reflection on the societal exchanges between individual and state, viewer and artwork, private and public is
encouraged.


The Feminist Critique


The expansion over the last decades of museum studies as its own field of study has led to a critical examination of the assumptions upon which the institution of the museum is built. Feminist scholars have extensively critiqued the gendered space of the museum, arguing that the institution is structured by a veiled system that suppresses the feminine.


In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir situates womanʼs consciousness in both the biological body and socio-historical experience, explaining how deeply gendered modern society is and to what extent the category “woman” is a projection of male interests, fears, and fantasies.5 Using Marxian and Freudian methods, de Beauvoir analyses how women perform in the world. Often criticized for her essentialist notion of women as “lack”, de Beauvoir nonetheless opens up a theoretical discussion around the construction of gender hierarchy and normative aesthetics.


Carla Garnet
Toronto, December 2008

 

 

Program of Activities 
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

 

9:00 am • Registration


9:15 am •

 

Call to order and opening remarks by Demetra Christakos, Executive Director, Ontario Association of Art Galleries


9:30 am • Carla Garnet gives a brief review of the symposium proposal and introduces the keynote speaker, Dr. Christine Conley


10:00 am • Keynote address by Dr. Christine Conley, art historian and independent curator:

 

“Art Institutions, Theoretical Shifts and Oscillations: Which strategies work to affect new reading(s) of the public museum?”
 

Dr. Christine Conley discusses the field of difference and ethics that feminism has opened on to—a move from the politics of feminine desire to the politics of making space for the desire of the other. All of this has implications for institutional policies, which in effect contributes to the making of meaning.


Dr. Christine Conley is an art historian and independent curator concerned with issues of gender, difference, trauma, and the art gallery as site of ethical encounters. Her MA thesis (Carleton) examined the status of women artists in Toronto during the 1960s, focusing on Christiane Pflug and Joyce Wieland, and her PhD (Essex) considered the reinvention of allegory by twentieth-century women artists Charlotte Salomon, Eva Hesse, and Mary Kelly as a means of symbolizing loss and imaging feminine subjectivities. Her postdoctoral work at Carleton pursued issues of trauma and affect in gallery installations. During the 1980s and ʼ90s she curated a number of exhibitions in Alberta and Ontario focused on issues of feminist practice. In 2004 Dr. Conley curated a nationally touring exhibition of Canadian photo-artist Theodore Wan for the Dalhousie University Art Gallery and is presently working on a project with SAW Gallery, Ottawa that will bring together Aboriginal performance artists with artists based in Belfast. She lectures in art history at the University of Ottawa.


Her publications include: “Daughter in Exile: the painting space of Christiane Pflug” in RACAR (1998); ʻThe Gendering of Allegory: Mary Kellyʼs Post-Partum Documentand Benjaminʼs Melancholy Dialectics” in Differential Aesthetics: Art practices and philosophies. Towards new feminist understandings (Ashgate 2000); “True Patriot Love: Joyce Wielandʼs Canada” in Art, Nation and Gender: Ethnic Landscapes, Myths and Mother-figures (Ashgate 2003); “May Chan: Coming Into Her Own” in Caught in the Act: an Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women (YYZ 2004); and “Memory and Trauerspiel: Charlotte Salomonʼs Life? Or Theatre? and Walter Benjaminʼs Angel of History” in Charlotte Salomon: Gender, Trauma and Creativity (Cornell 2006). Forthcoming publications include: “Material Matters: Affect and Ethics in Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal Art”, After Bad Taste: Contemporary Atrocious Art and its Critical Repulsions (Tate Liverpool); “Theodore Wan and the Subject of Medical Illustration”, RACAR; and “Morning Cleaning: Jeff Wall and the Large Glass”, Art History (2010).


11:00 am • Coffee


11:15 am • Working Groups: Three Questions:


How is the art museum a gendered space?


How does feminist work affect new reading(s) of the public museum?


What strategies have art curators developed for the presentation,
housing, and maintenance of feminist art?


Rosalind Krauss uses the term “discursive horizon” to describe the ordering effected on artworks entering a field already structured by other works and their interpretations. Griselda Pollock has described this field as gendered by myths, values, assumptions, silences, and prejudices that underlie the institutional inscription of artistic subjects and works not only in terms of the politics of inclusion and exclusion, but in terms of the hierarchical systems of classification that mandate exclusion, and of the monopolies on definitions of legitimate culture and cultural legitimacy that empower exclusion.—CG


12:30 pm • LUNCH


1:15 pm •

 

Art Gallery of Peterborough curator Pamela Edmonds presents

 

“B(l)ack To The Drawing Board: Re(Envisioning) Art, Identity Politics and African-Canadian Feminisms” and Johanna Householder, performance artist and art theorist, presents “Histories of performance and the body, re-performance, and the effect that performance has had in contemporary art and new media”


Both in their presentations and then in their subsequent conversation, curator and artist address the question: How does the art institution reenact performance work in future time and space? In addition, they examine the challenges and opportunities that performance-based work presents to the public art institution and explore strategies for the presentation, housing, and maintenance of feminist art.


Dena Shottenkirk writes, “Conceptual art of the 1960s, while much revered, is not very often looked at. Younger artists know the names and reputations of this generation, but have little close experience with the work itself. This is particularly odd since much work that is currently being made refers back to conceptual sources…. Artists like Pippilotti Rist, among many more, cannot be understood without the language of conceptual art.”5


As noted earlier, artworks informed by the activism and social consciousness of the late 1960s have been flowing into public art galleries and museums recently, making a new discussion of how feminist work performs in the museum space timely.—CG
 

Pamela Edmonds is a visual and media arts curator originally from Montreal, Quebec. She received her BFA and an MA in Art History from Concordia University. The former co-editor of the Black cultural journal Kola (based in Montreal), she is interested in developing and curating projects that focus on the creative production of African Canadian artists and in work that deals with issues surrounding the ideologies of race, gender, cultural identity, and representation. She is the former Program Coordinator of A Space Gallery (Toronto) and currently works as Curator at the Art Gallery of Peterborough.

 

Edmondsʼ curatorial projects include: Passages…Lucie Chan and Sheila Butler, Art Gallery of Peterborough (2007); Re-Mix: Dawit Petros, Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, Toronto (2006); Black Body: Race, Resistance, Response, Montreal, arts interculturels (MAI), Montreal, (2003); Africadian Visions: Contemporary Film From Black Nova Scotia, Winnipeg Cinematheque (2001); SisterVisions III: Through Our Eyes at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax (2000); and Generations and Feminisms, SAW Gallery, Ottawa, (1999).


Johanna Householder has been making performances and other artwork in Canada since the late 1970s. She was a member of the satirical feminist performance ensemble The Clichettes, who performed under variable circumstances throughout the 1980s. While The Clichettes practiced their own brand of pop culture detournement, Householder has maintained a unique performance practice, often collaborating with other artists. She is one of the founders of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art, which just held its seventh biannual, presenting artists from seventeen countries. Her short video works, produced in collaboration with b. h. Yael, have screened internationally. She is a professor in the Integrated Media Program at the Ontario College of Art and Design. With Tanya Mars, she edited Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance by Canadian Women, published by YYZ Books in 2004.
 

2:45 pm • Coffee


3:00 pm •

 

Dr. Kristina Huneault, Concordia University Research Chair in the Department of Art History presents:

 

“Practice and Method in the CanadianWomen Artists History Initiative”


Griselda Pollock argues from her earliest writings forward about the exclusion of women artists from the canon, but problematizes the attempt to insert womenʼs work into a static a priori concept of art history as an exercise in futility; rather, the production of a feminist art history, she claims, is the task at hand. More recently, Cornelia Butler writes, “The
impact of feminist art has yet to be fully theorized and accepted by academic and museum institutions.”6


Given that the art institutionʼs mandate has never been simply to rescue women artists from oblivion—such a project fails to get to the root of “art history” as a construct—the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative Inaugural Conference, along with other projects in development such as an artist database to assist scholars researching Canadian women artists and a collaborative initiative with the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to digitize catalogues and exhibition reviews, are more than compelling projects because they engage in “actively looking for ways to encourage collaboration and exchange amongst scholars working on women and art in Canada.”7 —CG


Dr. Kristina Huneault is Associate Professor in the Art History department at Concordia University, where she occupies a University Research Chair. Together with Janice Anderson and Melinda Reinhart, she is one of the founders of the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative, a project that aims to bring researchers and resources together to foster the study of art made by women in Canada prior to 1967. Dr. Huneault's research brings socially and philosophically grounded approaches to art together in order to consider how visual images participate in the construction of subjectivity. How does art participate in our understanding of the self in relation to others? Her first book, Difficult Subjects: Working Women and Visual Culture, Britain 1880–1914 (Ashgate, 2002), asks this question in relation to images of women and work. In her current research she is exploring the visible traces of gendered subjectivity in painting by historical Canadian women. Published work on Helen McNicoll (2004), Frances Anne Hopkins (2005), and miniature painting (2007) has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and Le Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture (FQRSC), and relates toher next monograph, Presence Through Absence: Subjectivity and Art by Women in Canada. Other published writings include articles on the public display of working women in sweated industries exhibitions (2000), images of flower sellers in Victorian culture (1998), women in British trade union imagery (1996), and the war sculptures of Canadian artists Frances Loring and Florence Wyle (1994).


4:00 pm • Working Groups:

 

Three Questions:

 

  • What challenges and opportunities does performance-based work present to the public art institution?

  • Can the art museum successfully re-enact performance-based work?

  • What do the public institutions hope to gain from a conversation with artists about works made as activism?


In writing about Cindy Shermanʼs Old Masters work, Rosalind Krauss brings forward the notion of forming and forming again relationships between mind and body.8 Krauss posits masquerade as a psychoanalytic term that she also contends is a phenomenon which all woman submit to, both inside and outside of representation.9 The form (or formlessness) of performance work itself forces the art institution to consider issues around creating spaces to present it disseminate information about it, house it, and maintain it. —CG


5:00 pm • Adjourn


6:00 pm • AGO tour (optional)


8:30 pm • Dinner and drinks at the Queen Mother Café, 208 Queen Street West. (Please note that dinner is not included in the price of the symposium.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008


10:00 am •

 

Art Gallery of Ontario Assistant Curator of Photography Sophie Hackett and artist Suzy Lake present:

 

“Becoming and Self-knowing in SelfImaging: Can Exhibition Enact Identity and What It Feels Like to Be Put on Display?”


In their presentation and subsequent dialogue, Sophie Hackett and Suzy Lake take up the notion of extending the performative quality of a work through collaborative and innovative exhibition practice.


In 1974ʼs Speculum of the Other Woman, the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray conflated several contested notions into a single term: la mysterique. In doing so, Irigaray showed that sorcery, hysteria, mystery, and femininity are imbricated in representations of “woman” that have appeared in texts from Plato to Lacan. Rather than exorcise the mysterique concept, Irigaray took the symbol of potentially subversive feminine productivity to be excellent. If, Irigaray argued, women had been historically left out of text and images created by and for men, one cure could be enacted by feminine hysteria, which induces the compulsion to mime, creating an opportunity to mirror with a predetermined representation of oneʼs own subjectivity.10 —CG


Sophie Hackett is the Assistant Curator, Photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She holds a Master of Arts from the University of Chicago, with a focus on the History of Photography, and spent a year in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2005–2006. She also teaches in Ryerson Universityʼs Masters program in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management. Over the last decade, she has contributed to several Canadian art magazines and curated many shows independently, including The Found and the Familiar: Snapshots in Contemporary Canadian Art, co-curated with Jennifer Long, which toured nationally.

 

Her research interests include: modernism and formulations of the history of photography; fashion and advertising photography; vernacular photography and studio portrait photography. To these subjects, she brings her training as an artist and a particular attention to the challenge that photography, in all its forms, presents to the museum context and to art history in general. In her role at the Art Gallery of Ontario, she has participated centrally in the new installation of photographic works from the permanent collection, a thematic presentation that reflects the many ways that photographs engage daily life, memory, history, and knowledge. For CONTACT 2008, she worked with Toronto artist Suzy Lake on In Rhythm of a True Space, to create a site-specific installation on the construction hoarding of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
 

Suzy Lake was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1947. Following the 1967 Detroit riots she immigrated to Montreal. Influenced by social and political involvement concurrent to the early conceptual period, she is known for her large-scale photography dealing with the body as both her subject and/or her device. In her current work, Lake continues to use references to the body as a means to investigate notions of beauty in the context of pop and consumer culture. In a 1993 retrospective catalogue, Martha Hanna responds to her feminist politicization: “Although she has not overtly addressed feminist issues, the politics of feminism is an undercurrent in all her major photographic works to date. The attention to power relations that feminism implies may be seen in Lakeʼs work as symbolic of gender struggle and her artwork is evidence of her progress”.

 

Lake was one of a group of artists that in the early 1970s adopted performance, video, and photography in order to explore the politics of gender, the body, and identity. Early examples of her work are included in the touring exhibition: WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution 1965–1980, curated by Connie Butler and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. In April of 2007, her work was featured in Identity Theft with Eleanor Antin and Lynn Hershman at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Lake has a long exhibition career in Canada and has also shown her work in Europe, the United States, South America, and Asia. She is represented by Paul Petro Contemporary Art (Toronto),and SolwayJones (Los Angeles).


Sophie Hackett and Suzy Lake recently worked together on In Rhythm of a True Space, a site-specific installation curated by Hackett for the Art Gallery of Ontario in collaboration with CONTACT, in which Lake revisits a 1997 photographic concept in response to the museumʼs transformation, in its last months of construction.

 

11:00 am • Working Groups: Completing and formalizing reports for tenminute
presentations.


noon • LUNCH


1:00 pm •

 

Emelie Chhangur, Assistant Director/Curator at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), presents “Concrete Curating – no. it is opposition.” Emelie Chhangur takes up an analysis of the curator's role as the intermediary between artwork and its audience in her current show, on view now at the AGYU, entitled Carla Zaccagnini – no. it is opposition. In her presentation, Chhangur addresses the question of how the curating of art contributes to a diagnosis of culture and discusses what new curatorial strategies are emerging as a result of the fold now occurring between local and international discourse and exhibition practice.


In Bachelors, Rosalind Krauss reads the work of nine modern women artists, including Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Dora Maar, and Louise Bourgeois, through a feminist lens, contesting the masculinist aesthetics of modern art criticism. Krauss points out that the parallel between Cahun and Duchamp, alias Rrose Selavy, goes beyond the names and into the whole project of self-marking as the key exploration which incorporates a fold in the field of representation, a fold around which not only identities revolve and reflect like a pair of double helixes but also the positions of the viewer and viewed become reversible, the parallel becomes all the more compelling.11


Chhangur writes, “The palindromic title of the exhibition title, no. it is opposition, hints at its central focus—what artist Zaccagnini describes as ʻforking paths and crossroads.ʼ The exhibited works are premised on replication but ultimately prove to be different (forking paths) or appear completely disparate but ultimately end in the same place (crossroads), while the exhibition plan repeats itself with a fullscale replica of the AGYU lobby that acts as a frame for the works included in the exhibition.12—CG


Emelie Chhangur is a Toronto-based artist, cultural worker, and curator. Maintaining a process-based, collaborative approach to working with artists, her recent curatorial research and practice finds its relevant context in Latin America. As an artist, her position as Assistant Director/Curator at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) is instrumental in transforming the nature of the contemporary art institution and the role of the university art gallery in relation to its academic context and its social function within an arts community. Her single-channel videos have been shown nationally and internationally and her sculpture/installation work was most recently shown in Dyed Roots: The new emergence of Culture at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) in Toronto.


2:00 pm • Working Groups Report


3:15 pm • Coffee


3:30 pm •

 

Camilla Singh, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art curator, presents:

 

“A Brief History of a Contemporary Canadian Art Curator”
 

and Dr. Allyson Mitchell, visual artist, curator, and educator, presents:

 

“Deep Lez”


In their presentations and subsequent conversation, Camilla Singh and Allyson Mitchell, both actively involved in making exhibitions that comprise work navigating the complexities of identity in an increasingly globalized contemporary art world, address the issue of whether or not institutional acquisition of newly historical feminist artwork extends to women artists the right to be seen as both maker and bearer of meaning.


Linda Nochlin argues that “there is no point in asking how relevant feminism is to art practice, history, and criticism today, since feminist consciousness is pervasive even when unacknowledged or demeaned. Feminism is not only overtly present but has over the past thirty years irrevocably changed the way we think about art, the body, the relationship between the viewer and the artwork, and the standing of the various media.”13 That stated, as an intellectual and political revolution, feminism differs from previous epistemological transformations because it refuses to be "merely" an intellectual matter.—CG


Camilla Singh is a visual artist and curator, working in Toronto and exhibiting internationally. She is the curator at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), where she has been working since 2002. She arrived at MOCCA with an intensive background of orchestrating contemporary art projects after receiving an MFA from the Dutch Art Institute in the Netherlands. Her curatorial projects at MOCCA have often featured live areas hosting performances, concerts, and sites of change within the gallery exhibition space. Recently, as curator of Torontoʼs Nuit Blanche (Zone C) in 2007, she presented Supernatural City, consisting of ten major outdoor contemporary art installations, viewed by 800,000 people over the course of twelve hours, from dusk to dawn.
 

Singh is an active member and cofounder of the New Remote art collective, a group of artists from Canada, the Netherlands, and Serbia that travels the world by invitation to produce spontaneous, site-specific installations. New Remote projects employ simple communication technologies to connect with geographically remote collaborators. The outcome of these works is often charged with the politics, culture, and social conventions of the sites in which they are produced.


Allyson Mitchell is a maximalist artist working predominantly in sculpture, installation, and film. Since 1997, Mitchell has been melding feminism and pop culture to play with contemporary ideas about sexuality, autobiography, and the body, largely through the use of reclaimed domestic materials and abandoned craft. Her work has exhibited in galleries and festivals across Canada, the US, Europe, and East Asia. She has also performed extensively with Pretty Porky and Pissed Off, a fat performance troupe, as well as publishing both writing and music.

 

She teaches at York University in the School of Women's Studies. Allyson Mitchell's film, performance, and installation work is currently touring Canada and the US. In 2009-2010 her exhibition Ladies Sasquatch will travel from McMaster Museum of Art to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Lethbridge University Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Peterborough. Currently, Mitchell is curating a survey exhibition of Judy Chicago's textile-based work, from 1968 to 2008, for the Textile Museum of Canada (opening February 2009).


5:00 pm •  Adjournment and thanks.

 

Footnotes:

 

1 OAAG, 2008 Fall Focus Session December 3 and 4, 2008, Toronto <http://www.oaag.org/programs/pastprograms.html>

2 OAAG Program Description, <http://www.oaag.org/programs/downloads/Program%20FINAL.pdf>

3 G. W. F. Hegel, “Philosophy and Art” in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, ed. Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998) 105

4 Carol Duncan, “Maybe Feminism Has Just Begun” in M. Pachmanován, Mobile Fidelities: Conversations on Feminism, History and Visuality, n.paradoxa online, no. 19, May 2006, ISSN: 1462-0426, 127
5 Ibid., 127

6 Dena Shottenkirk, C International Contemporary Art, Spring 2002 issue, C15.

7 Canadian Women Artists History Initiative Inaugural Conference, October 2 to 4, 2008, organized by Concordia University in Montreal. http://cwahi.concordia.ca/activities/

8 Cornelia Butler, “Art and Feminism: An Ideology of Shifting Criteria”, in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007) 15.

9 Rosalind Krauss, Bachelors (Cambridge: October Books/MIT Press, 1999) 147
10 Ibid., 114–115

11 Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986) 133

12 Krauss, Bachelors 42-47
13 http://www.yorku.ca/agyu/index2.html

14 Dena Shottenkirk, C International Contemporary Art, Spring 2002 issue, C15.

Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic 

 

Summary of Symposium 

 

“It was disappointing not to have brought back in the evening some important statement, some authentic fact. Women are poorer than men because—this or that.” 1

                                                                                                                                                                                                           Virginia Woolf

 

It was a privilege to organize Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic for the Ontario Association of Art Galleries (OAAG).The two-day symposium, which took place in December of 2008, brought together a wide variety of perspectives within the Ontario art community. Featured speakers included artist and Art Gallery of York University curator Emelie Chhangur, University of Ottawa History and Theory of Art Professor Christine Conley, writer and independent curator Pamela Edmonds, Art Gallery of Ontario Photography Curator Sophie Hackett, artist and Ontario College of Art and Design University Professor Johanna Householder, Concordia University Professor Kristina Huneault, Art Gallery of Ontario Contemporary Art Curator Michelle Jacques, artist Suzy Lake, and artist and York University Professor Allyson Mitchell. These participants along with several other esteemed OAAG delegates, came together to discuss the renewed interest in feminist practices expressed by artists, curators and academics across North America and to reflect on the unique challenges and opportunities presented to Ontario art galleries, archives, universities and other public institutions with respect to the exhibition, education, acquisition and preservation of recent feminist artwork.

Two years after the symposium, I have been charged with writing a post-event summary. Gathering my thoughts, or perhaps more accurately bringing together a series of speculative thoughts as to what impact and outcomes Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic might have manifested in our art world two years later, I can confirm that there are no simple answers.

 

At the heart of the 2008 symposium was the recognition that the institutional structures of the art world, in Canada and beyond, have shifted greatly over the past decades and continue to do so, in response to changes in the social role and function of art. With the passage of time, the very new forms of art—which in the 1960s presented so many challenges to traditional concepts of exhibition—are now entering into the collections of public museums and galleries. The accession of works that resist the neutralizing, historicizing tendencies of the museum as it has traditionally functioned demands a new interrogation of the relationship between the artwork and the institution. And so, Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic proposed a series of interrelated questions:

 

  • How is the art museum a gendered space?

  • How does feminist work effect new reading(s) of the public museum?

  • What strategies have art curators developed for the presentation, housing and maintenance of feminist art?

  • What challenges and opportunities does performance-based work present to public art institutions?

  • Can the art museum successfully re-enact performance-based work?

  • What do public institutions gain from a conversation with artists about art’s activist function?

 

In recent years a number of books, touring exhibitions, symposia and magazine articles have addressed these and other questions with respect to feminist practices in contemporary art institutions. In the months leading up to the 2008 OAAG symposium, two major comprehensive exhibitions of feminist art were mounted: Global Feminisms,organized by Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin at the Brooklyn Museum’s new Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and Wack! Art and Feminist Revolution, a touring exhibition curated by Connie Butler for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In the months following Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic, many more examples appeared. While the May 2010 issues of Artforum, Art Monthly, Mute, Art in America andARTnews, all took up the Museum of Modern Art’s Marina Abramovic performance retrospective, a number of similar retrospective exhibitions had already been mounted here in Canada. Examples include, both in 2009, When Women Rule the World: Judy Chicago in Thread, curated by Allyson Mitchell for the Textile Museum, Toronto, andMartha Wilson: Staging Self, curated by Peter Dykhuis at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax.

 

It is also noteworthy that in autumn of 2010 the Art Gallery of Ontario foregrounded feminist practice with Allyson Mitchell: A girl’s journey to the well of forbidden knowledge on view in the lobby, and three unique but connected exhibitions presented in the fourth floor gallery under the title At Work. The themed group-show explores three major international woman artists: Eva Hesse (1936–1970), Agnes Martin (1912-2004) and Betty Goodwin (1923-2008). The accompanying didactic panel explains that, “while their artistic vocabularies are diverse, presented together in At Work, the installation tells the compelling story of the labour of art and provides new insights into these artists’ dedicated and focused work in the studio.” 2 Another strong offering on view in autumn 2010 was the Oakville Galleries’ group exhibition Un-home-ly, curated by Matthew Hyland and featuring the work of Lucy Gunning, Mako Idemitsu, Suzy Lake, Liz Magor, Luanne Martineau, Shana Moulton, Valérie Mréjen, Paulette Phillips, Pipilotti Rist, Martha Rosler, Nicola Tyson, and Jin-me Yoon. Installations at the GairlochGardens andCentennialSquare galleries consider the currency of the uncanny in contemporary feminist art practice.

 

Looking forward, the University of Toronto has organized a book, exhibition and tour ofSUZY LAKE, Political Poetics, while the Art Gallery of Peterborough prepares to presentStreaming Alter-Modernity, a group show that engages with the language of exhibition to consider notions of ‘alterity,’ 3 and investigates affective relationships between spectral and sculptural artworks by Rebecca Belmore, Emelie Chhangur, Johanna Househoulder, Pamela Matharu, Nadia Myre, Natalie Wood and Christina Zeidler.

 

Although the above-referenced shows have helped to open a space in which to consider the problems inherent to our topic, we must not overestimate their effects. Helena Reckitt cautions against this; after pointing to the mainstream success of artists like Eva Hesse, Cindy Sherman and Kara Walker, she nonetheless writes, “at the same time, the arts press rarely foregrounds feminist issues, museums hardly ever present feminist shows, female artists’ prices are notoriously lower than men's, and the ratios of women to men in exhibitions and museum collections is very low (and for artists of color even lower). So perhaps the myth of gender equity in the arts is exactly that.” 4

 

To unpack this myth we need only look to how Canadian women artists are represented in the permanent collections of public art museums as well as art historical texts, university slide libraries, and historical archives. Dr. Christine Connelly’s presentation specifically addressed this statistical lack of representation, arguing that is not because women artists have not been doing their utmost to participate in the production of visual culture, but because unchecked, professors, critics, curators and collectors of both genders tend towards the norm, that is to say displaying the male point of view despite the fact that feminism and the work of women artists have profoundly affected the contemporary art discourse.

 

What is at work here? While it may be true that more galleries, commercial and public, are engaged in presenting male artists, writers, editors and curators are nonetheless attempting to tack the metaphorical ship in another direction. It’s not an easy proposition. Like any experienced sailor knows, strategy must come into play; to veer a little this way and a little that will move us further than trying to plow straight ahead into the wind.

 

In Civilizing Rituals, Carol Duncan argues that a highly structured, and gendered, set of conventions organizes the museum experience and, in turn, the dominant narratives of modern art. 5 Like Linda Nochlin, whose “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” took aim at the institutional biases that structure art history, 6 Duncan believes that the museum functions primarily to affirm identity. Unfortunately, not everyone’s stories are told.

Duncan elaborates upon art institutions’ symbolic structures, describing them as powerful engines of ideology that have taken over some of the functions fulfilled in the past by sacred architecture. In “The Museum of Modern Art as Late Capitalist Ritual,” Duncan casts the museum as a ritual that visitors perform by walking through its programmed displays, its social function related to those of older ceremonial monuments such as palaces or temples. Duncan recreates the museum-going experience for her readers, pointing out “the structured narrative route through the interior,” the typical ambulatory design that mimics religious architecture and the myriad representations of the sacred. 7

 

Within the sacred/secular dichotomy that Duncan argues structures much of the Western world from the Enlightenment on, the art museum is understood to be a secular space. Built upon an aesthetic premise, the collection of art as such necessarily deemphasizes its social and contextual meanings in favour of its artistic or intellectual value. Duncan, however, reads this operation through Kantian aesthetics as transference of spiritual values from the sacred realm into secular time and space. Duncan explicitly clarifies what is at stake when she writes, “to control the museum means precisely to control the representation of the community and its highest values and truths.” 8

 

Although we have seen a marked shift from master narratives to multi-narratives, this shift brings with it a whole new set of questions for art institutions: How do Ontario’s art institutions best reflect the province’s changing demography? What can art institutions do about the historical gender imbalance of collections both public and private? How can works of art from the past be best integrated with those from the present? How do curators broaden aesthetic discourse to include the reality of workingwomen, mothers and the exploration of complex identities? And perhaps most importantly, does the historicization of art made in the spirit of the feminist movement by art institutions play into the idea that the real political work belongs to the past?

 

While it is important to recognize that feminism and the reflection of feminist ideas in culture have allowed many women better conditions in the workplace—increased opportunities, maternity leave and so on—there is no room for complacency. The movement has also lost some real ground, as the loss of the National Day Care Program, National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and Planned Parenthood clinics worldwide in the last decade can attest to. Canadian women with postsecondary educations still earn on average just 63 per cent of the salary of similarly educated men. 9

 

One of the most difficult problems that feminist practitioners within the art world and in culture at large face is how to implement the gains made by feminist interventions into patriarchal institutions while always still acknowledging the need for ongoing forms of resistance. What are we to do with the perception that feminist art is only interesting as re-enactment rather than as a contemporary political force?

 

I confess to remaining enamored with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in particular the way she situates women’s consciousness both in the body and in historical and social experience, an argument best expressed in the famous line “one is not born but becomes a woman.” 10 Using Freudian and Marxian methods, de Beauvoir analyzes how women perform in the world, unpacking just how deeply gendered modern culture is and to what extent the category of ‘woman’ is a projection of society’s interests and fears, defined negatively against a positivist conception of (male) subjectivity.

 

Feminist philosophers, art historians and critics have continued to interrogate this casting of woman as “lack,” this systematic erasure of a female subjectivity. In “Theory, Ideology, Politics: Art History and its Myths,”Griselda Pollock invokes a range of cultural material spanning several time periods to talk about what usually gets left out of the discussion. 11When Pollock asks, “What makes us interested in artists who are women?” she situates this inquiry in the same socio-political framework that Virginia Woolf engaged in her influential essay A Room of One's Own, which is a text that mapped out the enormous social and cultural inequities that have denied women entry into the artistic canon. 12

 

Pollock claims that Woolf’s image of “murdered female creativity,”—personified in Woolf’s fictional Judith Shakespeare who, trapped by the confines of a society that denies her access to intellectual pursuits ultimately takes her own life—needs to be scrutinized for what it reveals about the grip negative symbolism has on cultural historiography.

 

I can still recall my first encounter with the feminist dialectic in an art institution. It occurred in the early seventies when I first visited Toronto’s Art Metropole, a non-profit artist-run centre founded in 1974 by the General Idea artists collective. Run in those early years by Christina Ritchie and Elke Towne, the space was one of the first in Canada devoted to the presentation, collection and archiving of a new format being used to make and exhibit art: video. They steered me towards Martha Rosler’s 1975 performance and video work Semiotics of the Kitchen, in which Rosler dons an apron and proceeds to handle an array of kitchen utensils, announcing their names and miming their functions, revealing their semiotic readings until the various kitchen implements are raised up as political weapons and emblems of revolution.

 

This was a time when feminist practitioners made great interventions into the status quo. From New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto, sisterhood seemed to be about women standing up for each other as well as standing up for themselves. Women could be seen to be collectively rallying here and abroad to demand political equality. And this desire to express the political fact of being in the form of a woman’s body began to manifest itself in the work American artists like Hannah Wilke, whose performances incorporated her body slowly undressing, mixing pinup-girl tropes with something darker; Carolee Schneeman, whose use of blood as a symbol of feminine power and beauty forcefully reintroduced the corporeal into the disembodied realm of conceptual art; and Barbara Kruger, whose collage works appropriated mainstream magazine images to trouble notions of power and control.

 

While Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin and Betty Goodwin were making and exhibiting work in New York City and Montreal, Ontario was home to its own groundbreaking performance art scene. Work by artist collectives like the Clichettes, who parodied male rock groups, lip synching in macho drag, and the Hummer Sisters, who donned conservative business suits and men’s aviator glasses to literally and metaphorically hit the mayoral campaign trail in Toronto, astonished in its time but has since gone largely uncelebrated. Similarly, the artifice of beauty and the representation of desire in mass culture have yet to garner enduring recognition in artists like Lisa Steele, who like Hannah Wilke used her body as an instrument to reveal lived feminine history, and in Suzy Lake and Tanya Mars, whose practices are both predicated upon inventing a range of feminine personae that then enact connections between female identity.

 

As artists continued to create works, which challenged the disembodied aesthetic foundations of the art museum, so too did curators and collectors develop new strategies for collecting and exhibiting such works. Art Metropole grew out of General Idea’s awareness that the work they were engaged in was happening outside of traditional exhibitory frameworks. In 1987, Ydessa Hendeles presented Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, a garment made from flank steak, which smartly referenced Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy. The raw steak garment caused a stir when first presented at Hendeles’ Toronto gallery and later on again when it was exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada. Described by Art News as one of the fifty most influential people in the art world, Hendeles has for the last three decades been a leading figure in Toronto’s art scene, always maintaining a strong engagement with the feminist dialectic and representing many of Canada’s most significant contemporary Canadian artists including, Kim Adams, Fastwürms, Rodney Graham, Kim Kozzi, Noel Harding, Ken Lum, Liz Magor, John Massey, Sandra Meigs, Jana Sterbak, Jeff Wall and Krzysztof Wodiczko and Shelagh Alexander.

 

Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Professor Mieke Bal is a cultural theorist, critic and video artist who writes on modern art and literature, feminism and migratory culture. Bal spoke in 2009 at the University of Toronto Art Centre in conjunction with her exhibition, Nothing is Missing, about the significance of narrative, story telling and what it means to be a teacher.

Listening to Bal speak about her process we see that for her, the processes of making andexhibiting are indistinguishable; she combines thinking, assembling and narrating to draw out the performativity of her subject, which is motherhood, a central feminine story that is often suppressed, at least in the public sphere. Nothing is Missing comprises a series of video portraits that display a multiplicity of mothers speaking to their sons, all of whom have gone abroad in search of sustainable lifestyles. The women are videotaped inside or in front of their emerging-world homes. Bal presents these documentaries like digital letters on a random collection of old television sets, each on set on its own second-hand cabinet decorated with hand knit doilies or crocheted afghans.

 

With Nothing is Missing, Bal suggests that the museum or public art gallery can function as an inter-cultural bridge—in this case the discourse of motherhood, which presupposes a certain amount of universality, can take place—while also self-reflexively interrogating the power structures at work within the institution itself. In doing so Bal demonstrates that aesthetics are political in that they can transverse the inter-cultural as well as inter-relational.

 

To amplify this concept of relationality, Bal’s installation emphasizes the face and the act of looking at the face. She suggests that viewers become engaged with listening and looking as a method for making contact with another: I face you—hence ‘we’ exist. The theorist proposes the face as a threefold opening: a window to the soul, a visage, and a political entity. Her installation performs a kind of critical intimacy.

 

The curator/theorist relies on the dynamic nature of the portrait and the idea that the origin of identity is based on the baby seeing the mother’s face. In order to believe in the real existence of the mothers pictured in the collected documentaries screening in Bal’s simulated living room, viewers must be distinct and connected at once. This is because it is the ‘gaps’ between the two that are key to universality, key to intermediacy and inter-temporality, which affect the potential of the imagination. The curator explains that this process of becoming assumes the presence of the past, the self as social and selfhood as both stable and unstable.

 

Speaking recently at the AGO in conjunction with its Eva Hesse installation as a part of At Work, Lucy Lippard pointed out that for the Women’s Movement, content and communication and most importantly lived experience, the unleashing of the self, and making the intangible tangible by using gender identifiable materials, can help to bridge the gap and pose a challenge to the cordoned-off history of the art museum. That night, Lippard emphasized just how much that oft-spoken feminist tenet, the personal is political, holds true today. In our contemporary political climate, she argued, being for oneself is not enough; feminism is about being for all women and until all women in the world have a right to clean water, an education, safety of their person, reproductive choice, no women are truly free. 13

 

Feminist art problematizes the museum. Exhibiting it often brings something live, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous into an architecture designed to hold that which is no longer living. Its very power relies on chance and on an audience to be reborn with each new re-enactment.

 

Or to end differently: many of our sorceresses’ shows are still to come. Writers, editors, curators and museum directors appear ready to provide a place for a feminist point of view. And even though the discourse is often fractured with difference speaking over similarity, the discussion is good in and of itself.  Although it would be difficult to claim that any single event can effect the re-invigoration of a discussion about the feminist dialectic in art practice, education, writing, and exhibition—in short the art institution—the 2008 OAAG symposium attempted to ask far-reaching questions and succeeded in covering a lot of ground.

 

Notes:

1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Penguin, 2002), 48.

2. “At Work: Hesse, Goodwin, Martin,” Art Gallery of Ontario, accessed February 16, 2011, http://www.ago.net/at-work-hesse-goodwin-martin.

3. Alterity is a philosophical term meaning “otherness,” strictly in the sense of being the other of two (Latin: alter). Now it is generally taken as the philosophical principle of exchanging one’s own perspective for that of the “other.” Simone de Beauvoir appropriates Emmanuel Lévinas’ term to unpack the phenomenological, existential, anthropological, Marxist, and psychoanalytic insights of her predecessors and peers and thereby addresses oppressive phenomena such as sexism, racism, and ageism naturalized in the culture.

4. Helena Reckitt, “Who Wants to be a Feminist Artist?,” Ratsalad DeLuxe 8 (2006), http://www.turtlenosedsnake.com/ratsaladsite/reckitt.htm.

5. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London and New York: Routlege, 1995).

6. ARTnews (January 1971): 22-39, 67-71.

7. Carol Duncan, “The Art Museum as Ritual”(1995), in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology,edited by Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 478.

8. Ibid 475.

9. Gloria Galloway, “‘Third wave’ of feminism urged by prominent Canadian women,” The Globe and Mail, September 9, 2010.

10. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage, 1989), 267.

11. Art Bulletin 78, no.1 (1996): 16-22.

12. Margaret J. M. Ezell, “The Myth of Judith Shakespeare: Creating the Canon of Women’s Literature,” New Literary History XXI, 11 (1990): 579-92.

13. Lucy Lippard, Jackman Hall, September 28, 2010.