“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.

 

Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic 

 

Summary of Symposium