Everything is Personal
From the Body: Allegories of the Feminine. Museo de Bellas Artes, 1998October 14, 2016
This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2016 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Show & Tell. Read the editorial text to learn more about the other commissioned articles that are or will be published.
I will allow myself to approach this topic on a personal level, not as a clever appropriation of the feminist claim that “the personal is political,” or as a sort of epigraph allowing me to enter into a review of the exhibition From the Body: Allegories of the Feminine [Desde el cuerpo: alegorías de lo femenino] . I will attempt to speak of this curatorial proposal on a personal level because I believe that this is the position from which I am able to approach a show that, nearly twenty years ago, contemplated the interrogation of the modes of representation of the feminine universe. And I seek to ask myself, with the perspective of time, what would this exhibition uncover, what relevance and what resonance would these questions have today?
Head: Scattered Recollections of an Exhibition
In 1998 I was in my eighth semester of the Bachelor of Arts program at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). At that time the concept of taking on the body as subject matter was still a long way off for me, let alone considering photography as an artistic practice. As an art student, I developed an approach through my interest in dealing with scholarly theoretical trajectories, which was nourished by the resources we had access to as students in the then-rich libraries of our national museums and art centers—the Museo de Bellas Artes, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, CINAP National Art Gallery, the Museo Alejandro Otero and Sala Mendoza's Document Center—and in the individual and group exhibitions of national and international artists, with pristine museological staging.
I permit myself this digression because I consider it essential to highlight the documentary work of our institutions and the important tasks they fulfill by collecting materials, making them available and putting them into circulation for the general public, students and researchers, a duty that has perhaps faded with the passage of time due to the limited resources our museums work with today.
Among the spaces of the Museo de Bellas Artes toward the end of the nineties, I recall the exhibitions Cindy Sherman: A Selection from the Eli Broad Family Foundation’s Collection (1997), Shadows: Christian Boltanski (1999), and, in particular, Cas(A)nto by Antonieta Sosa (1998-1999) as being particularly decisive. At the beginning of that same year, Sosa also participated in the group show From the Body, which brought together the work of both up-and-coming artists and those with established careers, Venezuelan and international, who used the representation of the body, or the body itself as a vehicle for the development of their inquiries.
From this exhibition, oddly and in spite of the importance of the artists featured, I recalled only three, dissimilar, components, which I was able to reconstruct through the (few) images I found while researching this text.
Fragment #1: Untitled (from Strangelove) by Valeska Soares, a three-dimensional ceramic piece in the form of a sink, out of which flowed scented beeswax, in allusion to bodily fluids. An unexpected incitement of the sense of smell—forever marginalized in art in favor of sight—in a normally ascetic, unblemished museum gallery.
Fragment #2: Proyecto crónicas [Chronicles Project] by Mailén García, an interactive installation in which images of the lacerated body of the artist—referencing gender-based violence—were projected on the interior of a plastic structure resembling a greenhouse. At the time, I did not comprehend this proposal, which paradoxically struck me as odd due more to its staging than its confrontational content.
Fragment #3: Anto: 163 cm a la medida de mi cuerpo, ni un milímetro más, ni un milímetro menos [Anto: 163 cm Made to Measure for My Body, Not a Millimeter More, Not a Millimeter Less] by Antonieta Sosa. A minimalist installation of three-dimensional pieces which, using the artist’s measurements as a model, developed a spatial progression that advanced from the horizontal to the vertical plane. As part of the Museo Alejandro Otero’s curatorial team, I had the opportunity to relate to this work in a different way when we displayed it in the context of the controversial exhibition La Megaexposición. Arte venezolano del siglo XX [The Mega-Exhibition: 20th-Century Venezuelan Art.]
Looking back on these fragments from a distance, attempting to situate them in a location and a logic within my memory, I wonder—above and beyond personal taste—why, in an exhibition whose language comprised installation works, photography-based works similar to those presented in the exhibitions that had so powerfully captured my attention in the Museo de Bellas Artes itself, did I have no memories other than those uncertain fragments, which spoke more to my doubt than my astonishment?
It is worth noting that at the time, no catalogue whatsoever was published for the show, and it was not until 2007 that Monte Ávila Editores Latinoamericana published the eponymous exhibition book.
I also wonder if the concepts confronted in the show were particularly complicated or cryptic for the era, and whether my own disinterested approach to the exhibition may have caused me to repeat the same patterns that privilege the masculine over the feminine—with the latter understood as the opposite of the hegemonic, dominant discourse—while the work of Cindy Sherman, and clearly also that of Antonieta Sosa, produce deconstructions of women’s role in the arts, inversions of the dynamics of power, of margin and center.
Torso: From Margin to Center
In 1998, after four years of research, Carmen Hernández presented From the Body: Allegories of the Feminine, based on a selection of twenty-three Latin American, Caribbean, European, and North American artists: Marina Abramovic, Janine Antoni, Kuki Benski, Argelia Bravo, Tania Bruguera, María Magdalena Campos, Marlene Dumas, Mailén García, Silvia Gruner, María Teresa Hincapié, Sara Maneiro, Lia Menna Barreto, Paloma Navares, Catalina Parra, Mara María Pérez Bravo, Graciela Sacco, Paula Santiago, Valeska Soares, Antonieta Sosa, Jana Sterbak, Jocelyn Taylor, Adriana Varejão, and Eugenia Vargas. Doris Salcedo declined the invitation to participate because she considered the call, which was bound to the feminine, to have an exclusive, discriminatory focus.
Some of those who were invited to the exhibition were already acclaimed artists; others had less renowned artistic careers. Regardless, for the curator the fundamental aspect of the selection centered on how the work used allegories of the body and the utilization of “non-traditional” media like installation and video, to construct discourses in which aspects of the dominant culture were questioned and debated, from the—so-called—margins: “…the feminine…as a manifold configuration and transgressive subjectivity,” in the words of Hernández.
Four conceptual positions gave shape to the exhibition’s theoretical approach:
- The evaluation of the feminine through the presentation of everyday activities as a way of suggesting the reconfiguration of, and greater plurality in, social roles. Works in which domestic labor, cleaning, caregiving, breastfeeding, knitting, were established as a pursuit departing from the matriarchal in order to strike an equilibrium, a non-polarity between the genders.
- The evaluation of the feminine through language, discursive analysis, “the way things are said.” Pieces that reconfigure the mode in which we conceive of the representation of women’s bodies.
- The critique and revision of discriminatory discourses in disciplines like medicine, history and genetics.
- The critique of stereotypes modeled by society and disseminated by the mass media.
Extremities: Final Stages
For its era, the proposal of From the Body, which questioned binary masculine/feminine discourses, fought against the logocentric narrative and brought about a re-examination of the dynamics of the representation of women’s bodies, was—and I dare say still is—important and necessary. Today, it might not spark the level of controversy that it did at the time, at least not for the same reasons.
- The practical side: At one of the most dire moments of economic, social and political strife in the history of contemporary Venezuela, mounting an exhibition this ambitious in terms of its international scope and the technical complexity of its staging would be practically inconceivable for a state museum.
- The ideological side: While the discourse linked to new feminine subjectivities is promoted—rhetorically—by government entities, it runs contrary to the marked and systematic effort to establish a single official narrative that eliminates any dissent, and therefore it contradicts any notion of the feminine as opposition to the hegemonic, as the representation of the voice of the margin. Could power itself then be subjected to debate?
Various curatorial projects have taken place in the country since 1998 in which the artists’ proposals sought to re-evaluate the role of women, proposing active political and social involvement, including the much-debated participation of Argelia Bravo herself as representative of Venezuela in the 56th Venice Biennial (2015). Nonetheless, female Venezuelan cultural producers still face inequality in terms of opportunities for access and participation in exhibitions and calls for competitions, prizes and biennials.
Tepidness or burning-hot involvement, staying on the margins of the margin does not appear to be an option: protest struggles, feminist theory, and feminist art have changed with time and have changed our time.
Being committed or not to feminism, feeling affinity or not with certain discourses, fails to evade the assimilation we have already enacted on its legacy and that which we have borrowed from it. As we know, not taking sides is still taking a stance, and after all, the personal is always political.
Fig 1. Valeska Soares, Untitled (from Strangelove). Beeswax, pump, perfume. 40 cm x 91.44 cm. Photo: Centro de Documentación MBA
Fig 2. General view of Mailén García, Proyecto crónicas, 1997. Multimedia installation. 350 x 400 x 600 cm. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales—Museo de Bellas Artes. Photo: Centro de Documentación MBA
Fig 3. Detail of Mailén García, Proyecto crónicas, 1997. Multimedia installation. 350 x 400 x 600 cm. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales—Museo de Bellas Artes. Photo: Reinaldo Armas and Charlie Riera
Fig 4. Antonieta Sosa, Anto: 163 cm a la medida de mi cuerpo, ni un milímetro más, ni un milímetro menos, 1984–1991. Installation in lacquered wood (Polyptych, 15 pieces). 163 x 163 x 1,630 cm. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales—Museo de Bellas Artes. Photo: Ricardo Armas (taken from the catalog Uno, dos, tres, cuatro. Wenemoser, Fuenmayor, Obregón, Sosa [MBA 1991])
Fig 5. Antonia Sosa, Anto: 163 cm a la medida de mi cuerpo, ni un milímetro más, ni un milímetro menos, 1984–1991. Installation in lacquered wood (Polyptych, 15 pieces). 163 x 163 x 1,630 cm. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales—Museo de Bellas Artes. Photo: Ricardo Armas (taken from the catalog Uno, dos, tres, cuatro. Wenemoser, Fuenmayor, Obregón, Sosa [MBA 1991])
Fig 6. Marina Abramovic, Cleaning the Mirror #1, 1995. Video installation (5 monitors and 5 VHS tapes). 284 x 61 x 48 cm. Photo: Centro de Documentación MBA
Fig 7. Detail of Janine Antoni, Lick and Lather, 1993–1994. Installation of seven busts in chocolate sculpted by licking and seven busts in soap sculpted by lathering, taken from a mold of the artist’s body. Approximately 138 x 424 x 424 cm. Photo: Centro de Documentación MBA
Fig 8. General view of Kuki Benski, La Venus de Miles, 1996–1997. Installation with photographs, celluloid, magnifying glass, text, slide projectors, and screen. 300 x 400 x 500 cm. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales—Museo de Bellas Artes. Photo: Centro de Documentación MBA
Fig 9. Detail of Kuki Benski, La Venus de Miles, 1996–1997. Installation with photographs, celluloid, magnifying glass, text, slide projectors, and screen. 300 x 400 x 500 cm. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales—Museo de Bellas Artes. Photo: Centro de Documentación MBA
Fig 10. Detail of Kuki Benski, La Venus de Miles, 1996–1997. Installation with photographs, celluloid, magnifying glass, text, slide projectors, and screen. 300 x 400 x 500 cm. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales—Museo de Bellas Artes. Photo: Pea Fresno
Fig 11. Tania Bruguera, El peso de la culpa, 1997. Photographic documentation of a performance that took place at the Sala Experimental del Museo de Bellas Artes on February 15, 1998. Photo documentation: Daniel Sckoczdopole
Fig 12. Detail of Sara Maneiro, Cinco crímenes, cinco escenarios, 1997
Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen