“My Alphabet Of Anxieties & Desires” — Christmas book sale!

Just in time for Christmas: My Alphabet Of Anxieties & Desires depicts all twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet in original, highly-rendered illustrations. While based on the format of a child’s alphabet book, this book is most assuredly for adults. If you prefer a book that you can actually touch, then you’ll appreciate the high-quality paper and printing. Ships directly to your doorstep, no matter where you are. Sweet.

The book is 40 full-colour pages, printed on a premium matte paper with a perfect-bound softcover. There’s a short preface written by myself, and a thought-provoking foreword by Judith Mintz.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Pushing Boundaries.’

This is the follow-up post to Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Pushing Boundaries.

Something you don’t want coming at you in the dark (and with that hammer) in REC and REC2.

1. The Spanish horror films [REC] (2007) and [REC]2 (2009) have proven to be a potent one-two punch in recent horror cinema. The second film is less of a sequel as a continuation of the first, with the action literally picking up where the first film ended. This is a very good thing, indeed, as the final third of [REC] set-up an unanticipated and fairly novel plot twist involving the Vatican, some dubious medical experiments, and a solitary priest living in the penthouse of the sealed-off, ‘zombie’-infested Madrid apartment building. It is this unique mashup of zombie-meets-supernatural thriller that makes the [REC] films standout from the recent overabundance of shaky-camera, faux found-footage style horror films. From what I’ve read, the shot-for-shot English language remake Quarantine (which I have not seen) altered the heavy Catholicism of the original Spanish film, replacing all those Virgin Marys with more generic, non-denominational Christian iconography. While the Catholicism would not have the same resonance for the multicultural, multi-faith English-speaking world as it would for the Latin, an easier and more obvious correlation exists between the flesh-eating ‘zombies’ and the characteristically morbid, blood-drenched imagery of Spanish Catholicism than it does for the more ‘sanitized’ versions of Christianity. The only disappointment I had with these films was the ending of [REC]2 which, as soon as a certain character reappears on the scene, is pretty much spelled out.

Catherine Begin as the diabolical Mademoiselle in “Martyrs” (2008).

2. I had purposely avoided Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) after reading the synopsis and questioning whether a plot that hinged upon the brutal and systematic abuse, torture and murder of young women was something I wanted to witness. After relenting and watching the film, I must admit that it pleasantly surprised me. Now, make no mistake — this is a troubling, violent, and gory film that boldly underscores the word extreme in the phrase ‘New French Extremity’, a category of recent French films in which Martyrs is often included. Much like the [REC] films above, Laugier’s Martyrs veers off in an unexpected and fascinating direction towards the end of the film, revealing a secret society of privileged individuals determined to discover — at any cost — the existence of an afterlife. The enigmatic ending will have you scratching your head for years to come.

3. Any film that re-imagines and updates the ‘slasher’ genre immediately gets my attention, as did Alexandre Aja’s superlative Haute Tension (2003). While some horror fans argue that the ‘big reveal’ in the film didn’t work, I give Aja credit for playing with the conventions of gender in the rigidly formulaic slasher genre. In one of my earlier posts, entitled Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, I wrote extensively on this film.

Nothing quite says “revenge” like a fish hook in the eyelid. Jennifer Hills is more of a badass in the 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave.”

4. Like the dated sexual politics of the slasher film, the rape-revenge film is an exploitation subgenre also in need of an update. Much has changed in gender roles and equality since Meir Zarchi made his controversial 1978 cult film I Spit On Your Grave. The 2010 remake, which credits Zarchi as one of its producers, attempts to address some of the shortfalls of the original — at least, shortfalls in the eyes of this contemporary horror fan. In my earlier post Rape-Revenge Girl, I criticized Zarchi’s film for the rather unsatisfying revenge sequences. “The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge,” I wrote, and “…the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste.” As if in direct response to my criticism, the 2010 remake offers up grisly and sickly-twisted revenge killings reminiscent of the stuff you’d find in “torture porn” films like Saw and Hostel. Admittedly, the whole transformation of Jennifer Hills from cheerful girl-next-door, to rape victim, to psychopathic and sadistic killer doesn’t work in any realm other than extreme, cathartic fantasy. Then again, if you’re opting to watch a film entitled I Spit On Your Grave, then you probably know what you’re in store for and will suspend your disbelief long enough to see the blood spill.

The Rape-Revenge Girl, part deux.

Baise-moi, si vous plaît.

The sex-club massacre scene from "Baise-moi" (2000). In English, the film's title would be correctly translated as "Fuck me", and not "Rape me" under which it was originally released in North America.

When the French film Baise-moi was released in 2000, it garnered a great deal of media attention for its highly graphic violence and depictions of unsimulated sex. The film was banned in Ontario, initially because it was deemed too pornographic. The producers asked for it to be re-rated with a pornographic rating, only for it to be banned because there was too much violence for a pornographic film. It was finally passed with an “18A license” after — one assumes — some strategic edits being made. I caught up with the film on DVD that year, and have recently rewatched it online — you can find most of the film on Youtube, but hurry as it’s likely to be removed due to its content and copyright infringement. I came away from my recent viewing with these two impressions: firstly, that it is a far better film than I remember, and second, that I still don’t know what all the hullabaloo was about.

Here’s a quick synopsis: the main characters Nadine (Karen Bach) and Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) are women who live on the precarious fringe of a very disenfranchised lower-class in contemporary France. Nadine is a part-time prostitute involved with some very shady individuals, while the perpetually unemployed Manu spends much of her time trying to get stoned. When Manu is gang raped by a group of thugs, her brother — with whom she has a strangely complex and conflicted relationship — accuses her of “enjoying” the rape and calls her a “slut.” A physical struggle ensues, during which Manu grabs her brother’s handgun and shoots him dead. Meanwhile, Nadine has a violent scuffle with her female roommate that ends with her friend’s demise. So, a bad day for all parties involved. The women meet up at a railway station by pure coincidence, and the two decide to “go on the lamb” from the police that will soon pursue them. And thus famously begins their violent, drug-addled, pornographic and completely nihilistic crime spree.

Nadine pays homage to Travis Bickle's famous "Are you talking to me?" scene from Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." No, seriously. Compare both scenes.

In my previous post on The Rape-Revenge Girl I discussed Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and how that film ultimately failed as a satisfying Rape-Revenge film. Where Zarchi’s film falters and, conversely, Baise-moi succeeds is in the depiction of rape. The protracted and rather gratuitous rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave offer up much screaming, nakedness, and salacious close-ups of Jennifer Hill’s anguished face and bloodied body. While the audience understands that bloody vengeance will come before the credits roll, it’s not until after we all get a good, long look at Jennifer’s breasts. The whole deal feels exploitative. While the rape scene in Baise-moi is undeniably graphic — as it involves actual penetration — the filmmakers Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi simultaneously reject the sadism inherent in a rape scene. Much to the dismay of one of her rapists, Manu stares ahead in a detached manner during her attack. She has recognized that although she’s powerless to prevent the assault, she can assert power through her refusal to “play” the role of the victim. The fact that her lack of response clearly annoys her rapist underscores the politics that inform the scene: that rape is about power, not sex.

Once Nadine and Manu are on the road, the film becomes a sort of X-rated buddy-flick. The sex is graphic, true, but no more so than anything you’ve seen in a standard, mainstream pornographic film. Much like films of that ilk, it’s also completely mechanical and nonerotic. The violence of the main characters is sudden, impulsive and seemingly fueled by a rage against society as a whole, which is partly the reason it all works so well. The scene of the bloody massacre that takes place within a sex club is positively operatic in its excessive violence. For no other reason, you should watch this film for that scene.

OK, I believe I’ve finished with my “female tropes in horror films” series of posts. Next up, I’ll write about the latest release from Pixar. No, not really.

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part IV.

The Rape-Revenge Girl.

Jennifer (Camille Keaton) exacts revenge on one of her rapists in ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978).

Horror fiction tends to narrowly focus on two main themes: sex and death. (In fact, an argument can be made that most art is preoccupied with these two topics). A corollary subject that often arises from this thematic pairing is the violent cruelty of mankind that ultimately leads to sex and/or death. The writings of the Marquis de Sade and films of both Pasolini and Hanneke are almost entirely devoted to the examination of power dynamics and the innate viciousness of humanity. The reader/audience is also strongly implicated as willing participants in this parade of cruelty served up for our (presumably) voyeuristic consumption.

The Rape-Revenge scenario is the perfect encapsulation of this sex + death equation: a young, beautiful woman is sexually and physically brutalized, but survives to exact bloody vengeance upon her tormentor/s. This scenario is one that is strongly favoured by the various subgenres of exploitation cinema because its, well, basically lurid and exploitative. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your point-of-view) of the Rape-Revenge subgenre is Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman (1978), better known by its re-release title, I Spit on Your Grave. Now, let’s place this film in it’s proper context. Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave is a base, low-budget, and poorly acted film. It’s pure exploitation cinema, and a far cry from the critically-lauded work of Sade, Pasolini and Hanneke. That being said, it has been the subject of a great deal of feminist critical discourse since its release, with academics such as Carol Clover and Julie Bindel championing its “feminist” viewpoint.

The plot is threadbare. Jennifer Hills, an aspiring writer from “the big city”, seeks solitude in a rental cottage so that she may focus on her craft. The local country bumpkins have different plans for Ms. Hills, however, for no apparent reason other than the fact that she’s young, pretty and unaccompanied. They systematically terrorize, gang rape, and then murder their victim. Or so they believe. Jennifer survives her attack, and returns for revenge. One by one, her former tormentors are dispatched in ever increasingly gruesome ways and we, the audience, cheer her on through this exercise in catharsis.

Dude, rape victims don’t generally seduce their rapists into bathtubs after the attack. Darwinism claims yet another deserved victim.

I had two major misgivings with Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave. I’ll list them in point form.

1. One is forced to sit through a protracted series of rapes before we arrive at the satisfaction of revenge. This is the ‘Faustian bargain’ to which we females tacitly agree when viewing such films: howls of naked protest from the heroine in Act One, to be followed by bloody vengeance. The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge. At least, the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste. The only death scene that worked for me was the castration-in-the-bathtub scene. Gallons of fake blood, off-screen howls and much left to the imagination of the viewer make this scene an effective one.

2. The rapists are portrayed as complete imbeciles, with one of them a mildly retarded, Gomer Pyle-like character. Did Zarchi intend this as a further insult-to-injury for poor Jennifer Hills? That an independent, educated woman like her could be bested by this group of inbreds? The convincing performance of Camille Keaton in the infamous ‘sodomy scene’ is completely undercut by the spastic gyrations of her attacker. What the hell is the actor doing back there? Was he directed to look that ridiculous? Even during a scene as horrendous as this, I could not suppress my laughter.

Where is the ‘deviance’ and the ‘aberrant female’ in all this, you ask? Carol Clover wrote in the third chapter of her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws that she can “appreciate, however grudgingly, the way in which [the movie’s] brutal simplicity exposes a mainspring of popular culture.” Women are typically cast as victims in exploitation films, and their suffering has become a form of sadistic entertainment. Zarchi’s film attempts to address this issue. Rather than rely on the sporadic justice of the judiciary system, Jennifer Hills takes matters into her own hands. She embodies the rage we feel against the cruel reality of rape, and we sit through her violation in order to experience the vicarious thrill of revenge without ever getting our hands bloodied.

While Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave doesn’t entirely work for me as a satisfying Rape-Revenge film, my next post will focus on a film in this genre that does work: the equally controversial French film Baise-moi (2000).

Next post–>

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part III.

The Lesbian Vampire.

Theodora: Is this another one of your crazy ideas?
Eleanor: I’m not crazy!
Theodora: Crazy as a loon! You really expect me to believe that you’re sane and the rest of the world is mad?
Eleanor: Well why not? The world is full of inconsistencies. Full of unnatural beings, nature’s mistakes they call you for instance!

The text above is dialogue from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963) in which Dr. Markway, a researcher into paranormal activity, has assembled a group to investigate the reputed haunting of the gothic New England mansion Hill House. Amongst the group are the clairvoyant Theodora, a bold, outspoken woman who exudes worldly sophistication, and Eleanor, an awkward spinster who’s spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother. In spite of their differences, Theodora befriends the mousy Eleanor, and there’s even the hint of romantic interest — however unlikely — emanating from Theodora. Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding conceived of the Theodora character as lesbian, which would be one of the earliest appearances of a queer character in cinematic horror. Of course, the social climate of the early 1960’s meant that references to Theodora’s sexual orientation were all very codified and subtle, but Eleanor’s accusation of  “…unnatural beings…” and “nature’s mistakes…” allude not only to Theo’s preference in romantic partners, but they clearly establish homosexuality as an indication of deviance and ‘unnaturalness’.

Claire Bloom stars as Theodora (far left), Julie Harris as Eleanor (centre) and Rosalie Crutchley as the stony and gloriously creepy groundskeeper Mrs. Dudley in Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (1963).

As was discussed in my earlier post on gender & the slasher film, queerness and the fluidity of gender identity in horror fiction is frequently a sign of mental illness. The cross-dressing serial killer — Norman Bates, for instance — and the homicidal, lovesick lesbian from Aja’s Haute Tension are examples of blurred gender boundaries being symptomatic of mental instability. While the character of Theodora in Wise’s The Haunting is not portrayed as violent nor mentally ill, her lesbianism marks her as ‘unnatural’ as the haunted Hill House in which the drama unfolds. This notion is certainly ironic given that it is the socially-awkward Eleanor, and not Theodora, who stands out as “the one who doesn’t belong” within the group.

“Hey! That’s not my neck!” Vampire love bite from “Twins of Evil” (1971).

This takes us to the third most common female trope in horror fiction: the Lesbian, and specifically the Lesbian Vampire. Why vampire, you ask? Simple. This trope has its roots in Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) about the predatory love of a female vampire for a young woman. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Bram Stoker’s Dracula — which it predated by 25 years — but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the female vampire. (See my post on The Vampiress for more on this topic). The reason for the popularity of the Lesbian Vampire seems fairly straightforward: titillation, pure and simple. Wikipedia sums this up neatly:

This was a way to hint at or titillate with the taboo idea of lesbianism in a fantasy context outside the heavily censored realm of social realism (Weiss 1993). Also, the conventions of the vampire genre — specifically, the mind control exhibited in many such films — allow for a kind of forced seduction of presumably straight women or girls by lesbian vampires.

In the early 1970’s, Britian’s Hammer Studios created the much beloved Karnstein Trilogy, a series of lesbian vampire films very loosely based on Le Fanu’s novella: The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971). I’ve only seen the first film, which stars the iconic ‘Hammer Girl’ Ingrid Pitt and is quite giggle-worthy. File under ‘guilty pleasure.’

For the most part, the Lesbian Vampire is more softcore than horror, and bears little resemblance to the gender-bending serial killers mentioned earlier. What they do have in common, however, is the demarcation of Otherness — even the racy, breast-biting vampire of Twins of Evil is ultimately portrayed as ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant.’

In Part IV of this series of posts, I’ll address the Rape-Revenge Girl.

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Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part II.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Cécile De France as the chainsaw-wielding Marie in “Haute Tension” (2003).

SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points of Aja’s Haute Tension are discussed, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first.

In my previous post on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’, part I, I identified two of the most common female tropes in horror cinema: the Final Girl and her counterpoint, the Slut. These two form a polarity necessary to the moral undertone of the ‘slasher’ horror film: the virtuous Final Girl survives to confront and (usually) destroy her tormentor, while the Slut provides titillation by disrobing and being sexual, offering up a canvas of eroticized female flesh that the (invariably) male serial killer can cut, slash, mutilate and otherwise penetrate. American film theorist Carol Clover, who coined the term ‘Final Girl’ in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, writes on the integral role the Final Girl plays in the slasher genre:

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friend knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with this knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone must also find the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). — Carol Clover, from Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, 1992.

The psychopathic urge that drives the serial killer to commit his atrocities is often imbued with a sexual energy. The killer is simultaneously attracted to, and repulsed by, the sexual desirability of his young female victims. As Clover points out, he is often depicted as “…a male whose masculinity, and sexuality more generally, are in crisis…”, with prime examples being the cross-dressing of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The serial killer’s fluid gender identity marks him as a sexual deviant — and deviance in horror fiction is indicative of that which causes fear and anxiety.

Marie hides from her Serial Killer Cliché in “Haute Tension” (2003).

This point brings us back to Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, in which one of the main female characters, Marie, is identified as lesbian. Her sexual orientation is relevant to the plot, as it supplies the motivation behind her actions. She harbours a secret passion for her friend Alexa who, evidently, is completely oblivious to Marie’s romantic feelings. When her friend’s family is brutally murdered and Alexa kidnapped by a male psychopathic killer, Marie quickly adopts the Final Girl role and leaps to her friend’s rescue. From the outset, Marie’s short, boyish hair, androgynous clothing and slim, tautly muscled body appears to conform to the masculinized tradition of the Final Girl. As the plot progresses, Marie is poised for her final confrontation with the killer: a large, stout middle-aged man dressed in grimy overalls, his physical appearance every bit a slasher film cliché as hers.

And then comes the Big Reveal. The clichéd male serial killer is exactly that. He is a creation of Marie’s imbalanced mind, as the surveillance camera at the gas station films Marie — and not the stout, grimy man — as she sinks an axe into the back of the unsuspecting male attendant. The Final Girl and the Serial Killer conflate into one: the homicidal, mentally-unstable lesbian. Is this depiction of a queer woman homophobic? There is, arguably, a trace of homophobia in Haute Tension, as Marie’s sexual orientation serves not only as a plot device, but clearly distinguishes her as ‘the Other’, the deviant that is to be feared. Of course, there is a well-established tradition of LGBT themes in horror fiction and the use of ‘queerness’ as a demarcation of Otherness, and this will be the topic of my next post…

Next post –>

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part I.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Unrequited lesbian love gone terribly, terribly wrong in Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension” (2003).

Recently, I settled down to watch Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), a masterpiece of ‘New French Extremity‘ which had eluded me until now. Like many films of its pedigree, Haute Tension features sadistic sexuality, extreme violence, and generous amounts of gore. Without spoiling the end — as the real strength of this film lies near the end — there was also a clever plot twist that plays with gender and the roles typically associated with female characters in the genre. Women are still traditionally cast as victims in horror, and most particularly in the ‘slasher’ or serial-killer subgenre, so it is considered subversive when they are portrayed as the perpetrators of violence. In fact, it is so outside of the ‘norm’ that an additional reason is frequently given for the violent woman’s aberrant behaviour. In the 1978 ‘exploitation’ film I Spit On Your Grave, the motivation behind the female lead’s murderous rampage is revenge for her brutal gang rape. The homicidal intruder in À l’intérieur (2007) has been driven insane by her obsessive desire for a child. In Haute Tension, unrequited lesbian love factors into the killer’s actions. These various reasons — trauma, mental instability, and homosexuality — firmly place the behaviour of these women outside of ‘normal’ and in the realm of the deviant.

The depiction of deviance, women & gender in horror cinema is a big, big topic indeed — one that warrants more than one blog post. Let’s start by looking at two of the most common tropes in the horror genre:

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Ridley Scott sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” (1979).

1. The ‘Final Girl’ or ‘The Virgin.’ She’s that pretty, but not too sexy, girl-next-door who just might have a boyfriend, but he’s never gotten passed First Base. In the formulaic ‘slasher’ film — a subgenre of horror that dominated the late 70’s and the decade of the 1980’s — she’s the only girl left standing at the finale. The slasher film is a modern-day cautionary tale, and the Final Girl is spared the violent deaths visited upon her sexier classmates by reason of her virtue. She is frequently characterized as tom-boyish, even androgynous. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the Alien series is a prime example of the masculinized Final Girl. Recent horror cinema has reconfigured and, at times, even subverted the Final Girl: an argument can be made that Marie in Aja’s Haute Tension is a subversion of this trope (her very short boyish hair, her extreme athleticism, apparent heroism, and her sexual orientation).

Margot Kidder plays Barb, the drinking, smoking, sexually active Slut in Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas” (1974).

2. The Slut. She’s the counterpoint to the Final Girl, the girl in the film who engages in all sorts of nasty vice and most likely has a nasty attitude to match. According to the morality play/slasher film, she’s destined to meet a grisly end, probably twitching at the end of a pitchfork. A big, rigid pitchfork. The chain-smoking Barb (Margot Kidder) from Bob Clark’s genre-defining Black Christmas (1974) fits this role perfectly. While her lifestyle has her marked for an untimely death, she’s also the sororiety sister with the most moxy. (You can read more about Black Christmas in my earlier post on the film.)

Next post –>

Classical mythology revisited: the shrewd ecofeminism of Shary Boyle.

The last (I promise) of the grad school essays I shall inflict upon you. In this one, my task was to compare my work with that of another contemporary visual artist. I chose Shary Boyle. The astute among you will recognize a passage or two from my Master’s thesis in this essay. Hey, it’s not plagarism when you cannibalize your own writing.

Fig. 1. Shary Boyle, "Untitled", pencil and gouache on paper, size unknown, 2003.

Throughout history, visual artists have fleshed out mythological subjects and generated images based on traditional, time-honoured stories. Myths supply an accessible and universal narrative to which the artist can attach a personal story. Renowned scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes one of the goals of myth as “…effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.” Similarly, in his essay “The Expressive Fallacy” Hal Foster cites Nietzsche’s discussion of an artist’s use of myth to express an interior world: “The whole notion of an ‘inner experience’ enters our consciousness only after it has found a language that the individual understands – i.e., a translation of a situation into a familiar situation…” The “language” to which Nietzsche refers can be interpreted as “mythology” which provides a universal narrative to which all cultures, no matter how disparate, have access. The “inner experience” may be read as the personal, psychological or emotional world that the artist seeks to materialize through the use of myth. In short, myths connect us to each other by anchoring the idiosyncrasy of the individual to a universally shared point of reference.

In my own art practice, I frequently make use of myths and archetypes as cultural ready-mades into which I insert my own personal history and meanings. Myths are reinterpreted in my work from a feminist perspective that considers gender representation in these mythological narratives. Another contemporary Canadian artist who employs a similar creative, feminist tactic is Shary Boyle. A commonality in our work is the use of female mythological subjects that evoke the traditional, allegorical link between women and nature. Rather than simply offer a critique of the feminized concept of nature, however, both Boyle and myself use motifs derived from nature in a subversive manner that transform our female subjects in strange, fantastic ways. The transformations and mutations that our mythological heroines experience provide the visible, external evidence of their inner psychological and emotional world.

In her work prior to 2008, Boyle’s use of fairytales and mythological subjects tended to be global rather than specific. Her phantasmagoric imagery suggested the realm of dreams and myths without representing a particular legend or cultural tradition. Her two pencil and gouache drawings that we shall examine, both dating from 2003 and simply called Untitled, are evidence of her generalized incorporation of myth. Both drawings involve remarkable incidents in which a single female figure, isolated on the white void of the paper, quietly experiences a magical transformation. In Untitled (fig. 1) we are confronted with a woman in a bright red dress sitting contentedly in the grass, hands resting peacefully in her lap. The drawing is linear and economical; the grass on which the woman sits is minimally drawn. Two long, yellow plant stalks topped with white blossoms grow outwards from the eye sockets of the woman, a strange phenomenon that has not managed to disturb her serenity. The very fact that the woman appears unconcerned by this fantastic event seems to suggest that this transformation is metaphoric as the flowers are a manifestation of an interior psychological state. Equally, the woman may have simply acquiesced to the inevitability of this strange transformation. The subject of Boyle’s second drawing Untitled (fig. 2), a prepubescent girl whose rigid stance and sideways glance suggests that she’s somewhat more alarmed by the tangled bush growing out from her mouth, nevertheless seems to accept the strangeness of this event as normative.

Fig. 2. Shary Boyle, "Untitled", pencil and gouache on paper, 30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, 2003.

In her essay entitled “Ornamental Impulse”, art writer Josée Drouin-Brisebois comments on Boyle’s surreal transformations as a manifestation of the emotional and psychological worlds of her subjects. “Boyle’s [figures]”, says Drouin-Brisebois, “express the inner life of the emotions materially.” Drouin-Brisebois cites the review of art critic Robin Laurence for Boyle’s paintings Companions (2004), wherein Laurence states: “Boyle’s portraits suggest that what looks outwardly freakish in others is the metaphorical equivalent of inward aspects of all our characteristics and circumstances.” Thus, the plant life that blooms from the bodily orifices of these female subjects is emblematic of their interior states, though what precisely those states would be remain vague and mysterious.

The mythology to which Boyle attaches her idiosyncratic narratives serves to anchor the work in tradition and provide the viewer with visual clues as to how one might interpret her dream-like imagery. For instance, the otherworldly flora of these drawings reference allegorical and mythological associations of women to nature. Rather than challenge the traditional dichotomy of women and nature, Boyle embraces it in a subversive manner. According to Drouin-Brisebois, Boyle’s women “become…nature in unsettling ways – verdancy out of control or a parasite that takes over the body…” Boyle acknowledges the allegorical tradition while at the same time engaging a sinister playfulness that alters it.

Fig. 3. Jennifer Linton, "An Abundant Supply of Milk", drypoint and etching, 38 cm x 30 cm, 2006.

Similar to Boyle, otherworldly flora plays a prominent role in my 2006 intaglio print entitled An Abundant Supply of Milk (fig. 3). Whereas Boyle rarely identifies her female subjects as aspects of herself, my work makes frequent use of self-portraiture and is characterized by an autobiographical content. This particular self-portrait shows myself standing in profile, naked save for a pair of underwear. With my hands I squeeze my breasts and produce an exaggeratedly large spray of breast milk. This cloud-like spray of breast milk, in turn, blossoms into a soggy mass of flowers. Like the drawings of Boyle discussed earlier, this print recognizes the mythic association between women and nature, and in particular the concept of a nurturing “mother nature”, while at the same time subverting it. The nourishing food that is breast milk has transformed into a bizarre floral mass that, rather than natural, appears inexorably alien. Created in the months that followed becoming a first-time mother, this image addressed my response to the strange transformations enacted upon my body as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The milk-flowers that spring forth from my breasts represent an externalization of the estrangement I felt from my own body.

A second, earlier self-portrait speaks not to a feeling of estrangement but to the human impulse towards creation, both in art as well as in procreation. The coloured pencil drawing entitled Genesis (fig.4) illustrates the growth of a leafy, magenta and orange plant stalk out of my opened mouth. This fanciful stalk terminates in a perfectly round, ripe pomegranate fruit. Similar to the heroines of Boyle’s drawings, my visage appears untroubled by the unconventional growth of this fruit as if this were the result of a natural, internal process. In contrast to Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, however, the magical vegetation of Genesis recalls a very specific mythological story while at the same time evoking the women-nature dichotomy. The appearance of the pomegranate in this drawing is highly significant as it is a direct quotation from an earlier body of work in which I assumed the role of Persephone, a tragic heroine from Greco-Roman mythology. This role-playing allowed for the insertion of personalized content within the larger context of a universal narrative. Or, as Nietzsche expressed, the myth of Persephone provided “…a translation of a situation into a familiar situation.” We will return to this discussion of Persephone after an introduction to Boyle’s latest works, one of which, coincidentally, deals directly with this same myth.

Fig. 4. Jennifer Linton, "Genesis", coloured pencil on Mylar, 38 cm x 28 cm, 2004.

As previously stated, Boyle’s work is frequently characterized by a global adoption of mythology, her imagery an amalgam of different mythic traditions synthesized with her own idiosyncratic symbolism. The recent unveiling of Boyle’s latest porcelain sculptures at the 2008 grand reopening of the Art Gallery of Ontario, however, provides an exciting and atypical exception to this aspect of her work. Boyle was commissioned by the AGO to create work that responded to the gallery’s permanent collection. She selected two 18th-century Italian bronze statuettes by Giovanni Battista Foggini with which to engage in a conversation across history. The subjects of Foggini’s sculptures are two commonly depicted Greco-Roman myths: Perseus slaying Medusa and The Rape of Proserpine. Boyle’s porcelains offer feminist reinterpretations of these myths while simultaneously maintaining her characteristic surreal imagery that hints at the internal, psychological world of her subjects.

Boyle’s response to Foggini’s The Rape of Proserpine re-imagines the Greco-Roman myth upon which it is based and addresses the violent and sexually problematic subject matter of the original Baroque bronze. Her delicate porcelain sculpture entitled The Rejection of Pluto (fig. 5) casts the titular deity as a hideously yawning monster and not the sinewy, handsome abductor of Foggini’s statuette. In her 2008 interview with art critic Sarah Milroy featured in The Globe and Mail, Boyle discussed the responsibility she felt as a feminist artist in rendering an alternate version of this classical myth: “I guess I just felt that this subject matter had to be engaged. I had been asked inside the museum, and I felt a kind of responsibility to interrupt some of those narratives, to propose some other kinds of stories.”

Proserpine is the Roman goddess of springtime, wife of Pluto and mythological equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone. Her story is one of great emotional power: an innocent maiden abducted by the lustful god of the Underworld and forced to become his bride. In the Globe and Mail interview, Boyle related the version of this Greco-Roman myth that inspired her reinterpretation:

“…Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld, fell in love with Proserpine, the beautiful daughter of the harvest goddess. Lust incarnate, he emerges from Hades through a pond in the glade of the water nymph Cyane, wreaking havoc on this sacred sylvan spot and seizing Proserpine by force, making her his bride in Hell. Cyane, who protects the natural realms, weeps tears over this loss, so much so that her tears replenish the landscape Pluto has devastated.”

Fig. 5. Shary Boyle, "The Rejection of Pluto", mixed media porcelain sculpture, 2008.

The scene of Boyle’s The Rejection of Pluto is the idyllic glade of the water nymph Cyane, decorated with exotic flowers, seashells and fairytale toadstools. The monstrous head of Pluto emerges from the water, his cavernous mouth yawning open as if to swallow his intended victim. Bright red-orange light, suggestive of the flames of Hell, flickers inside the mouth and eyes of the hollow, chasmal head. The water that immediately surrounds Pluto’s head appears brown and putrid and the vegetation bleached white, all vitality having been drained out by its proximity to the god of the Underworld. The female characters of this story – the girl-child Proserpine, her mother Demeter, and the nymph Cyane – are all gathered in a group at the opposite end of the glade. The amphibious water nymph Cyane glowers fiercely at Pluto, defending Proserpine whom Boyle has cast as a small child wounded by mirrored shards. According to Boyle, these three female figures “represent emotional, mental and physical resistance under siege.”

The crucial role that nature plays in The Rejection of Pluto can be likened to that of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, although the correlation between women and nature in the sculpture have been further strengthened. The landscape of The Rejection of Pluto reflects the violation suffered by Proserpine through its transformation from lush verdancy to polluted wasteland. This transformation of the landscape symbolizes Proserpine’s psychological and emotional turmoil in much the same manner as the mirrored shards that have pierced her flesh represent her physical violation. Boyle’s shrewd interpretation of the Proserpine/Persephone myth emphasizes the allegorical link between women and nature in her analysis of the mistreatment of both women and nature in the world.

The tragic heroine Persephone has also been depicted as a prepubescent girl in my 2000 mixed-media drawing entitled The Bitter Seed. In this drawing, I combine an image of myself as a child with the myth of Persephone as a means to address the difficult territory of childhood sexual abuse. By adopting the role of the mythological heroine, I translate and universalize my personal experience. Through the use of this metaphor, I strive to make an emotional state palatable and thus more easily approachable by the viewer.

The Bitter Seed takes its name from the pomegranate seed that Persephone was forced to eat, thus sealing her fate as the goddess whose annual death and rebirth would usher in the changing seasons:

“Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, the lord of the Underworld, surprised Persephone one day while she was picking flowers and carried her off to be his bride. Demeter, the distraught mother, threatens to destroy all mortal men by causing an endless drought unless her daughter is returned. Zeus, who is the king of the gods at Olympus, commands Hermes to fetch Persephone from the realm of Hades. The wise Hades chooses to obey the command of Zeus; however, before Persephone is returned, he tricks her into eating a seed from a pomegranate. This deception is later revealed when Demeter asks her daughter “…have you eaten any food while you were below? If you have not, even though you have been in the company of loathsome Hades, you will live with me and your father…but if you have…you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third of the year; the other two-thirds of the time you will spend with me…”

To the ancient Greeks, the myth of Demeter and Persephone served to explain the death and regeneration of plant life each year. The metaphoric link between women and nature is quite overt: Persephone personifies the cycle of the seasons through her annual sacrifice.

In The Bitter Seed, my childhood self stands thickly outlined in black against a brightly coloured background reminiscent of a stained-glass window. One of my hands holds aloft a pomegranate, above which hangs the phrase “dirty girl.” I stare quizzically at both the fruit and the phrase, my child mind unable to fully grasp their meaning. Like the pomegranate in the Persephone myth, the fruit I hold represents violation and entrapment. Similar to the girl-child Proserpine in Boyle’s sculpture, who displays her wounded arms for the consideration of the viewer, my child-self in The Bitter Seed holds the pomegranate up as a symbolic manifestation of inner “wounds”.

Fig. 6. Jennifer Linton, "St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head", coloured pencil and drawing ink on Mylar, 62 cm x 80 cm, 2002.

The victimization of the girl-child Persephone in The Bitter Seed is later redressed in my 2002 drawing St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head (fig. 6) in which I assumed the role of the Catholic Saint Ursula, the patron saint of schoolgirls. In a manner similar to The Bitter Seed, this drawing blended autobiographical elements with mythological role-playing in order to universalize personal experience. The heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head assimilates two divergent mythological traditions: the hagiography of the Catholic saint with the Greco-Roman myth of the Gorgon Medusa. More avenging angel than saint, St. Ursula is shown adorned with angel wings and holding aloft a sword and the severed head of Medusa. The mouth of the snake-haired Medusa gapes open in a silent scream while a magical bloom of red flowers bleed from the wound of the severed neck. In the background, graphic and highly stylized red flowers also appear to bleed. Much like the strange, sinister flowers of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, these violent blossoms subvert the traditional woman-nature dichotomy and the association of women with a passive and nurturing feminine principle.

Women are frequently cast as the prize at the end of the hero’s quest but are seldom depicted as the active, adventurous hero themselves in mythology. This gender-biased tradition was best summarized by Joseph Campbell in his 1982 interview with Rozanne Zucchet from his collected writings entitled “The Hero’s Journey”:

“I was teaching these courses on mythology and at the end of my last year there this woman comes in and sits down and says, ‘Well, Mr. Campbell, you’ve been talking about the hero. But what about the woman?’ I said, ‘The woman’s the mother of the hero; she’s the goal of the hero’s achieving; she’s the protectress of the hero; she is this, she is that. What more do you want?’ She said, ‘I want to be the hero!’ So I was glad that I was retiring that year and not going to teach any more [audience laughter].”

While Campbell’s anecdote evidently amused his audience, it also underscores the gender discrimination inherent in mythological models. The sword-wielding heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head constitutes my feminist response to Campbell and this gender-biased tradition. My heroine adopts the stance traditionally occupied by the male hero Perseus who, as the Greek myth tells us, beheaded the female monster Medusa. Additionally, the gender of Medusa in my drawing has been switched from female to male as the image of the severed gorgon’s head my heroine holds is, in fact, a direct visual quotation of a painting by Caravaggio where Medusa is uncharacteristically portrayed as male.

Fig. 7. Shary Boyle. "To Colonize the Moon", mixed media porcelain sculpture, size unknown, 2008.

The representation of gender also plays a crucial role in Boyle’s second porcelain sculpture commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Entitled To Colonize the Moon (fig. 7), this sculpture encapsulates her response to Foggini’s bronze statuette Perseus Slaying Medusa as well as to the traditional Greco-Roman myth that she “has interpreted in light of both her environmentalist and feminist ideas.” Boyle’s reinterpretation of the myth views Medusa as a “very misunderstood monster” who suffers a number of indignities and violations resulting from the capricious cruelty of the Olympian gods. The severed head of Medusa lies atop a funeral pyre comprised of dead bats and bees, the expression on her lifeless face one of sad resignation to her tragic fate. In stark contrast to the heroic romanticism of Foggini’s Perseus, Boyle’s version of the Greek hero is a lily-skinned, rosy-cheeked effeminate boy who sits in quiet repose while he wipes the blood from his sword. This traditionally triumphal moment has been undercut by the calmness of the scene and soft, unheroic body of Boyle’s Perseus. The violence of the story is not celebrated, but merely represented in an anticlimactic manner. The death of the monster Medusa and the death of Nature – embodied by the dead bats and bees – are seen as being synonymous. There is a mournful aspect to this sculpture, as Boyle challenges the viewer to consider the violence enacted both upon women as well as upon the natural world.

Contemporary feminist artists such as Shary Boyle and myself are mining the past, revisiting the universal narratives of mythology and, as Boyle succinctly stated, “propos[ing] some other kinds of stories.” Inspired by the second wave feminists, who coined the phrase the personal is political, we disrupt the problematic, gender-biased narratives of traditional myths by inserting our own personal, idiosyncratic content into the larger framework of these universal stories. This personalized content adopts the symbolic vocabulary of myth and, through creative tactics such as role-playing, re-imagines these stories from contemporary feminist perspectives. Mythological motifs traditionally associated with women – namely the allegorical link made between women and nature – is wielded as a deconstructive weapon that knowingly acknowledges this association while at the same time playfully subverting it. The female subjects that populate our work ache, bleed, bloom and otherwise manifest their interior worlds in a number of strange and wondrously magical ways.

Some girls are more lethal than others: that deadly ‘vagina dentata’ grin.

The wonderful closing shot of an empowered Dawn from Mitchell Lichtenstein's "Teeth." Incidentally, Mitchell is the son of famed American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

The vagina dentata is the myth of a woman that possesses a castrating ‘toothed vagina‘. This myth exists across many different cultures and seems to address a global anxiety amongst men over the ‘otherness’ of women’s bodies and sexuality. In the Freudian psychoanalytic model, the vagina dentata is emblematic of castration anxiety amongst very young boys who, upon their awareness of the biological difference between male and female genitalia, develop an unconscious and irrational fear that their own penis will be ‘removed.’ Of course, Freud’s theories have fallen out of favour in therapeutic practice over the past decades, owing to the fact that his views of both women and homosexuality are antiquated and obviously problematic. And yet, the myth of the vagina dentata continues to be pervasive in contemporary culture, albeit in a much more symbolic manner.

Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 horror-comedy film Teeth employs the vagina dentata myth as a mischievously playful plot device. The main character Dawn unknowingly possesses a ‘toothed vagina.’ The reason for her biological abnormality is never explicitly given, although several panning camera shots of a power plant looming in the distance behind Dawn’s house — not to mention the cancer that plagues her sick mother —  suggest a mutation due to environmental pollutants. An unfortunate succession of events, including date rape and sexual abuse by a gynaecologist, transform the teenage Dawn from a virginal spokesperson for Christian abstinence to a sexual vigilante who wields her vagina dentata as a weapon of revenge. Although the premise feels a bit weak to carry a feature-length film, there’s still gory-fun to be had as the number of severed body parts predictably rise. Men will find this film squirm-inducing, for obvious reasons. Cross your legs and enjoy.

Kate Kretz. "Vagina Dentata Purse", 2002, hand sewn, hand dyed velvet, wire, thread, shaped shells, purse frame, 10 x 14 x 7".

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The art of Hannah Wilke: ‘Feminist Narcissism’ and the reclamation of the erotic body.

I wrote the following essay on American visual artist Hannah Wilke for an art history class in graduate school. I include the full text and images, excluding citations. If you’re a student who discovers this via search engine, then I have every confidence in your research abilities to track down the scholarly sources. Wilke was a seminal Second Wave feminist artist whose work has received renewed interest from scholars since her death in 1993.

The politics of inclusion that shaped feminist discourse in the 1960s and 1970s spawned a legacy of body-based performance art, much of which was associated with women artists who used their own face as a subject of continual exploration. The self- imaging of women artists such as the provocative American artist Hannah Wilke was frequently attacked and dismissed by art critics as being indulgent exercises in narcissism that only served to reinforce the objectification of the female body. The charge of narcissism leveled on Wilke and her work may have been warranted, however, this should not be considered as a pejorative. Rather, the narcissism of Wilke can be viewed as a shrewd feminist tactic of self-objectification aimed at reclaiming the eroticized female body from the exclusive domain of male sexual desire. The ‘self-love’ of narcissism is a necessary component to this reclaiming of the body and the assertion of a female erotic will as being distinct from that of the male artist. Wilke wielded her narcissistic self-love as a powerful tool of critique, defiantly placing her own image into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated art institution.

The term “narcissism” derives from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful but arrogant youth who cruelly spurned the love of his admirers. For his cruelty, he was cursed by the goddess Nemesis and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. The doomed Narcissus pined away for his unattainable lover – the image of his own self – and literally died as a result of his amorous longing.

Sigmund Freud bestowed the name of this mythic Greek youth upon his psychoanalytic theory of narcissism, a theory that describes normal personality development. According to Freud, the self-love of narcissism is a normal complement to the development of a healthy ego. Whereas a certain amount of narcissism is desirable, an excess of self-love is considered dysfunctional and indicative of pathology. This latter definition of narcissism, the one of pathological self-absorption, has cast our current understanding of narcissism in a negative light and reinforced the use of the term as a pejorative.

The psychoanalytic theories of Freud suggest that negative or pathological narcissism is a specifically female perversion. Art critic Amelia Jones writes that “[d]rawing loosely on Freud’s definitions – which connect narcissism to both a stage of development and to a form of homosexual neurosis – narcissism has come in everyday parlance to mean simply a kind of “self-love” epitomized through woman’s obsession with her own appearance.” Hence, the charges of narcissism leveled on Hannah Wilke were attempts by the critics to summarily dismiss her work as mere manifestations of a woman’s obsessive self-love and infer, according to Jones, that Wilke’s art was not “successfully feminist.”

Critics such as Amelia Jones and Joanna Frueh have championed Wilke and proposed, through their respective writings, a new and positive view of narcissism as a legitimately feminist, subversive tactic in the making of art. In her catalogue essay entitled “Intra-Venus and Hannah Wilke’s Feminist Narcissism”, Jones contextualized Wilke’s work within the framework of her “radical narcissism” and argued that the use of her own image throughout her art is far from the conventional or passively ‘feminine’ depiction of women as seen in advertising and other forms of mass media. Joanna Frueh, in her essay that accompanied the 1989 Wilke retrospective in Missouri, equated Wilke’s “positive narcissism” with a form of feminist self-exploration and an assertion of a female erotic will. Both Frueh and Jones cogently argue for a “positive narcissism” that expunges itself of the negative connotations of Freudian psychoanalytic theory and, in contrast, actively and unapologetically engages in self-love. Wilke enacts an aggressive form of narcissistic self-imaging that defiantly solicits the patriarchal gaze which she then, as Jones writes, “graft[s] onto and into her body/self, taking hold of it and reflecting it back to expose and exacerbate its reciprocity.”

Fig. #1. Hannah Wilke. "S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication". Mixed media (artist's multiple). 1974-75.

Wilke’s active solicitation of the “male gaze” as a method of feminist critique is best exemplified in her photographic series entitled S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication (figs. 1-2), a series which had been originally produced as a box-set artist’s multiple for the 1975 exhibition “Artists Make Toys” at the Clocktower in New York. Wilke commissioned a commercial photographer to capture her semi-nude self-portraits in which she adopts the exaggerated postures of the celebrity and fashion industries. In one such photograph, a sunglass-wearing Wilke clutches her Mickey Mouse toy tight to her partly naked torso as she gazes off-camera at an imaginary paparazzi. She assumed the role of the celebrity art “star” suggested by the witty wordplay of her title S.O.S. Starification Object Series. As with many of Wilke’s titles – for she was fond of linguistic games and frequently engaged in puns – there is a double meaning to be found in the titular pun “starification.” Wilke dotted her own skin with several tiny vaginal sculptures that she had shaped from chewing gum. These small sculptures decorated her body in a manner recalling the practice of ritual scarification employed by certain African cultures as a means of beautification. Given the presence of the vaginal “scars” in combination with the sexy, glamourous black and white photographs of Wilke, it is not difficult to locate the artist’s critical stance on the occasionally painful regimens Western women inflict upon themselves in their conformity to accepted conventions of beauty. Wilke willfully submitted her own body to this ritualized, albeit pretend, self-abuse in order to address this “tyranny of Venus” which, as Susan Brownmiller writes in Femininity, “…a woman feels whenever she criticizes her appearance for not conforming to prevailing erotic standards.” The fact that Wilke herself was, by these same erotic standards, a beautiful and sexually desirable woman does not confuse her aim of critique but rather serves to strengthen her commentary on women’s roles and gender stereotypes. Her overstated, sultry expressions and postures of sexual display invite scrutiny. Wilke was keenly aware of her status as a celebrity art-star as well as a beautiful, eroticized object of desire and she capitalized on both with the S.O.S. Starification Object Series. The original dissemination of this photographic series in a packaged box set, complete with sticks of chewing gum, preformed gum vaginas and phalluses, and the semi-nude artist self- portraits, simultaneously commented on both the artist-celebrity as a commodity as well as the erotic consumption of the female body. Cleverly, Wilke underscored the erotic self-objectification of her image in the extended title for this box set multiple: S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication. We are reminded that this is an adult game, and Wilke’s use of the word mastication in reference to chewing (gum) is likely a pun on masturbation, a suggestion that locates her eroticized self-portraits on the parameters of pornography.

Fig. #2. Hannah Wilke. "S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication". Detail. Mixed media (artist's multiple). 1974-75.

Assimilating the visual language of the objectified female body, Wilke employed her own eroticized body as a metaphorical mirror that she then held up to reflect back the sexual projections of male desire. This act of reflection enabled Wilke to sever her passive (and traditionally female) receptiveness of this male projection and assert her own erotic will. In her collection of essays entitled Erotic Faculties, Joanna Freuh used the phrase “autoerotic autonomy” in reference to Wilke’s images and suggested that her “…self-exhibition may demonstrate the positive narcissism – self- love – that masculinist eros has all but erased.” The empty vessel that is the celebrity or the fashion model – devoid of a personal will as she functions as a receptacle for our projected desires – has been adopted and systematically absorbed by Wilke’s exaggerated poses. For her part, Wilke then engaged her narcissistic self-love as a means to fill these empty vessels with her aggressive sexuality. The sites of female erotic pleasure, namely the mouth and the vagina, are conjured in her chewing gum sculptures while, at the same moment, they hint at the violent aggression of the folkloric vagina dentata.

The consciously sexualized self-objectification of Wilke and the use of her own body as a “professional currency” often elicited harsh criticism from the ranks of feminism, an ideology to which she actively subscribed. Lucy Lippard, the champion of 1970s feminist art, famously wrote that Wilke’s “confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level.” Art critics Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman dismiss Wilke’s self-portraits: “In objectifying herself as she does, in assuming the conventions associated with a stripper, …Wilke…does not make her own position clear…It seems her work ends up by reinforcing what it intends to subvert…” The tense political climate and rapid social change of America during the decades of the 1960s and 70s fueled a radical activism amongst Second Wave feminists. The urgency felt by these activists to affect social change in relation to gender equality frequently generated a feminism that was fervent, even orthodox, in its ideology. This strict orthodoxy was shaped by anti- essentialism – a philosophical stance that rejected the representation of the female body as it was believed too imbued with a history of objectification by male artists – and therefore unable and unwilling to accommodate the sexualized body-based art of Hannah Wilke. The negative reception of Wilke by critics like Lippard, Barry and Flitterman may have been prompted by an adherence to this strict orthodoxy. The complex and ambiguous views of the body and female sexuality that Wilke presented, at times even contradictory to the aims of feminism, generated rancor in this inflexible climate of anti-essentialism.

In her 1978 interview “Artist Hannah Wilke Talks with Ernst” the artist unapologetically spoke of the “ethics of ambiguity” that characterized both her work and life. She addressed, in her honest and unmediated manner, the conflicted views of a woman who, though conscious of feminism, still felt concerned with her appearance and desirability to men. Rather than deny this impulse, Wilke embraced her feminine narcissism and brandished it as a weapon. Such a bold act of defiance and deliberate provocation against the anti-essentialist feminism that dominated the 1960s and 70s later established Wilke as the “…spiritual parent to postfeminist artists such as Tracey Emin…” and anticipated the self-imaging of Janine Antoni and Cindy Sherman.

Fig. #3. Film still from Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Fuses’, 1965.

Wilke was not the only woman artist of her generation to use her own body in a consciously sexualized manner, nor was she the only artist to engage with narcissism as a feminist tactic. Carolee Schneeman’s canonical 1965 Fuses (fig. 3), a film that included photographic footage of the artist having sex with her then-partner James Tenny, was greeted with outrage from the feminist audience who, as film theorist Shana MacDonald writes, “…[were] uncertain how to incorporate the sexualized, erotic and self-produced image provided by Schneemann” Similar to the harsh criticisms leveled on the photographs of Wilke, the erotic self-portraiture of Schneemann’s Fuses was frequently attacked as being “obscene and narcissistic.” According to MacDonald, it was her sexually graphic imagery – imagery that feminist theorists found indistinguishable from the objectified female image being resisted – that caused Schneemann to be misunderstood by her peers and ultimately marginalized.

As the coquettish semi-nudes of Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series made reference to imagery generated for pornographic use, so too does Schneemann’s Fuses address pornography in order to critique its traditional objectification of women. The repeated, non-linear narrative of Fuses interrupts the pornographic convention that the film necessarily terminate in the obligatory “cum shot” of male ejaculation. The sexuality communicated by Schneemann’s film is highly subjective and anchored in the banal reality of the everyday, including shots of the artist’s cat and the domestic surroundings of her home. The subjectivity of Fuses was further heightened by the literal mark of the artist, evidenced in Schneemann’s use of hand-processing techniques such as collage, painting and scratching directly onto the celluloid. Her infusion of a personal subjectivity performed as a feminist resistance against the sexual- objectification of the female body as seen in conventional pornography. By simultaneously inhabiting the roles of both the image and the image-maker, she positioned herself “not as sex object, but as willed and erotic subject, commanding her own image.” Schneemann’s urge to see her own sexualized image is a manifestation of self-love and the hypothesized “positive narcissism” of Jones and Freuh. As Narcissus romantically yearned for his own image, Schneemann desires to view her own erotic image, not reflected in a pool of water, but projected larger-than-life on the theatre screen. This act is a bold assertion of her narcissism and erotic will.

Fig. #4. Video still from Hannah Wilke’s ‘Gestures’, 1974.

At first glance Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series, much like Schneemann’s Fuses, appeared to reinforce the visual language of the objectified female body. The sultry eyes, seductively parted lips and naked breasts of Wilke read as cultural signifiers of female sexual invitation and availability. Lippard may have been correct in her observation that Wilke played both the “feminist and flirt” but her assessment that this polarity stemmed from her confusion over these two roles was essentially wrong. Wilke’s narcissistic self-imaging was not, as Elizabeth Hess charged, an impulse to “…wallow in cultural obsessions with the female body,” but a pointed feminist critique of these same obsessions. In contrast to fashion models and pin-up girls, who passively offer their flesh to be inscribed by male desire, Wilke interrupted this erotic exchange by the presence of her chewing gum “scar” sculptures. Recalling the artistic intervention of Schneemann’s hand-processing techniques in Fuses, Wilke’s sculptures mark the otherwise unblemished surface of her skin and disrupt the easy consumption of her body as an erotic object. She declared the canvas of her skin as the terrain of her own erotic expression, and marked it accordingly. Whereas the youth Narcissus failed to possess his own beloved self-image, Schneemann and Wilke are too shrewd in the deployment of their narcissism to suffer this same fate.
Women artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Schneemann and Wilke, often engaged in the feminist project of reclaiming the female body from previous male privilege. Centuries of depiction by exclusively male artists had rendered the female nude a dehumanized, neutral object. Wilke and her feminist contemporaries sought to rectify this situation by seizing creative control over one’s own body. Performative works such as Wilke’s 1974 Gestures (fig. 4) – a video that featured the artist sculpting her flesh – enact this reclamation by proposing the artist’s own body as an artistic medium.

The thirty-minute black-and-white video Gestures showcases Wilke, her head and shoulders tightly framed, performing a series of repeated, often exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. These gestures are often absurd and comical in nature, while others verge on sexual seduction. A silent Wilke gently pulls and kneads her own face, manipulating her youthful, elastic skin much like the soft, putty-like material of her chewing gum sculptures. Saundra Goldman observed that Gestures “…signaled [Wilke’s] transition from sculpture to performance,” and there is a cyclical component to this transition: the soft, pliable chewing gum that Wilke employed to approximate flesh was now being mimicked by the artist’s own skin.

Fig. #5. Hannah Wilke. ‘I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, 1977-78.

The reclamation of the female body from the privileged control by male artists was the primary motivation behind Wilke’s photographic diptych entitled I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver (fig. 5). Wilke’s strong objection was directly aimed at the father of the avant-garde, Marcel Duchamp. While the box set of S.O.S. Starification Object Series offered a critical view of consumerism, the fashion industry and pornography, and Gestures a declaration of control over one’s own body, the faux book jacket of I OBJECT was a direct response to Duchamp’s static rape victim of his infamous diorama Etant donnès (fig. 6). In her 1988 conversation with Joanna Freuh, Wilke stated: “I find Etant donnès repulsive, which is perhaps its message. She has a distorted vagina.” The pun contained in the title I OBJECT, with the play on the word “object” as both noun and verb, laid the foundation for the critical feminist dialogue Wilke embarked upon with this heavy-weight of art history.

Fig. #6. Marcel Duchamp. ‘Etant donnès’. View of installation (left) and detail (right). 1946-66.

The sculptural diorama Etant donnès confronts the viewer with a rustic wooden door, riddled with small holes. A light source shines through these holes, enticing the viewer to peek through and witness a scene hitherto concealed. A pastoral, natural landscape is suddenly revealed, in the foreground of which an alarmingly pale, naked female torso lies inert amongst a bramble of dried twigs and leaves. Her legs are splayed open to reveal her strangely misshapen vagina. The exposed nakedness of the woman, her corpse-like stillness and her derelict location amongst the bramble imply violation and victimhood. As if in a final gesture of violence, Duchamp has chosen to frame the woman’s image within the peepholes of the door in such a manner as to visually decapitate her. The mechanism of display – namely the peepholes through which the scene is revealed – forces the viewer to assume the role of voyeur, further compounding the violation of the woman.

Wilke’s I OBJECT functions as both homage and a critical response to Duchamp: she believed that “to honor Duchamp is to oppose him.” Taken while on a family vacation in Spain, the glossy colour photographs of Wilke show the artist, fully nude, lying atop some discarded clothing on a large, craggy rock. One of the photographs that comprise this diptych approximates the pose of Duchamp’s female torso, with Wilke’s body foreshortened in the camera lens so that her pubic region dominates the picture plane. In stark contrast to the deathly paleness of the woman in Etant donnès, Wilke appears whole-limbed, healthy and tanned. The clothing upon which she lies may have been voluntarily shed in a moment of spontaneous sexual activity, or simply in the act of sunbathing. A bottle of suntan lotion that lies nearby seems to support the latter. The second photograph of the diptych shows Wilke staring upwards at the camera, and directly at the viewer, her face partly concealed by a rocky outcropping. A small but satisfied smile adorns her face. The superimposed text reads “I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver” across the upper left portion of the image and then “Hannah Wilke” on the lower left, in close juxtaposition to her smiling face. The presence of her written name paired with her direct, outward gaze reads like a radical declaration of personhood, as if to say I am Hannah Wilke, and here is my body. The feminist gesture of “positive narcissism” comes strongly into play in this particular context. Wilke’s feminist response to the faceless victim of Etant donnès is a bold affirmation of both her personhood and her female sexuality.

As previously mentioned, the close association of women to narcissism partly derives from a loose interpretation of Freudian theory that linked a “woman’s obsession with her own appearance” with a form of psychoanalytic pathology. This association is highly relevant in the critical reception of a work of art; a crucial factor to consider is the gender of the artist. Lucy Lippard, the same art critic who, ironically, dismissed Wilke for being a “feminist and flirt”, denounced the gender divide that existed between the reception of body-based performance work created by male artists against similar work produced by women. “She is a narcissist,” Lippard wrote of women artists, “and Vito Acconci with his less romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.” The crucial distinction between the narcissism of Vito Acconci and Hannah Wilke – for as Rosalind Krauss effectively argues in her essay “Video: the Aesthetics of Narcissism”, Acconci was most assuredly a narcissist – lies in the feminist agenda that fuelled the narcissism of Wilke.

Fig. #7. Video still from Vito Acconci's ‘Undertone’, 1972.

Vito Acconci’s performance-based work often contains ambiguous narratives that frequently wander into the territory of the absurd and contradictory. Much like his contemporary Hannah Wilke, Acconci primarily used his own body as an artistic medium. In his 1972 video entitled Undertone (fig. 7), Acconci is as conspicuously aware of performing as Wilke was of posing in her multitudinous self-images. Undertone begins with Acconci seating himself at a table, the opposite end of which extends in the direction of the camera. This arrangement immediately implicates the camera/viewer into the scene. Acconci closes his eyes, placing his hands on his thighs, and repeatedly mumbles an awkwardly confessional sexual fantasy involving an imagined woman who lurks beneath the table: I want to believe there’s a girl here under the table…who’s resting her hands on my knees…she’s resting her forearms on my thighs…slowly, slowly rubbing my thighs… After several repetitions of this fantasy, Acconci suddenly pauses, straightens his body and stares directly out at the camera/viewer. His hands, now resting on the table top, are clasped together in a pleading gesture while he repeatedly intones: I need you to be sitting there…facing me…because I have to have someone to talk to…so I know there’s someone there to address this to… Acconci proceeds to again close his eyes and place his hands beneath the table. Resuming his mumbled confession, he contradicts his original narrative by stating: I want to believe there’s no one under the table…I want to believe…it’s me that’s rubbing my thighs… The video concludes with a final plea to the viewer to witness the revelation of his fantasy.

Comparable to the revealing titles of Wilke, the layered meanings behind Acconci’s title Undertone provides an important clue to its interpretation. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word undertone as an “underlying quality; undercurrent of feeling.” The underlying theme of Acconci’s video is not found in his repeated sexual fantasy of the imaginary woman under the table – a fiction that his monologue later negates – but rather in his urgent plea directed at the viewer. Acconci compels the viewer to witness his confessional fantasy and thus, by acting in this capacity, participate. A necessary reciprocity exists between Acconci’s performance and the viewer’s reception of this fictitious fantasy. A fruitful comparison can be drawn between Acconci’s Undertone and Wilke’s Gestures video. The performance of Acconci is validated by an exchange with the viewer in the same manner as the poses of Wilke require an onlooker. Equally, both artists achieve a form of sexual power through their performative actions. The crucial difference lies in gender. Even as the awkward disclosure of the fantasy ostensibly renders him vulnerable, Acconci nonetheless seizes sexual control. He punctuates the revelation of his fantasy by a vigorous and masturbatory rubbing of his own thighs, a gesture that creates an uncomfortable tension in the viewer who has been manoeuvred into the place of the voyeur. His repeated pleas to the viewer to witness recall the dynamic of the sexual exhibitionist who requires an onlooker to fulfill his perversion. Acconci enacts his narcissism by forcing his passive-aggressive sexuality upon the viewer.

In the video Gestures, Wilke systematically performs the postures of female display. She seductively rubs her finger across her upper lip. With the practiced smile of a fashion model, she repeatedly tosses her long hair in simulation of a shampoo commercial. Isolated from their usual context of seduction or advertising, these gestures appear absurd – which is entirely Wilke’s point. By repeatedly and methodically performing these gestures, she empties them of meaning. As a young, desirable woman Wilke understands that sexual display is the currency of her power. As a feminist, she acknowledges that these same gestures reduce her to a mere sex object. There is an implicit solicitation of the viewer to witness Wilke’s repetitive actions in much the same manner as Acconci’s Undertone requests participation with his narrative. Their respective sexual power – Wilke as the female sex object and Acconci as the male sexual exhibitionist – require the gaze of the viewer to activate this power exchange.

The deliberate self-objectification of Hannah Wilke seems, in the context of contemporary art practice, very prescient indeed. A consummate agitator and provocateur, her legacy of complex and eroticized body-based art anticipated the work of numerous future women artists whose creative point-of-departure was their own visage. While her work may have been devalued by feminist critics of her generation, a renewed interest from the ranks of feminist scholarship has emerged since her untimely death from lymphoma in 1993. Wilke and her feminist colleague Carolee Schneemann, who worked similarly with erotic self-portraiture, shrewdly engaged with the self-love of positive narcissism to reclaim the erotic female body from the objectification of the male gaze. Fully comfortable within her own skin and embracing all of her very human contradictions – as an artist, a feminist and a woman – she skillfully commanded her own image, both in front of and behind the camera.