Talk: Catriona Moore at “Backflip!” — September 8, 2013

‘Humour in feminist Art ‘ VCA Auditorium

Catriona Moore, 9 May, 2013

(in conjunction with ‘Backflip!’ exhibition, VCA Gallery (Curator: Laura Castignani)

*nb slide titles refer to PowerPoint images.

When Laura asked me to help contextualize Backflip! Historically, and to choose a form of feminist humour; stumped. Dry wit, droll wordplay, and elegant parodic gesture? No way; certainly not the Roll-on-floor LOL of Backflip. Thinking back to humourous character of early feminist art in Australia: all I could come up with was smut, dirty joke. Real basic stuff. Just this side of funny, depending on what side of the bed you’d got out of that morning, and who with/how many drinks etc.

Even then, hard pressed to raise a laugh.

The fact is, a lost world of dripping-red tampon earrings, aroma-rama installations and cleansing performances that spooked the art world subconscious for decades has quietly gathered dust behind curatorial curtain. Until now, with Backflip!

Makes you wonder why it’s taken us so long? Were all those cringe worthy family albums and agit-prop d’oleys so shamefully anti-aesthetic?

Of course they were. If we’re serious about tracing the path of feminist wit across 4 decades of acceptable jollity, the point is that you just can’t.  The work was always institutionally embarrassing; never pretty enough, never witty enough. Smut’s hard enough in the white cube of the gallery walls; feminist smut was just too dirty.

So Laura’s ask made me curious as to why the art world just can’t get feminist jokes; why we were destined to be castigated as humourless feminists.

Image: Work by Richard Larter, Brett  Whitely, Mike Brown

The problem wasn’t the degree of smut. Australian Pop Art always ventured below the bikini line….. but that audiences (and particularly critics) raised on the wholesome suburban diet of Brett Whitely bums, Mike Brown busts and Richard Larter beavers found feminist body imagery just too rich.

Image: Viv Binns Suggon, 1967, Vag Dens, 1967

In Suggon, a sucking, pulsating bun-net chugged away in the middle of an unpleasant, shiny field of hard-edge abstraction.  To his credit, the long-time critic for the Australian, Elwyn Lynn thought the show made “Colin Lancely seem almost effete by comparison and Michael Brown a middle aged moralist.” (Elwyn Lynn)

Vivienne Binns:, Vag dens, 1967. Synthetic polymer paint and enamel on composition board. Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Analytic Pubism”, was how he described the show’s style, for  ”its ambiguity affronts masculinity by its challenge, makes females feel inadequate, but would excite any marine biologist.”

While I’m unconvinced about women feeling inadequate in the face of this innocuous diorama, wasn’t far wrong in responding to Binns’ edgy parodic humour and cheerful sexual assertion.

As Binns recalled of Vag Dens (1967), “I struggled with this one. I’d got the actual cunt there and a few other things that had happened spontaneously but was stopped. There was an image that kept recurring and I rejected it because it seemed a bit too fierce, a bit too crude or something and I kept pushing it aside. In the end I did it and it was to put teeth on the cunt. Once I’d done it, it was right. I was happy…”

Fun and laughter just didn’t seem appropriate response, though. “Have a double brandy, grit your teeth and see it”  (Rodney Milgate.)

To a man, the critics read the work as if Binns was in dire need of good fuck or art therapy. “(This is) “not for the family man or young mothers”  (Helen Sweeney.)

Getting all that “sickness and sex” off her chest (John Henshaw) was all well and good, but please, not in the gallery. We just hope all that embarrassing self-exposure will “Leave Miss Binns wholly well adjusted (Wallace Thornton.)

Not that sex & neurosis hadn’t been seen before in modern art (one of it’s structuring principles since Munch, Van Gogh).  In the careful calibrations of modernism, we find there is madness and madness. Melancholia, yes, alcoholic breakdowns certainly, and schizoid tendencies made for retrospective film rights if Hollywood bio-pics are anything to go by. But female hysteria, no way. Binns was the original kooky chick. Unlike the Annandale Imitation realists and other Australian Pop artists, her smutty jokes were not funny because she was an unaesthetic nutter.

But in the strict calibrations of art-historical value, we find there is madness and madness. Melancholia yes, alcoholic breakdowns certainly, and schizoid tendencies made for retrospective film rights (think of all those films about Van Gogh)

Binns rubbishy installation was more than just trash. It was abject waste, as suggested by the critics’ aversion for “devious movement”, “flood”, “messy”, “morass” and an “avalanche” of “tormented, damaged forms”.  The unbounded wetness of the show was a particular problem.

Image: work by Manzoni, Mike Parr H. Nitsch

Other artists were using transgressive motifs– the problem wasn’t urine, or shit or blood per se (witness Manzoni, Nitsch, Parr) but also its close connection to women’s reproductive and domestic labours. Not art, but also not the right kind of life – and the two are linked. The unbounded nature of feminine stuff was just unrepresentable in the aesthetic terms that were then available.

Image: Fiske/Garlick, central core Refractory Girl cover, 1975

The tampon as slingshot visual analogy paralleled the central core gob-stopper. A graphic example is Angela Gee and Mary Callaghan’s silkscreen poster promoting wonder woman’s revenge for the Women’s Theatre Group (1975). A looming, bloody tampon squeezes hard upon against the picture plane like a blimp in Toni Roberston’s 1975 screen-print I’d Die if they saw the stain. Both offered little room for aesthetic relief. Feminists were inventing a whacky, dirty hysterical kind of smut that was simultaneously wondrous and horrific. The artworld wasn’t ready for it.

Image: Helen Grace, the Lovely Motherhood Show (detail)

A decade later, critics still found feminist humour in bodily functions and waste management unfunny. Works in The Lovely Motherhood Show (Adelaide, 1981) were slammed as “icons of distress”(Jenny Boult, Art Network). “YUK…. (wrote JBoult), “ I personally couldn’t help feeling that 90% of the women contributing were not cut out to have children, and in these days of abortion and birth control, I wonder why they bothered…. A bath full of dirty nappies, slogans on nappies, silk-screens on a nappy-rack.”???

Following art world complaints, Sandy Taylor’s hyperrealist soft-form sculpture lurking in a corner plastic bucket had to be removed by the end of the first week….

The show was clearly a playpen of Bad mothers making Bad art – and the art world’s reactive calls for social and aesthetic eugenics yet again misread the satiric tropes of the feminist dirty joke.

Image: Robert Rooney, Garments 3 Dec -19th March 1973

It wasn’t the dirt or domesticity in itself that offended. Conceptual art like Robert Rooney’s notorious early 1970s art for the housebound took an equally exaggerated interest in hygienic domestic routines. Garments 3 Dec -19th March 1973 – is an impassively gridded photographic series of neatly folded clothes, taken at the end of each day. The eye is spellbound on the rhythmic tonal gradation of coloured bri-nylon Jockeys as they flow by on the way to the Laundromat. Rooney was certainly regular; as he recounted for a lifestyle magazine, “during that period you inflicted boredom on yourself.”

Image: Jude Adams, January 8th-15th 1979

And so did Jude Adams in her January 8th-15th 1979, part of a washing performance and installation in The Lovely Motherhood show. 7 nappies a day, 7 days a week… like Rooney, a complex parallel is wrought between the systematic order of the modernist grid and the more fragile routines of everyday life in the ‘burbs. The piece also included a witty series of ‘idea demonstrations’ (to borrow the title of a conceptual art project of the time by Peter Kennedy and Mike Parr) – diagrammatically outlining nappy-folding techniques (the kite, the Greek Triangle) participatory stuff that would try the patience and dexterity of the most routine-happy conceptualist.

Male post-object work happily played with dirt, to critical acclaim.  In 1975 Dom de Clario distributed rubbish over an area that had once been a tip but had been converted to the Mildura Sculpturescape. The influential critic Donald Brook immediately took up the challenge:

“Can a post-object artist turn rubbish into sculpture by siting it amongst sculptures in a properly designated place? Can he, further, turn sculpture back into rubbish by reclaiming (in implication) the original purpose of the place?”.

You bet he could.

Just as Joseph Beuys’ ‘glass-encased Marx St Sweep-out (1972), Manzoni’s neatly canned Artist’s Shit (1961) Christo’s obsessive wrap-ups and earth art excavations and in-fills suggest that when male artists sweep, wrap and play with dirt, the amusing anality of the activity is sublimated as a clever, site-specific installation. As site, the act of dumping rubbish or cleaning it up again was not physical, not hermetic, nor compact, not permanent and not unique. Ie it wasn’t dirty, it was conceptual art. So why did one pile of trash remain trash, whilst another became treasure?

In hindsight, early feminist smalls, washing, dirty laundry look just as kooky as Rooney’s jockeys and dom de Clario’s ‘clean up Australia’ project. Yet male garbage was lauded for developing a relationship with its site. They were the kinds of postmodernist artists who were (as Julie Ewington commented in a not-so-dissimilar context, lifting quotes from Art & Text if I recall) “subversive, wryly sophisticated, subjective, inventive, polysemic; who experience aesthetic pleasure, relishes shock for the sake of style, and even attain cognitive satisfaction.“[1]

In the terms of the day, the equally non-immutable and non-hermetic nature of women’s work was penalized for the same site-specificity. Yet these artworks are suburbs apart. The social and art world sexual division of labour made one piece appear grimly sociological, whilst the other was chuckled over as a witty conceptual skirmish between art & life.

Cunt, tampon and nappy came across as straight sexual aggression. That wasn’t funny.

Sigmund Freud’s brilliant 1906 book Jokes and their relation to the unconscious had described how the dirty/tendentious joke enabled men of the educated classes to take pleasure in simple smut. Like the joke, art provides a sublimated form for expressing sexual transgressions and bodily functions. Hence Manzoni’s shit and Hany Armanious’ soiled Y-fronts are like Kleinian play therapy for jaded art lovers, appreciating good old bodily waste in an age-old, infantile sense, within an amusing, cultured society setting such as the Venice Biennale.

The problem was that feminists couldn’t get their shit accepted as art in the first place. Even Juan Davila’s regular visits by the Sydney vice squad in the early 1980s augmented his critical credentials by paradoxically confirming the work’s artiness. Kind of value-added smut.

For Sigmund Freud, Jokes let out forbidden thoughts and feelings that the conscious mind (well, at least the mindset of the average art critic) usually suppressed in deference to society. The commanding superego (let’s call this the art world) would impede the ego from seeking pleasure for the id (let’s see this force as feminine lol, gratification or being ‘out there’) in order to adapt itself to the demands of reality. In  other words, the art world insists upon ‘mature’, arty methods for coping with the expression of thoughts that society usually suppressed or forbade, the weird stuff of women’s Lives.

Yet Freud also shared ideas floating around at the turn of the century (Herbert Spencer) about all this impossible energy being conserved, bottled up, and then released like so much steam venting to avoid an explosion. He saw the joke as a bit like that, as psychic or emotional energy bubbling up from below, as a form of relief. The ‘return of the repressed’ – and feminist humour, formulated in harsh times, was tendentious – in Freud’s terms, the kind of jokes that contain lust, hostility or both.

Now Freud’s take on jokes is kind of useful, if a little heavy handed – the catalogue essays in Backflip! provide a neat snapshot of Freud’s limitations in this regard. But at the very least, Freud offers a small, partial inkling why feminist humour was such an arty oxymoron. Simply: The art world just could not recognize the pleasure to be obtained from the mediation and release of psychic energy: expressing dangerous feelings of female hostility, aggression, cynicism or sexuality. Just didn’t ‘get it’.

Images: Linda Dement, Cyberfleshgirlmonster, 1995; GNS matrix, ‘All New Gen” 1992

However through the 1990s more insistently arty work from the 1990s (Michaela Dwyer, Destiny Deacon, Kathy Temin, later Racquel Ormella), ‘stretched’ psychoanalytic, political and aesthetic discourse, such that today, the art world is finally able to countenance the  ‘return of the repressed’.

The younger generation of artists shown here in Backflip still unsettle museum orthodoxies, yet through employing performative styles lifted from radical drag, burlesque, stand-up and crafty-wafty Frankie magazine naff-girl styling, Natalya Hughes’ Gnawing beavers (2012), Brown Council’s saucepan thumping performances and associated frisky morphology, sick joke, playing off the good breeding of the museum and gallery with its anti-social, panty-sniffing feminist underbelly.

[1] Julie Ewington, ‘Fragmentation and Feminism: the critical discourses of postmodernism’. Art & Text #7. Spring 1982, p.68

Copyright Catriona Moore, 2013