It is the morning after, and while the event is still fresh in my mind I am writing about the last night’s entire experience. What experience you may ask? Well, if you have been following my posts, you will know that I am in my third year of an art degree, and last night was the opening of my year-end examination piece. It is a conceptual piece inspired by the second-wave feminist performance artists of the 60s and 70s, and relates to the patriarchal gaze and attempts to rupture that via exposing myself to the gaze! I am here to tell you it was one of the most unpleasant experiences I have ever put myself through! One of my fellow artist’s husbands put it perfectly: now you know what a stripper goes through when she steps onto that stage. What was supposed to be an intimate space turned out to be a sauna-like one located next to a bar, it was hot and loud, and to attempt a performance, a FIRST performance art piece under those conditions was very difficult!! Add to that an audience passing through, in and out, plus a photographer and videographer in my face under the stark, hot studio lights they required, while I shaved my entire body and performed a number of other rituals!! I am proud to say though, that I stayed focused, and shut out the outside world, ironically, while performing my rituals for that same world to observe. I experienced the weight of the Gaze as I am sure few men have, but as women probably do every day of their lives. As I said, it was not a pleasant experience!
In addition, the sheer enormity of my personal journey really is astounding, I kid you not! It began in my first year of my studies when I discovered the artist, Ana Mendieta, and her silhouette art works. I have an incredible, natural thirst for knowledge so I voraciously pursued any information on her, and this in turn led to my discovery of other feminist performance artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic, Mary Beth Edelson and Hannah Wilke. I was overwhelmed, enthralled, addicted (add any emotive you choose in this space)! This was in 2010, three years later, and my concept crystallized into one final act, or in this case, performance
As the artist Swany, I explored the nature of my Gaze. To look is not a neutral thing, but is a social construct. To quote John Berger, “one might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear”, in other words, it is men who do the looking while it is women who watch themselves being looked at (Berger: 47). Looking is thus about relationships of power; the active and the passive. Laura Mulvey, in her essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Mulvey: 6-18) says:
the determining male gaze projects its fantasy unto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be seen to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.
My multi-facetted art piece includes: an installation, visual works, a documented performance and the resultant video, and utilizes five selected feminist performance artists, and my presence to investigate and interrogate this relationship.
The performance consisted of three rituals: shaving, lighting of candles and cracking open of coconuts. The shaving spoke of shedding, while the simple act of moving from one station/altar to another, lighting candles certainly spoke of ritual, which then culminated with the “coconut sacrifice”. The coconut is a powerful motif and has a ritualistic association (especially in Hindu tradition). As a fruit, it speaks of sexuality/reproduction. To crack it open speaks of an attempt to “break open” these issues, to extract meaning. The husks relate to the shaving ritual and the coconut flesh to human flesh. All these came into play with the notion of offering the coconut up in an effort to seek punishment or redemption. My investigation of the gaze consisted of: firstly, an internal gaze, and the resultant unlayering of my various male identities in an effort to understand where I am at this point in my life. Secondly, the subjection of myself and this introspective act to the audience and their gaze. This spoke of a type of public shedding of skin, so instead of being the stereotypical gazer (the colonizer) I became the colonized, the object gazed at.
So here I sit writing about how I feel, and what it felt like, this most visceral of experiences. OK, immediate stream-of-consciousnessthoughts, the assault on my senses: exhaustion, discomfort, a flatness of spirit and emotion, aching muscles and back, itchy. I feel like, to quote my mentor, a sordid whore, and as the saying goes: ridden hard and put away wet. The body is sore because of the extremes I have put it through in creating this performance piece: 21 days of fasting, stress and lack of sleep, the physical toil involved in creating the installation pieces (altars, drops), the final four full days of erecting the installation, and then the climatic physical as well as emotional effort of the performance These were the things that I had some control over, however once the performance began I was no longer in control, of the audience and their reaction and comments, of the photographer, of the videographer, of the space I presented in. It was set in motion and I carried out my rituals within it, presenting myself to the gaze. I felt myself to be in a fragile, embryonic bubble which my mind instinctively created in order to offer some protection to the almost hostile attentions. My senses were heightened to supernatural levels; the feel of the razor on my flesh, the heat of flames, the scent of candles,sulphur, fabric, shaving cream, perfume, alcohol and cigarettes…my sweat.
I could hear the voices of the public, as though from the end of a long,misty tunnel, yet with crystal clarity, each syllable making my skin crawl and tense and twitch. The masculine comments especially, as traditional possessors/wielders of the gaze, were aggressively dismissive and derisive; their gaze threatened and threatening in equal measure. “What is this supposed to be?” “This is art?” “I’m a serious, competitive cyclist and that’s not how you shave your legs. I should show you all how to do it!” “Whats that supposed to mean?” “There are you happy now? He’s taking his fucking pants off. That’s what you’ve been waiting for!” “I need a drink.” “What the fuck?!! He’s breaking coconuts nuts now!! He’s nuts!! Ha ha!” “What a load of fucking shit.” The noise of the crowd around the bar in the room alongside, rumbled and growled threateningly the entire time, providing an audible presence to the gaze.
Now, I sit writing, my body itching and tender as a result of my savage shaving. It is as though it can still feel the weight of the gaze I exposed it to. Although clothed it feels vulnerable and emasculated, its protective hair removed: head shaved and planed like a piece of wood, strength removed as in the old Biblical tale of Samson; genitals soft and baby-like without their covering of dark curls; chest that of a youth, flat and pale in its nudity; legs, shiny and smooth and feminine. Accompanying this physical discomfort there is also a measure of irrational shame that I feel, as though by exposing myself, not just physically but emotionally, to the gaze, I have done something sinful and implicitly, morally wrong. I feel like people, when they look at me and see my shaven head, can see my sin and so I have taken to wearing a cap to hide my shame.
But it never was supposed to be pleasant, the gaze, and if nobody else in the gallery took anything away with them from my work I most certainly did, and therefore it was a worthwhile journey! My goal then, was attained: my investigation of the gaze: firstly, an internal gaze, and the resultant unlayering of my various male identities in an effort to understand where I am at this point in my life. I feel that I certainly presented my internal gaze as well as questioned the male identity as possessor of the gaze. Secondly, the subjecting of myself and this introspective act to the audience and their gaze. These spoke of a type of public shedding of skin, so instead of being the stereotypical gazer (the colonizer) I became the colonized, the object gazed at. I most certainly felt the sheer, terrible weight of the gaze, and what it felt like to be the other.
So what remains? Well I need to face my shame and discomfort, and edit the video so that my piece can be completed. The edited video (ten minutes) will be looped and play continuously within my installation, a stark record of the rituals which took place within that very room. This should create a feeling of dislocation within the viewer, somewhat like coming across a bloody garment in a room and being told what occurred there by another. The physical evidence of my rituals remains. To then view these same rituals taking place on a screen while the sound of a slow, steady, rhythmic beating heart fills the room, surrounded by this evidence is sure invoke disquiet and uneasiness.