Major group show of female artists opens at GIANT Gallery
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Major group show of female artists opens at GIANT Gallery
Senga Nengudi, Performance Piece, 1978 (detail). Silver gelatin prints, triptych. Overall dimensions 300.8 × 104.1 cm - 118 3/8 × 41 inches (framed) Photographer: Harmon Outlaw © Senga Nengudi, 2022. Courtesy Sprüth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.

BOURNEMOUTH.- GIANT presents Body Poetics, a group exhibition pairing nine feminist artists working at the advent of feminist theory in the 1970’s and 80’s with a contemporary artist from a younger generation. Curated by Marcelle Joseph and Becca Pelly-Fry, Body Poetics will run 18 February – 6 May 2023.

Judith Butler wrote in Bodies That Matter (1993) that it is impossible to ‘consider the materiality of the body’ as bodies cannot be fixed ‘as simple objects of thought’. Instead, bodies are ‘a world beyond themselves’. ‘This movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself, appeared to be quite central to what bodies “are”.’ Much like poetry, bodies are constructed. Instead of words, bodies are constructed by society through relations of power. In this exhibition, the body is set in motion, much like the words of a poem. Where the words are placed and in what order changes the meaning, the feeling or the aesthetics of the words on the page. In this exhibition, gender performativity takes centre stage in a way that claims critical agency and is not bound by the structures of patriarchal society.

In direct contradiction to the Lacanian narrative, creating cultural meaning for these 18 artists does not require the repression of their relationship to the feminine/femme/queer or maternal body. Instead, their artistic language subverts the paternal law of ‘the Symbolic’ and becomes a poetic language in which multiple meanings and semantic nonclosure prevail. The recovery of the feminine/femme/queer body by the artists in this exhibition disrupts, subverts and displaces the normative constraints of patriarchal society and becomes poetry in their hands.

Featuring a range of works made from the 1970’s to the present and across the mediums of painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, video, performance, textile and sound, Body Poetics is a feminist provocation across time and space that explores the outer limits of what a body can be, using the broadest sense of the word ‘feminist’ to include all female-identifying, non-binary and trans artists.

Louise Bourgeois and Holly Stevenson share an interest in psychoanalysis; their work explores the inner workings of the human psyche through tactile materials such as textiles and ceramics. Both Bourgeois and Stevenson are deeply involved in the excavation of repressed emotions, analysing them through bodily symbolism and the physical act of making. Bourgeois once said, ‘Art is a guarantee of sanity’; Stevenson vigorously concurs with that statement, remarking ‘Feminist art is a guarantee of female sanity’.

Helen Chadwick and Rosie Gibbens both employ humour as a way to subvert patriarchal systems and challenge stereotypical perceptions of the body. Often inserting themselves into their artwork by positioning their bodies as absurd objects, they upturn ideas of functionality and the domestic in relation to the female/femme body in our constructed environment. Binary oppositions also feature in both artists’ work, in particular, seduction/repulsion and beauty/abjection, forging gender representations that ooze with ambiguity and a disquieting sexuality that blurs the boundaries of the body.

Judy Chicago and Ad Minoliti are united in the use of abstract iconography, a vivid colour palette and symbolic imagery to explore and redefine societal categorisation of the body and the gendered experience. Chicago developed a distinctive visual language to define the female experience, surfacing erased stories and achievements of women; Minoliti further unpacks normative categories through presenting visions of a post-humanist non-binary multiverse, playfully blurring lines between human, animal, plant and technology.

Guerrilla Girls and Evan Ifekoya employ visually and viscerally different approaches to activism and social justice. Guerrilla Girls use the bold, graphic language of advertising to subvert the medium and call out injustice and speak truth to power. Evan Ifekoya makes a call for radical self-love and empowerment through inner healing in order to reclaim space within colonial-built systems that allow little or none.

Senga Nengudi and Enam Gbewonyo have a shared interest in everyday materials, particularly tights or pantyhose, which reference the female/femme body literally and figuratively. Performing with and around the objects they make, both artists activate their own bodies to reach a deeper understanding of their lived experiences. Both artists could be viewed as modern-day healers, connecting contemporary Western culture with ancestral African traditions and practices: Senga Nengudi’s assumed name translates as ‘hear, or listen to, the woman who comes to power as a traditional healer’, and Gbewonyo has said, ‘ultimately my work seeks to deliver the collective consciousness to a place of awareness through healing’.

Niki de Saint Phalle and Rae-Yen Song both envision new ways of inhabiting the world, employing a joyful sense of play. Multi-disciplinary and often monumental in their creativity, both artists create a vibrantly hued universe of mythological creatures, consisting of human and non-human bodies, where alternative realities are proposed and ownership over biographical narratives is reclaimed.

Carolee Schneemann and Florence Peake are deeply engaged with physicality and materiality across their respective interdisciplinary practices that span performance, film, photography, installation, painting and sculpture. These artists examine the social construction of the female/femme/queer body through the positioning of bodies (often their own) alongside a myriad of materials, interrogating the body as site and vehicle of political protest, pain and suffering as well as joy, sexual expression and creativity. Schneemann famously retorted that she performed the roles of ‘both image and image-maker’, a statement that equally applies to Peake’s transgressive practice.

Kiki Smith and Charlotte Edey share many mediums in common across their artistic practices, working in drawing, printmaking, embroidery and tapestry to explore gendered subjectivity in relation to mortality, gender, race, sexuality, women’s rights and the politics of space. Both artists draw on myth, mysticism and folklore to create images of the sublime, rooted in lived experience.

delve into mysticism, surrealism and the occult to uproot dominant narratives, presenting futuristic and fantastical visions of a post-patriarchal future. Using a wide range of visual references, from Tantric mystical teachings to science fiction, and working across a diverse array of media, these artists create temples to the divine feminine, imagining non-hierarchical futures through fluid mythologies.

Each of these artists, although producing predominantly two and three-dimensional work, make works that perform on or around the body in a poetic way. During the opening night, Thursday 16 February 2023, Rosie Gibbens will activate her sculptural works through performance. With her body in motion, the artist will participate in lively dialogue with the performative photographs of Helen Chadwick that document a performance that took place in the 1970’s, involving the artist’s own body in a rich discourse rooted in feminist theory.

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