Final Major Project – research/context in Pecha Kucha

In order to kickstart my final major project, clarify my aims and plan for the weeks to come, and contextualise around it, we were tasked with drafting our project proposal and action plan, and creating a Pecha Kucha presentation to share our initial research. A Pecha Kucha (aka a 20×20) is one primarily composed of images, spanning 20 slides, each of which is shown for just 20 seconds, meaning that the full presentation lasts just over 6 minutes. Below I summarise the contents of my presentation, and so the research I conducted in the first two weeks of my project.

Reflection on past work

First I reflected on some of the commonalities/themes I have previously explored in my work that have driven my interest in the topic of my FMP: expression. This related to the work in Futures project, where my future self-portrait and the navigating space/grid cell/instruction work has commonalities of i) an interest in perceptions of self/observation by others. ii) Behaviour and body language. iii) Psychology, consciousness and identity. iv) Manipulation, instruction and expectation. v) interaction. Thus something around behavioural expressions/externalisations of our inner psychology and how this is expected/observed by others would be a natural continuation.

Also too that in previous Unit 2 work I was interested in gestural and expressive mark-making, and the notion of automatic drawing or writing. I have not yet taken this into the action itself as a performance, as opposed to a work produced from it, so would be interested to explore this in my FMP.

Context

I was keen to contextualise the notion of my performance of expression within what might be interpreted from it – and the problematic biases of my being a woman artist. I saw this being across multiple facets. One being narcissim/vanity. Autobiographical work by women is interpreted as superficial or vain, self-obsessed, while autobiographical work of men can access universal themes and move beyond the personal. I linked this to the works of Helene Schjerfbeck who I went to see back in 2019.

Too, it is a paradox for women artists that in portraying their subjective reality/perception of themselves they are colluding in their own objectification. I related this to the Ways of Seeing I researched previously, as well as Tracey Emin’s self-portraits which evoke her subjective sexuality, but at the same time could be objectifying and eroticising herself.

I was conscious too that in externalising my emotions, I could be pervading the prejudice that women are ruled by their emotions, and the problematic connotations of this in relation to hysteria. I discovered that hysteria (back when it was treated as a psychological disorder), was specifically seen as the height of female sexual expression in a world of repression and strict social behavioural restrictions.

This photo of a woman demonstrating a ‘hysterical episode’, characterised by the arched back, was distributed for voyeuristic purposes in 1880

The surrealists were particularly interested in this – as an expression of the subconscious sexuality of women. This brought me onto another problematic context for the performance of women – that women’s performance takes place within the asymmetric power relationship between men and women. The surrealists choreographed/instructed a performance (below) by the dancer Helene Vanel to simulate hysteria – sexualising and objectifying her.

Helene Vanel (1938) at Exposition Internationale de Surrealisme in Paris

Another such problematic performance, which explored the body and gesture in performance art, was Yves Klein’s Anthropometries.

Here naked female models were instructed to cover their bodies in Yves Klein’s blue paint, and place themselves against surfaces in ways instructed/choreographed by the artist. He clearly objectified them here, calling them ‘living brushes’, though later the models have claimed they were collaborators in his work.

In considering female performance art, it is also important to contextualise this within the gender theory of philosopher Judith Butler – that gender itself is performative and we identify someone’s gender from the repetitive behavioural characteristics that we attribute to certain genders. This is evidenced in the performance of drag – whereby someone identifying in one gender performs the characteristics of the other as an illusion/subversion of such gendering. It’s easiest to see the skill involved in this, and thus the nuances of behaviours we interpret as gendered, by comparing an experienced drag performer with a novice who has had a makeover, in the makeover challenge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race (below)

Experienced drag performers (left) and novices (right) demonstrate the nuance of stance/posture for gender performance

Art Research

So one theme I explored was resistance and women’s rage. I discovered that just as long as women have been resisting, they have been using their bodies to do so.

A jiu-jitsu how-to guide for the Suffragettes, Mary Evans c.1910

Here I also referred back to my research around Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, and how these women pioneered the freedom of expression for women’s bodies.

I also looked at how other artists have sought to express through suggestion or absence of the body, but where the works themselves have been created with the body or with interaction with the body in mind.

I also looked at artists who have used performance as the work itself, or in the creation of works, where abstract gestural mark-making has been utilised.

And works where the gesture itself is fully expressed in the mark/performance, and repeated.

The taking on of gestures/expressions of others as a suppression of self/ventrioloquist expression.

This is by no means an exhaustive line of research, and indeed since compiling this I have already found more lines that are of interest and relevant to this work!

Unit 2: Future of the Mind – research

In approaching this grid work, I knew I ought to investigate minimalist works such as by Agnes Martin.

Untitled (1965) Agnes Martin

I listened to an episode of the Bow Down Women in Art podcast discussing her life and works. It was interesting to understand the influence of Zen Buddhism in her work, which emphasises the need for mindfulness and meditation, and a sense of oneness. Though her works are perhaps a little too minimalist for my tastes, this set me down an interesting path of research, when looking for her work in a compendium of women artists in modern art. I came across the works of Eva Hesse here for the first time. I was interested here in her use of repetition to reveal naturally-occurring difference and iteration. This implies a sense of change and time for me, and the use of organic forms and materials was also interesting here. Her works for me seem tactile and invite a human spectator.

Repetition Nineteen III (1968) Eva Hesse

In looking further at her work, I discovered an intriguing article about Performativity in the work of female Japanese artists 1950-60s and 1990s by Yuko Hasegawa. Here I was introduced more deeply to the works of Yayoi Kusama, and to the instructional works of Fluxus artists Yoko Ono and Mieko Shiomi (who are also influenced by Zen), which I think are all relevant to the line of inquiry I have pursued in this project.

While I had previously been aware of the reflective/mirror infinity rooms of Kusama, I had not previously understood the context of her fascination with infinity and the dots which also pervade her work. The infinity nets series is a direct catharsis of visual hallucinations that Kusama experiences, which she has been afflicted by since childhood. Here polka dots cover her visual world like net curtains. By engaging with repetitive pattern and action she is able to gain balance in what might otherwise be an overloading experience.

No. F (1959) Yayoi Kusama
Infinity Nets (1951) Yayoi Kusama

These infinite repetitions and patterns seem highly relevant to my grid cell pattern work, and it could be interesting for me to explore building up layered work in the way Kusama has done with the thick textural paint in her No. F. It’s fascinating to me that she would be experiencing visual hallucinations which sound so similar to these visual navigation patterns I have been imagining, and I could hypothesise that she is actually just seeing this secret/hidden way in which our visual field navigates the world!

She also has explored visual infinities of self, and sense of the alter ego, in terms of the interaction of either herself or the audience within mirrored spaces. The duplication but also obliteration of the body by making it become one with the environment itself -> achieving invisibility. This reminds me of the phenomenon whereby repeating a word endlessly removes its meaning and makes it sound just as a series of noises. I think this could have implications for my future self-portrait work (which I have not yet had chance to write about on my blog!)

Instructional works interest me, for meaning that the outcomes of the work are unpredictable and unprecedented, something not controlled by the artist. Yoko Ono’s work is intriguing for specifying the destruction of a canvas or painting by burning with a cigarette, with the smoke produced being a part of the work. In displaying the work she would have the instructions and then the outcomes themselves, which I think is very intriguing.

The Smoke Painting instruction, Yoko Ono

Instructions were also used to good effect by Shiomi. I am particularly interested in her Spatial Poems work, where she sent letters to 100 people over the course of 10 years, coordinating a network of simultaneous events to take place across the world.

Events from the Spatial Poems (Word Event) 1965-75, Mieko Shiomi

It could be interesting for me to develop a set of instructions for others to recreate the grid and perform an interaction with it in any space. This could allow for all sorts of iterations to be created and explored beyond my own control which would be interesting.