Select and annotate at least four works by contemporary woman artists, including Sarah Lucas. How do these works relate to some of the theories and ‘isms’ that you’ve explored so far

  • Gillian Wearing  – Fuck Cilla Black (2003) (magazine cover, minimalist white, black scrawl saying “Fuck Cilla Black” in the centre, and in much smaller lettering at the bottom of the cover, the title of the article linked to the image, “TV gets Nasty, Cover by Gillian Wearing, Report by Stuart Jeffries”)While researching Wearing, I came across an article about a magazine cover she had produced for the Guardian’s G2 in 2003, described above. After publication, the Guardian received a mountain of complaints. Both Wearing and G2’s editor apologised. Even so, the cover embodies some of the subjects Wearing is looking at in her work. She explores the dichotomy between our inner and outer selves, deconstructing what we choose to present externally. The cover garnered a lot of complaints because people were shocked by the use of bad language, but also appalled that someone whose public persona, that of  a “cuddly matriarch”, should be derided. (Katz, 2003). In fact, some anecdotes suggest Cilla Black was anything but cuddly as described in an article that appeared in The Daily Mail  in 2007. Perhaps the allusion to inner and outer selves was accidental, given the apologies. But there is something far more interesting than whether Cilla Black was nice or not expressed in the work.  And ultimately the cover wasn’t about her, rather it was about something her TV persona represented. The G2 cover intended to illustrate an article about how mean TV had become lately, especially reality TV. It may have shocked people but it worked as a headline for the article which was exploring socially acceptable insidious behaviour, manifested as entertainment, in some cases funded by the society and individuals it mocked. We accept cruelty on TV towards members of the public but we don’t like it if we see evidence of the same sort of behaviour directed towards certain figures. There is something strange, if not hypocritical in this.Will Black’s recent book, Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires explores the way in which society loses empathy and allows psychopathic traits to dominate. Aside from the way in which certain groups of people are able to exist and operate in positions of power, and exert influence over society, the book looks at how damaging traits spread. TV, and particularly reality TV is a key disseminator of cultural norms as well as being a mirror for society. The reality of Reality TV is pernicious, so much so, it inspired an extremely violent series of books aimed at teenagers called The Hunger Games where children are chosen to fight to the death for entertainment purposes, as well as ensuring a sense of power is retained by the oligarchical leaders over a dystopian society. Wearing’s G2 edition uncovers some truths about reality TV by focussing the aggression in a different direction.  And we so looking back, we might recognise something about retaining control over a society explored in the Hunger Games books too. Also, many of the same people prompted to write in and complain about the cover are likely to have watched the ‘victims’ of TV shows, joining in and enjoying their public shaming without question. People don’t seem to realise what they’re doing when they put themselves forward for these shows. What’s more, it is highly debatable that children should ever appear in reality TV shows at all, especially the ones that disguise themselves as behavioural advice clinics. Such programmes are prurient and all the worse for pretending they’re an important social service. Will Black says in his book, “Once we recognise that psychopathic cultures are as much a reality as psychopathic individuals, we will have considerably more chance of tackling them” (Black, 2014) Whatever you want to name it by, the socially accepted behaviour inherent in reality TV should prompt us to ask questions about ourselves, which is what the article and cover were doing, and perhaps begin tackling what has become a norm. The apologies from Wearing and G2 look like commercially motivated mopping up, and whilst totally understandable, should not detract from the original intent.
  • Agnes Martin Gabriel 1976, 76 minute 16mm film following a lone boy exploring nature, as well as various aspects of the nature he experiences (looking and subjectivity)

    “You are what goes through your mind” (Martin)

    This is difficult to ‘annotate’ – I realise much of what I choose to look at cannot be annotated in the usual way, since often it is video, or even a just pile of sweets, or so incredibly minimalist there is virtually nothing to connect pencil lines of notes to, but this one is even harder since I cannot see the film in time as I have struggled to find it online and would need to order a hard copy (sure others with better research abilities than me will find an illegal copy in seconds). I must rely on reports by others including a WeAreOCA blog. In that case, why choose to do this at all you may ask? Hopefully I can answer that during the following notes.Courtney Fisk in an online article describes a key characteristic of the film, which is the non-virtuoistic way in which it is made. In several places online the film is described as unprofessional, out of focus in parts, shaky, filled with non-sequiturs, and accidental mistakes, mishaps. Fisk says, “Her decision in 1976 to make a film thus seems a digression, an eccentric footnote to a body of work singularly obsessed with line.” (Fisk, 2013)  However, Fisk ends the article with, “Rather than an aberrant, and potentially harmful, addendum to an otherwise faultless oeuvre, Martin’s film illumes the contradictions that structure her art and the anxiety (both the artist’s own and that of her interpreters) that attends its relationship to nature. It’s a film, like her paintings, at once elusive and concrete, that interests us precisely because it is irreconcilable.”A conversation on the newsletter explores whether or not the lack of virtuosity in the filming leads to a valid form of ‘expression’. (, 2016) Martin seems in her work, concerned with the place where language (structure and form) and inner states  (the opposite of structure of form, for want of a better description) meet. The intricate but repetitive calculated lines and shapes in her usual work, painted by hand, can be seen as an example of the symbolic order reduced as far as possible without being entirely annihilated, and where we would expect to see or hear ‘language’ there is only the hint of it. When asked what her work is ‘about’, Martin answers, as reported in the Fisk interview and in relation to the film, ‘happiness’ and ‘innocence’ like all of it.  She describes the film as being about joy and innocence.  You might argue that joy cannot be experienced or known without sadness and pain and so inherent in her work is the very opposite and a nostalgia for a time that can never be revisited, a point at which we embrace language and all that entails. Regardless, the film, from what I understand, is challenging and there are detractors as well as supporters, but I find it a useful lesson in an argument against perfection. Even though the filming may have been subject to, or even made by embracing unplanned mistakes and unconscious eruptions, it, from what I can tell in the reporting, conveys a sense of living, authentic experience and unadulterated emotion. Perhaps it gives us an example of the antithesis of James Elkins’ idea of ‘kitsch and tedious’ when he describes the state of photography found on social media in his book What Photography Is. (2011) Maybe Elkins was justifiably accused of dismissing too much but there is certainly within that term a type of work that is overly perfect and utterly stripped of any joy, life or energy whatsoever. (That is important for me to remember as I struggle with an inner voice that dismisses anything and everything I do as being not good enough).
  • Amelia Ulman Excellences and Perfections 2014 (Identity)

    I have touched briefly on Ulman’s work before but will link her work here with some themes I have covered in this UVC project. Excellences and Perfections has been described as “one of the most original and outstanding artworks of the digital era.” (Sooke, 2016)  The project started in 2014 when Ulman started to build an Instagram following of thousands, emulating other accounts where individuals promote a certain type of lifestyle; expensive, perfect looking, glossy, arguably highly narcissistic. The difference was, Ulman was doing this for the sake of a performance art project which only she was aware of, and eventually she unveiled her trick at which point the art critics hailed her as a modern genius. Which she may well be.

    Slavoj Zizek, in his YouTube video referring to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, describes how ‘play’, transforms into reality. “Appearance wins over reality”, ultimately becoming it. (Zizek, 2014) As an actor this concept is familiar and can also be seen in the way a well-known rugby team, the All Blacks, warm up, invoking the aggression required to play well with a pre-match ritual. So, it seems perfectly justifiable to ask, where does the real Ulman and the fake Ulman begin and end?  Her work evokes the sense of an unstable, shifting reality which some might argue permeates social media.It is really important to stress I am not remotely suggesting that Ulman has any form of  personality disorder in the following. I have never met her am not qualified to make any sort of personal analysis, even if I had met her. I am looking here at the questions her work asks about our society. It may be worth considering Will Black’s book Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires again, which explains how society is currently suffering from traits that are recognised as psychopathic in individuals. The traits are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) under anti-social personality disorder:
    A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:

    1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
      a.Identity: Ego-centrism; self-esteem derived from personal gain, power, or pleasure.b.Self-direction: Goal-setting based on personal gratification; absence of prosocial internal standards associated with failure to conform to lawful or culturally normative ethical behavior.AND
    2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
      a.Empathy: Lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others; lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another.b.Intimacy: Incapacity for mutually intimate relationships, as exploitation is a primary means of relating to others, including by deceit and coercion; use of dominance or intimidation to control others.

    Black tells us at some length how deciding on the terms that best describe anti-social order behaviour – psychopathy and narcissism being two such mindsets on a scale – are challenging and part of an ever evolving process. Nevertheless, Black is one of many authors who have suggested society currently suffers from traits that are psychopathic or narcissistic and many of these thesis’ point to the rise of social media as a key element, although they also write a lot of words exploring the advantages too.  This morning I read an article about social ‘gas lighting’, the term that describes how one person deliberately aims to dismantle another’s perception of reality. Ulman was and is certainly playing around with shifting realities. Another term being used in the media to describe social gas lighting is ‘post-truth’, what ever  that may actually mean.

    Ulman’s work is clearly examining some of the outcomes of living today, especially the phenomena of presenting a persona on social media. The Excellences and Perfections images are in the main high key, fluffy, soft, delicate and very ‘feminine’. It is interesting to compare Ulman’s current Instagram images. The latest ones have a more robust aesthetic, are darker, some are very much more abstract, and often challenging. But there is still a very strong sense of performance, and a presentation of a contrived and constructed self. It might be argued all of our online presentations are performative. Presenting a self online as so many of us do nowadays is explored in The Narcissism Epidemic, and there are queries surrounding its helpfulness to society, and individuals.

    Behaviour and acceptance of it changes over time, thank goodness. What was deemed antisocial in the past is now considered acceptable, and in many cases it would be unthinkable to swing backwards.  It is horrific to consider how homosexuality was criminalised until relatively recently. What does this mean if we head further into an era where malignant self love, at the expense of others, is becoming the accepted norm, and are those who query it failing to see the benefits? Are there any benefits or are there only costs?  The thing about Ulman’s project which is difficult to accept is that there doesn’t seem to be much room for exploring what lies beneath the desire to put oneself on show, dress up, compete over looks, money, and material signifiers on Instagram. I may be misinterpreting or even projecting , but it feels like it comes from a position of superiority-complex. In the DSM-5 description above, we are told people with anti-social disorder personalities don’t conform to “culturally normative ethical behaviour. If a trait usually associated with disordered behaviour such as extreme self interest, self love, and self flaunting becomes normalised then how can we determine whether it is pathological or not, helpful to society or not? How can we say it is a disordered trait? Cultural evolution can happen at breakneck speed in comparison with biological evolution. “Cultural inheritance occurs in hundred of species” (Laland, 2016) Animals (not only human ones) inherit “knowledge from their parents” which has an impact on our individual and collective existences. The digital revolution has introduced a host of amazing positive changes to society, not least of all a dismantling of establishment in some areas, the opportunity for everyone to have their say, and much better television too. But some argue is has come with some high costs; narcissism, lack of empathy and perhaps even a greater prevalence of psychopathic traits in society, accepted as ‘normative’ which may have some relevance in the way the west has responded to the crisis of people movement across the globe. A report released by Amnesty International this week describes how the rich west is doing the least to help and the poorest countries have been left to try to take responsibility. “It is time for leaders to enter into a serious, constructive debate about how our societies are going to help people forced to leave their homes by war and persecution. They need to explain why the world can bail out banks, develop new technologies and fight wars, but cannot find safe homes for 21 million refugees, just 0.3% of the world’s population.” (Amnesty International, 2016) If Ulman’s work has any depth at all, it has to be the exploration of an obession with self, and how that is affecting the way society is evolving. The focus and time spent looking inwards as we primp, preen and perform is a stark contrast to the pictures of dehumanised people escaping Africa or the Middle East on a cramped boat.  Ulman’s latest Instagram images explore the violence inherent in humanity more openly. But there is still a cynicism in it, and highly constructed and very, very different Martin’s Gabriel.

I will write about Sarah Lucas separately. There is a thread through this post linking each of the artists and which helps me to explore and compare different approaches to creativity. Each of the artists explores social structures and individual mindsets differently. I was keen to include Martin’s refusal to be cynical, to do away with the structured rules we live by and to explore with as much innocence as possible.

Image Agnes Martin, Untitled (1955), oil paint on canvas, 118.1 x 168.3 (

DSM-5 quote © 2012 American Psychiatric Association.


Black, W. (2015). Psychopathic cultures and toxic empires. [London]: Frontline Noir.. (interview) (road trip video)

Elkins, J. (2011). What photography is. New York: Routledge.

Laland, K, 2016 Evolution Evolves, The New Scientist

Twenge, J. and Campbell, W. (2009). The narcissism epidemic. New York: Free Press.


3 thoughts on “Project 4.6 (i) Women Artists

  1. Such a lot of material there to digest and explore. I would have liked to have seen the film “Gabriel”. Agnes Martin is another artist I wish I could have met.
    I’m still not sure about social media. Obviously it only ‘affects’ those who participate and I think they might be a much smaller proportion than those who don’t. Are people more cruel than they used to be. I don’t get the impression they are somehow.
    Some big discussion points there.


  2. Thanks for commenting on such a long post, Catherine. You’re right, so many big discussion points.
    Yes, we have always been pretty vile to each other and it goes in repeating patterns doesn’t it? Look at the Tudors, my goodness – so vile! Funnily enough I just shared an article my friend posted on FB about recurring patterns in history. It’s an opinion piece and should be read as such but some good points.
    The world has of course been absolutely horrendous in the past and it’s hubris to think our own bad phase is worse than it’s ever been.
    The thing with social media is, that even though so many people don’t use it, perhaps more than do, behaviour or rather cultural trends are like a contagion. They spread and don’t need social media in order to do so. In fact, I think social media is digital manifestation of what happens between human beings anyway. It’s just more conscious and therefore visual on social media. The ant guy, Wilson, he talks about how ideas spread through communities but don’t need direct physical contact to do so and that is because we humans are not the isolated little individuals we imagine but rather we operate collectively as an organism, a super-brain.
    The question about an increase in narcissism and psychopathic traits might be down to recognition and semantics rather than an actual increase in reality. It may also be true we have had extremely narcissistic societies before, and our own relatively self absorbed one is nothing new – hubris again to think it is. Even now, culturally there is a wide variation, of course. Canada is less about boasting than the USA for instance.
    I don’t think the answers are simple!


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