Study Visit: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, TPG & Marvin Gaye Chetwynd Tate – 29 October 2016

“This exhibition highlights the ground-breaking practises that shaped the feminist art movement and provides a timely reminder of the wider impact of a generation of artists” (TPG/Sammlung Verbund, 2016)

Seeing so much work together from this period gave me an incredibly strong sense of what was being railed against. Being faced with so many artists put the movement in context and positioned it in a way that studying individual pieces, often online, doesn’t do justice to. For instance, and Dawn mentioned this too, seeing Semiotics of the Kitchen, which I wrote about early on in the course, surrounded by so many other feminist work, gives it an even greater sense of power and rage.

Some of the sentiment looks a little ineffectual at times, perhaps because it has dated, especially in today’s more visually complex paradigm, such as Suzanne Lacy & Leslie Labowitz’s In Mourning and in Rage, a film recording of an event where woman gathered on the steps of City Hall in Los Angeles. Mourners proclaimed, “I am here for the 20 women who have been raped and strangled between October 18 and November 29”. (TPG/Sammlung Verbund, 2016; 27) Although the action reportedly received widespread media attention, violence towards women is still rife, and in fact the UK was deemed to be one of the most misogynistic countries in Europe by the UN in 2016, so whilst things have changed since the 70s, there is still a long way to go, especially here. (BBC, 2014).

You also see a progression through history when looking at examples that appear to be a pastiche of 50s housewives, such as Birgit Jürgenssen’s Kuchenschürze (Apron, 1975). When you consider the role of women in the 50s and the ideal picture, with which she had to identify, and how its tail end was still so prevalent in the 70s, it does seem extraordinary that anyone should question the rage which emerged. And consider too an earlier generation who had filled in for men while they went to war, fulfilling jobs usually associated with their husbands, only to have them snatched away once the men returned. No wonder, following the invention of the pill and the sense of liberation that provoked, a time came for people to fight back.

The first person I really took notice of on Saturday was Lynda Benglis because I had seen her well known image when I started studying with the OCA. It is an advert for her work, and shows her holding a giant dildo as if it were her own penis in an exaggerated but typical masculine posture, and I couldn’t remember her name, so I was glad to see it again.  The photograph is typical of its time. See here and here for comparative examples. Benglis assumes a position of overt macho sexuality often seen in advertising poses, looks directly at the camera, has a facial expression of supposed lustful dominance and shows off her ludicrously large dildo. Not only is she making fun of the usual examples, showing us how silly they look, she is exploring how it is nothing more than primate posturing – revealing her body and standing in this weird over the top way, a bit like an ape. She alienates the trope (in Brechtian terms) because she’s clearly a woman, and it’s exaggerated. Also, because it’s shocking, now probably mainly due the size of the prosthetic, but it must have been truly shocking then when people were less used to artists being quite so provocative. It also alarms us because it is a woman doing it. And women aren’t meant to be so brazen. (Follow Whores of Yore on Twitter and you will see some great Victorian pornography, men and women, which people must have been aware of, although it is less certain if protected and infantilised housewives were).

However, the photo also underscores some of the movement’s more challenging aspects and when I first saw it I think I misread something about Benglis’ relationship to feminism in it. One of the legacies of the time, and an aspect which even today seems to turn people away from feminism, is the perceived antagonism towards femininity, and rejection of motherhood as well as marriage. As highlighted in Hannah Wilke’s poster there was a strand of feminism that came across as dogmatic, “Beware of Fascist Feminism, 1977”, where being in any way ‘feminine’ and that included alluding to normative ideals of beauty, would be considered an affront, entirely constructed by a patriarchal society, and therefore something to avoid and destroy. Even today there is a particular nasty word, feminazi, which denotes a woman who hates men and anything vaguely feminine. I have interdicted my son from using it because it strikes me the word itself is somewhat misogynistic, regardless of potential holes (pardon the pun) in any extremely zealous feminist arguments. How we perceive biology and the relationship between it and constructed cultural norms are continuing to be explored and debated. But it is clear there is a biological imperative to reproduce and, even though medical science can intervene, you usually and in most cases for now, require a working penis and  womb to make that happen. Furthermore, primate studies have also shown that babies flourish when cared for by a warm-blooded (as opposed to sterile metal) (Harlow, 1958) consistent primary carer, who benefits from sharing some responsibility but provides a secure base to the infant*. How society makes room for this within its economy is the issue, rather than whether women really exist or not. Luce Irigaray (I have literally only just picked up her first book so cannot talk with confidence about this yet) explored this lack of space for a female subject in her work; a female subject who exists in her own right rather than just as a non-male, a reflection, one with an itsy bitsy tiny penis that doesn’t live up to the man’s. It is this image that Benglis is harking back to, making fun of, and deconstructing – rather than refuting femininity.

I note too she has been criticised for relying too much on her beauty and privilege; economic as well as class and raced based. As was Hannah Wilkes, which is another post altogether.

Other work I really responded to at TPG was Kirsten Justesen’s Sculpture #2, 1968, which is a box with a woman in it, curled up and squashed to fit the shape. The Marxist connotations here are clear, a woman must make herself fit into the shape and materials used for transporting commodities. But it brings to mind how girls must also die to become women, existing in a lifelong box in which she might be buried, or stored, as a thing.

I noted Judy Chicago was far earlier than Rupi Kaur, who showed her blood stained tracksuits bottoms on Instagram in 2015, with a photograph of a blood stained tampon in-between her legs. And more graphic too.

I particularly liked Karin Mack’s series of portraits, in which her image becomes progressively more and more damaged, and less and less present in Destruction of an Illusion, 1977.

I  am very interested in Gina Pane’s La Lait Chaud (The Hot Milk), 1972, and may come back to write about this at a later date. The perfomative nature as well as its relationship to a Theatre of Cruelty is fascinating.

I was very pleased to have seen the entire exhibition and think it has been instrumental for me in gaining a better understanding how work was de-commodified – i.e. created in such as way as to reject art as expensive and glossy. I think it has also been helpful to see the movement gathered together in one place as that really intensifies the feelings behind it, as if reducing them into an essential oil, so you get a very strong sense of what was going on.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Hermitos Children, the pilot episode, 2008 Tate

Description copied from the Tate site: “The film was first shown as an installation consisting of thirty-two television sets and one colourful bean bag. The central section of the installation is a square made up of nine screens, across which a single track of the film is fragmented by a video processor. The remaining television sets are placed on the left and right side of the square and they are all synchronised to play the entire film from start to finish on a loop. When installed at Tate Britain, London, in 2006, the screens were mostly second-hand televisions that the artist had sourced from various locations. They were purposely varied and slightly different in colour and format. The bean bag was placed on the floor, in front of the television sets, for the audience to sit or lie on while viewing the film. It is made up of patched clothes that are taken from the costumes within the film. A number of sets of headphones with long cables were also provided for the audio section of the film. This installation might be thought of as an exaggeration of a domestic living room, combined with the large-scale spectacle of theatre.” (Fakhr, 2009)

I loved this! This work was very different from earlier feminist art we saw in TPG. Chetwyn plays constantly and really enjoys herself. She pays no heed to formal, stifling, filmic conventions, making sets with £200 and ‘auditioning’ her participants by chatting to people, including strangers at the bus stop (Chetwynd, 2015). There is a great deal less angst in her film than we saw in the 70s work. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious side to it too. And the work references all sorts of art history, including Courbet’s Origin of Man, as well as being influenced by whatever prompted Agnes Martin to simply make a film (Gabriel). However, Chetwynd owns the ‘vagina’ in her work. It has nothing to do with ownership from a male gaze – and she is in fact taunting that gaze and saying, “Wanna look, go on then… but it’s mine. Oh, and keep looking until you start to feel what it is you’re doing, which is voyeurism, pure and simple. Let’s not pretend otherwise. But that’s ok… too. So long as we all know what we’re about.” The music was perfect as well.

All in all this was a great day. Thank you, Dawn and fellow UVC student, Doug, for alerting me to it.


Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s (Exhibition Booklet) The Photographers’ Gallery, Sammlung Verbund, London, 2016 (Accessed 31 October 2016) (accessed 31st October 2016) (Accessed 31st October 2016)

* (Accessed 31st October ) (Accessed 31st October 2016) (Accessed 31st October 2016)

Fakhr. L, 2016 Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Tate (Accessed 31 October 2016),/ (Accessed 31st October 2016)





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