The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art & Politics
29 March – 13 July 2008
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts - Galleries, San Francisco
Feminist art has reemerged in the past few years as the focus of major exhibitions including WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum, which coincided with the unveiling of the museum's permanent home for Judy Chicago's iconic The Dinner Party (1974–79). On one hand, it's inspiring to see such work resurface, especially at this political moment, when it becomes increasingly important to recall dissident factions in our country's history. On the other hand, exhibitions such as WACK! can feel like regurgitations of the same old feminist art show with the same discourse, participants, and audience. It's not enough to dust off these works and lump them under the vague and often misunderstood descriptor "feminist." To engage today's audiences, it's necessary to pull apart the threads, identifying what was and is at stake for these artists.
The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art & Politics, curated by Berin Golonu and on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, unites a new generation of women artists who honor their feminist predecessors while embracing new and more sly and subversive tactics. I increasingly hear women of my generation and younger vehemently disavow feminism, despite the current curatorial interest, as if there's a stigma attached to the word. But "Way" takes feminist art out of the past and into the present.
In The Counterfeit Crochet Project (Critique of a Political Economy), Stephanie Syjuco takes aim at the luxury goods industry: the beautiful and coveted couture accoutrements that promise to make women equally beautiful and coveted, for a price. Seeking to reconcile the desire to possess such items with not wanting to invest in multinational corporations or sweatshops, Syjuco posted instructions on her Web site on how to crochet one's own Fendi or Prada bag. Many women heeded the instructions, and their finished products are on display. The project also alludes to crochet as a traditionally devalued variety of "women's craft." Similar knitted works appear throughout "Way," such as Lisa Anne Auerbach's 2007 wool sweater and skirt sets, inscribed with political slogans.
Aleksandra Mir captures an unprecedented landmark in First Woman on the Moon, a 1999 video work that might be described as a "small step for a woman, a giant leap for the history of womankind." Playing off some people's belief that Neil Armstrong's moon landing was a hoax, Mir creates her own version of the event, wielding her camera — the instrument of news media — to insert women into history. After all, if Armstrong's landing was — at the very least — plausible, then so is this landing. Filmed on a Dutch beach, Mir doesn't try too hard to make the setting look authentic; in her version, the moon landing is less a colonization of outer space and more a celebration of life on Earth.
In a more somber piece, Portrait of Silvia-Elena, street artist SWOON and documentarian Tennessee Jane Watson collaborate to bring visibility to the horrifically high numbers of young women disappearing and turning up dead in Juárez, Mexico, and throughout the Americas. Some 400 women's bodies have been recovered in Juarez, and an additional 1,000 are still recorded missing; in Guatemala, 2,000 women have been murdered. At the entrance to the installation — made to look like a dilapidated brick wall — is SWOON's beautiful, angelic relief-print portrait of a 15-year-old victim in her quinceañera dress. The installation is also made up of photos of missing girls, as they are found plastered in Juarez, and an audiotrack of Watson's interviews with the mothers of the disappeared.
One of the more challenging works is Beg for Your Life (2006) by Laurel Nakadate. A video artist accustomed to being looked at by men, Nakadate collapses her experience as subject and object, placing herself in front of her own camera to enact scenes with various older men — all strangers whose gaze she met on the street. In one scene, Nakadate's back is to the camera as she seductively poses for her admirer. The man thinks he is in the subject seat, dictating his fantasies to the object of his desire, but really the camera is on him. Nakadate scores the video with 1980s pop songs, yet the content is not always amusing: some of the men's fantasies are violent, and you wonder if the artist didn't put herself at real risk.
The interplay between female and male subjects and objects in Nakadate's work brings to mind one thing I might add to "Way": male artists. While I understand the rationale for creating a dedicated space for women's art, I think in some ways it only further marginalizes women. Let's integrate women's political art into the larger context and invite men to participate, reminding them that feminism is — and has always been — about men too.