Terrains of the Body, Whitechapel Gallery – 14.4.17

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Going to see this exhibition pretty much put the mockers on my plan for Assignment Three.  Although some of the images were quite interesting, I found the visit to be uninspiring and felt no real connection to the stated aims of the show.

The blurb says: “When contemporary women artists aim their cameras at the female body (including their own), they embrace the figure’s singular ability to express identity, communicate individual and collective experiences and give life to the imagination.”  All well and good but I came away thinking, “So what?”. There is no real focus; it felt fluffy and somehow mute which is the opposite of what was intended. And I fear my assignment work was headed in exactly the same direction.

The exhibition is in one room at the Whitechapel, featuring 17 artists from five continents – photography and video works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (NMWA). We are told here that “images of the body by contemporary artists are increasingly performative, filmic and incisive in their ability to tell compelling stories.” Hmmm.

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One image that did really resonate with me was Kirsten Justesen’s Portæt I Arkiv Med Samling (Portrait in cabinet with collection), 2013. This artist uses her body as sculpture and the image seems to place her almost like a doll in this beautiful cabinet but a creature with power and agency: her foot is pushing against the door jamb.  The figures on the top shelf are playful, as well as serious artefacts. There is a teapot, perhaps to indicate domesticity, and the writing on the box translates as ‘old bits of little sketches’. Is she feeling old or tired? Or is she subverting the idea that she is a curiosity or object?  Is she hiding behind her hair or sleeping on some ideas?  Whatever it all means, every intriguing detail resists the male gaze.

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It seemed to me rather patronising to be celebrating the idea of women as ‘observers and protagonists’. These images are not even new – Nikki S. Lee’s The Hip Hop Project spanned from 1997 to 2001, Hellen van Meene’s bubblegum image is from 2000. The vibe almost certainly would have been more ground-breaking then but this visual journey of women reclaiming their bodies and using them to express identity is now highly familiar from an even cursory look at Instagram or Facebook.  In fact, several of the images reminded me of Delphine Chanet‘s work (which Jesse described as looking like a ‘Top Shop ad’) from the Arles 2015 Discovery Awards shortlist but without the power of being part of a coherent series with context.

The show blurb even lampshades this by acknowledging that all of this was already happening decades ago: “Beginning in the 1970s, women photographers collapsed the boundaries between documentary and conceptual photography. They assumed roles for the camera and acted out a feminine masquerade (or asked their models to do so). Immersed in this directorial mode, artists today stage images of the figure to imaginative and poetic effect.”. Right… Fluffy.

I think the exhibition would have benefitted from more film installations (some of the images are stills from video, such as Themis in the Birdcage and Abramović’s The Hero) and immersive art. And I think it needed to be bigger and/or more thematically focused. As it stands, it makes a nice little tasting menu of the work of these women and does hint at the great potential for stories to be told by the use of the body but it falls well short of being great.

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Other featured artists include: Nan Goldin, Daniela Rossell, Adriana Varejāo, Rineke Dijkstra, Anna Gaskell, Charlotte Gyllenhammar, Candida Höfer, Icelandic Love Corporation, Justine Kurland, Mwangi Hutter, Shirin Neshat and Janaina Tschäpe.

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A final quotation from the pamphlet about the show: “The artists in Terrains of the Body serve as role models, achieving agency through unceasing creativity and enquiry into the elemental subject of the body.” Now that is definitely something I can get behind but my ideas need to ferment a little longer so I will be starting from scratch on my portrait assignment.

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