How Feminist Photography of the 1970s Paved the Way for Women Artists Today
“Oh, that’s been done before.” It’s become a reflex reaction to almost any kind of art in which women use their bodies to provoke. A new show of old work that opens this week at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, “Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s,” is a timely opportunity to explore this reaction to feminist art, in great depth.
Take Cindy Sherman, for example, whose pastiche of the feminine self continues to trickle down to very young artists. It’s possible that the works of Juno Calypso—a recent recipient of the British Journal of Photography’s International Photography Award—would not exist without Sherman’s work. Other influential artists in the exhibition, such as Francesca Woodman, paved the way for women to turn the camera on themselves as a form of self-inquiry, which often becomes painful self-critique.
Another famous image on view is Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1975), part of a series of 36 playing cards the artist made. A self-portrait, in it the artist poses, topless and coy, with a cowboy hat and fake guns; her naked body is covered in unsightly lumps of chewing gum. Simultaneously sexy and imperfect, it recalls the body-hair flouting tactics and censor-defying use of nudity and menstrual blood of young feminist artists, such as Molly Soda (whose second solo exhibition in the U.K. opens later this month) or performance artist Alexandra Marzella. Both artists undoubtedly riff on the sarcasm of Wilke’s “performalist self-portraits,” and her mission to reclaim the erotic female body. Wilke’s self-objectification was sneered at; and today, Soda and Marzella, who have both had their artwork removed from social media platforms, have been slammed as narcissists.
Among some 150 works by 48 artists in the exhibition (on loan from the Verbund Collection, Vienna), one finds many works that similarly take an in-your-face approach, quite literally in the case of VALIE EXPORT’s Tapp und Tastkino (1968). For the performative work—a challenge to the way we with engage with women on screens—she strapped a miniature movie theater to her naked upper body, and invited people on the streets of 10 different European cities to reach behind the curtain and touch her. (Ironically, now when we view the work as documentary photographs or video, we confront her again, but at a distance). The work was recreated a few months ago in three European cities by the young performance artist Milo Moiré, who invited the public in Dusseldorf and Amsterdam to “feel free.” She was arrested during her performance in London.
It may be, perhaps, that most things have been done before, but the world has changed since these women were creatively rebelling four or five decades ago, using their bodies as instruments to take down the patriarchy. The exhibition curator Gabriele Schor came up with the term “Feminist Avant-Garde” to redefine the work that these women did in the ’70s, the decade of radical feminism. The artists included in the show were political for the most part, raging against machismo, and they were active during an era where protest prevailed—protests for civil rights and sexual revolution, protests against war. They were provocative and bullish; it’s often said that men were afraid, but it wasn’t just men (resulting in feminism becoming the new f-word, and their work being ghettoized). After Tapp und Tastkino, VALIE EXPORT was compared to a witch by newspapers. Almost 50 years later, Moiré was detained by police. The media might now favor feminism, but on an institutional level, a sense of control over women’s bodies is still intact.
Reflecting on the works in this exhibition, one may wonder if the situation for feminist artists working now isn’t, in many ways, far more complicated. Many of the things women were fighting for in the 1970s—equal pay, the right to be safe, to have access to free sexual health care, to abortion—are sadly still far from resolved. There are additional enemies today, too, which are less visible and more insidious, such as censorship and social media algorithms. Since they’re hard to identify, it’s difficult to defeat them. Contemporary feminist art is often critiqued for being anodyne, media-friendly and fashionable. But in the images on show here, we see guns and knives. Nowadays, it’s more glitter and iPhones. Yet looking at the avant-garde feminists of the ’70s, it’s clear that their strategies wouldn’t work now—as artists like Moiré, Soda, and Marzella have proved. On or offline, you can’t use your body to protest in any way you’d like.
By exploring the past, “Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s” encourages us to examine the present. The radicalism of the avant-garde feminists was vital in their day, and it has resonated beyond their time. But as the timing of this show suggests, these pictures cannot be looked at as a sealed-off archive, or completed works that need not be built upon. Things have been done before, but they still need to be done now.