South African artist Candice Breitz
is interested in the construction of identity—how we become who we were, are, and will be; the mysteries of subjectivity; and investigations into gender. In her seminal Mother
for example, she appropriated movie scenes of men, like Tony Danza and Harvey Keitel, talking about fatherhood (
, and women, like Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep, talking about motherhood (for Mother).
The work revealed that each gender discussed its role and experience of parenthood in a limited scope and along stereotypical gender lines.
Breitz’s Britney Spears Monument (2007) stems from a series depicting fans of music stars, including Iron Maiden and the Grateful Dead. To find her subjects, the Berlin-based artist placed advertisements in a German-language newspaper looking for fans of each musician, and brought them together for a group portrait. The “Monuments” are complex and uncomfortable to look at; Britney’s fans, for example, look simultaneously joyful and absurd. Dressed up in sexy stage costumes and striking her signature poses, they live out their celebrity fantasies by embodying the star they admire. Are we to laugh at them or commend their uninhibited self-expression? Closer inspection reveals subtle surprises in gender behaviors: one man wears a bright pink thong, another seductively strokes a toy snake. Although Breitz’s first line of inquiry is the role of mass media in how we become who we are, these subtle disruptions of traditional gender roles constantly assert their presence in her work.
If the aforementioned examples share anything, it’s that many contemporary artists know their feminist history, and they understand that standards of taste, beauty, relevance and value have long been debated without women’s voices. Yet, those standards remain powerful in the art world. We see, on the one hand, a freehanded conceptual approach to feminism: Michal Barat Koren’s Bathsheba appropriates a key strategy of feminist art—revisionist history—but still partakes in pictorial conventions of lighting, composition, aesthetic beauty, and costume. Mickalene Thomas purposefully points to the object of feminist art historical critique, the female reclining nude, in her citation of the Grand Odalisque, but she preserves the material splendor associated with that painting in her use of rhinestones and rich patterning.
And if unattainable fantasies (such as impossible standards of beauty, passive female sexuality and all the dreams and values that upheld gender hierarchies) were the prime target of an earlier generation of feminist critique, contemporary feminist art extends its scope to address the complex political terrain of feminism in the 21st century. These examples willingly seduce with their visual allure, a quality historically associated with femininity and original sin. By simultaneously espousing and critiquing ideals of beauty and rapture, these artists draw you into the room, only to expose that room as warped and unstable, constructed with an outdated set of tools. Having fundamentally changed the way we understand what we thought we knew, contemporary feminist art offers up its own version of history and representational space. As such, it may sometimes be wary of unattainable fantasies more broadly, and even those of feminism itself.
—Ellen Yoshi Tani,
Contributor to The Art Genome Project. Research assistance provided by: Olivia-Jene´ Fagon, Jessica Backus, and Amy Raffel.