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Issue 116

The Furious Gaze

Montehermoso Cultural Centre, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 06 JUN 08

Cristina Lucas, Rousseau y Sophie (2007), DVD still

A day in my life: on the morning of a recent trip to Spain to visit ‘The Furious Gaze’ – a show considering ‘feminism as a source of knowledge that is vital for understanding the world we live in’ – I receive an invitation to a show in the UK that includes one woman out of 15 artists, yet it’s not a show about masculinity: it’s about ‘play’, something the curators have obviously decided women artists know nothing about. On the plane I read that the Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has received a mixed reaction to Spain’s first female-majority cabinet; I also read that the Office for National Statistics has announced that women in their 40s in Britain earn 20 percent less per hour than their male counterparts. When I land in Bilbao, I pop into the Guggenheim to see ‘Art in the USA: Three Hundred Years of Innovation’, a survey of ‘the art of a nation struggling to define itself during the first centuries of its existence’, curated by Thomas Krens, Susan Davidson, Elizabeth Kennedy and Nancy Mowll Mathews. It is, apparently, the most significant display of American art ever seen in Spain. Although there are around 200 often brilliant works on display, only five women artists are represented, despite the fact that the show declares itself ‘a composite picture of the American experience – its myths, dreams, ordeals and vulnerabilities’. Composite? Rarely have I witnessed such a breathtaking gulf between curatorial intention and actuality. I mean, come on!

All of which is a lengthy way of explaining why, before I had even seen it, I welcomed the premise of ‘The Furious Gaze’, whose co-curators – Xabier Arakistain, Director of the Montehermoso Cultural Centre, and Maura Reilly, Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York – see feminism ‘as an essential framework for investigating visual works that deal with situations of inequality experienced by women’. The show takes its title from a term coined by the Spanish philosopher Amelia Valcárcel. In her text La Política de las mujeres (The Politics of Women, 1996) she describes the situation of women who, having reached their 30s assuming that discrimination against women is a thing of the past, have their expectations shattered by the realization of a glass ceilings in the workplace. To accompany ‘The Furious Gaze’ Arakistain also programmed the ‘Contraseñas/Passwords’ project, inviting 12 Spanish and international curators and theorists to ‘document the many lines of criticism and artistic creation based on feminist viewpoints that have been developed in an audiovisual format since the 1960s’.

‘The Furious Gaze’ included work by 20 women artists from Afghanistan, Australia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA who are around the age of those in Valcárcel’s study – that’s to say, in their 30s and 40s. Although most of these artists use gender and sexuality as their starting-point, their work is wildly divergent. Highlights included: Andrea Bowers’ installation of a video and posters (the latter made especially for this exhibition), Letters to an Army of Three (2005/8), which records 30 men and women reading letters sent to 1960s’ abortion rights activists; the Afghan artist Lida Abdul’s video of the artist washing an Afghan rug with an ice-block; Italian artist Lara Favaretto’s photograph of men holding up a donkey (Mondo alla Rovescia, The World Back-to-Front, 2002), and her mysterious installation Prima (2005), which comprised five air canisters and childrens’ party whistles; and the Japanese artist Yurie Nagashima’s deadpan photograph of a heavily pregnant woman giving the viewer an adamant finger – an unambiguous response to Nobuyoshi Araki’s hugely popular photographs of Japanese women in bondage. Humour bubbled near the surface of many of the works, including the Australian artist Tracey Moffat’s hilarious video collage of moments from classic films exploring relationships between men and women, Love (2003), and the US artist Kathe Burkhart’s super-camp series of paintings ‘Liz Taylor’ (2002). I kept returning to two slapstick videos by the Spanish artist Cristina Lucas: Rousseau y Sophie (2007) is her response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theories about women as expounded in his book Emile: or, On Education (1762), in which the French philosopher wrote of men and women: ‘One ought to be active and strong, the other passive and weak […] it follows that woman is made specially to please man.’ Lucas’ riposte? To film women and children banging, laughing at, mocking and thumbing their noses at Rousseau’s statue in a park in Madrid to the accompaniment of a brass band. Opposite this video was Tú también puedes caminar (You Can Walk Too, 2006) Lucas’ retort to the passage in Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) in which Woolf quotes the words of a prominent music critic: ‘Of Mlle. Germaine Tailleferre one can only repeat Dr Johnson’s dictum […] “Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”’ Lucas’ film shows a series of remarkable dogs, walking on their hind legs, much to the merriment of bystanders.

Arakistain has made it clear that while this is the first major show he has curated at this extraordinary space, he intends feminism to continue to be integral to future exhibitions at the centre. This is as it should be: women represented fairly not as the exception but as a matter of course. Despite evidence to the contrary, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

Jennifer Higgie is editor-at-large of frieze, based in London, UK. She is the host of frieze’s first podcast, Bow Down: Women in Art History. Her book The Mirror and the Palette is forthcoming from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.