Ever since gender attributes were assigned to the spectator's gaze - the 'look' being male and its object of vision, female - there has been a certain, unspoken prohibition of the depiction of women's bodies in contemporary art. Feminist artists determined to deny the scopic availability of the female form have often replaced the corporeal with the discursive to remind us that the human body is inscribed in language. Of course, exceptions to this iconoclastic sensibility are always being made. Cindy Sherman's chameleon-like self-portraits are deemed cool, for they parody the artifice of femininity; Lorna Simpson's photographic images of Afro-American women are sanctioned, too, because they foreground and undermine racial stereotyping. But all in all, there still exists an uneasiness around the female body in current art: Can objectification ever truly be avoided in representation? Can sheer sex appeal ever be considered a sign of female agency? Can girls ever have fun anymore? Enter Cheryl Donegan, a young and sassy New York video artist, who emphatically situates her own body at the epicentre of her production. As author, director, editor, and subject of an ongoing series of terse, breezy videos, Donegan deliberately plays with these questions. Using sly humour and a healthy dose of parody, she offers only partial answers, but in doing so, remains exquisitely in control at all times.
Born in 1962, Donegan is part of the generation that entered adulthood to the rock'n'roll beat of MTV video-porn. In many of her own videotapes, she employs musical tracks to a similar effect, but the visual style is different. Rejecting the slick, jump-cut collage mode of the music video, Donegan favours the single, frontal shot in order to document a specific action in real time. The straight-on, task-oriented aspect of her work recalls the early days of single-channel video art, when Vito Acconci pulled at his nipples (Conversions, 1971), Bruce Nauman painted his testicles (Black Balls, 1969), and Lynda Benglis tongue-kissed with her own previously recorded image (Now, 1973). These libidinal examples are apposite, for Donegan's work rocks to a most erotic beat. 'When I make my video,' she explains, 'I want it to be sexy, engaging, and funny. MTV video uses sex by taking it away, presenting a pleasing and tempting image only to snatch it away the moment it is identified. I want viewers to know what they are looking at.'1
The sex circulating throughout Donegan's video production falls into two categories: the passions of lovemaking and the erotics of art-making. Her depictions of these dual themes, however, are not without irony. With tongue deeply embedded in cheek, she playfully mines the erotic to address gender posturing and the 'genderising' of the creative act. In a number of her works, Donegan acts out the heterosexual male fantasy of what every woman must really 'want'. Her first video, Gag, from 1991, shows the artist sitting on a black and chrome chair with hands tied behind her back, a long baguette clutched provocatively between her thighs. Slowly and submissively, she chews on the bread, working her way down its length, until her head rests in her lap. She is filled and, for the fantasising (male) viewer, fulfilled.
Donegan's 1993 video, Head, provides a perfectly choreographed simulation of desire. In this rollicking tape, the artist shimmies up to a green plastic detergent bottle, coyly pulling the plug from a hole on its side. A stream of white liquid flows into her eagerly waiting, lipstick-covered mouth. She closes her eyes in feigned ecstasy. Alternately swallowing, drooling, and spitting out this surging love juice, the artist moves to a rhythm of utter receptiveness. When the gushing liquid begins to wane, she runs her tongue up and down the bottle, slurping at the hole, begging for more. As Collier Schorr pointed out in an essay on Donegan's work, Head forces us to confront the essential ruse of pornographic imagery. It underscores how voyeuristic pleasure depends on our willingness to believe in deceptive sex, to project our fantasies into a constructed image, or, as Schorr says, 'to buy into a woman faking it.'2
This reading is reinforced in the video, GracefulPhatSheba (1993) in which the white-turbanned artist sucks, nibbles, and orally engulfs a peeled banana protruding from a plastic bottle dangling from a cord. Swaying trancelike to the sounds of an Indian sitar, Donegan paints a purposefully one dimensional picture of erotic 'exoticism'. Her mock sexual delirium evokes the Dance of the Seven Veils, that 'exotic' striptease which gives form to desire and promises fulfilment, but, in the end, delivers only illusion. At times throughout this video, Donegan's face disappears from view and is replaced by the bobbing and weaving shadow of her head. In this Orientalist context such an image recalls Javanese shadow puppets, a theatre of phantoms premised on fantasy and projection. Donegan herself has admitted to an element of duplicity in her work: 'At the centre of my investigation,' she remarks, 'is a desire to reveal and a need to subterfuge; a will to expose and a wish to masquerade.'3
What exactly is Donegan faking in these titillating pastiches? Certainly more than the packaged rebellion and ersatz pleasure she dishes out with such acuity. Her admitted inclination toward masquerade offers one clue, for it implies the notion that femininity itself is a guise. As a concept, masquerade identifies femininity as a gendered performance enacted to conceal an authoritative female subject, the presence of which would threaten the bipolarisation inherent in sexual difference.4 In flaunting her femininity as a charade, Donegan parodies it and thus questions her relationship to it. For theorist Luce Irigaray, such a self-conscious masquerade or 'mimicry' of womanliness provides a vehicle for resistance, subversion, and re-signification. 'One must assume the feminine role deliberately,' she writes, 'which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it... To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it.'5 Perhaps this is what informs two of Donegan's videos - Clarity (1993) and Practisse (1994) - in which she paints her face for the camera. Wearing a cellophane hood over her head in both instances, the artist smears vivid colours over her face with her hands, completely concealing her features. In an action associated with feminine practices - a 'woman at her toilet' is an art historical convention - Donegan creates an abstract mask, a disguise for herself. These videos evoke Bruce Nauman's Art-Makeup film from 1969 in which he applies different cosmetic shades to his naked torso and face. But while Nauman's action reads as an ironic commentary on the cult of the artist as self-created hero, Donegan's face painting references gender, specifically the fabrication of a feminine identity.
But Donegan does not stop here; she extends her video metaphors to tackle the way gender - in particular, masculinity - has been inscribed in the rhetoric of art history. In Sunflower (1993), the artist appears in a grassy meadow, equipped with a straw hat straight out of a Van Gogh portrait and a paint filled squeeze-bottle secured to her waist. As she begins to spin in place, yellow paint flies from the bottle and forms a ragged circle at her feet. Once the circumference is complete, she collapses, thoroughly spent; it is la petit mort, the aftermath of (male) creativity. In MakeDream (1993), Donegan explores how phallic mythology is manifest in Abstract Expressionist art. Here she wears sporty white gym shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, a squeeze-bottle filled with blue paint hangs from her waist, falling between her legs. When the music starts, she thrusts and grinds her pelvis with hands in the air. The bottle is thus hoisted and flung, subsequently ejecting paint all over the room to create a Pollock-like abstraction. This is Action painting par excellence; shot from the hip, it registers athletic prowess and virility like a mark on a canvas.
Donegan's critique of male posturing in art is more humourous than it is acerbic. Rather than defying it, she proves that women can, and may want to play the game too, even if it is slightly ridiculous. Her work insists that in every artistic experience there is a body present, all genders included. This is a very base phenomenology, one which she acts out with perfect irony in Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (K.M.R.I.A.) (1991). Stripped down to green bra, green G-string, and black engineer boots, Donegan makes a series of body prints in this video by squatting in a puddle of green paint and pressing her bare buttocks against sheets of paper. The finished design is a shamrock, a four-leaf clover, a lucky charm. Sending Yves Klein's infamous Anthropometries into a tail spin, Donegan once again has us laughing at the very serious business of art production. Her videotapes, as she has claimed 'weave a...crooked path' through the subjects of sex, gender, and creativity; 'fanning out, looping back, and crossing over' these themes until they coalesce into one or two perfectly absurd moments, when a little bit of truth is revealed, just for an instant.6
1. Cheryl Donegan, artist's statement. Audience 001. International Video, Milan: Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1994, p. 16.
2. Collier Schorr, 'Openings: Cheryl Donegan', Artforum Summer 1993, p.96.
3. Julia Bunnage, Clarrie Rudrum, et al. Acting Out/The Body in Video: Then and Now, exhibition catalogue, Royal College of Art , London, 1994, p.10.
4. The psychoanalytic concept of masquerade was first theorised by Joan Riviere in 'Womanliness as a Masquerade,' in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan, London and New York: Routledge, 1989, pp.35-43. This essay first appeared in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10, 1929. It has been adopted by feminist film theorists, such as Mary Ann Doane, to describe a transgressive device for distancing the woman from her prescribed gender role. See Doane, 'Film and Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,' Screen 23, no. 3-4, October 1982, pp.74-87.
5. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with CaroIyn Burke, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986, p.76.