Opening just before Berlin Feminist Film Week and International Women’s day, the group show X is Y, featuring Berlin-based female artists (the only man in the exhibition is one half of the artist duo Aurora Sander), can be seen as part of a wider trend for women-only exhibitions and publications. The title of the exhibition is borrowed from the eponymous 1990 short film by US filmmaker Richard Kern. As the press release points out Kern’s work has a complicated relationship with feminism: ‘In Kern’s X is Y topless cuties flail wildly, cradle phallic assault rifles, drape themselves over pinstriped sofas and spin around beneath hooded eyes in a display of “radical femininity”.’ Nevertheless Kern’s protagonists are mostly female: is this in itself enough to call them feminist portrayals, or should a true protagonist ‘mould herself’?
None of the featured artists explicitly reference Kern, but Anna Uddenberg’s sculpture comes closest to responding to questions of female agency exemplified in his films. In Jealous Jasmine (2014) – a life-sized plaster cast of a woman – Uddenberg seemingly catches her character in the act of diving into the pram she is pushing. Dressed in a slim-fitting down jacket and Ugg boots, her face hidden by her long blonde hair, it is unclear whether Jasmine is jealous of another woman’s baby or, Kardashian style, the attention that her own is receiving. On her lower back she sports what is often referred to as a ‘tramp stamp’. This kind of Celtic tattoo, popular in the ’90s, has become a kind of emblem for a number of artists of the Post-Internet generation. As in this case it is used to signify our society’s troubled relationship to female sexuality: despite ubiquitous depictions of the female body, if a woman takes agency over her own body image she is labelled a slut.
More subtly, sexuality is also the topic of Juliette Bonneviot’s contribution. As well as PVC and powder pigment her painting contains xenoestrogen chemical compounds. Considered a serious environmental hazard by many scientists, xenoestrogens mimic the effects of estrogen and have been linked with precocious puberty – the premature onset of puberty – and other reproductive irregularities.
Cleaning, or rather cleaning appliances, is another tongue-in-cheek theme in X is Y. Kirsten Pieroth has long worked with magazine advertisements but her sculpture Oracle (2014), the metal drum of a washing machine splashed with powder pigment, looks more like what happens when you’ve got the product out of the box and found it to be defective. Aircleaninglady (2015) by artist duo Aurora Sander reimagines an update of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! Broom handles fixed together into a frame hold a glass box in which a pair of platform shoes sit one on top of the other, as if in a chic showroom; the heel itself is made out of the stiff bristles one would use for scrubbing floors. The shoes allude to the fascinating trend on Instagram #heelconcept in which users create a high heel effect using a variety of objects from the banal to the bizarre. Like Uddenberg, Aurora Sander takes tropes of femininity, ramps them up to the point of absurdity and then hands them back to us. On my way out of the gallery I noticed one of the more understated works, a framed publication produced for another female-focused exhibition, Sally’s at Atelierhof Kreuzberg in 2009.
Not since the Guerrilla Girls’s 1984 protest against MoMA’s inclusion of only 13 women in a survey show of 169 artists in New York has gender quotas in the arts been such a discussed topic as today. Boom She Boom, the inaugural exhibition in the new building of the MMK in Frankfurt featuring only female artists from the collection, is just one of many recent examples of museums taking note of a change in the current climate.
This inevitably brings up the question of whether such exhibitions perpetuate a two-gender model, and merely add to the ghettoization of ‘women’s art’. Indeed the stigma of appearing in women-only shows can be so great that they are often left off the biographies of the participating artists completely. What is refreshing about X is Y is that these young artists – perhaps emboldened by the networking and the showcasing possibilities of social media – do not see one-gender shows as a restriction but as a possibility. Namely, of displaying their own brand of ‘radical femininity’ instead of merely accepting the one they are given.