With its proud, outwardly ‘feminist’ presence in a public ‘mainstream’ gallery and because of the variety of concerns and people it tries to address, ‘Along the Lines of Resistance. An exhibition of Contemporary Feminist Art’ at the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley, takes a stand against the apathy of post this-and-that and answers questions about the effectiveness/necessity of a feminist intervention asked by feminists who believe in greater weight being given ‘… to the demands of an interested … audience of women as it already exists’ (W.A.S.L. Journal No. 26, p.23).
From my position as a white, 25 year old university-educated woman in the process of receiving a not-so-traditional ‘fine art’ training, I acknowledge that there were some meanings in these works concerning issues of race, class, gender and sexuality which were more open to me than others.
The work I read most easily was Girls in a Line at the Swimming Baths, a painting by Kathryn Ensall. The dulled colours and trapping compositional device had the effect of making me relive the cornered and uneasy feelings I had at adolescence in the same situation–not in the least because of the feeling of being watched. But I felt there was a problem in the use of the female body, which at best in this context points out a place where difference between male and female is organised, but at worst may reinforce the difference and not change anything.
Mona Hatoum’s video work gave me a sense of distance and desolation, with its dialogue and grid of extracts of letters between herself and her mother which acted as a barrier between the viewer and the film of a woman behind. The use of the female body, even in this very specific context, is still problematic.
Rachael Field’s paintings didn’t really articulate, for me, anything about what it must feel like to be a lesbian. The wooden window frame surrounding the painting Window Box which was supposed to enhance ‘… the idea of viewer as voyeur’ (exhibition catalogue), didn’t. And I wasn’t sure what the two figures inside were doing, or if they were women. Was I missing the point?
Other work succeeded in varying degrees in articulating something to me. I would have liked to have seen some sort of Visitors Book. I came away feeling that it was important that this sort of intervention continued because it shows the struggle to represent different realities and that through such interventions people might eventually realise the relationships between image and text and power and ideology.
This is where books like ‘Vision and Difference’ are important. The coherence of theory in such a book does not mean a ‘… closure in order to achieve a specific aim’ (Issue No. 26) which excludes differences of opinion; rather it opens up new channels of communication and exposes others in a critical way. ‘Vision and Difference’ does not only use but expands and criticises foreign and male ideas.Just because they’re male and foreign and seem inaccessible doesn’t mean we should naively ignore them and hope they’ll go away because they won’t. These ideas aren’t just fashionable, they’re the ones which have made up and continue to make up ideologies, and which we can use to challenge dominant ideologies, of which art is a part.
The majority of women aren’t versed in these things: they’re well immersed in the dominant ideology, though, whether they like it or not and many are aware of its oppressiveness and contradictions. I’m glad that there are some women who use their education to articulate those contradictions, even if it does mean hard work trying to understand.
There’s a long way to go, and as Griselda Pollock said in her letter ‘Framing Feminism’ (Issue No.26), there isn’t much alternative. Nothing will change by retreating to some sort of romantic island of women artists. The real challenge/problem is, after trying to understand all this knowledge, how to use it as cultural practitioners who also have to make a living.