I am sitting at Costa again. The lady on the table next to the empty one I was approaching looked at me with urgency, and after a moment of hesitation told me that I should cover that stain on my chair with a newspaper, so that my trousers don’t get dirty. I accepted the paper from her shaking hands, covered the chair with the news of the day, and smiled politely at her as I sat down. Her face melted from a frown to a look of contentment. I never saw a stain.
It is almost 17:00, but there is still light outside. I missed longer days. March is here, with promises of a summer peaking its head around the corner. If months were people, I would imagine March as a very rebellious teenager, streaks of pink in her black hair, punk rock blasting in her room, pictures of boys and girls that look nothing like her spread on the wall above her mirror.
March is undeniably a month that centres around the female identity. Women’s day is chasing Mother’s day, flowers in shiny foil, large signs in store windows and cards that promise to show how valuable the recipient is.
Gifts. Goods to show that you are good. A good woman; a good mother.
And then, the female identity becomes synonymous with femininity; or at least, our understanding of femininity. The flowers are usually white; the signs are usually pink; and the cover of the card is flowery.
Across the street there is a flower store and I crane my head to read the neon pink poster. A picture of a woman wearing an apron and holding a spoon as hard as her smile is looking at me, the welcome intruder that is greeted with a fresh batch of cupcakes.
This moment reminded me of the work of two very different female artists that showed their work last year in London: Catherine Opie’s work at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, as well as Lauren Nakadate at the Zabludowicz Collection.
I encountered Opie’s collection as i was on my way to cover Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I was in a huff, lost as usual, shouting at the Google Maps on my iPhone screen, when I stopped on my tracks. I turned slowly, and stared ahead. Behind a wall of glass, black and white portraits of women in various states of undress, existence, and time were hanging on the wall in a straight line.
The paradox between the neat presentation and the unsettling subjects was one of the things that startled me about the ‘Girlfriends’ exhibition. Even though the first element that demands the viewer’s attention is the depiction of gender (Opie captures her lesbian friends and lovers with an almost painful honesty and vulnerability), the underlying theme for me was intimacy and femininity. Shot in informal and usually domestic settings, the little details that were lost in the pictures (like the focus on tattoos, body parts and piercings) serve as a reminder that the woman of the picture might not be as hard or feminine as she wants you to believe, and that for a split second, captured on film, her guard was down. It is impossible not to see Opie’s work in parallel with Maplethorpe’s. They both capture an intimate snapshot of deviations, even though I feel that Maplethorpe’s work is more raw and immediate. Nevertheless, as Maplethorpe’s work created more questions than answers on the male form and the concept of masculinity, Opie’s work follows the same path, and posed similar questions.
Are these women mothers? Can they be? Do they wear flower tops over their pierced nipples? Can they take the cupcakes out of the oven by hiding their scull tattoos under Cath Kidston gloves? Is that what a mother is? Is that what a woman is?
Saying that one can test the boundaries of the female identity implies that it is a limited concept; that it exists in one form or another, instead of a fluid state, dependent on itself or the other sex.
The other sex; not the opposite. Opposite seems to imply a difference, an antagonism, an incompatibility.
That was the reason why Laurel Nakadate came to mind. The exhibition of her work in London was very interesting; partly because the Zabludowicz Collection building is one of the most profoundly beautiful and interesting spaces in London, but mostly because of her insistence to throw the viewer out of his comfort zone.
You can not help but wince when you see a stone-faced Nakadate sitting on the roof of her apartment, in a girl scout uniform, looking at the camera while a line of smoke is escaping the Twin Towers behind her.
Nakadate is following the school of thought that puts the artist in the centre of the work, and builds upon it. Her videos, performances and photography centre mostly around the depiction of herself, her body, her relationships and the way she is perceived as a woman, artist and lover (for example, in the 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears project, she photographed herself crying every day for a year in order to ‘deliberately take part in sadness each day’). With the issues of gender, sex, sexuality, power, identity, mental health, and social class, on the background of her work, she makes you feel that the frame is incomplete, and that there is something (or someone) behind the camera that completes a very menacing picture.
There is an overarching pattern of the male presence, on and off camera, giving her directions and controlling her actions. In Oops! , a three-channel installation, she was invited into the homes of men she met through chance encounters asking them to dance with her to Britney Spears’ Oops I did it again. The viewing is uncomfortable on so many levels: is she safe inside a stranger’s house? Are we assuming that the stranger is strange because he is a man? Would there be the same level of unease if she was in a woman’s house?
This question is even more intense in Good Morning Sunshine, a three-part video, where she walks into a room with a camera, waking up the unsuspecting sleepy girl, and slowly making her undress. The tone, the directions, the repeated reassurance of ‘you are so pretty, you know that right?’ sounds very menacing, and strangely familiar.
My favourite piece was Lesson 1-10, where she agreed with a painter that she will model for him, if he allows her to film the process. During the course of the lessons, the dynamics change, and the sitter becomes the artist while the painter becomes the subject. Throughout the piece, the song ‘you belong to me’ plays, and by the end, you can really be sure who belongs to whom.
I am now finishing my latte, and the lady next me is finishing her magazine. She puts it down, and looks at the flower shop across the corner. I wonder if she will get flowers. I wonder if she is wondering the same.