Essay Margaret Iversen Art International (Spring 1988) Fashioning Feminine Identity


Margaret Iversen

Art International (Spring 1988)

Fashioning Feminine Identity

It was a commonplace of feminist theory in the seventies to observe that the field of visual representation is divided along the lines of gender—on the one side, the active male artist or spectator, on the other, the passive female object of desire. Artist and model, spectator and spectacle, are gendered couples within patriarchal culture. Laura Mul- vey’s article on visual pleasure and narrative cinema is the classic text:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active male and passive female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.*”

Within this cultural paradigm the position of the female spectator is dubious, that of the female artist, a contradic­ tion in terms.

Mulvey’s intervention provoked a series of articles broach­ ing the question of the female spectator. Some referred to John Berger’s claim in Ways of Seeing that “the surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female.”*2’ Film theory about the female spectator’s pleasure likewise suggested that she must constantly oscillate between “masculine” and “feminine” positions—identifying alter­ nately with male voyeur and female victim. Since active desire implies masculinization. the female spectator is necessarily a sort of transvestite.*3’ The bracing binarism of the seventies was no doubt useful as a catalyst. More recent theory and practice has been enquiring into specif­ ically feminine motives for active desire in relation to representation.

Many contemporary women artists address the issue of women’s difficult relation to representation and confront its riddles. How is it possible to represent women without repeating patriarchal precedents? Can the question of feminine identity and self-image be explored without reinforcing a conventional view of women’s narcissism? Should the female body be represented at all since it is so

vulnerable to appropriation? Is there a position for the female other than the “masculine position?”

A diversity of responses to these questions can be found in the work of Cindy Sherman. Barbara Kruger and Mary Kelly. Comparing their work is interesting because they have so much in common. AU have been involved in film and film theory: all eschew the dominant artistic media; all engage in work which is inseparable from a certain strand of anti-essentialist feminist theory, meaning that they do not search for a “truth” of femininity amid the alien discourse. Instead, they “work” the discursive formations which construct gender difference and debilitating defin­ itions of femininity.

Of the three artists. Sherman plays the most dangerous game, posing herself as model in large, lurid colour photographs. “Oscillation,” “transvestism” and “mas­ querade” seem peculiarly appropriate critical terms for her work. Barbara Kruger evades the problem of female desire in relation to images with a negative art practice. She ransacks media images for telltale displays of unequal power relations between the sexes and attacks them with scissors and paste. As an iconoclast-artist, she destroys the old visual pleasures and man-made entrapments of desire. While Sherman oscillates and Kruger explodes. Mary Kelly manoeuvres strategically. One of her strategies is to collectivize the presence of the artist by invoking historical voices of the women’s movement. This gives the work an heroic character, but without the solitary mastery so closely associated with the male artist. Another tactic is to pluralize the mode of representation with writing and narrative, so that imaging is not reduced to resemblance, to the iconic image. Such heterogeneous “imaged dis­ course,” she thinks, might be capable of evading “cultu- raUy over-determined scopophilia.” or that acquired way of looking which encourages the female spectator’s fraught identification with the male voyeur.*(4) Kelly there­ fore avoids literal images of women, and evokes instead phantasmagoric female bodies, memories, somatic sensa­ tions, desires. Her focus is deep, dispersing the surface of the body, bringing the unconscious into view.



The Eyes of Cindy Sherman

Let us assume that Craig Owens is wrong when he says that the spectator posited by Sherman’s work is “invariably male.’(5) Sherman’s own comments on the spectator are scrupulously ungendered, but in any case, Owens’ asser- ion runs counter to the indispensable and insistent

knowledge that the artist is a woman: the symbolic place of active artist or spectator is thus opened for female dentification. The female spectator is inclined to oscillate between identification with Sherman as artist and as model. The elaborate manipulation of the figure, costume, make-up and lighting would be viewed quite differently if he artist herself were not subjected to this ordeal. Hans Bellmer’s Poupees, invoked in one of Sherman’s recent vorks, look victimized by the artist. In Sherman’s case the loll is able to assume a place on the other side of the amera. If she then assumes the “masculine position,” are ter eyes infiltrated by male desire? I think not, but German has unwittingly opened a space for it. Even a ympathctic male critic, Peter Schjeldahl, betrays a pattern of identification and objectification which neutralizes herman’s potentially transgressive oscillation. He refers o the artist as “Sherman,” the figure in the photographs s “Cindy.“(6) Sure-man and diminutive Cindy simply eproduce the familiar positions.

A young, reasonably attractive woman in solitude, like lose in Vermeer’s paintings, is never innocent; she has ist received a letter from a lover. The figure of the female ody is laden with centuries of voyeuristic and fetishistic iscination. Perhaps this explains why Sherman has

recently delved into fairy-tale grotesquerie—the old crone, the pig-face—trying to make her image undesirable. In an interview she laments the ease of her assimilation: “I’ve always been so well received publicly that it started to bother me. I wanted to make something that would be hard to be well received publicly. “(7)

For all her attempts to destabilize the ideological fixity of the subject, to produce femininity as a mask, not essence, the critic murmurs “Cindy” and feels secure.

Kruger’s Iconoclasm

The kernel of my critique of Sherman’s art practice is that her oscillation between artist and model only reinforces the positions it was meant to call into question. The riddle of the female artist is answered by assigning her the role of performer. The “feminine position” as object of the gaze remains intact. Kruger, on the contrary, takes up a very aggressive stand on the issue. One of her photographs features a woman’s face reflected in a shattered mirror and the words “you are not yourself.” In other words, our fantasized recognitions of ourselves in media images are delusions. True, but is there no room for female fantasy? Kruger escapes being pinned to the surface of the image. But at what cost?

Her work is related to early avant-garde propaganda posters like those of John Heartfield. Every aspect of her

Cindy Sherman Untitled. 1987, colour photograph



Cindy Sherman* Untitled. 1987, colour photograph



work—scale, monochromatic flatness, the bold type-face, abrupt croppings—is admonitory, She appropriates the anonymous voice of authority intending to use it against itself, to lay bare its devices. But having stolen the discourse of power, she is saddled with its effects. Despite defamil- iarizing strategies and moments of humour, one cannot help but feel rebuked when confronted with these posters. Someone once complained of feeling intimidated by her photograph of a bandaged hand together with the words, “we will undo you.” Kruger responded that her work didn’t pose a threat, it signified threat(8) A subtle distinc­ tion.

Towards the end of his life, Roland Barthes reflected on the necessity of writing either as a terrorist or as an egotist. Kruger’s strategies are entirely consistent with early Barthes, the “terrorist,” the distanced demythologiser, whose semiology was a “semioclasm.” His project was to reveal nature as a tissue of signs, to explode the bourgeois norm, also called the doxa, the stereotype. This was prior to his realization that this sort of semiology is likely to end up confronting one doxa with another. Power is present, he observes, “even in the liberating impulses which attempt to counteract it.”(9) In his later work he opposes the authority of the metalanguage to the discourse of desire, pleasure and eroticism—in short, to the aesthetic. Kruger carries out Laura Mulvey’s programme of destroy­ ing oppressive forms of visual pleasure but fails to carry out its sequel, “to conceive a new language of desire.” That is what is now on the agenda.

Mary Kelly’s “Corpus”

Kelly’s earlier project concerning the mother as active subject of desire in relation to her baby—Post-Partum Document (1973-79)—proposed a fetishism peculiar to the mother who, having fantasized her baby as part of her own body, resuffers the pain of separation and symbolic castration as her child grows up/10’ She disavows and assuages her loss with cherished objects, small tokens, gifts from the child. Kelly has now started another long-term project about feminine identity outside or on the other side of maternity, Interim. The first section, Cor- pus(11) explores fantasized identification with oth­ ers—mother, father, friends, photographs, fictional female characters—as a basis for the feminine subject’s active relation to representation.

In our culture, the female body is supposed to pass from a state of virginal girlhood to one of mature, maternal femininity. These clearly articulated positions are followed by one that has no name and apparently no use. While an

excess of discourse surrounds the available virgin and the mother, the middle-aged woman is excluded from dis­ course—unspoken, invisible and uneasy. She makes muf­ fled protests with her body analogous to the symptoms of hysteria. Kelly uses the notion of the hysterical body in a metaphorical way—her subject is the feminine body traversed by unconscious desire, pain and pleasure. The thirty panels of Corpus are divided into five sec­ tions—Menace, Appel, Supplication, Erotisme and Extase, the attitudes passionelles isolated by the nineteenth- century neuropathologist J. M. Charcot. Kelly’s attitude to Charcot is ironic, for he is best known as the author of the Iconographie photographique de la SalpetriereS(12) in which certain expressions and gestures are regarded as the visible symptoms of hysteria. The Iconographie is like an updated version of Le Brun’s illustrations to his conference on Expression. In both, it is assumed that a fixed relationship exists between signifier and signified, Freud’s great innovation was to understand that signs, symptoms or dreams have to be interpreted via a slippery series of subterranean condensations and displacements which can only be elicited by listening for the analysand’s own associations. Kelly’s new Iconography refuses literal representations of the body. Instead the body is seen displaced onto a variety of cultural discourses and images.

Questions of identity (Who am I? What is my social role? Am I the fairest of them all?) are typically posed in front of a mirror or, if one is an artist, in the process of making a self-portrait. Although Kelly’s work is not strictly self- portraiture or autobiography, it evokes a speaking subject as does a fictional diary or any intimate first-person narration. This is true of both the image and text panels. The image panels represent articles of clothing which are like displaced portraits. They represent the feminine subject in several ways: there is a metonymic relation, a part for a whole; a metaphoric relation, a particular garment telling us something about the wearer; and an indexical relation, where the garments are worn and, like a second skin, they have formed involuntary wrinkles, folds and lines. By using clothing to represent the body, Kelly immediately announces that it is not the biological body which is in question. Rather, it is the body image, the imaginary body, the body as a construction in dis­ course.

Kelly approaches the subject of the body by distilling from women’s magazines three repeated themes which she understands as symptoms of women’s fantasies and anxieties: fashion, popular medicine and romantic fiction. The five “passionate attitudes” are refracted through these modalities on image and text panels. My discussion focuses on the three modalities of the garment motifs. The



motifs themselves have a curious presence (absence). They are semi-transparent photographic images (laminated photo positives) applied to perspex panels. The panels are raised from a light ground so that the image casts a real shadow. Consequently, the articles of clothing—black leather jacket, handbag, shoes, sheer nightgown, summer dress—appear both shadowy and substantial, like an object and a trace, a thing and a sign. This ambivalence marks all of Kelly’s work, which hovers between the raw immediacy of particular objects and a highly discursive register. To put it another way, it is both intensely emotional and intellectually distanced. Each image panel is paired with a text panel which narrates a story evoked by the article of clothing and its “attitude.” The texts are silk-screened on perspex and set against a black ground so that the spectator’s reflection merges with the words.

The motifs in the first set of panels are presented like the clothes in an expensive shop. In style, they might be called “classical” in their simple integrity and perfection of form. For example, the captivatingly glossy black leather jacket is neatly folded and lovingly smoothed down. Each fashion motif is accented in red, which 1 read as displaced lipstick but also as hysterogenic zones, sites of the hysterical body which have become erogenous zones. All the text panels are accented in this way, indicating that the body of the text also has nodal points and cathected zones. The stories associated with the fashion panels intervene in the debates about male voyeurism and scopophilia, and interrogate the “feminine position” as object of the gaze. Kelly suggests through the stories that dressing up is for another person whom we desire and with whom we identify, ultimately the mother. There is one particularly amusing

anecdote about the reunion of two women who have swapped images in emulation of each other’s appearance at their last meeting. The “perfect” image is always that which you are not.

The second set of panels is the underside of the first. The “perfect image” is a symptom of love, but it is also a sign of fear-fear of ageing, death, or worse, flabby thighs. This parallels Lacan’s sense of the mirror image as a salutary fiction for the child, one which conceals motor incoordi­ nation and fragmenting drives. Here, fragmentation is a result of the angry process. The garment motifs are manipulated in a way which recalls anatomical drawings where the skin is peeled away and the insides exposed. Instead of lipstick accents, certain areas are outlined like malignancies marked on an x-ray photograph. The jacket emblem is now unzipped so as to expose the soft intestinal convolutions of its lining. The text panel associated with the bag motif describes the horror and fascination of graphic illustrations of the ageing process in a self-help manual. The text concludes: “Anne is right, women are not at one with nature, they are at war with it. The victor becomes a legend like so many ageing film stars, forever ‘Fabulous and Forty-two’; meanwhile, the vanquished, who refuse to dye their hair or just don’t give a damn, become old bags, or possibly old ladies—if they smile.”

If classical perfection has given way to warts-and-all realism in the first two sets of panels, the third set can only be described as baroque. These panels are the most hysterical and hallucinogenic. The texts deal with women’s sexual fantasy, the possibility of metamorphosis, of trans­ figuration or of losing any preconceived identity. The

Mary Kelly working on Interim in 1985



garment motifs are knotted and twisted in bizarre confi­ gurations like the folds Bernini gave to St Theresa’s gown. They suggest acute anxiety but also a release from the normative. It is possible to imagine in the fantastic anatomies the wasp waists and swan necks of romantic fiction. The “cathected zones” of these motifs are cross- hatched, a wholly conventional sign of shadow, here indicating moody chiaroscuro, dramatic lighting and, perhaps, the artifice of fine art itself. All the texts in the series have fairy story endings. In one, the narrator imagines, after declining a flattering proposition, that she is Cinderella rushing from the ball in a chauffeur-driven limousine. “The radio announces twelve o’clock, the car breaks down, the lizard scurries off and I walk home in rags and wooden shoes.”

This summary of the three modalities suggests that they are not just themes distilled from women’s magazines, but a catalogue of the ways the invisible body endeavours to represent itself. They are the topoi of feminine desire

Mary Kelly: Interim, Pan I, 1985. laminated photo positive, screen-

outside maternal femininity. The body is raw material for the creation of a perfect image for another. It strains to be beautiful, sleek, stylish. This smooth surface conceals an anxious inside of organs and flesh which speaks volumes inaudible to modern medicine: pain may preserve a memory, or illness allude to something else. The body is also erotic. Kelly’s association of eroticism with romantic fiction implies a Lacanian understanding of the subject in language. This subject is on shifting ground, for linguistic signs have no fixed meanings, no reliable presence. Desire is like language in this respect: it is in search of a lost object which is unattainable. Signifiers slip over signifieds as desire slips along an endless series of substitutes. This excess or jouissance is the theme of the last set of panels. Romantic fiction is a stand-in for a kind of writing or representation which evades normative strictures and imagines another self, another future, responsive to women’s desire.

The positions mapped by the work of Sherman, Kruger and Kelly can be construed as a kind of dialectical movement. Sherman’s photographs present the female body in the third person: “she” poses as object of the gaze in relation to “he,” actively taking up a passive, exhibi­ tionist aim. Kruger escapes feminization. Her accusatory address to “you” implies an “I.” but this “I” does nothing but refuse, says nothing but “no.” Kelly evokes a first- person subjectivity, a reflexive, interrogative “I” who is capable of being both subject and object, both active and passive in relation to representation, both “masculine” and “feminine” in relation to desire.

Notes (11 Laura Mulvey. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol.

16. no. 3. 1975, pp. 6-18. (2) John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London: BBC and Penguin Books,

1972, p. 47. (3) Laura Mulvey, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative

Cinema’,” Framework, nos. 15/16/17. 1981, pp, 12-15. (4) Mary Kelly, “Desiring Images Imagining Desire,” Wedge, no 6,

1984, p. 9. (5) Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others Feminists and Postmod­

ernism,” in Hal Foster, ed.. The Anti-Aesthetic, Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983. p, 75.

(6) Preface to Cindy Sherman. New York: Pantheon Books. 1984. (7) Sandy Nairne. Stale of the Art : Ideas and Images in the IBSO’s.

London; Chatto and Windus. 1987. p. 136. (8) Craig Owens. “The Medusa Effect or the Specular Ruse.” Art in

America, January. 1984, pp 97-105. (9) Roland Barthes. “Inaugural Lecture, College dc France,” in Susan

Sontag, ed.. Barthes, Selected Writings, London: Fontana/Collins. 1982.

(10) Mary Kelly. Post Partum Document, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1983 (a published version of the project with critical essays).

(11) A published version of Corpus appears in the catalogue to the exhibition. “Mary Kelly Interim.” Fniitmarkcl Callery. Edinburgh; Keltic’s Yard Gallery. Cambridge: and Riverside Studios. London, 1986.

(12) D.M- Bournville and R. Regnard. Iconographie photographique de la Salpetriere (service de J. M. Charcot). Paris: 3 vols., 1877-80.

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