3 Generations of Women Artists Perform
By Amy Bryzgel and Denisa Tomkova
International Women’s Day 2016 will be celebrated in Perth this year with an exclusive event: 3 Generations of Women Artists Perform,” featuring live performances by Serbian-born/Berlin-based artist Tanja Ostojić and Polish artist Karolina Kubik, together with a screening of Natalia LL’s iconic work Consumer Art (1972-1975), courtesy of the artist and lokal_30 Gallery in Warsaw. The event is co-curated by Amy Bryzgel, Iliyana Nedkova, and Denisa Tomkova, and will take place at the Threshold Art Space in the Perth Concert Hall and Horsecross Theatre. The event is free and open to all, however advance booking is required through the Horsecross Theatre box office (http://www.horsecross.co.uk/whats-on/all/2016-03/2016-03-08). Works from the Threshold collection by Estonian-born/London-based artist Mare Tralla, Bosnian artist Lala Rascic, and Polish artist Julita Wojcik will also be presented.
Although first celebrated in New York City in 1909, International Women’s Day eventually became a socialist holiday, with the purpose of celebrating women’s social, economic and political achievements. In the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, these achievements appeared myriad, however this was mostly superficial. While women had equal access to jobs, equal pay, and access to child care, traditional gender roles were maintained. Consequently, when women returned home from their paid day jobs they usually commenced their work as unpaid domestic labourers.
Natalia LL’s work Consumer Art, a series of photographs and videos made between 1972-1975, became iconically associated with feminism and general and the Western feminist movement specifically. In 1975, an image from Consumer Art was used as a poster for the exhibition Frauen Kunst—Neue Tendenzen (Women’s Art—New Tendencies) in Innsbruck, Austria, and following a visit to New York City in 1977, Western feminists declared Natalia LL their representative in the East. That said, the artist was perplexed by these Western artists’ conception of socialism in Eastern Europe. While Western artists viewed Eastern Europe as an egalitarian paradise, those who experienced that “paradise” knew better.
Image Courtesy: Gallery Lokal_30, Warsaw, Poland. Natalia LL, Consumer Art (1972-1975)
Consumer Art has a particular reading in communist Poland that one might not assume without knowledge of that particular context. The images show different models eating, sucking, licking, and playing with various food items—sausages, bananas, bread sticks, puddings and creams. As they place these phallic and sexual items in their mouths, they perform their own sexuality. This overt display of female sexuality was quite rare in Eastern Europe at the time. Western feminists, additionally, interpreted this as a critique of communism in Poland, because of the deficit of materials. Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski, however, reminds us that consumerism in communist Poland was in fact desired. In fact, Natalia herself commented on the fact that bananas were rarely available in Poland in the 1970s, but were often found in shops around specific holidays, such as New Year’s and May Day, so she often found herself quite busy at those times of the year.
Coming of age as an artist after the fall of socialism, Serbian artist Tanja Ostojić, in her work challenges the politics of discrimination reinforced in capitalist democracies. Ostojić’s performance Naked Life, 2004-2011, investigates in particular issues of discrimination of Roma and Sinti, the largest minorities in Europe. The issues of bare life, social and political exclusion, racism, and biopolitics are subject of Ostojić’s work. For instance, in her project Looking for a Husband with EU Passport, 2000-2005, the artist commented on her struggles to integrate into the European community as a citizen of Serbia. Marina Gržnić has explained the political motivation to Ostojić’s work by stating that ‘the EU exerts a filigree mechanism of exclusion that prevents the majority of individuals coming from other parts of the world to be fully accepted by most societies within the EU’ (Gržinić, 2009).
In the case of Naked Life, Ostojić again points out the issues of exclusion and racism occurring in Europe. In 2004, when seven new countries (The Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) joined the EU, the European Commission urged that Roma issues be given adequate attention in European social inclusion processes. The Naked Life performance is consequently based on the proceedings of the ‘Written Comments of the European Roma Rights Centre Concerning Germany For Consideration by the United Nations Human Rights Committee at its 80th Session’, March 16, 2003-April 3, 2004. The performance consists of the artist reading the stories of different Roma families from the reports on deportations and simultaneously taking her clothes off. Ending up completely naked at the end of the performance, Ostojić symbolically demonstrates vulnerability of bare life. Giorgio Agamben explains that the realm of bare life gradually moves from the margins of the political order to the political realm and begins to coincide with exclusion and inclusion. ‘In the system of the nation-state, the so called sacred and inalienable rights of man show themselves to lack every protection and reality at the moment in which they can no longer take the form of rights belonging to citizens of a state’ (Agamben, 1995). Through her performances, Ostojić raises the awareness and discourse on these biopolitical issues and issues of exclusion and racism in contemporary Europe.
The youngest of the three artists, Polish artist Karolina Kubik was born only few years before the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. In her performance Stickness, from the series: Czy jest Pani zadowolona z eksperymentu? Czy Europie się udało? which the artist started in 2012, Kubik creates an intimate link between her and participants of her performances.
Photo caption: (C) Karolina Kubik, Teatr w Oknie/TwO Windows Theatre, Gdansk 2012 Photo Anna Kalwajtys. The title of the performance is: Stickness / from the series: Czy jest Pani zadowolona z eksperymentu? Czy Europie się udało?
The first of the Stickness performances took place in 2012, in Jaworzno, Poland, followed by a performance in New York in 2013 and in the same year in Sokołowsko, Poland. In the first of the series, Kubik held one end of a pole in her right hand and placed the other end over someone’s right shoulder blade as a metaphor of a welcome handshake. In the second performance, artist’s body was linked with another person’s and marked one of the body’s vulnerable spots. In the performance in Sokołowsko, a place known for its historical sanatoria, Kubik carried poles soaked with gentian violet and held together by ceramic ring on the other end, and rolled the poles over the ground as she walked the one kilometer from the private space of an abandoned sanatorium to the public space of a village, for two hours.
The important aspect of Kubik’s performances is in their participatory character. By placing a stick between the artist’s own body and body of another person from the audience Kubik creates a necessary presence of another person in her performances. In an interview with Karolina Sikorska, Kubik said, with regard to the participation of others in her performances: ‘I have always preferred meetings in small groups and one-on-one conversations. … My art is about probing inwards’ (2014, Punkt #13. Galeria Miejska „Arsenał” in Poznań).
Three Generations of Women Artists perform demonstrates the different ways that artists have used performance to engage with issues related to gender. From early engagements with feminist art to later developments in biopolitical and participatory art, all of these artists use the body and live action to create a visceral experience for the viewer, on that focuses not on everyday experience, but the very particular experiences of women and vulnerable people in contemporary society.