Feminism begins with sensation is a Sara Ahmed quote: '"I accept that feminism begins with sensation: with a sense of things. I want to explore how feminism is sensible because of the world we are in; feminism is a sensible reaction to the injustices of the world, which we might register at first through our own experiences."
The long-standing gender inequality of UK art institutions is finally being challenged with a series of major exhibitions which reassess the legacy and impact of feminist art movements. As pointed out by the Feminist Duration collective in their recent article titled What’s Feminist About Feminist Shows?, it has been almost two decades after the blockbuster exhibitions in North America and Europe that feminist art-making is becoming a crucial topic in the UK. At the beginning of 2023, in London, we saw the close of Carolee Schneemann’s extensive four-month Body Politics retrospective at the Barbican; which was followed by Whitechapel’s Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70 and their Moving Bodies Moving Images Film Series (although the position of Moving Image Curator at Whitechapel has since been dissolved along with many others). Curator Jade Foster brought together five leading Black female artists: Alanis Forde, Miranda Forrester, Sahara Longe, Cece Philips and Emma Prempeh, in a show titled At Peace at the Gillian Jason Gallery, a commercial gallery which opened in 1982, the first of its kind to be dedicated to the development of female and non-binary artists' careers. Towards the end of the year, the extensive Women in Revolt! exhibition (curated by Lyndsey Young) opened at Tate, putting over 100 artists from Sonia Boyce, Susan Hiller, and Lubaina Himid to Penny Slinger, Monica Sjöö and Linder on display, and showcasing the sheer scale of socially motivated, often commercially overlooked, feminist art-making and the cultural workers who carefully preserved this history. Re/Sisters at opened at the Barbican and later this month Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, an exhibition which shines a light on the potential power of textiles as it relates to ideas of gender, labour, value, ecology and oppression. Additionally, Marina Abramovich’s mammoth solo show at the Royal Academy is considered to be the ‘first solo show by a woman artist’ at the institution’s main gallery and Serpentine's most recent exhibition brings feminist icon Barbara Kruger’s legacy right up to date.
As Laura Mulvey stated in a recent post-show discussion with Griselda Pollock about her 1997 film Riddles of the Sphinx, curated by Lucy Reynolds at Tate, exhibitions such as these are not acts of remembering the past and they do not suggest to re-discover the artists included on the walls. Rather, the showing of this work contributes vitally to the ongoing documentation, archiving and revolution of feminist histories. Considering this cultural shift, it is increasingly important to be critical about whether contemporary artists exploring these themes do so in a thought-provoking way.
Holes, the quite obviously titled exhibition at Gasworks by the Ingram prize winning, London-based, Ukrainian-Israeli artist Anna Perach, is interested in how cultural myth, folklore and fairy tale are woven into personal narrative and the influence of classical narrative on gendered identity. The visual artist is best known for her wearable woven sculptures of ancient female archetypes, made using the craft technique of tufting. In Holes, the artist presents six sculptural hybrids inspired by female characters who dwell between states: inside and outside of their bodies. The show is based on the concept of the monstrous feminine, and in one piece which clearly references the figure of the skin shedding, night flying witch of cultural imagination a thin, nylon, burgundy body suit, hangs like a skin, from a wooden apparatus over a large red, tufted caldron. The reds of the piece denoting the abject allure of the monstrous feminine [a theoretical framework within feminist film theory developed by Barbara Creed that argues that the prototype of all definitions of the monstrous is the female: the archaic mother, the monstrous womb, the vampire, the witch, the possessed body, the monstrous mother and the castrator].
Anna Perach, Holes, 2024. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of Gasworks/Andy Keate
Elsewhere, a life-sized tufted pink Venus lies carved open on an operating table. Unlike Botticelli’s famous figure of the goddess rising from the ocean, a woman of beauty and ideal proportions, or the hyperreal wax Venus sculptures of the seventeenth and eighteenth century designed for the disassembly and exploration of the female interior and sex organs, Perach’s Venus is an inflated costume, a vessel for a host – and because Barbara Creed argued in 1993, that the prototype of all definitions of the monstrous is the female reproductive body, a jelly foetus can be seen within Perach’s Venus, just below her cherry bakewell breasts and pink hole mouth like the silicone orifice of a sex doll. Holes intends to be a ‘site of rebirth, where non-conforming and subjugated bodies take control […] pushing beyond conventional understandings of flesh and skin.’ The aesthetic elements and playful design of the pieces make them visually dynamic, but not so very challenging or transgressive.
The candy colours and soft texture of Perach’s pieces make them considerably lighter than the darkly psychoanalytical works of Dorothea Tanning and Louise Bourgeois who extensively explored the characteristics of bodies in their textiles. Perach’s pieces overlook this feminist history concentrating on reproducing the women drawn and painted by male artists. In one particularly obvious piece, a series of holes punctuate a canvas stretched across the width of the gallery, so that viewers can put their head next to three loosely female forms which make general reference to works by Hans Baldung and Dürer, as well as Macbeth’s coven of witches.
From left to right: Albrecht Dürer, Four Naked Women (1497), Anna Perach, Holes (2024), Hans Baldung, The Seven Ages of Woman (1544)
Like the brightly coloured, clashing faces woven into the gallery doors, which reproduce the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka’s highly stylised and angular art deco women, figures from cultural history are remade in supposed states of agitation. However, instead of appearing grotesque, the soft fleecy texture of the tufting renders the forms fluid, floating as though in agar and their monstrousness, again, is outweighed by the beauty of the craftmanship. Like Venus, there is nothing so very monstrous about the bodies on display. How far does the abstracting of these conventional bodies within the works of male artists build upon the writing of theorists like Creed to challenge oppressive notions of embodiment?
From left to right: Tamara de Lempicka, Young Ladies (1927), Anna Perach, Gateway (2023)
When I think about artists and activists who made and make work about their lives and the inequalities that informed them - artists such as Jo Spence, who spent the last decade of her life photographing her body as she underwent treatment for breast cancer; Anne Boyer’s documentation of teaching while connected to drainage bags; the rippling folds of flesh built by Jenny Saville’s paint; La Toya Ruby Frazier’s photographs of the water crisis in Flint; Penny Goring’s dark scribbly waif drawings - there is an emotional depth, an emotionality that feels very close to the surface, protruding through. There is something at stake in these works which put the naked, the disabled and sick body on full view; a vulnerability and darkness which feels absent from Holes.
Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.