Risky Business: Feminists in Action

29Nov08

18x24" Graphite and Watercolor on paper

A few months ago, I had a show of drawings entitled “My Performance Anxiety” at Sam Lee Gallery. The drawings, simple line drawings of iconic feminist art performances, all shared the defining characteristic that in each I had obscured the artists’ faces, painting on animal masks in their stead. Although the animal masks are either formally or conceptually linked to the performance in question, for me their more important function was to hide or protect the artist’s face. My motivation for so doing came in part from my own personal mortification when confronted with performance art, and was both homage to and investigation of important feminist performance artists’ works. However, when asked, I wasn’t able to articulate a good reason for my anxiety on behalf of the artists themselves.

Two weeks later I read about the rape and murder of Pippa Bacca, and had sudden, painful clarity about the source of my fears. Bacca, a 33-year-old Italian performance artist, and her collaborator Silvia Morro, set out to hitchhike from Italy to Israel in an effort to promote peace in the Middle East. Calling their performance, “Spose in Viaggio” or “Brides on Tour” the women wore wedding gowns to symbolize their performance as a marriage between east and west. On March 31, a Turkish man named Murat Karatas picked up Bacca in Gebze, 40 miles outside of Istanbul. After driving her to a remote location, he raped her and, when she resisted, strangled her to death.

Some people fault Bacca for her own demise. After all, what was she doing, hitchhiking in a wedding dress by herself in Turkey? People had warned the two women to always stay together on their trip, had told them that Turkey in particular was not a safe place for women to travel alone. Newspaper accounts call Bacca “trusting” and “naïve,” implying that only someone who had a childishly simplistic view of the world would have undergone such a perilous journey. And I know that some of you are thinking that what happened to Pippa Bacca is terrible, but that really, it wouldn’t happen here. Egregious treatment of women in Muslim countries has made headline news in this country ever since the US began its public relations campaign against the Taliban. Who can ever forget the hidden-camera video of three women being stoned to death in a public stadium? That would never happen here.

But calling Pippa Bacca naïve for attempting to perform “Spose in Viaggio” smacks of the kind of blame-the-victim mentality that always holds women accountable the violence that men commit against them. And as far as thinking that this horrible event was isolated, and that it wouldn’t have happened in a western country, let me remind you that the statistics in this country on violence towards women are revolting. I don’t feel like I live in a terribly enlightened country when I read that every 15 seconds a woman is being battered in the United States.  Or that one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

Artists, like academics and critics, have usually been insulated from the risks that accompany real life, in that we can make work about something like rape, violence, death, or destruction, without risking actual exposure to those perils. The exception, illustrated with painful fatality by Pippa Bacca’s rape and murder, is performance art. Performance art done by women is particularly rife with dangers.  Performance art is the marriage of the conceptual with the actual. It’s theory in practice. And this is why I think it is so threatening when women engage in performance art. It’s fine to believe in equality, but actually being confronted with “unfeminine” behavior is quite another thing.

The female body doing things it shouldn’t be doing (at least not in public, in front of people) activates both desire and repulsion- a dangerous combination. It’s confusing to mix opposites; it upsets the social order. The performance art of women like Pippa Bacca, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, Martha Rosler, Kira O’Reilly, Mary Coble, Dawn Kasper, Chengyao He, Boryana D. Rossa, and Regina Jose Gallindo etc. etc. disrupts the boundaries between art and life. These artists took real risks with their art in order to make real change. Pippa Bacca is really dead because she was really raped and murdered.

None of this is new. Violence against women is old news. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before. But just because it’s an acknowledged truth, does that mean that we have to accept it? Just because it’s old news, does that mean that it’s not absolutely vital that people hear it again? No to smugly browbeat or dramatically breast-beat, but to try to raise awareness. Again. To try to incite change. Again.

We hear a lot about change these days, with it becoming such an over-used buzz word by both parties that it’s starting to mean its opposite. What we’ve seen in the presidential election is that when it comes to the politics of sexism, we are right back where we started, in spite of Hilary Clinton’s historic campaign.  Vacuous right-wing eye candy in the place of a Vice Presidential candidate isn’t change: it’s Dan Quayle. The kind of change I’d like to see is a systemic paradigm shift away from gender inequality, sexism, and violence against women, and towards one where the work of artists like all of those named above would be of historical interest, but not of contemporary relevance.

I know it seems naïve and even ridiculously optimistic of me to think that could happen. But any radical change in social structure seems unthinkable until it’s happened. For example, if not for idealistic, optimistic activists, women wouldn’t have the right to vote in this country, much less run for president. The world has a long history of the ideal turning into the real.  Anti-monarchists, suffragists, abolitionists, civil rights leaders, and all kinds of other revolutionaries were mocked and maligned in their time, too.

So I think that the next time I make work about feminist performance artists, rather than protectively hiding the artists’ faces, I should foreground them. Because the risks that these women take when they perform unfeminine acts deserve to be lauded, honored, and broadcast. I’ve realized that feminist performance art inspires not just anxiety, but a range of emotions including desire and repulsion, mirth and sorrow, shame and empowerment. The complications that feminist performance art evoke shouldn’t be obfuscated, but instead celebrated. When ideas turn into actions, the world can change.

Artillery Magazine Nov/Dec 2008

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2 Responses to “Risky Business: Feminists in Action”

  1. 1 zeeem

    wow. this is really powerful. and it does change my sense of the images themselves. it’s so fascinating to hear your interpretation of the drawings change through time, as history happens. and asking these questions is so important right now as feminism seems to be disappearing from intellectual discourse. it’s disheartening, but we really have to ask, why now? anyway, thanks for this post. (zda)

  2. great post and true true true. Along with defamiliarizing we feminists still have to do a lot of sensitizing.


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