Melanie Bonajo, Genital Panik: An Event for Equality, 2012. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

BACKFLIP: Feminism and Humour in Contemporary Art

VCA, Margaret Lawrence Gallery
26 April – 25 May, 2013
 

Hothan Street Ladies, You Beaut!, 2013,
Hotham Street Ladies, You Beaut!, 2013, sugar installation in the male toilets of the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Victorian College of the Arts

Outside BACKFLIP on opening night, bolshy feminist artists channel the 1980s, holding Guerrilla Girl picket signs: Museums Cave into Radical Feminists (2012) and Museums Unfair to Men (2012). Inside, Brown Council perform This is Serious (2013). A dungaree-clad feminist, taking her turn with three others, climbs a ladder and changes a lightbulb; a cymbal crashes.

The gallery has become a multidimensional performance space, invoking Judith Butler’s ‘performativity’; gender and feminist identity are constructed through a series of reiterative acts. Here ‘‘boundaries of performance and social histories slip and collide.’’ Re-enactment is disciplined by historical precedent and liberated from stereotypes of feminism through carnivalesque laughter. The sophisticated audience response to this new art contrasts with the shock generated by the consciousness-raising feminism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Around a corner Friendship is ... (2001) presents two glum girls as stand-ins for artist duo, Nat & Ali. They sit on florally-decorated swings beside a fern and pebble-ringed pond that resounds with recorded Australian birdcalls. Louise Lawler’s Birdcalls (1972–73), in which she squawked the names of iconic white male artists, stands transcribed nearby as a list. Nat & Ali’s acrylic painting hanging on a nearby wall parodies Fragonard’s The Swing and features their own faces replacing those of his eighteenth century garden-frequenting lovers. Nat & Ali’s backflip parody, to apply curator Laura Castagnini’s term, sends up not only the historical, romantic stereotype of love, but also ‘‘the idealisation of women’s friendship and associated feel-good mantras’’ including, perhaps, romanticised Nature.

Nat & Ali, Friendship is ..., 2001, with remixes in 2003 and 2013, mixed media installation with sound on wine cask speakers
Nat & Ali, Friendship is ..., 2001, with remixes in 2003 and 2013, mixed media installation with sound on wine cask speaker

In a darkened booth, Piplilotti Rist’s heterosexual parody of mainstream pornography – the large full-screen film montage Pickleporno (1992) – loops like a continuous technicolour orgasm. In a similar mode, Mika Rottenberg’s DVD Time and a half (2003) shows a Guamanian waitress tapping her elaborately decorated fingernails as her long hair snakes wildly, recalling Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1946).

Hannah Raisin’s triumphant Flowing Locks (2007) on the Australian Contemporary Centre for the Arts façade recalls the Nike of Samothrace while Hotham Street Ladies icing sugar uterus becomes graffiti in the male toilets, referencing delicate feminine crafts.

Patty Chang’s fruity colour videoed performance Melons (at a loss) (1998) refashions Yoko Ono’s b/w Cut Piece (1965). In Search of the International Look (2005) features Bidjara man Christian Thompson channelling Tracey Moffatt, whose Heaven (2007) is also on show. Melanie Bonajo revisions VALIE EXPORT’s Genital Panik (1968) as Genital Panik: An Event for Equality (2012). With their fluoro-colored genitals comically exposed, the equal and otherwise fully dressed women and men in this image convey inertia rather than sexuality. They are simply participants in a photographic performance and are waiting for the next instruction. As such Bonajo’s is perhaps the least funny but most open and contemporary work in the show.

In the catalogue Castagnini sketches a context for contemporary feminist art that might explain this sense of general uncertainty. Having structured her exhibition as an homage to Jo-Anna Isaak’s 1980s’ advocacy of ‘‘the revolutionary power of women’s laughter’’, Castagnini warns ‘‘the domain of humour remains a patriarchal one, in which feminist voices are often ignored or deliberately misread as ‘aggressive’.’’

Genital Panik: An Event for Equality, 2012. Courtesy artist and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York
Genital Panik: An Event for Equality, 2012. Courtesy artist and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

One need only surf the social media to find antifeminists defending the increase in rape jokes in stand-up comedy. In Melbourne a female rape victim, invited to relate her ordeal at a public debate was howled off stage. Encouragingly, feminist collectives such as Destroy the Joint are successfully recruiting new members and opposing sexism in a spirit reminiscent of the 1970s.

Feminism today speaks to local needs on a global scale. Eastern European, Middle Eastern, African and Indian feminists demonstrate against political and sexual oppression, redeploying Western second-wave feminist art strategies, such as public nudity.

Given feminism in all its complex diversity remains a truly contemporary art of resistance, Australian audiences can be grateful for intrepid gallery curators such as Julie Ewington (GOMA, Brisbane) and Vikki McInnes (VCA MLG, Melbourne) who consistently foster and exhibit innovative and funny feminist art.
 

Patti Chang, Melons (at a loss), 1998, single channel video, sound, 3:44. Courtesy the artist
Patti Chang, Melons (at a loss), 1998, single channel video, sound, 3:44. Courtesy the artist.
Patti Chang, Melons (at a loss), 1998, single channel video, sound, 3:44. Courtesy the artist.
Patti Chang, Melons (at a loss), 1998, single channel video, sound, 3:44. Courtesy the artist.
Patti Chang, Melons (at a loss), 1998, single channel video, sound, 3:44. Courtesy the artist

 

Helen McDonald is an art historian and Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She is author of Erotic Ambiguities: The Female Nude in Art (London & New York: Routledge) 2001 and Patricia Piccinini: Nearly Beloved (Sydney: Piper Press) 2011

BACKFLIP: Feminism and Humour in Contemporary Art, Victorian College of the Arts Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne was curated by Laura Castignini and Vicki McInnes.

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