Review by Anna Dean
Dreamers Awake, curated by Susanna Greeves explores the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists. A revisionist show, works range from the collaborative printmaking of Tracy Emin and Louise Bourgeois, to photography by Lee Miller, Francesca Woodman, Claude Cahun, to the sculptural works of Sarah Lucas and Kiki Smith. Dreamers Awake presents an explicitly feminist influence and contribution to the Surrealist movement that reaches across time, medium, and modes of gender expression in the past 100 years.
Floating above the works in the high ceilings of the gallery are the words of art historian Mary Ann Caws:
‘Headless. And also footless. Often armless too: and always unarmed, except with poetry and passion. There they are, the surrealist women so shot and painted, so stressed and dismembered, punctured and severed: is it any wonder she has (we have) gone to pieces?’
Caws’ 1991 condemnation of misogynistic, violent depictions of women in surrealism is vital to hold on to. Salvador Dali compartmentalised the female form – literally – to a set of drawers in his drawings and sculptures, whilst the context and content of Hans Bellmer’s work raises concerning questions of consent and autonomy of young women. However, in the case of many women artists in the show, ‘dismembered’ tropes of objectification are instrumental to the feminist politics of the work.
Beneath Caw’s statement is Kiki Smith’s Siren. A mannequin figure, almost decorative in its’ beaded glory, is stitched with linear indications of flesh. Despite it’s disjointed composition, Smith’s Siren communicates female energy, presence and agency. Where her head and her vulva ‘should’ be depicted, Smith places two kingfisher-green bird heads. Glisteningly alert, heads tilted, the birds engage with each other from the site of the mind and the site of the body. Perhaps the issue here, Siren suggests, is that we regard such symbolist ventures as works of ‘headless’ women. That women’s work must be representational (for such surreal ventures stress and dismember representational progress) is a paradoxical pressure that risks re-confining the female artist’s task to controlling their object status.
Moving through the show, we suspect perhaps female ‘pieces’ aren’t as passive as Caw’s claims they are.
Leonora Carrington was at the heart of the surrealist movement. Her work explores internal, psychological, deeply personal life through complex surreal, symbolist compositions. The visual language of Carrington’s narrative paintings employ anthropomorphism, exploring and articulating her internal landscape through ambiguous hybrid creatures; human and animal, mythic and modern, who come to represent elements of her growing, emergent identity— with infinite possibility.
In a movement of sexualised, objectified female representation, Carrington does not reject female symbolism, she crafts a new language in her feminist negotiation. Carrington forges a language of expression which explores the symbolic, representative potential of objects, over which she has complete autonomy.
Greeves explains: ‘Objectification is the charge against misogynists: in the feminist lexicon the fetish denotes the exploitative, fragmenting male gaze of advertising, pornography and art. Making parts of the female body into literal objects is a way to own and ironise this gaze. The body as still life operates in the sphere of the domestic and in a genre traditionally assigned to women, meanwhile infusing it with a challenge.’
(The Form of the Flower is Unknown to the Seed, Susanna Greeves, exhibition catalogue essay. p.21)
This language is not directly intelligible, Carrington’s dream-scape-esque work presents a heteroglossia of internal references; figures and objects reoccur and move across her body of work which exists from and for her self expression.
Berlinde de Bruyckere’s Animal raises such questions from an explicit distance. We approach her sculptures, domestic patchwork, sack-like figure’s, to read their form. Do we read a body? What does it mean to read bodies? Do these bodies consent to our gaze? What are the ethics of this object — where do we start, and where does ‘it’ end?
In Shana Moulton’s video My life as an INFJ, the artist is projected stepping in and out of the video frame — perhaps a door we see through. Projected body parts projected fall into the shadows cast by counter-part objects installed in the gallery space. Sitting with the work, we begin to question the artist’s presence. Are we voyeurs of her private world, or might we be looking at something unintelligible to us, watching us on terms we are unaware of? Are the hand, lungs, eye, and heart floating behind their ceramic counterparts belonging to, or representative of, the artist? Moulton (projected) dances in the cupboard, a shelf unit holding the objects of the space — the sum of her parts. Yet Moulton performs intangibility, she can pass through these objects. The hand smiles at us, it has a face.
The longer one stay’s with the work, the more a critical narrative of bodily autonomy and spatial ownership emerges. This space is explored on the artist’s own terms, an intention that fosters a productive, and at times comical, ambiguity. The lamp glows red; warm, inviting — a warning. The hand with the face speaks but we cannot hear. We suspect the artist can.
Pioneering a revolutionary ‘female’ mode of representation is inseparable from questions of existing objectification. In approaching these questions, artists in Dreamers Awake work to unsettle a patriarchal logic of thing functioning as they seem/should be. As artists explore the tension between material expression and objectification, they investigate the materiality of female experience through objects, reclaiming the creative value of such aesthetics. It is this tension between female/object relations, between object-maker and objectification, that is Dreamers Awake’s most relevant offer to a contemporary feminist viewer.