Thursday, 26 November 2015

Review of The Body as Language: Women and Performance at Richard Saltoun

The Body as Language: Women and Performance
Richard Saltoun, London
9 October – 27 November 2015

As early as 1918, German artist Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) wrote: “The new artistic medium is a much more direct one: the human body.” However, it was not until after the second world war that artists began en masse to turn away from more traditional media and show an interest in the body as a “vehicle for artistic discourse”. In the late 50s and early 60s, this new trend for “body art” began to be exploited as a way of laying claim to “being” and of experimenting with and creating new identities, investigating ideas of temporality, contingency and instability. However, much art from this period, in particular that of the Viennese actionists, has all too often been omitted from art histories on the grounds that it is too disturbing. Even sympathetic critics have frequently concluded that artists’ use of their bodies in their works is sometimes little more than self-abuse or exhibitionism. In particular, while the idea of enacting the personal as political became the motto of feminist artists emerging in the 60s and 70s, and the use of the body to examine the (largely male) constructed identity of femininity was widely adopted by the likes of Yoko Ono (b1933), Gina Pane (1939-90), Carolee Schneemann (b1939), Hannah Wilke (1940-93) and Valie Export (b1940), others, such as Mary Kelly (b1941), whose writing and artwork have come to be paradigmatic of a 70s and 80s “anti-essentialist” feminist postmodernism, and even feminist commentators such as Catherine Francblin, continued to criticise them for “colluding with the objectification of women”.

Perhaps as a result, by the late 70s, female artists had generally moved away from the raw staging of themselves in body art projects, either turning towards photographic self-portraiture or producing what came to be defined as performance art. While performance art is still about the real-life presence of the artist, it is nevertheless subtly less visceral and direct than body art proper. It became accepted as a medium of artistic expression in its own right in the 70s, at a time when conceptual art – focusing on the primacy of ideas over product, and on art that could not be bought and sold – was in its heyday. Performance was seen as a demonstration of these ideas, and dedicated spaces were created in many international art centres. In addition, museums began to sponsor festivals, art colleges introduced performance courses, and specialist magazines appeared.

Lea Vergine wrote her seminal book, Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language, in 1974, and it remains an essential document – with texts by the artists themselves – of the birth and development of performance art in relation to gender, the body, language and the expression of the self. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Richard Saltoun has mounted this exhibition, featuring 12 female artists, past and present, all of whom use their body as their medium.

Read the rest of this review here 

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