THE F-WORD IN ART

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Time and opportunities have created a new breed of so-called "feminist" artists. Jessica Machado talks to a few de facto practitioners ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Over the course of a week in May, seven women in matching yellow dresses and
pumps shuffled back and forth atop a storey-high cube in Manhattan's Bryant Park. They had been instructed by Kate Gilmore, an artist, to walk, stomp or march across the lemon-coloured platform without being "acty" or interacting with each other. Five days and many blisters later, each woman continued to wander the surface of the cube in her own pattern or non-pattern—some traced the perimeter, others pivoted from corner to corner. But the glaze across their faces was uniform. Each bore the look of a life drained by routine.
 
"People came every day to see if they'd be wearing something new, to check the emotional status of the women, to just see the piece over and over," says Gilmore about her public-art performance, "Walk the Walk". Some could also stand beneath the cubicle-like structure and listen to the reverb of the ladies' stomping. "People were genuinely interested in the evolution of the piece and the women—if they would 'make it' and how they were coping. It was fascinating how it really integrated with the landscape of Bryant Park and the surroundings."
 
Gilmore creates work about the female experience, but it hardly feels constrained by it. The workaday drudgery of her pretty yellow drones evoked something familiar in its many spectators. Unlike the in-your-face identity studies of female artists of the 1970s, Gilmore and many of her contemporaries are making work that is more accessible and more appealing to a wider audience. Time and opportunities have created a new breed of so-called "feminist" artists, many of whom now view the contradictions of the modern female experience through a lens of humour. 
 
Gilmore, a 34-year-old artist based in New York , is quick to smile and often makes fun of herself. This shines through in her video work, which includes "Cake Walk" (2005), in which she tries to climb a ramp in roller skates, and "Between A Hard Place" (2008), which sees her in a smart dress breaking through several walls of sheetrock to get into the depths of a gallery. In "Star Bright, Star Might"(2007), she determinedly shoves her head through a star-shaped hole in a piece of plywood, only to continue to head-butt her "star" to make it even bigger.

Like many of her contemporaries, Gilmore came of age after debates over gender equality had cooled. Strong woman are now more inclined to speak with snark than a bullhorn. The result is work that is often less adamant and more self-aware.
 
Mika Rottenberg, an Argentine video artist and fellow Whitney Biennialist in her 30s, also creates work that considers the evolving shape of femininity. Rottenberg finds the female subjects of her films in online classified listings, where they have advertised their bodies or related services. The result is an interesting exploration of the business of womanhood.
 
For "Dough" (2006), for example, she found an obese woman, Raqui, a professional wrestler-model-poet-activist-web designer for hire, who also charges a fee to sit on people. In this film she plays an immobile factory worker whose tears are an ingredient used to make dough. For "Cheese" (2008), Rottenberg discovered "Lady Grace", an online personality who caught Rottenberg's attention with her astounding ankle-length locks. Through Grace, the artist was then introduced to a club of fellow long-haired women. She then developed a narrative in which the women acted as farmers, extracting nutrients from their hair to use as fertiliser, "pumping" their newly enriched earth for resources (ie, milk) and manufacturing their crop into cheese.
 
With these exaggerated images of womanhood  (fat-rippling flesh; floor-sweeping hair), Rottenberg is carefully lightening the mood before asking viewers to explore the larger absurd idea of femininity as a product. 
 
Rottenberg says she is inspired by the way her subjects claim ownership of their
bodies by essentially renting them out. "People ask if I'm exploiting them or
being disrespectful," she says, "but it's disrespectful to think that they don't
understand what they're doing."
 

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