'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Thursday, 25 February 2010

I’m sitting in my cluttered little office in Ladbroke Grove with a cup of green tea with jasmine in one hand and an image of multi disciplinary and performance artist VALIE EXPORT in the other.

VALIE EXPORT sits, legs akimbo, on a wooden chair, brandishing a military rifle, wearing black peep-toe sling backs, a black leather shirt pulled taught across her chest and a pair of black trousers with a large triangle of fabric cut away to reveal her bare crotch. She’s also wearing a massive, unruly black wig that calls to mind shamanic headdress with all its unnerving supernatural connotations. Beneath the wig VALIE EXPORT has a beautiful face and its expression is impassive.

The image is a piece of documentation from a performance that took place in Munich in 1968 wherein VALIE EXPORT entered a porn cinema wearing this awe inspiring feminist get-up and strode angrily between the rows of seated viewers.

Such a bold statement makes an unmade bed, a pickled shark, and perhaps even a gang of child mannequins with genitals where the noses should be, seem tame. Actually, perhaps not the mannequins, that’s a bit fucked-up even by art history’s standards. Nonetheless, Action Pants: Genital Panic took place in the 60s and it wasn’t abstract conceptualising and schoolboy shock tactics - it was for real.

EXPORT’s Action Pants: Genital Panic can currently be seen hanging in Tate Modern and the reason I’m gripped by it is I’ve been asked by an artist friend to collaborate with her on a project about the seven deadly sins. She’s asked me to come up with ideas for seven self-portraits that she will then choreograph with me and shoot on digital SLR, in a Calle-esque investigation of what a whole cross-section of different people will come up with in response to a certain emotive stimulus, in this case, the deadly sins.

I’ve chosen to approach the project as an art historian, mainly of course because that is what I am and it’s always wise to stick with what you know. For each ‘sin’ I’ve chosen a single work by one of seven women artists from 1968 to the present day. They’re all artists I respect hugely and all are largely working with their own bodies and/or incorporating some degree of performativity.

Initially my friend Manu had suggested that these self-portraits should be shot using an absolute minimum of props and that the clothes worn should be limited to a black polo neck and black trousers. So this is what I had in mind. My self-portrait Anger would consist of a symbolic re-creation of this image as an homage to VALIE EXPORT, but rather than getting into complicated outfit territory I would stick with the black sweater and trousers, a silhouette if you like, allowing the pose to do the talking.

So I meet up with Manu at the Camden Arts Centre to show her my ideas.
“Great,” she said, “very interesting approach, but,” she said, “would be so much more powerful as a piece of work in eetself and as an homage and as an illustration of the seens, to reproduce it exactly as the original.”
“Ah, you mean legs akimbo, no pants?”
“Right, I see. I might have to have a little think about that one then Manu.”
“No problem.”

My initial thought was, “oh bugger, I can’t do that”. But after a while I started to feel a bit pathetic about it. If VALIE EXPORT could do it in 1968 without bating an eyelash, why can’t I do it in 2010? God, what’s the big deal? It’s hardly news. Fifty percent of us look like that down there. It’s nothing we haven’t all seen before in one way or another. What’s so different about me? And now I’m almost thinking that to reproduce it in any way other than loyally would be an insult to the original. Making something that in 1968 was very radically not polite, not polite at all, but enraged and demanding to be heard, into something tame, demure, apologetic almost. That just wouldn’t be right. Even the vicar thought so.

So that’s it then. Decision made. Now I have to decide which trousers I don’t mind destroying in the name of my feminist art historical principals and get the scissors out! Body where mouth is. How liberating. Now I’m just looking forward to Jake and Dinos getting their kecks off. How very noughties that would be.

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