'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

Friday, 22 April 2011

It’s Good Friday folks. The nation’s got twelve days off on three days holiday. Dave’s wearing morning dress for the wedding after all. It’s a scorching twenty five degrees out there. Someone’s mowing the lawn. The cat’s chilling out in the sunshine. Latte from lovely Ben on the window sill. It’s all good. And yet, I’m pissed off.

I’m feeling sorry for myself. I got caught up in someone else’s cowardly and self-deceiving web, a spiritual someone, a vicar no less. I’m feeling isolated and I'm feeling like the victim and it makes me want to run over someone’s head in my big shiny tractor. I can feel myself sitting right up there in my plastic seat, out of which I fly by about a foot every time one of my giant wheels passes over so much as a pebble on the path. And suddenly, crunch, squish, ooops, there goes someone’s head, flat as a pancake, bits of brain and eyeball stuck to the rubber. Grotesque violence sure does have a cathartic effect. Someone got squished and I feel gooooood.

It’s not pretty, I admit, but that’s the way it is. It puts me in mind of that glorious little poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

There was a little girl, who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

She stood on her head, on her little trundle bed,
With nobody by for to hinder;
She screamed and she squalled, she yelled and she bawled,
And drummed her little heels against the winder.

Her mother heard the noise, and thought it was the boys
Playing in the empty attic,
She rushed upstairs, and caught her unawares,
And spanked her, most emphatic.

That’s me today. I’m drumming my little heels. And - unlike some who prefer the world to find them beyond fault at all times - I don’t give a shit who knows it. I shall be charming and delightful and generous tomorrow. But today I shall be horrid. And I don’t apologise for it. Not one little bit.

There’s something deeply healing about the feeling of someone else’s rage when you find yourself near consumed by this tricky emotional state yourself. As long as that someone else is operating within a safe schema, by which I mean I suppose a controlled, creative environment for example. Maybe it’s just as simple as feeling you’re not alone in struggling with this thing. Rage may be universal but it is not socially acceptable, and certainly not in women, who are instantly hit with the Mrs Rochester 'mad woman in the attic' stick. A woman's rage it seems terrifies the life out of people. Which understanding I began to embody last week when I saw Electra at the Gate Theatre. Wowe, that is one pissed off woman. And I loved it. How I loved it. I can’t begin to imagine what psychosexual horrors this might reveal about me to the shrinkies amongst you my dear readers, but be that as it may.

If you don’t know the plot, basically it goes like this. Electra’s Mum kills her Dad and moves her lover in. Electra finds this unsatisfactory. Electra’s sister (passive aggressive if you ask me) buries her rage and advises Electra to do likewise for her own good. To which Electra says, “Fuck off, I’m killing Mum. Are you in or not?” Sis says, “Err, no. You’ve gone mad Electra.” (classic passive aggressive response – accuse everyone else of being mad!!). At which point the prodigal brother pitches up at the family pile after more than a decades absence. Turns out he wasn’t loving the whole thing either and he’s come back to kill Mum. So he and Electra set too. Mum gets bludgeoned.

As the friend I went with rather sagely pointed out even before the performance began, there’s many more ways to kill a person than with a knife. You can kill with infantilisation, with neglect, with passive control. The death referred to here is not just the death of the physical body. Death can occur on many levels. And I guess in a way the person who’s dying, the ‘victim’ as it may be said, has made choices too. Ultimately we’re all responsible for ourselves. No shit!

Which is why I got a bit irritable when I read somewhere that Chantal Joffe paints victimhood, woman as victim. Chantal Joffe does not paint woman as victim.

If you haven’t seen the Chantal Joffe show at Victoria Miro I’m afraid you’ve missed it. However it was interesting enough to speak about retrospectively.

It was a series of gigantic canvases of largely solitary women, referencing canonical figures from art and literary history: Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Susan Sontag, Lee Krasner, Tamara de Lempika and others. Bold, brave, inspirational women who kicked some arse at a time when kicking some arse was not what women did. Not publicly at least.

These canvases are massive, three meters high in some cases, Joffe reportedly required scaffolding to paint them. The women dominate the space like goddesses, like a wonderful army of creative, archetypal powerhouses. But these are not two dimensional characters. They’re ‘real’ women - by which I mean unashamedly multi-faceted - living ‘real’ lives characterised by vulnerability, fear, wit, talent, confusion, flirtation, contemplation, aggression, gentleness, coquettery, the hunter and the hunted and so it goes on.

Upstairs these monumental portraits are interspersed with canvases of Joffe with her young daughter Esme. At first I found these curious insertions baffling. Why was my glorious museum to ball-busting women being interrupted by predictable, almost quaint little Mother and Child scenarios such as one’s seen a million times before. Indeed is there a woman alive who hasn’t at some point turned her creativity towards the ubiquitous Mother / Child cliché in this rather literal fashion?

Eventually I stumbled upon the self-evident and crucially important thing that my own chippiness was blinding me to. Joffe was placing herself, the ‘ordinary’ woman doing ‘ordinary’ things, like bringing up her daughter, into the very heart of the lexicon of female power. The predictability was precisely the point. For predictable read universal.

Not that Joffe doesn’t seem extraordinary by virtue of her talent and success, she does, but the point is it isn’t her talent and success that make her worthy of her place in this lexicon, it’s her ordinariness. We’re all up there, is the point. You and me. ‘Ordinary’ women going about our ordinary, and at the same time, completely extraordinary lives. Good days and bad days. Joy and rage. Strength and weakness. Beautiful, wise, sensuous, serene, at the same time harsh, ugly, repugnant, terrifying.

And all of that’s fine. Actually it’s perfect. Things don’t need to be good all the time. We don’t need to be good all the time. Sometimes we smell good and we look good and we love the world and the world loves us. And sometimes we’re angry and we rage and we shout and we drum our little heels against the winder. And that’s fine. That’s perfect just how it is.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Hanging the show I am a Fantasy last week I somehow found myself in the unfamiliar position of applying tape measure to wall. When I asked the hanging fellow to pass me the yellow thing it was quickly deduced that I was out of my comfort zone and I was kindly rescued and dispatched to do something pressing on the typewriter. A few light-hearted words ensued on the subject of the technician's accoutrement and feminism circa 2011:

Rescuer: The yellow thing? Would that be the spirit level?
Me: (grappling with tape measure) Err, yes.
Rescuer: That's forty years of feminism down the drain then. You'll be asking for the twirly thing next.
Me: What's the twirly thing?
Rescuer: (deadpan) The drill.
Me: We're post-feminists now darling, we don't need to know about drills, we just need to look gorgeous and kick some arse!

There is no simple answer to the question of whether or not I am a Fantasy is a post-feminist show, although if a simple answer had to be given, for me, it would be a yes - despite the fact that Margaret Harrison is not, as such, a post-feminist artist. Rather, she is an artist whose illustrious career began in the late 1960s with work coming out of the tradition of James Gillray and George Cruikshank, influenced by Pop Art and heavily embroiled within the feminist politics of the day. But in 2011 she is producing work that is just as relevant now as it was in 1971 when her first solo show in London was shut down by the police on the grounds of indecency.

On the other hand, performance artists The Girls, aka Zoë Sinclair and Andrea Blood, weren't even born in 1971 when Margaret's career was hitting the buffers of its own inadvertent controversy. The Girls, I believe, would concede to being referred to as 'post-feminist' artists, but in a way, whether they would or not is beside the point, because we are living in post-feminist times and as such we, the viewer, can't but look at this work, this exhibition, through the lens of our early 21st century sensibilities.

Margaret Harrison and The Girls both engage powerful archetypes and gender clichés and whether as a society we like it or not, archetypes and gender clichés have just as much to say to us in 2011 as they did in 1971. Or indeed in 1958 when the post-feminist's heroine Marilyn Monroe breathily told the world: "I have too many fantasies to be a housewife. I guess I am a fantasy."

PayneShurvell and curator Beverley Knowles present:
Margaret Harrison and The Girls / I am a Fantasy
15 April to 21 May / Private view 14 April 6-9pm

The Girls are British artists Andrea Blood (b.1975) and Zoë Sinclair (b.1976), whose collaboration began in 1996 at Central Saint Martins. The Girls' practice focuses on creating private staged tableaux and recording them as self-portrait photography or video, as well as live performance. Themes explored include childhood, gender, feminism, women’s relationship with food, Englishness, obsession and eroticism. In collaboration with The Photographers' Gallery, The Girls were artists-in-residence at Selfridges' Ultralounge in 2010. The Girls have also exhibited at The Photographers' Gallery, The ICA and The National Portrait Gallery. 'Irreverent post-feminism. Think Angela Carter crossed with Cindy Sherman.' London Evening Standard

Margaret Harrison
was born in 1940 in Wakefield and lives and works in Cumbria and California. She studied at the Carlisle College of Art, Royal Academy Schools, London and the Academy of Art, Perugia, Italy. She has exhibited extensively since her first solo show in London in 1971, most recently appearing in the touring feminist retrospective 'WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ at MOCA LA and PS1 New York and solo show The Bodies Are Back at Intersection for the Arts San Francisco in 2010. Her work is part of the permanent collections of Tate, Arts Council of Britain, University of California, Carlisle City Art Gallery and The V&A.

Press for I am a Fantasy:
The Guardian
Art Licks
Woman's Hour
Le Cool
AnOther Magazine
Scene 360
Saatchi On-line