It’s becoming something of a standard complaint that feminism has a PR problem. So much so that it seems the youngest generation of women have been loathe to speak its name – hence the title of the latest talking point campaign: f*******. This new campaign and symposium (held at Berlin’s n.b.k. last weekend) attempts to discuss motivations and consequences of feminism today from a radically new perspective.
Frequently in contemporary debate feminism is imagined in two camps: the theoretical-artistic feminists talking about one set of problems around meaning and identity, while another, more pragmatic group talk about the real problems that affect women. The purpose of this symposium of ideas is to propose a third way to circumvent the traditional framework.
The campaign has chosen to focus on a broad range of issues from the political to the practical, with talks on feminism’s repercussions for economies, maternity, and the gender politics of the art world. The latter was one of the most heated discussions of the weekend, a telling sign of where the seed of these new ideas will really come from, and a nod to the exhibition that is taking place at Espace Surplus to complement the talks. For while this accompanying exhibition features male and female artists (somewhat in collaboration, which curator Bettina Springer says was an important point of the show), the point of controversy for the weekend was Philomene Magers’ (Sprüth Magers gallery) position that, at the top, the art world is an investment game, in which women are just not interested in participating. A rather interesting thesis for this exhibition, also named f*******, to be considered alongside.
This “new perspective” to try to stand outside of the divisive politics inside feminism today is borne out by the artists showing at the Espace Surplus space. Isa Melsheimer’s concrete pole stands, waiting to be danced on, but also holding up the ceiling, next to a cactus stretching upwards. In the next room, “The Room of Weight (subjunctive)” by Ingo Gerken holds a primary coloured gigantic set of dumbbells, just one kilogram heavier than the female weightlifting world record. Elsewhere, we peer through Timo Klöppel’s silver-foiled room, past a hanging bauble to our own reflection in a mirror. In between is an installation of leftover sand, silver and broken mirror created by Isa Melsheimer (the only female artist in the exhibition) using the other two artists’ scraps.
But what is it about feminism that makes the movement require this ‘new perspective’ to make steps forward? How did we get here? For one, women now make up more than 50% of the workforce in the West, which raises new questions about motherhood, work conditions and precariousness of employment. Perhaps to some extent it is the question of where the project’s end point is. For, as many times as one can repeat that feminism is about equality for men and women, there is an equal number of detractors who claim that it’s about a female supremacy, or that, at the very least, equality has now been attained, such that we should halt any progress in women’s favour. Perhaps the reaction to the title of Hanna Rosin’s book (one of the speakers at the talk on feminist economics), “The End of Men: and the Rise of Women” delineates this most clearly. Rosin claimed she comes under fire from both ends of the gender politics spectrum for this title: men’s rights activists who see her as wishing the destruction of men and feminists who see her as positing a state of matriarchal affairs that they do not see borne out in statistics. In the midst of this reawakening of feminism stand a generation of men who have not had to deal with demands for equality, and who are taken by surprise by claims it doesn’t already exist.
Attention-garnering book titles aside, where does this leave feminism as a whole? Perhaps it shows precisely how difficult it is to contain a movement within any kind of clear boundaries. We can try to define the terms, but they escape into asterisked placeholders. What’s the new perspective on feminism? To go by this weekend’s concepts, it attempts to stand above the context of the creator’s sex, above that of sexuality or race. It attempts an objectivity that the first wave of feminists attempted but never gained. It is the next challenge to create that message with as few asterisks as possible, bringing this clear new view to a fresh generation who need it more than ever.
Text by Josie Thaddeus-Jones