From as far back as Ancient Greece, the muse has traditionally been female. Seen as goddesses inspiring the arts, these influential ladies were generally painted, sculpted and written about from a man’s perspective. As time progresses, however, the fetishism of the male gaze has spawned a new iteration of the concept with the female gaze, a term that examines the muse from a female creative’s point of view. Representing women as more than objects of male pleasure and observation, this concept challenges the art world’s traditionally patriarchal stance regarding inspirational females in art.
Celebrating the empowerment of the female gaze, “Terrains of the Body” is the newest exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. The show concentrates exclusively on women as creators and creative subjects. Sourced from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the selection of photo and video work presents 17 artists from five continents using their mediums to embrace the female form as a vessel for storytelling, expression and reflection. Here, we recognise five photographers who all champion the female gaze.
With a photographic interest in those undergoing transitional periods in their lives Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra fixes her lens on men and women in a considered compositional style. Disregarding any particular background, age, size or race, Dijkstra photographs her subjects as they are; the men often portrayed as vulnerable, while women are captured without the unnecessary over sexualisation or commodification. Adolescent boys shot for her “Beach Portraits” series are seen to be equally as self-conscious as the girls, the matadors she photographed post-bull fight are captured in a similar state of physical and emotional catharsis as the women from her series about new mothers. Portraying men and women in similar situations and showing similar emotions, Dijkstra pits the two sexes as equal through her work.
Appearing in the all-woman show is notorious photographer, Nan Goldin. With a portfolio of work famous for tackling gender in NYC’s LGBT community, the artist’s images focus on herself as well as her eclectic group of friends, expressing ideas of desire and sexuality while challenging the idea of identity. Exploring the notion of the third gender in her photography, Goldin has questioned the intermediate state between male and female since her earliest photographs in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency“. Describing this publication as a visual diary, Goldin’s self-portraiture is featured alongside her portrayals of friends, in which she struggles with her own identity, questioning relationships, sexual attraction and love through depictions of herself and her former lover, Brian.
Starting her career as a self-portraitist, Anna Gaskell progressed towards predominantly photographing adolescent girls in fairytale set-ups. Taking inspiration from Alice in Wonderland and The Brothers Grimm, Gaskell’s youthful subjects act out stories, portraying the very real fears of anxiety and fear every teenager experiences in the transformative stage between childhood and adulthood. Creating ambiguous, isolated moments in surreal and saturated settings, Gaskell’s images allude to the disappearance of children’s innocence in the onset of puberty. Having experienced the pressure to grow up fast through the loss of both parents at an early age, the photographer’s tragic childhood could well be a factor in her apt portrayal of this topic.
Nikki S. Lee
Controversial Korean artist Nikki S. Lee turns her lens on herself as a woman, concentrating on the idea of identity through her photographic work. Exploring the many facets of oneself in the series “Projects”, S. Lee morphs herself into various characters and integrates into multiple social groups. Using make-up and costume in a very Cindy Sherman-like way, the photographer changes her appearance based on each circle, with the intention of exploring how group mentality can change perceptions of oneself by oneself and also by outsiders. In “Parts”, S. Lee again challenges identity; this time by curating scenes of herself with a male counterpart, before cutting him out of frame. Her aim is to “make people curious about the missing person and to think how his identity has affected the woman who is left behind”.
“Confronting pain, blood, and physical limits of the body”, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic challenges the objectification of women by employing her own body as an artwork. Pushing herself to extreme physical and mental limits, the creative bares everything to her audience, allowing them to engage in the most radical of experiments with her. From her naked body in “Imponderabilia” and her vulnerability in “Rhythm 0”, to deep emotional reactions in “The Artist is Present”, Abramovic has also gone as far as to allow her audience to interact with the most private of experiences – including her break-up with Ulay in “The Great Wall Walk”. For “Terrains of the Body”, she has chosen to step back from the extremities of her performance and display something more personal. A still from “Hero” shows Abramovic sitting on a white horse in military stance. Reenacting her father’s time as a soldier in World War II, the artist challenges the idea of male heroism by placing herself in the frame instead of a male body, and by holding a white flag in submission.
“Terrains of the Body” is on display at London’s Whitechapel Gallery until 16 April 2017