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Gender Performativity And Works Of Hannah Wilke Theatre Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Theatre
Wordcount: 4717 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this study I intend to think through the relationship [between] and theoretical nuances of, sexual difference, performance, performativity and document, in connection to the performative art works of the artist Hannah Wilke. These issues will be examined specifically against Wilke’s (Fig.1) Intra-Venus No.4 and (Fig.2) Portrait of Artist with her Mother, Selma Butter. This discussion seeks to question the performative acts apparent in Wilke’s works and how she uses her body as the performative body in which to centre the critique surrounding gender identity and sexual difference.

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By Performativity I do not mean to limit my analysis to artworks and discourse which might be considered performance art in the strictest sense; I intend to focus upon the theoretical sources in which critical analysis of the art work is based. Performativity configures the work as something more than an object or performance, it helps reinforce the claim that the work actually makes something happen. Skelly states how Wilke’s art practice;

“Captures women in new performative acts of femininity, using props, poses, and costumes to reconstruct their gender identity. This reconstruction calls attention to the fact that gender identity is just that: a construction dependant on a series of enactments.”

Focusing upon Wilke’s performative artworks in which poses of femininity act as a construction of gender identity; actions and performances are apparent through the visual work: seeing individual acts as inseparable from discursive relationships.

Chapter 1

Performance, Performance Art, Performativity

The concept of ‘Performativity’ obtains its implications from two distinct verbs, “to do” and “to be”. John Langshaw Austin, a British Philosopher known for his individualistic analyses of human thought derived from detailed studies of ordinary language, theorised a class of expressions which “would be classed as a statement, which is nonsensical, and yet is not true or false” neither descriptive nor possessive of truth-value. He identified everyday speech acts as performative mediations between speaker and recipient; attempting to account for the various performative aspects of conveyed linguistic meaning. For example:

“If one articulates a descriptive statement of fact, such as “it is forty degrees outside,” the receiver of that statement may rely on that information and, thus, choose to put on a coat. But that consequence is not a necessary response or effect of the utterance. The doing of the act is not achieved by the speech. Statements with a greater degree of illocutionary force, and hence, performative quality, include statements such as, “I promise to pay you five dollars in exchange for your hat.” Assuming this statement is uttered in the appropriate context; it constitutes a promise and enacts a legally actionable contract.”

In connection with J. L. Austin’s speech act theory Judith Butler introduced the idea of Performativity politically and socially in relation to gender and sexuality:

“Gender proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed”

As indicated by Butler, the dominant heterosexual ideology is a direct materialisation of performed gender identities which attempt to challenge accepted social gender norms but, rather than questioning the dominant ideology, reinforces them through mimesis. Butler’s contention of gender performativity is that we are all constantly performing out a gender, in a way that produces sex, gender identity, or both. In this context, the performative is the construction of meaning through both verbal and non-verbal modes of communication.

While the concept of the performative, as used by Austin, Derrida and Butler is somewhat different to the notion associated with performance art, the function of language as sign, as demonstrated by Barthes, or word to mediate between viewer and performer, speaker, or artist is equally performative. In both theories, the concepts of representation, comparison and substitution act as rhetoric of communication; the performance relies on being seen by an audience: a mutual responsibility between performer and viewer. In artistic reference, performance art uses the artist’s body as the medium and it is through this presentation of the body that the work is produced. Performance art relies on being viewed by an audience, creating a non-traditional subject-subject relationship capable of exchange and interaction. The traditional subject-object relationship in performance art is an ever-flowing exchange between subject and object; it is in these exchanges that fixed notions of identity for performer and spectator get shaken loose and changed: subjectivity is questioned. In art practice it is traditional for the artist to be subject and artwork to be object, however, in performance art the relationship is changed into a subject-subject relationship; undermining the traditional notions of art practice by offering an inter-subjective production, as theorised by Merleau-Ponty:

“For we must consider the relation with others not only as one of the contents of our experience but as an actual structure in its own right.”

Meaning is, therefore, produced through the materialisation of the performative; performance artists present themselves both being and doing.

Butler proposes problems in the use of the performative in the context of performance as a simplification of Austin’s initial theory, whereas its definition as the communicative force of an utterance is embedded in the subject’s acts is integral to the studies of performance art. Both theoretical interpretations of performativity give primacy to the action taken by the speaker who, by doing, asserts his or her being. It is through the nature of the performative reference as action, and of action, through repetition, as materialisation that serves to close the connection between doing and being, asserting “I am”.

Gender Performativity

Gender works successfully as a performative utterance as it constitutes the very act it performs, led away from sociolinguistic approaches to identity that view the way we talk as directly classifying a pre-discursive self. Acts are a shared experience and collective action; the act that gender is wears specific social and cultural significations, clearly making ones gender a shared act: “in what sense, then, is gender an act?”

As I speak of Gender Performativity, I intend to oppose Gender Essentialism: the relationship between sexuality, femininity and the female body were categorised in the 1970’s feminist movement as ‘essentialist’. An essentialist theory of gender presents it as identical with anatomy, located in the differences between male and female bodies: men and women in opposition with each other by way of mental, intellectual, physical and emotional abilities, gender being defined by what it is not. That being against the being of sex and assert the doing of a gender: the act of interpretation as a performance in itself and the performative acts of femininity reconstructing gender identity.

“The self is nothing more than a series of actions – a performance – and that we then retroactively imagine that one performed this”

Colebrook implies that the body is not a natural bearer of sexuality, rather it expresses oneself through identity and gender; the body is just its performance and act: through the performance of a gender identity. Therefore the theory of a gendered persona can constitute, and not just mask, subjectivity. Does this mean the body is exhausted by or reducible to its performance? I will examine this below, in relation to the works of Wilke.

Chapter 2

Hannah Wilke

Hannah Wilke was a celebrated and controversial artist who came to prominence in the feminist artist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The sculptures, photographs, paintings, performance and videos she produced examined the critique of the depiction of women and female sexuality within an art history of popular culture. She often pictured herself performing nude using coded feminine gestures and poses to submerge archetypes; ranging from the fashion model (Fig.3) to Mary Magdalene (Fig.4). She died in 1993 after a multi-year battle with lymphoma which she and her husband documented during the last few years of her life. Wilke presents the performance of her own personal life into her art: refusing to be defined by her body and its appearance in the later years of her life when she created the Intra-Venus series, which I will discuss shortly in my study.

“By photographing her own performative acts that reconstruct a different femininity in every frame Wilke’s artworks effectively unmask the performative nature of gender identity.”

Hannah Wilke is known for her “photographic work of performances in which she used her own body, and she established herself as both the artist and the subject of her work”. She coined the term ‘Performalist Self-Portrait’ to define the performative photographs she created; I will relate this to the two works I am going to discuss further on in this study. Wilke is a pioneer of feminist art and a prominent figure of the downtown New York scene; she worked in media including performance art, sculpture and photography. Known for her extensive oeuvre of provocatively self-reflective works, Wilke was one of the first women artists to cultivate visual repertoire. When speaking of performativity, specifically gender performativity, Hannah Wilke’s art practice and art works represent perfectly how a series of gender specific actions construct a gender identity through interpretation and representation.

Artistic meaning can be understood as enacted through interpretive engagements which are, themselves, performatively subjective. The act of interpretation itself can be understood as a type of performance, whilst the performance of the body as an artistic practice is a mode of textual inscription, the body is only experienced and known through its representational performances. In the case of Wilke, performance of the body as the artistic work exposes the fact that interpretation does not come naturally at the very moment the art work is made contact with. The performance of the artist’s body points to the fact that interaction among subjects is hardly unaffected by the works institutional and discursive stagings and more broadly construed social and political situations. Interpretation is also a mode of communication; similar to the production of artworks.

After her mother’s mastectomy, Wilke felt and wore her mothers scar; she needed to confirm the presence of her own body as female and living. The male art language of the female nude is played with within Wilke’s nude photographic works.

“Wilke states that her art is about ‘respecting the object hood of the body’. Although she strips herself naked, in acts and recode of psychic self-exposure, she also presents herself as the nude, sculptural and ideal form.”

She wanted to reinvent the beauty of the female nude through the declaration and display of her own, while constructing exaggerations of femininity and sexuality, which require the viewer to relate back into art history of the traditional female nude. She also reinvented the female nude aggressively and poignantly, damning the patriarchal eye that fears and despises bodies of the diseased and of older women. Her nude female body is represented as the site of imposed cultural meanings and as the source for new ones.

“Exhibiting oneself is difficult for other people who don’t feel good about their bodies. I could have been more humble – but if I’d been more humble, I wouldn’t have been an artist”

Wilke was among the first group of women to enact their feminism on their own nude bodies, in ways that related their art practice to the body art of male artists. The use of Wilke’s nude body, feminine poses and beauty often led to conflicting discourse and reading concerning her artworks; feminist critics in particular have been wary of the ingenuousness of Wilke’s parody of objectification. Using the female nude as an object of representation and performance often led women artists open to charges of narcissism; Amelia Jones states this type of artistic performance strategy concept, seen throughout Wilke’s art practice, as “rhetoric of the pose”, indicating action and power.

“Through her naked posing, Wilke not only solicits the male gaze, she also circumvents its trajectory in advance by performatively merging her exterior (body image) and interior (cognitive, emotive) selves – selves that are strategically dichotomized in western patriarchy.”

The pose, illustrated by Wilke, not only enacts the subject but also confuses the notions of the subject as a constant, centered individual. Reiterating self-posing resists the notions of representation revealing something about whom and what the subject actually is; the subject is only known through Wilke’s performance and physical appearance: her flesh. However, her self-posing portraits create infinity of variables, allowing the viewer to approach and understand the work in their own way.

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(Fig.1) Intra-Venus

In 1994 Wilke’s Intra-Venus project was exhibited at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, shocking the art world with her death-struggling art works compared to her previous works which were categorised as feminist and essentialist. This series of twelve large-scale performative colour photographic self-portraits, were taken over a two year battle, documenting Wilke’s struggle with her body and disease; a “testament to this notion that creating art can sustain the subject beyond her bodily demise”, shifting Wilke’s artworks from the established assumptions of 1970’s feminist art. The documented photos were regularly dated and positioned in diptychs that contrast emotional and physical states; planning every photo to document the disease and the transformation it had on her body. Although it is sad to see the documentation of a death, at the same time the viewer is able to respect the honesty and courage behind these self-portraits. Intra-Venus is a ground-breaking series, concerning the history of body art and the female nude, but also within the context of photographic self-portraiture being a mode of performance and identity.

Wilke had several charges of narcissism throughout her artistic career up to the point of her ­Intra-Venus series; performing a body that was now bloody, hairless, bloated and visibly compromised by her cancer and treatments provoked reconsideration of these narcissism charges. Although Wilke’s key focus was on her self and body, I do not think she should be tainted with the classical accusations of narcissism in relation to the Greek myth of Narcissus: compulsive self-love based primarily on the beauty of one’s physical appearance. Wilke’s ‘self-love’, as indicated by Intra-Venus is not one of obsession, but one of self-knowledge; subversive of the patriarchal society construction of the female body as only an image.

The Intra-Venus series compiles of: twelve large scale performative self-portraiture photographs; paintings made from the hair falling out from Wilke’s head during her cancer treatment; videos; and objects, such as bloody bandages. For this study, in relation to gender performativity and sexual difference, my focus is upon the performative self-portrait photograph Intra-Venus No.4 because…. .

Read from left to right, Wilke has juxtaposed the two photographs producing a narrative that begins with intense illness and invasion of the body, and continuous onto a decreased illness and control over the body achieved through performance and posing.

The image comprises of two bust portraits: the first is of Wilke with her hands covering parts of her face in a gesture of emotion, fear? Horror? There are a few thin stray hairs on the top of her head due to the cancer treatment, her left hand is punctured with an intravenous line, and her nails are long and feminine. Without this connection to superficial act of femininity proposes the question of would I have been able to determine the gender of the face? This photograph highlights the performativity of gender by representing the artist, without her mask of hair, engaging in exaggerated performative acts of femininity. Wilke seems to anticipate the viewer’s emotional reaction; even the formless shadow behind Wilke evokes her ‘ugly’, appearing to imitate a gesture of nausea. Could this be Wilke’s success in creating an equal position for the female body and artist? By performing gender as a blend of the diverse traditions, does Wilke succeed in destabilising the traditional conventions of self-portraiture? Does the ‘diseased’ body blur the issues of gendered representation by the blurred signs of gender performance?

The second photograph of this panel is Wilke posing as a Madonna: the tone of her skin is a greyish yellow contrasting next to the blue of the blanket comforting her head and face. Beneath the blanket is a blue hairnet, revealing a still visible indentation on Wilke’s forehead. Contrasting against the first panel, in this photograph we see the presence of hair, eyelashes, eyebrows; peacefulness if set against the severity of its counterpart.

Although the title of Intra-Venus states a meaning of ‘self-love’ and ironically points to Wilke as a woman who used to be beautiful but is now representing herself as the diseased and ill woman and artist: we are supposed to be seeing into Wilke through the performance of her gender, beauty and illness. Butler discusses how our distance from gender and sexuality norms allows us to access them critically due to the distance of allowing us to use them when we only need them. Wilke did not choose to distance herself from the traditional norms of beauty; however, due to the results of her cancer and treatments she was forced into a position in which she could develop a critical distance: no longer needing physical beauty as it was not an option for her after the cancer. This critical distance from her beauty, body and femininity allowed Wilke to disrupt the idea of a consistent gender identity.

(Fig.2) Portrait of Artist with her Mother, Selma Butter

Portrait of Artist with her Mother, Selma Butter is indicative of Wilke’s earlier art practice: acceptance of all expressions of the female body as a source of liberation. Her work points to multi-layered narratives addressing traditional and normative concepts of female beauty, pushing against female objectification by the creation of her performative photographs, resisting stereotypical erotic ‘good girl’ models. She pushed for the inclusion of the body within a bourgeois feminist discourse, challenging a trend of anti-corporeal discourse that reduced female bodies to sites of exploitation and eroticism rather than as sites of revolution.

Portrait of Artist with her Mother, Selma Butter is another one of Wilke’s performative photographic portraits. This double panel shows an image of Wilke’s mother post-mastectomy, after her struggle with cancer. Whilst Butter is seen to be covered in mastectomy scars, the only markers on Wilke’s body are the objects of violence scattered through her hair and naked chest. Wilke’s ‘guns’ and her youthfulness, health and beauty fashions a stereotypical cover-girl shot,

“a phrase read as a pun: the beautiful, young, model woman ‘shot’ by a camera, murdered into a still, an ideal picture of femininity, the cover-girl who covers up her imperfections with the emotional and physical make-up.”

The ‘guns’ could be interpreted as emotional scars from past love, accepting the truth of life also being loss, beauty changes, age and illness cannot be hidden. This photograph is a perfect example of gender performativity: toy guns and metal paraphernalia scattered across her naked chest, the performative act of playing with ‘boys toys’, arming herself with the accessories of western culture: Wilke’s overly-exaggerated made up face representing the performative act of the mask worn by western women every day of their lives.

Wilke has made no mistake in presenting herself in perfect health; rosy cheeks and lips, long flowing hair, young pert breasts, and pale silky skin: she is as full of life as her mother is death. Butter’s illness is her own, and Wilke attempts to take none of this away from her Mother by creating sympathy for herself and her own loss: out reaching the works in which she approached towards her own illness. She examines the viewer, wearing an expression suggestion pain and sadness lie beneath her flawless, beautiful and healthy complexion. Inevitably, Wilke is echoing her own death; the image of a mother and daughter in a constant cycle of infection, affection and loss.

This panel seems a remorseless juxtaposition: one side an image of a young, beautiful ad healthy woman, littered with gun shaped objects collected as gifts from her then lover, Claes Oldenburg. The adjoining panel an image of a mother disfigured by a mastectomy, with visible scars and remnants of the cancer, suggesting a recurrence of the illness, her head if faced downwards from the camera, exposed from shoulders to waist showing not only an old woman’s fragility but also the ravages of disease. The cruel contrast between the two panels, the beautiful appearance of Wilke and the diseased scarred body of her mother, links very closely with what Wilke was to create in her art practice after her struggle with lymphoma.

This panel presents two types of look in which the camera captures; Wilke fiercely stares straight into the camera, whilst her mother faces downward in sadness and pain; this contrast in eye contact captures a tension between physical perfection and imperfection. Although Wilke shows signs of physical beauty in which her mother lacks: rosy cheeks, pale glowing skin, red lips; psychical imperfections are apparent: as a result of Wilke’s smirk she has deep wrinkles on the left hand side of her mouth, her hair is in a mess surrounding her head, gravity is pulling the left hand side of her face so her appearance is not symmetrical.

“She is not presenting herself as Wilke-the-beauty to her mother’s ‘abnormal’ body but rather as Wilke-the-actor whose body is captured in this photograph in a flawed state.”

This performative photograph is a performance of Wilke’s imperfections, opposing Amelia Jones’ argument surrounding narcissism.

Wilke’s representation of her nude mother with only one breast and a mastectomy scar contributes to an artistic project that points to gender identity as a series of performative acts.

“If gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience including actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief”

The viewer does not believe Butter’s scar as a performative utterance of femininity; we can see that Butter’s normal femininity is only appearance; therefore we recognise that gender identity itself as performative.

Documentation and Act of Documenting

Documentation and the act of documenting are essential in Wilke’s work: exploring the relationship between photography and documentation and understanding how the physical photograph captures the exact moment in time to represent Wilke’s self-documentation and feminist art form. Hannah Wilke is known for her photographic work of performances in which she used her own performative body; she established herself as both the artist and the subject of her work.

The language of photography focuses upon how the camera isolates and freezes a single moment of time and performance; assuming a critical importance, creating a special subject to our gaze and examinations by being photographed. The result of choice is on the part of the photographer. Photography can be considered as its own discourse, governed by the qualities of the medium, theory and practice through which experience and appearance of their subject is their own documentation. As like every mode of documentation and medium, photography is limited by its own inherent specificities and characteristics, what they can say and show of a performance/moment in time is limited to how they can say and show it: “A still photograph cannot record movement, and although it may communicate some idea of movement through visual representation it can only do so photographically.” A still photograph enacts a distinct interpretation, a selective construction, which in its choices and creativity tells us more about attitudes to and understandings of performance: communicating specific perceptions, values, meaning, interpretations and ways of seeing. The photograph does not only allow us to see something at that moment in time, but it also articulates something surrounding the meaning and value invested in the ‘thing’ depicted, in terms of individual responses and experiences, and more widespread cultural perceptions and understandings. Photographs articulate a way of seeing: speaking of the performance that produced or inspired them.

In the instance of Wilke’s photographs, she invites the audience to enter her life and reflect on the performative acts documented through medium of photography: acknowledged greatly for her theoretical reach into the photography discourse. Although the works, of Hannah Wilke I have discussed (Fig.1 and Fig.2), are not photographs taken of an actual live performance they are still documentations of a performance, this being a gendered performance of her body: the body being known through its representational performances, whether documented live, in photographs, videos or text. “If we do not document performance it disappears; we document performance to stop it disappearing” Wilke has purposely documented her gendered performance as its natural social performance; her performative body and self-representation combine to create her self-documentation of sexual difference and gender. John Berger states how photography is:

“Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way that a photograph does”

Sexual difference and gender are both very personal social issues concerning self-representation, Berger here states how the photograph is a trace of its subject, belonging to the subject in a way no other documentation could. Wilke’s photographs capture this belonging evidently; the subject in both Fig.1 and Fig.2 being centralised around the artist, Wilke being photographer (documenter) and subject: traces of self-documentation and representation capture the performative acts of her own feminine gender identity.




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