Gender Bender

Rhonda Lieberman on feminism at MoMA

New York

Left: Coco Fusco and the Guerrilla Girls. (Photo: Brian Sholis) Right: Curator Catherine de Zegher and artist Martha Rosler. (Photo: David Velasco)

On Friday, I attended the first half of a two-day symposium at MoMA on “The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts.” The sold-out Roy and Niuta Titus Theater was packed with vintage women artists, as well as chroniclers, comrades, and frenemies, whether they identified with the “f-word” or not. Thankfully, not much time was wasted quibbling over that, as is customary in such situations, though one questioner did complain about the “c-word,” which she found as deeply offensive as the “n-word.” The lady next to me wondered, “What’s the n-word?” Oy. I helpfully wrote it on her program. She later crossed it out.

The day started with palpable excitement. It seemed a roomful of underacknowledged women artists were about to taste vindication at MoMA, the stern, withholding mothership. The venerable Lucy Lippard kicked things off with a minihistory of our struggles, contrasting early feminist ideals of community and revolution with the more cynical early-twenty-first-century careerism. To an art-history student who earnestly asked how to overcome her peers’ allergy to the “f-word,” the sage elder replied: “It hurts our feelings when people don’t want to use the word feminist.” See? Feminists can be funny! Lippard went on to marvel that this conference was the “biggest sellout the museum ever had for such an event”—then quickly chuckled at her own hilarious Freudian slip.

The morning’s panel was zippy. Coco Fusco, in character as a military drill instructor, gave a brilliant strategy lesson: “Following these tactics, everyone will forget there was supposed to be a feminist future.” For example: “Bitch your way to the bank: Rebellion for rebellion’s sake—bad girls, erratic behavior, erotic exhibitionism—is easily sold,” she advised. More pointers: “The Personal Is the Profitable” (a slide illustrated “The Tracey Emin School of Art: It’s All About Me!”), “Fair and Balanced: Give opponents to feminism a place at every table as if they are a disadvantaged minority,” and, of course, “Tokenism, Not Quotas.” If anyone asked, as many did at the end of the day, what any of the mostly historical talks had to do with the “feminist future,” I would refer them back to Fusco’s spot-on diagnosis.

It was gratifying and a bit weird to see the Guerrilla Girls do their shtick at this museum, whose paltry representation of women inspired their oeuvre. Alas, their material remains true, outrageous, and provocative despite the fact that they are now museum pieces themselves. And like the best vintage fashion, the black gorilla heads are still fab on the dais, transforming their copanelists—and the entire room—into their “straight men”: “Keep Making Trouble,” the masked avengers advised. “Keep finding better ways to do it.”

Left: Artist Marina Abramovic with curator Okwui Enwezor. Right: Artist Orlan. (Photos: David Velasco)

Not making trouble, Carrie Lambert-Beatty was the delighted art educator with perfect diction, presenting the ingeniously subversive “Women on Waves” project, the floating clinic devised by Dutch Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, which provides abortions twelve miles offshore to women in countries such as Ireland, Poland, and Portugal, where the procedure is heavily restricted or largely illegal. The art historian, in a pixie haircut à la Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, pronounced the piece “activist assemblaaaahge” using art to “figure a space apart, an extralegal sphere [that] provides activism a safe harbor.” Completing the panel, Richard Meyer’s art-historical interest in cocks—that is, in censorship of gay male artists and in the Effeminists, the “flaming faggot” movement of the early ’70s—lead him to research art of that period in which “women were fighting to paint cocks, too—or photograph them.” Like a savvy vintage shopper, he served up three early-'70s finds that look great right now: Martha Rosler’s “Bringing the War Home” pieces, which collage House Beautiful glamour shots with militaristic horrors; Anita Steckel’s zesty phallic cityscapes, including what should be an iconic image of a giant woman straddling the Empire State building; and Joan Semmel’s not-glamorous naked couples experiencing “the reality of desire and aging.” He quoted Steckel, who philosophized, when her penis-filled tableaux provoked controversy in 1971, “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums, it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women. If the erect penis is wholesome enough to go into women, it should be considered wholesome enough to go into museums.” Right on.

The Q&A was like a Gong Show of pent-up sharing. Emerging from the woodwork, some of the questioners were in the collectives researched by Meyer. Several had to be “gonged” to let others have a turn. Sitting next to me, an MFA student from Hunter observed: “There’s all this talk about collectivity and the movement,” then she gestured at the mike and added, “but everyone gets up there and blows their own horn. It’s like this underdocumented moment, and everyone is searching for their own art historian.” Indeed, the “questions” were rambling reminiscences, promoting current projects and urging scholars to chronicle their work. The event had the uncanny tone of a High Holy Day when the heavenly accounts were to be reopened and Kafkaesque petitioners—hitherto neglected by the archive—might lobby the powers-that-be to inscribe them in the Book of Art-Historical Life.

After lunch, Marina Abramovic showed Balkan Erotic Epic. Posing as a pedagogue, she introduced video vignettes featuring genital imagery and practice from a very “other,” pagan Balkan tradition: men masturbating into the earth, women baring their privates to “stop the rain.” Next, professor of architecture Beatriz Colomina delivered a lengthy analysis of Le Corbusier’s perverse violation of a woman’s villa by mural. With copious documentation, Colomina traced the modern master’s fetishistic mishmash of figuration and violation, from obsessively sketching les femmes de la Casbah in Algiers (in his words, “By drawing we enter the house of a stranger”) to literally violating a woman’s house by vandalism: “Defacing her [villa with his Picassoesque murals] gave him his identity.” The old-school feminist painter in front of me started to squirm as Colomina elaborated and elaborated upon the modern master’s perversity: “Why is she talking about him?” she poked the elder next to her. “Oy, she’s killing me!” The analysis went on . . . “She’s trying to kill us.” “Murder! Enough already,” she actually heckled.

Left: Curator Ute Meta Bauer. Right: Eva Einhorn, LTTR's Ginger Brooks Takahashi, artist Carolee Schneemann, and LTTR's K8 Hardy. (Photos: David Velasco)

Next, the stately Geeta Kapur of New Delhi presented a careful deconstruction of two woman artists working in “desecularized India” who demonstrated “a testing of identification rather than the claiming or embodying of identification.” Unfortunately, whether due to the postlunch slump, several hours of confinement in the packed hall, or the previous talk (which was delivered in a thick accent to boot), a little deconstruction went a long way. The feisty seniors in front of me were restive as bored teens. There was tension between the old-school feminists—who had long awaited their validation moment at MoMA—and the academics whose abstract musings seemed to perpetuate the status quo. Finally, Martha Rosler took the podium with a big white cast on her wrist and a black T-shirt that said “WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.” By then, the morning’s promise had seemed to fizzle into a poststructuralist fatigue, and we were sorely in need of refreshment.