View of “Dancing at the Edge of the World,” 2020.

View of “Dancing at the Edge of the World,” 2020.

“Dancing at the Edge of the World”

Ten brave female-identifying artists put the body—and its empowerment—at the center of this provocative show, curated by Marcelle Joseph and inspired by the gentle feminist utopia in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1989 book Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Observing how the body clashes with social mechanisms, these young artists analyzed the dichotomies and contradictions of gender identity and the oppressive strategies of the patriarchal system with a critical gaze in a wide variety of mediums. The approaches range from Megan Rooney’s domestic portraits immersed in everyday banality (Goods & Services, 2019) to the crackling sensuality of Charlotte Colbert’s Mameria, 2019: breasts made of earthenware clay and pink flocking, as juicy and abundant as bunches of fruit.

At the show’s opening, the Proudick duo (Paloma Proudfoot and Lindsey Mendick) performed playfully in their site-specific installation: a fancy shoe shop displaying cowboy boots, mules, high heels, and slippers, all in ceramic with luminous hues. Poking fun at the class envy unleashed by the fashion industry, their critique of consumerism is mixed with reflections on the glamorized body, adorned to seduce. In Apparition Acts, 2020, a performance by Florence Peake and Eve Stainton, the body became painting and sculpture, surface and volume, oscillating between desire and vulnerability, as they applied colored marks directly onto each other’s naked skin. Questioning how the queer female body is consumed in male fantasies, they challenged not only their audience, but also gravity itself: In sensual, semi-acrobatic postures they staged, with detachment and professionalism, a mutual investigation between dominant and submissive partners.

Rooting her work in myth and Jungian psychology, Saelia Aparicio is not afraid to venture into dark territories. Her large india-ink wall drawing Catfight, 2020, recounts the ancient story of violence between women, that well-proven system of oppression so favored by the patriarchy, turning mothers into the fiercest accomplices of male power. With the narrative cadence of a medieval sinopia, the work depicts a primitive brutality that is almost cannibalistic: a crowd of women, all enemies, bite, kick, and scratch one another’s flesh. In two pastels on cotton fabric, Aparicio also reflects on the social restrictions surrounding the female pleasure principle. Wide-open eyes and toothed vaginas, like horrible plagues that rip up crouching bodies, are there to remind us of the eternal judgment passed on women’s desire and the fear generated by their sexual power.

In the face of all this epic violence, Alexi Marshall’s fabric triptych Who Do We Tell When the Bees Are Dead, 2020, proposes an alternate model, an ecosystem in which Mother Earth and her creatures can live in harmony. In particular, Marshall confronts the theme of preserving the lives of bees—essential to our sustenance and our very survival—with an unusual style full of symbolic detail. In linocut print and embroidery on fabric, flowers and streams, moon and stars, children and women of all ages populate a utopian fable of healing and regeneration, rendered in a dreamy mix of blue and brown shades. The exquisite detail of the bee that kisses the mouth of an infant describes a profound reconciliation between human, natural, and spiritual realms. Marshall sends out the most generous and inclusive message, expressed with what Le Guin calls the “mother tongue,” that female language in tune with the forces and forms of the universe. Writing as I do in the early stages of the dramatic coronavirus epidemic in Italy, this work in particular strikes me as the most appropriate for reflecting on the delicate balance between us and the planet, a balance to which we are often oblivious until we are forced to pay the price for that forgetfulness.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.