Woman without Qualities / Art with Qualities

Sabeth Buchmann: Woman without Qualities / Art with Qualities. In: Karin Felbermayr, Performative Elements, Verbrecher Verlag, Berlin 2007. Translation: Ann Robertson.

Post avant-garde and neo-avant-garde artists and art theorists of both genders have endeavoured to “re-gender” modern art and art history through analysis and confrontations with anti-binary counter images parallel to the development of prescribed societal and medial perceptions of a woman/man, female/male gender difference. Insights into the socially produced nature of subjects succeeded in sensitizing people towards the performative, i.e. speech and action, character of gender and gender identity, and broadened the scope of current feminist representation critique: according to this view, gender-specific power relationships based on male and female qualities are the result of repetitive subjectivization and identification processes which take place in and through language. In this context the philosopher Judith Butler asks how does power, upon which the subject’s existence depends and which it is compelled to repeat, turn against itself during the process of repetition? How is resistance conceived in concepts of repetition?[1] In Butler’s opinion divergence and difference are immanent to the unavoidable repetition of gender stereotypes, since it is impossible to create identical copies of an original. From this she concludes that there is an inherent deviancy within the prevailing heteronomous gender images.

In the context of modern and contemporary art it would be possible to accompany this type of gender theory, based on so-called gender studies, with reflections on the constitution of the subject, as found for instance in serial art of the early 1960s and the (feminist) performance, body art and video works since the 1970s.

Minimalist artists of both genders, influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Phenomenology of Perception”, asked how a subject experiences the objects of its observation; the recipient supposedly experiences his or her subject status in keeping with the ideal-typical image through the bodily relation to the serial object, thus constituting himself/herself as body and consequently, as the art historian Rosalind Krauss formulated, banishing what was felt to be the disembodied and bloodless, algebraicized condition of abstract art (which prevailed at that time SB)[2] – a direction in art which, according to Krauss, drew on the concept of a transcendental entity based on rationality and called “subject”.[3]

In contrast to this, the reception-oriented work concept of minimal art propagated a consciousness of spatial coordinates and primary forms precursory to vision and recognition: thus the phenomenologically conceived subject distinguishes itself through the assumed ability to discern shape and form in an act of bodily intuition – a notion that fundamentally contradicted the primacy of visual perception within the modernistic concept of the observer’s perceptual resources. This was countered with the assertion of a pure presence of the “object” in time and space (“presence” and “place”), which ricocheted onto the conception of the observing subject: this subject supposedly only discerned itself as a radically contingent position in the here and now. Here Krauss sees an attempt to compensate a subject, whose everyday experience has become increasingly isolated, reified and specialized, a subject who leads an increasingly instrumentalized existence under the conditions of an advanced industrial culture.[4] In her opinion the draft of a “radically contingent subject” contains the potential of resistance against stereotyping, goods production, the promise of a moment of bodily fulfilment. Krauss describes this as a “compensatory gesture” which we discern as deeply aesthetic.[5]

I refer to Krauss in such detail because, among other things, she argues with a constitutive figure in aesthetic modernism which sees art in a position of contradiction to the industrialization and rationalization of daily life. However, in Krauss’ interpretation of phenomenology, as developed by minimalism, this figure is conceived not as an entity inherent in the work, but as a quality in the recipient. In her revision of minimalism Krauss admits that in the model of the “radically contingent subject” the logic of capitalist goods production is structured in such a way that it could disintegrate into the utterly fragmented postmodern (i.e. without resistance SB) subject of contemporary mass culture.[6]
Such rather pessimistic revisions of pre-feminist conceptions of the subject can now be combined with the feminist discourses which, drawing on postmodern cinema theories, expand the minimalist reflections of the relationship between subject/object/space/body using the figure of the screen, thus leading to a discourse on perception and images, such as that formulated by cultural theoretician Kaja Silverman with a psychoanalytical focus: she argues that the conditions surrounding subjectivization and (self-)identification are fundamentally enmeshed in the visual patterns and structures of modern media and consumer culture. In this context the metaphor of the “screen” describes the way in which subjects draft themselves and their gender identity through viewing the object/image: the confirmation of an identitical and/or gender-specific self can thus only take place through the imagined gaze of an authority that has been internalized by the subject and is, however, projected to an outside. Just as minimalism endeavoured through the reception of phenomenology to overcome the dualistic subject-object division, the figure of the screen implies an intertwined gaze relationship between subject and object which at the same time reveals the relationship between body and space as something fragmentary and contingent, i.e. as something materializing in the momentary here and now: in this way three-dimensional, physical phenomena present themselves to us as surfaces, as unstable projections, which we think to be the truth (about the body and the space). In other words it is impossible to conceive the perception relationship of subject/object/body/space independent of mutually constitutive subjectivizing and visualizing mechanisms, in which – depending on the constitution of the predominant culture – specific “visual regimes” (Silverman) manifest themselves. In the same way as Butler tries to break up heteronormative gender images and, like Krauss, reflects on the resistance of the subject to the advanced circulation of goods, Silverman asks how the dominant visual regime can be counteracted.[7] In so far as she too thinks of the subject’s position as contingent, because it only sees from its respective position of view and is thus limited to its range of vision, Silverman links up with Jacques Lacan and determines the relationship between the subject and the world as both fragmentary and imaginary. After all, the subject’s inherent “screen” consists of imaginary pictures which structure the subject’s relationship to the world. In analogy to the “screen” Silverman thus refers to a photographic gaze which the subject directs towards itself. It always anticipates the poses which match its self-image (as woman, as man etc.): the pose localizes the subject as a mask which, desiring to be seen in a specific form, speaks. On the one hand the pose produces a space via gaze relationships, a kind of imaginary stage background. “The pose always involves both the positioning of a representationally inflected body in space, and the consequent conversion of that space into a place.”[8]

For this particular contribution this means that the radically contingent subject of minimal art can be placed in a relationship to the activated individual production of the gaze within the circulation of goods of the modern media and consumer culture. To argue with Butler, this does not necessarily lead – as Krauss maintains – to the loss of resistance: in the context of gender formation this would in fact depend on the degree to which the form of repetition can be directed against itself. But it is at this point, at the latest, that we come across an aporia, which Butler herself points out: how can thought begin about a subject which influences the form of repetition, when this subject itself is nothing other than the (imaginary) product of subject constituting repetition?[9]
Finally, the concept of performance further intensifies these briefly sketched connecting lines between the phenomenology of minimalism, recent gender discourses and cinema or image theory.
In the context of currently common formats, which include media such as photography, television, video and digital technologies, the art historian and curator Silvia Eiblmayr defines the “performative” as the “pivotal point in that dialectic (…), how the artistic conception of works and the mode of their perception intertwine with each other (…): in the performative, the moment of the “theatrical”, which characterizes all these expanded forms of fine art, combines with the verbal.”[10] And this also means that the “space itself, or the place, in which the work of art happens, is exhibited or performed, is reflexively integrated into its conception.”[11]

Although at this point I would like to avoid the misleading equation of theatrical performance and linguistic performance, which is so important in gender studies, the two categories can in fact be used in reference to Karin Felbermayr’s works: particularly with reference to the form in which the object, body and space are never solely represented as “real”, but as imaginary and literally projected topoi, an aspect which – similar to minimalism – integrates the observer’s range of vision in the spatial production of the objects.[12] Meanwhile, the basic geometrical forms of serial art have evolved into projection surfaces (screens) which are literally overwritten by medialized genders: we see this in the series of works with ink on paper entitled “Mask”, grotesquely enlarged hand and foot motifs reminiscent of comic drawings, which dominate the image area in such a way that the body is reduced to elliptical shadows, consequently providing a clue which negatively cites and repeats what it leaves out.
In my opinion this “repetitive negative process” seems significant, as in the case of “Gender Gamble”, to the extent that this video performance not only plays with prevailing gender images but also focuses on, and reveals, gender in the context of a latently invisible institutional reproduction of genderized relationship networks: a meshwork consisting of the apparatus of media images, conventions of their (re)presentation in the exhibition space and the stances of their “consumers” (including the artist and her exhibition visitors), positions split between fashion, art and the body’s theatrical productions of everyday life. In “Gender Gamble” this meshwork culminates in the metaphor of the screen in the shape of an integrated system consisting of camera lens, stage and viewing space: it is a combination of the repetitive procedure executed by the artist in her function as performer of her staged model poses oscillating between images of masculinity and femininity, and the fictitious velocity, which captures the codified acts of gender production with medialization processes as a relationship between subject(s) and object(s) of observation in time and space.

In this sense, and independent of their medial status, Felbermayr’s works in ink, objects and performances run counter to both an ostensible essence of the portrayed and the essence of the portrayal: it is only during the growing awareness of the functional-metaphorical linking of exhibition space and stage, of body presentation and technical apparatus, that the presented images and objects reveal themselves as elements of a significative revision of those relationships, which we observers create between them. The network of relationships between subject/object/body/space can be interpreted as an indexial reference system implying alternative possible forms of combination.

If we pursue Felbermayr’s motto “Stereotype as a Masquerade”, then “Mask” stands for that which determines the production conditions of identity (as men and/or women). Just as Butler maintains that deviation from the norm is constitutive of the norm itself, it is the distorting and fictionalizing appearance of gender characters which suggests the existence of a supposedly “submerged” hidden truth, but this in turn is only an imagined image, one we cannot actually see, but are only able to project. Consequently, rather than implying any certainties about the empirical reality of gender identities, “Mask”, “Gender Gamble” and “Stereotype as a Masquerade” demonstrate to us that these are unstable “repetitions” of image citations: ranging from Spiderman through cyborgs to masked demonstrators or Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin White Masks”, such images turn out to have superimposed, multi-layered, sometimes contradictory levels of meaning with countless breaks. Nevertheless, this does not inevitably restrict the ideological effect of media cultural, political and theoretical narrations which are evoked by the mask topos.

As is well-known, Judith Butler’s classic “Gender Trouble” (1990) was criticised to the effect that her deconstruction of gender could be transferred to parodistic practices within specific subculture milieus, but her sex-gender system – according to which not only the social but also the biologically accentuated gender is an effect of previous discourses – was unable to encompass social conditions of power or the power over reality of prevailing gender ideologies. For this reason her sex-gender system was not suitable for a further development of thought in the feminist emancipation project, because she robbed lesbian, queer and heterosexual women of the necessary identity-political foundation that is needed to gain the ability to take action.

Some artists argue in a similar direction, for instance Andrea Fraser, who declared in an interview that deconstructive feminism of the eighties and nineties bypassed the dimension of the collective struggle.[13] According to a frequent criticism, by linking the gender discourse with the performativity theorem, feminism adapted to that multi-identity flexibility required by the post-Fordist production system. Finally, such arguments can also offer explanations as to why art institutions found it easier to deal with gender studies of the nineties than the militant feminism of the seventies. Thus slogans such as “flexibilization”, “deregulation”, or “mobilization” advanced to become key concepts within those artistic movements which refer to identity-critical and institution-critical approaches of art in the seventies, and which could – and still can – take up positions against the continuing validity of the art market’s demand for saleable goods. This means that the talk about “fictitious” and “performative” identities and genders rapidly evaporates as soon as artists, in a mixture of freely chosen and compelled self-determination, find themselves confronted with the need to organize their means of production, working spaces, exhibition venues, contacts, distribution channels and audiences by themselves: a process which has become a central issue for artists who integrate the changed conditions of artistic work and the simultaneously conveyed discourses on gender in their interpretations of the relationship between private and public or institutional spaces.[14]

In the face of such objections, and considering the play with gender masks as pursued by Karin Felbermayr in her works, is it possible to make a fresh departure towards a new aesthetic draft of identity politics which is capable of addressing institutionalized politics?
No matter how paradoxical it might sound, in the case of “Gender Gamble” it seems possible to simultaneously take sides for and against a politics of gender which, in the enmeshed mechanisms of identification and disidentification, is necessarily entangled with the prevailing economies. As far as this is concerned, aesthetic deconstructions of gender also have to be viewed in the light of the moderately conservative liberalism of the art business which – no new revelation – is bound up in a mercantile association with the fashion, pop, porno and fitness industries. But if we look at their products (keyword Madonna), then the thesis, that masculinity and femininity are especially fictions and discourse effects, because they are theatrically produced as such, can no longer be simply swept aside as lofty, theoretistic platitudes. This does not mean that the empirical subject is no longer relevant. On the contrary: “Gender Gamble” sensitizes observers to the fact that they always, though not necessarily primarily, become aware of their bodies through fictions and discourses. For this reason, and this is the hope of whole generations of artists championing feminist arguments, precisely these could represent the field of a collectively inspiring revision of the prevailing rules of the game. From this point of view, the performative topos of the screen and the mask already almost represents a kind of ready-made quote, to the extent that it smuggles both the lessons of historical minimalism and feminist-psychoanalytical cinema, image and performance theory into the old difference between the autobiographical-empirical and the narrative-fictional concepts of subject: consequently, gender is not a form of visible information that can be abstracted from the aesthetic manifestation of the body and the space, because we perceive these as images, and thus as undeceiveable masked truths.

[1] Judith Butler: Psyche der Macht. Das Subjekt der Unterwerfung | The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Frankfurt/ Main, 2002, p.27.

[2] Rosalind Krauss: Die kulturelle Logik des spätkapitalistischen Museums | The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum. 1990, in German translation in: Texte zur Kunst, Vol. 2, No. 6, June 1992, p. 131-145, here p. 136.

[3] See my remarks in: Sabeth Buchmann: Denken gegen das Denken. Produktion – Technologie – Subjektivität bei Sol LeWitt, Yvonne Rainer und Hélio Oiticica. Berlin 2007, p. 157.

[4] cf. Krauss, loc.cit.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid., p.140.

[7] Kaja Silverman: Dem Blickregime begegnen. In: Christian Kravagna (ed.): Privileg Blick. Kritik der visuellen Kultur. Berlin 1997, p. 41-64.

[8] Kaja Silverman: The Threshold of the Visible World. New York 1995, here p. 203. I would like to thank the architect and cultural theoretician Christian Teckert for his useful reading suggestions.

[9] See Butler loc.cit.

[10] Silvia Eibelmayr: Schauplatz Skulptur: Zum Wandel des Skulpturenbegriffs unter dem Aspekt des Performativen. In: Sabine Breitwieser/ Generali Foundation (ed.): White Cube/ Black Box. Vienna 1996, p. 75-96, here p.77.

[11] ibid., p.75.

[12] See my considerations in: Sabeth Buchmann: Im Zeichen der Arbeit. In: Alexander Alberro u. Sabeth Buchmann (ed.): Art After Conceptual Art. (Series Sammlung Generali Foundation), Cologne 2006, p. 205-222, here p. 217.

[13] “Feminism & Art: Nine Views”, Artforum International, October 2003, Andrea Fraser: Feminism not only provides institutional critique with a criticial object; it provided a practical methodology. In: Artforum. October 2003, S. 142.

[14] See my considerations in: Im Zeichen der Arbeit. loc.cit., p. 208.

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