April 16, 2015
cross-posted from Collage
orig. pub on 16.9.14
This month two cultural touchstones from my past re-emerged. Although the film director Luc Besson and the artist Lynda Benglis seem to share little, they in fact have long successful careers and an intense creative drive in common. Oh… and the same initials. Besson has always had a piece of my heart ever since he directed Subway, a literally underground film from 1986 starring Christophe Lambert and Isabelle Adjani as two perfectly pouty star-crossed lovers having illegal adventures on the Paris Metro. Meanwhile, Benglis was one of the first women artists whose work really shocked me: in 1974 she took out an advert in Artforum magazine which was an image of herself, naked, with a pair of dark sunglasses, overt tan lines and a huge double ended dildo. I discovered this image in my late teens when reading a book on feminist artists. It seemed a little outrageous and slightly subversive at the time. It was clearly not the kind of art my mother would like, which made it just the kind of art I did. Both the film and the advert were formative in my own creative and imaginative development. So, whilst in the intervening decades, I haven’t mused on either Benglis or Besson on a daily basis, I’ve kept up an interest in their work.
However, it has sometimes been a thankless task. Subway is a romantic film and was critiqued as being part of ‘Le Look’ movement in French cinema, which valued style over substance. However, Besson infused it with an edge of punk and cool which raised it to a level deserving of its cult status. He seemed poised for great things and then we ended up with The Fifth Element. Benglis has often concentrated her art practice on an exploration of materials and much of her work bears little resemblance to the Artforum ad. More than that, Benglis, despite being held up by others as a feminist artist, disavowed feminism on the basis that she had never been interested in whose turn it was to ‘take out the garbage’.
So, does the latest work stand up to scrutiny? Hmmm, some and some. There is no doubt that Besson’s film is still flirting with ‘Le Look’ genre. Lucy is slick, glamorous and starring Scarlett Johansson, who is rarely cast in films where looks don’t matter. It has variously been described as ‘cheesy’, ‘boneheaded’, ‘cerebral’ and ‘pure lunacy’. I probably wouldn’t disagree with any of those. Nor with the disappointed feminist reviews who have pointed out that Lucy’s rapid loss of humanity turns her into nothing more than a ‘Marilyn doll’ strapped to a chair and disintegrating. Only a short scene when Lucy is on the phone to her mother gives us a hint of her as an ordinary human. The final scenes seem to have escaped from the cutting floor of the Wachowski brothers and there is definite whiff of racism in the film’s portrayal of the Tawainese gangsters. (The only white baddie is a posh British man and we surely all know by now that they are the most evil creatures in the universe by dint of their diction allowing them to be utterly, inhumanely sarcastic.)
However, despite these huge, gaping tears through the fabric of Lucy’s integrity, I came out of the cinema on a high. Lucy speaks to something in the female psyche, it whispers somewhere deep about the power we know we have inside us but for some reason can’t acknowledge. Lucy has power and not the typical power we have learned to associate with women: she isn’t wielding her sexuality. It seemed most obvious to me in the scene where she is confronted by a corridor full of police with guns. She is ordered to put her hands up. She does, gently, delicately and her superhuman ability means that as she raises her hands, the men simply drop to the floor. Lucy is curious, observant and aware, not just of her newly immense brain power but of her physicality and of the space she occupies in the world. This is the lesson women could take from Lucy, how to fully occupy your own space. As young girls, we’re still taught not to attract too much attention unless it’s the ‘right’ kind. As older women we complain that we disappear. Those of us who don’t want to disappear make up for it by dressing outlandishly, being overtly sexual or aggressive. Lucy is simply herself. Admittedly it’s herself on super-hormones (the drug which sets off her transformation is derived from a female hormone that women produce in pregnancy). But then we all have hormones, why not put them to good use?
Besson has always liked strong heroines dealing with extreme and challenging situations. Ultimately what I liked about Lucy is that, knowingly or not, Besson has engaged with the notion of how to be a woman. It’s the lack of this engagement that I don’t like about the latest work from Linda Benglis. To be honest, I have little to say about the work itself. I think that if, when looking at abstract sculpture, you start thinking things along the lines of ‘that looks a bit like a nose’ or ‘could it be two dragons fighting?’ then you’ve already lost the plot. Walking around the show, Planar Device (at the Thomas Dane Gallery until 4th October) I saw many a fighting dragon and after 30 minutes of spotting noses we retreated to the Wolseley for dinner, which is where all disappointed souls should go to be soothed.
Of course, what I was actually disappointed about was the gap between expectation and reality. I had expected Benglis to be a feminist crusader, overt, challenging and provocative…just like her Artforum ad. Yet that isn’t where her career has taken her. She is specifically interested in materials, exploring their potential, stretching their limitations. She has worked with lead, bronze, polyurethane and the ceramics of this show.
It is, of course, her ‘taking out the garbage’ comment, made in an interview with The Guardian in 2012 which is problematic. It was an undeniably a stupid thing to say, smacking of all the arrogant, white, middle class dominance that intersectional feminism is so necessarily trying to dismantle. For a start, Benglis is trivialising the still live debate about the role women play in capitalist society; how their unpaid domestic labour, an enslavement in Marxist-Feminist terms, provides the backbone of every affluent society. Beyond this, to suggest it is the only issue feminism must attend to is ridiculous. It is unnecessary to rehearse the arguments around rape as a war crime, sex trafficking, extreme poverty, the denial of education, FGM and so on and so on until we all feel a bit sick.
But I am being a bad feminist. I am setting boundaries and limitations on what is acceptable for Benglis to create. I wouldn’t expect a male artist to still be engaging with the same subject matter 40 years on. To demand that of women artists is feminism’s own brand of oppression. Benglis herself asserts that she is more interested in ideas and that an artist is only an artist, both masculine and feminine. It’s a nice idea but it makes me wonder how rarefied the world is that Benglis has been living in for the past few decades. However, it can only be good that she has been free to explore her art practice however she sees fit. Perhaps if I had loved the work a little more then I might be less harsh. Yet, compared to the powerful abstract work of women artists up the road at the RA’s Radical Geometry or the soulful ceramics of Rachel Kneebone, currently at the White Cube Bermondsey, this exhibition is so cold and dismissive.
Wow, what a great reaction! For art to be loved is one thing. For it to send you into a rage is quite another and two weeks after seeing the show I’m more upset by it than at the time. Well done Benglis. I can’t like it but it made me think and question. So through the gritted teeth of someone trying to be a good feminist I say to Benglis, that’s fine; sit in your ivory tower and play with clay. That’s your right, a right that’s been hard won by the women who did engage with feminism. And by the way, who does take out your trash?
Collage: Art, Culture, Gender: Collage is a blog & on-kind magazine about art and culture. I review mostly work by women artists and other reviews/articles are written with a gendered perspective.