As part of the tutor feedback for Assignment 5, my tutor suggested that I look at the work of some women photographers who specialise in performance photography, and provided some suggestions. From these, I decided to focus on the work of Marina Abramovic and Juno Calypso, both of whose work features women’s figures to make points about their feminist ideals.
I’d come across Abramovic before, when she did The Artist is Present, a piece where she sat for days at MoMA looking at whoever was willing to spend a length of time (which was up to them) sitting in a chair opposite her. It was a huge success, with people queuing for hours to take part, and Abramovic says that it had profoundly moved her. She works with the idea of identity, but not just her personal identity but how others see her, and how observers interact with the performance. Thinking it through, I presume that she must be as interested in the observer’s view of her as they are interested in what she is doing. Performance art, by its nature is difficult to copy for the archive and much of her work has either been photographed as still or as videos. Which brings me to her influence on my work. A quick Google search brings up hundreds of images of her in various costumes and poses, all with her trademark use of single colour, high fashion clothing, mostly black and red. Here are a few examples below.
It’s interesting to consider Abramovic’s relationship to these images. Clearly she is subject, but there is also a strong sense of directorship as well. I don’t think they can be described as self-portraits, but they seem to fall in the gap between that and standard portraiture, where the image is taken by someone else. And one must not forget the observer’s contribution to the situation. Abramovic appears to be the very embodiment of Barthes Death of the Author, with the photographer, the subject and the audience all being essential elements in her performance. At the same time, one gets a sense of Abramovic as someone who craves attention, and who is willing to go to extreme lengths in order to court it, but who is also strong in her sense of self. A very complex person, whose performances can be unpicked to consider the idea of identity and who forms it – the artist/subject or the audience.
Juno Calypso is more a photographer in the convention sense. Again, I had come across her work, as a past winner of the International Photography Award. She works in self portraiture, but with her face concealed either by the camera angle, her hair or a prop such as a mask. Again there is a strong sense of female empowerment, but the content of Calypso’s work belies this; she presents herself as Anywoman in situations with which women are familiar – the gynae couch, getting out of the bath, preparing to go out, etc. All are shot in a vivid and slightly queasy 1950s colour palette of pinks and blues, and they are as striking for their composition as for their content.
As she writes on her website:
Secretly photographing herself at her grandmothers house or in bedrooms rented online. Joyce was used to reenact the private life of a woman (her own construct) consumed by the labour of constructed femininity, carried out to the point of ritualised absurdity. (Calypso, 2017)
Here we are looking at the rituals and performance that being a ‘proper’ woman requires – bathing, staring at oneself in the mirror, blow drying her hair. It’s all so normal, but it’s not. The character is not real, and her story isn’t either. The whole thing is a performance, and a comment on how women were portrayed in the 20th century. The odd thing is that what she is doing should be normal, but instead it is extreme and ridiculous and it makes us feel uncomfortable.
So how does the work of these two women relate to my own assignment? Abromovic’s work is about the performance first and foremost, and the use of ritualistic poses to make arresting images. She is also investigating how other people see her. Calypso’s work is almost the opposite. She appears to be alone in her images, in a separate world of studied perfection. Some of her images are very posed, while others pretend to be more documentary, but all of them are about the gilded cage of being the perfect woman, preparing to stand on her pedestal, ready to be admired. Of the two I prefer the work of Calypso – it tells the story of make-believe and female rituals undertaken in our private spaces which resonates with the work I have been doing. Her images also make me want to set up a counter narrative of the reality of bathroom rituals in the average family home, surrounded by empty shampoo bottles, flannels and children’s bath toys. And I like how her work makes me think about new ideas of my own.
Abramovic, Marina (2017) [online] At: https://mai.art/ (Accessed on 29.01.18)
Calypso, Juno (2017) [online] At: https://www.junocalypso.com/about/ (Accessed on 29.01.18)
MoMA (2010) Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present [online] At: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/964 (Accessed on 29.01.18)