Friday, March 21, 2014

FEMME:SKIN at the Stratford Circus, 20th March 2014

Forget Bunker Hill, Waterloo and Hastings: the important battles these days take place in the amorphous land of ideology. This is a war between old gods and the modern world and one of the fiercest fights is for the female body. As the traditional battleground is cratered, scarred and deformed by the treads of tanks and the boom of mortar fire, so 'woman' is pressured to be pumped full of silicon, shrunken into emaciated waifdom or simply denied reproductive autonomy.  This is a war of ideas, both sides enviously eyeing each other's territory and engaged in myriad skirmishes.

FEMME:SKIN, a new exhibition in Stratford curated by Beth Watton, aims to chart some of the contours this war.  In the public area of the Stratford Circus she's assembled an array of artists working within multiple disciplines, all of whom with something to say about "the female body as a political and performative site".  The Stratford Circus is a pretty interesting place for an exhibition - the gallery area acting as a thoroughfare and all purpose cafe rather than being particularly devoted to art. 

Placard from Armpits4August
Down on the ground floor there's space devoted to the Armpits4August campaigning group - who advocate women going unshaven over August. There's a neat can-do arts and crafts roughness to what's displayed - home-made placards read "VENUS WITH FUR" and "HAIRY FEMINIST" - all bearing creases and scuffs from being waved at various demos. Interestingly, rather than being framed or behind glass, they're bulldog clipped to the wall. One of my pet peeves is the fetishisation of protest art - taking something scruffy and vibrant and preserving it in aspic. But this material is still very much alive, ready to be plucked from the wall and used as a tool for change rather than something to merely be gawped at.

Paige Bradley - Americana
Up a floor we see the work of Paige Bradley, a multidisciplinary artist from California.  Her sketches somehow show the body without the body present, soft pencil lines suggesting a ghostly geometric motion. It's as if the imperfect body has evaporated away, leaving only the purity of action and consequences. The same can't be said for her impressively fleshy Americana. In glowing earth tones a woman lies in a loose cruciform, trapped within red, white and blue blocks.  There's a satisfying tactility, the contours of her body shaded in yellows, oranges and light pinks giving the impression that she's the source of light within the scene.  Though the natural reading is to see it as a figure lying on her back the abstract backdrop gives a dislocating gravity, a woman floating in an expanse of patriotic fervour; a pout of boredom on her lips, an insouciant flicker in her eyes.

Following the walls around you're lead through a panoply of different ideas and interpretations of the female mind and body, both in abstract and physical terms.  One of my favourite pieces is above (which I've just learned is by Phil Fisk and not actually a part of FEMME:SKIN whoops). A  woman in a cleaning tabard arches her back in ecstasy, howling through a mist of cleaning fluid. Low-paid, low-status workers like these fade into invisibility - they're in our offices and shops before we even lift our sleepy heads from the pillow. They clean up our shit and vanish - the only evidence they were ever there a faint smell of sweet citrus.  This work places them in the spotlight, showing a dance that knots together elements of ritual, pole-dancing and ballet into a one action that underlines the power of femininity even within conformity, routine and minimum wage drudgery.

But of all these pieces, my favourite thing in the exhibition is Irina Shengelia's Little Remains.  Here we see brunette hair extensions, pigtails and ponytails emerging from within pictureframes, partnered with a virginally white slip that resembles a baptismal dress and white roses.  The title here, Little Remains has a dual meanings, abandoned objects of childhood and unnatural tragic death - remains in the bodily sense of the word.

Irina Shengelia - Little Remains
The British tabloid media is at its worst when it gets a sniff of the murder of a young girl. The front pages whip up a whirlwind of sensational eroticisation, pruriently obsessing over on the innocence and virginity of the dead girl: reducing her from person to a collection of cliches and idealised stereotypes. The most obvious example is Madeleine McCann, immortalised as the absent idea of 'Our Maddie', the reality of the missing person irrelevant under a teetering pile of cliches, wishful thinking, projections and complicated ideas of what a child really means to us. In symbolic terms she, and other missing girls, have been transmuted from person to idea. For me this work is a representation of this process in action, the depersonalised that make up the stereotypical 'girl' frozen in time like pinned butterflies behind glass - the reality of the person underneath all this forever absent.

It's great to see exhibitions like this taking place in public spaces. All too often work of this kind is relegated to the walls of galleries, viewed only by an elite few and appreciated by an even smaller subsection of them.  Here, with a steady trickle of people in and out of the space they'll have room to breathe and be noticed. There's much more here than I've described too. Check it out!

FEMME:SKIN is at the Stratford Circus, E15 1BX until 23rd April 2014.

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