Interdisciplinary Conference


in Art & Science

26-28 November 2020, University of Applied Arts Vienna/Online

49. Tabooing Womanhood? Performative Strategies of Subversion
Session: Session "NSP15 / F-word"
Speakers: Julia Sprenger

Since the 1960s, the dispositive of performance art and especially of body art has been the most progressive place for (artistic) transgression. The As If is dead: physical, social andmoral boundaries are questioned. The experiences of reality - between pleasure and displeasure - are challenging the audience as well as society. The performative production of strong emotions and the physical co-presence confronts the recipients with their different roles: victims, perpetrators, voyeurs, accomplices, etc. Through the radicalism of the artists, the excessive examination of their own corporeality and materiality in combination with the exceeding of taboos, topics as violence and sexuality are made visible to public. This pertains also the negotiation processes of sex/gender and queerness. The artists experiment with everyday physical activities as well as with physical pain, danger and borderline situations. 

The iconic photographs of Carolee Schneemann’s performance Interior Scroll (1975) have inscribed themselves into a historical canon as a lesson in feminist art. A naked artist using her vagina as a performative space was a transgressive work which still influences contemporary artists, like the Australian performance artist and activist Casey Jenkins. In Casting Off My Womb (2013) she spent an entire menstrual cycle in a gallery while knitting wool out of her vagina. Along that special temporality the white wool was dyed by her menstrual blood. She stages herself emphatically feminine: Through her body as well as through knitting. By materialising the cycle of menstruation she is demonstrating its repetitive, ritual character. 

The reaction to the performance was a tidal wave of hate comments via social media channels, mostly from men. This reveals the fact that discourses on physical self- determination and especially the public discussion of the female body and menstruation are still strongly taboo in large parts of society. Casey Jenkins processed this echo 2017 in the performance Bad Blood through a very special form of participation. She extracted the most frequently used phrases and words from the hate comments and knitted a word cloud as an installation. The wool she used for the text was also dyed with menstrual blood. With this artistic reflection and confrontation, she directly refers to open violence and patriarchal forms of oppression of women in public and virtual spaces. The political explosiveness of this topic is evident both in the course of the still upright #metoo movement and in the systematic threat to women in social media. Their emphatically feminine presentation of womanhood breaks with patriarchal forms of representation and imaginations as well as with the law of "omerta" on violence against women. 

This gives rise to the following questions: At which eroded moments in the performances can subversive acts be located then and now? What connections do they have with taboo breaks and transgressions? What is the feedback between the artistic work and society? How does Casey Jenkins' gender performance discursively open up hegemonic structures, spaces and gender constructions?

Julia Sprenger

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