Sexual Difference as the Gordian Knot

 

Catalogue text by Sigrun Åsebø for the exhibition Through The Woods - Stavanger Art Museum 2015

 

 

Introduction

Marit Victoria Wulff Andreassen is one of several Norwegian artists who, over the last 20 years, have raised drawing’s status as an independent art form.(1) Mette Hellesnes’ Kebbevenner and Vanessa Baird are part of this wave, as are Hege Nyborg, Tiril Schrøder and Lotte Konow Lund. Historically, drawing has often been seen more as a tool than an art form in its own right, so it has not been encumbered with the same conventionality as painting. There is something apparently unpretentious about drawing. It is also well suited for commenting on subjectivity: it stands as an indexical sign and a mediator of the artist’s own hand and spirit. This appearance of authenticity, of something subjective and intimate, can serve as a means for exploring the self’s position in a fragmented postmodern world, where boundaries are negotiated between pictures and reality and between the self and the other.

 

The works of Baird, Nyborg, Schrøder, Konow Lund and Wulff Andreassen are all read within the context of feminism. They deal with femininity and ideas about the female body and female identity. Baird, Wulff Andreassen and Konow Lund focus more closely on the intimate sphere than do Nyborg’s and Schrøder’s deconstructivist projects. For Wulff Andreassen, sexual difference is not merely something to discuss through abstract metaphors and text. Genitals and sexuality are everywhere in her works: genitals grow organically out of the body and cleave to it like parasites.

 

A new form of intimacy

One thesis about art created in the 1990s is that it intervenes in the intimate sphere. Postmodern art is typically distanced, oriented towards language and preoccupied with deconstructing visual art’s structures and masculine gaze. Artists in the 1990s, however, return to earlier art forms. Their projects explore how culture affects the individual’s social and bodily life. Personal experience becomes relevant and art turns once again towards ‘the real’.(2) One example is Vanessa Baird’s drawings of gigantic baby heads on the verge of drowning their emaciated mothers in slim and snot. The fragmented presentation and trashy style connote first-hand experience. The drawings play with the distance between the joy of motherhood, normally expressed through polished pictures of beautiful mothers adoring their children with a tender gaze, and the powerlessness and chaos mothers experience. Reality jumps out and bites us in the tail.

 

Wulff Andreassen’s drawings do not have the same anti-aesthetic style. The rhetoric is different. The drawings exude technical virtuosity and a strong decorative quality due to their sinuous lines, mandala-like shapes and beautiful presentations of trees, flowers and bodies. The female figures also appear innocent. The drawings are marked by an inner tension between beautiful surfaces and the obscene: explicit sexuality. Genitalia and orifices haunt the pictures. The boundary between the internal and external body is constantly negotiated. Bodies are never shown in their entirety or drawn according to standard conventions. The body and identity appear unfinished and fragmented. We are caught up in a series of illustrations for an obscure story about sexual awakening, one where anxiety, violence, desire and strong ambivalence lie latent in one and the same expression. We are not facing any external ‘reality’, but are struck by undercurrents of human consciousness.

 

Making art with genitalia

Characteristic for Wulff Andreassen’s art is the insistent presence of genitalia, as decorative forms and as meaningful fragments. This is not a new phenomenon; quite the contrary. Artists in the 1970s used the embodied self, sexuality and genitalia as thematic starting points. Judy Chicago, Faith Wilding, Mira Schoor, Miriam Schapiro and others saw their work as related to theories of a distinct female aesthetic, taking recourse in so-called ‘central-core imagery’. Wilding emphasized that while there were a lot of vaginas in art at the time, it was not about the vagina. Central core imagery was a new pictorial language for communicating female power, autonomy and sexuality. It was meant to raise a critical voice and form an alternative image of femininity that challenged pictorial culture’s circulation of images of women as beautiful objects and muses, and as sexually passive. Art history was full of references to good art as potent and virile, as the result of an uncontrollable quest for orgasmic experience, and always driven on towards new, sublimated creations of the mind. Femininity, by contrast, was not seen as productive – it was merely re-productive, caught up in detail, decoration and style, and formed a ‘natural’ counterpart to male creativity.(3) The paint brush was a metaphorical penis. Female genitalia lacked independent meaning because they represented a lack or absence, as Freud put it. Therefore, when women artists portrayed the vagina in the most beautiful porcelain, silk and oil paintings, their aim, among other things, was to confront culture’s underlying assumption that female genitalia was inherently obscene.

 

Wulff Andreassen’s Velsignet rund (remastered) (Blessed Round (remastered), 2014), in which male and female genitalia resemble a mandala, the series Til månen (To the Moon, 2003) and Brosje (Brooch, 2013) all depict a decorative circular form with an opening in the middle, a typical ‘central-core’. If we add Eye of P (2014) to this group of works, the religious connotations intensify; the drawings appear to exalt female genitalia as a symbol of the universe and to promote them as a primordial image in the Jungian sense, thus as the preeminent symbol for subconscious processes. Similarity in expression, however, does not mean similarity in meaning. Many elements differentiate Wulff Andreassen’s works from the 1970’s politicization of the body. When she portrays genitalia she breaks a taboo, but not in order to establish a visual language rooted in a fixed female identity. The effect is rather that ambiguity arises in the gender system when boundaries dissolve between the outside and inside of the body, between masculine and feminine, pure and impure, and pleasure and discomfort. We are confronted with both male and female genitalia, and meaning becomes fluid.

 

Deconstructing representation and sexual difference

During the 1970s, feminist artists focused on women’s real lives, thematically treating menstruation, everyday experiences and women’s status in marriage in their works. We can find the same themes in Wulff Andreassen’s art, for instance in Tante Rød (Aunt Red, 2004), Blivende B (Becoming B, 2004), which shows a bride holding a bouquet of stylized penises, in the somewhat absurd aspects of Kuk-Lysekrone (Cock-Chandelier, 2006) and in Kuk-klädning (Cock-Clothing, 2004). An important aspect in the wedding tradition is the idea of female beauty and chastity vis-à-vis masculine conquest. Cultural femininity is connected to the home, dresses, purses and hair. These have all been central themes in the feminist critique of representation throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

 

A core feature of feministic practice is the critique of representation. It has been common to insist on gender as a social construction. The point is put across through parodies showing the absurdity of the idea that identity stands or collapses on account of gender. Genitals, for example, could be depicted as prosthetics. The most famous example is Lynda Benglis, who in 1974 posed in Artforum with a gigantic penis, as a protest over the magazine’s underrepresentation of women artists. Other prime examples are performances such as Cock and Cunt Play (1972), a dialogue about the absurdity of dishwashing and lower wages as naturally suited for the woman, simply due to her not having male genitals. Anatomy is fixed, but the meanings we attribute to sexual difference are culturally produced. Gender is a social construct. Wulff Andreassen’s drawing The Lie (2005), and perhaps also Lang historie (Tall Story, 2004) could also be seen as statements fitting into this context: the phallus, the masculine authority, loses meaning; it is nothing more than a paper nose with which some people adorn themselves.

 

The critique of representation is often associated with postmodernist feminism. Cindy Sherman, in her series Untitled Film Stills (1977), demonstrated how femininity is a masquerade, a set of external images and roles. Identity does not emanate from the inside and develop through a gradual process extending from childhood to adulthood, where one ends up being ‘oneself’ and fully integrated with one’s own biological sex. We are not born as men or women, we become men or women. What do genitals mean anyway? Why are all other bodily organs and biological processes – things everyone has – subordinated to genitalia? What about noses, skin, hair, nails, navels and everything else? And why do we associate the body and sex with femininity? Along with linking femininity and masculinity with separate qualities, we have elevated sexual difference to being the main difference and given masculinity superior status. Sherman, Barbara Krüger and the Norwegians Nyborg, Schrøder and others do not create ‘female’ counter-images: they expose how femininity in Western culture is situated in the power structure as masculinity’s beautiful and passive other. They expose the underlying structures of meaning and refuse to grant us the usual visual pleasure.

 

When the penis form is turned into décor in Wulff Andreassen’s works, it loses authoritative status as a symbol of an autonomous, active and aspiring creative identity. The penis becomes just as decorative and superficial as femininity. The symbolic power that culture has invested in the phallus, in masculinity, is exposed as a construction when it is juxtaposed with the vagina and emptied of authority. The penis becomes an ordinary bodily organ with equal status to others: we also find the anus, heart and other body parts represented. At the same time, Wulff Andreassen is brasher than the didactic postmodern critique of representation. The penis can be unpleasantly invasive and penetrating, as in Uten tittel (Untitled, 2002), where a penis grows out of the mouth, or as in Smekk (Smack, 2005), where penises crawl up the body of a young girl whose only weapon is a flyswatter. In Første møte (First Meeting, 2005) and Morning Glory (2006), it is unclear whether the penis is a prosthesis or actual body part. Is this a parody? Is the artist trying to show that it is only possible to express active sexuality through references to something masculine, or are these pictures dealing with the pubescent experience of being a foreigner in one’s own body? In some works, penis heads and vaginas infiltrate each other like branches and roots in an independent, erotically-charged Gordian knot. This is not a clear yin melting together with yang. We encounter a confusing, synthetic, snake-like clump of undifferentiated desire. Neither the vaginas nor the penis shapes appear as discrete elements or as a possible foundation for an autonomous, gendered identity and sexuality.

 

The young girl as a figure and structure of meaning

I mentioned introductorily that Wulff Andreassen could be seen as part of a new wave of intimacy. ‘Reality’, the individual, and, not least, the body have returned. Titles such as Hodejobb (Head Job, 2005), Sjølsug (Self Suck, 2003) and Kuk-klädning (Cock-Clothing, 2004), in combination with explicit sexuality and ambivalence, can link her to tendencies we find in artists such as Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin. One and the same visual expression can be the bearer of both desire and gnawing discomfort. But there is more than explicit sexuality linking her to this tendency. Looking more closely at her drawings, the main character is always a young girl. Sometimes she is a child, other times a teenager. This is not the fully mature (ideal) woman that was the intended subject of early feminist rhetoric, neither is it the abstract femininity that postmodernism was trying to deconstruct from its distanced position. A central figure in 1990s feminism is the young girl. Since the 1960s, research on youth culture had mainly focused on young boys, with the rebellious girl as a morally questionable figure.(4) Starting in the ‘90s, the young girl entered centre stage, as a motif, a theme and an ideal. The obstinate ‘devil-may-care’ attitude of Emin and Lucas (also in feminism’s so-called ‘third wave’ in general) has often been personified as a typically politically-incorrect adolescent girl.(5) Artists such as Rineke Dijkstra, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Anna Gaskell and many others have problematized the young girl’s identity by focusing on her social life and self-understanding, but also by studying cultural myths and stories about girls, for instance Alice in Wonderland and Lolita. In Wulff Andreassen’s practice, the young girl is the main figure, both visually and as a structure of meaning.

 

Anne Higonnet has interrogated the presentations of children and youths in the West. She claims that the understanding of childhood as an ideal state of innocence dates back to the 1600s. Before then, children were perceived as miniature adults.(6)

During Romanticism children started to be seen as innocent beings with brains akin to blank slates. A new genre of nostalgic children’s pictures emerged. In these depictions, childlike innocence was considered a quality of the body. Posture, clothing and facial expressions pointed to underlying innocence, and the child’s body was to be sensual yet devoid of sexual undertones. This is of course positive, but there are several paradoxical aspects to the pictorial tradition and its attendant ideas. One key question (among others) presents itself: if children are to be thought of as pure, innocent and without sexuality, why are representations of them so gender specific? Why use clothing, hair, facial expressions, postures and other visual means to underscore that a child should be read explicitly as either a girl or boy?

 

Some of Wulff Andreassen’s pictures seem to elucidate this type of paradox. One example is Lucia (2002), which shows a crown made with penis shapes. To celebrate St. Lucy’s Day is a religious tradition, but in the way it is practiced, it participates in a cultural system that, from childhood onwards, favours a certain nostalgic form of femininity: a young girl who is beautiful, pure and blond. Wulff Andreassen thus touches on a key point made by Higonnet: the pictures we have of childhood and puberty are created in retrospect. They represent an (ideal) adult’s gaze at something long past, and are marked by nostalgia. We insist on the innocence of childhood, simultaneously treating it as the antithetical image of adulthood. Wulff Andreassen’s pictures cause us to feel a certain discomfort because they disturb our nostalgic ideals. Open Call (2006) is the most explicit. It is a distillation of the experience of vomiting, a representation of bodily submission; the body does what it wills with us. At the same time, the bodily reflex is a means of expelling, of getting rid of something intolerable. The picture is disturbing – what is vomited?

 

The adult gaze can also be detected in the iconic picture of young female sexuality: Edvard Munch’s Pubertet (Puberty, 1894-95). We traditionally interpret this picture as depicting vulnerability and sexual awakening. The girl’s hands demonstratively cover her pubic area, her hair flows downwards but still frames her face and breasts. In the background a dark shadow looms, the unpleasantness associated with sexuality. But for whom is this dawning sexuality a problem? The picture is about the girl’s experience of her own sexuality as situated in a cultural system that links the female body per se with shame. The loose hair suggests something in-between the pure, respectable woman with her hair in a bun, and the dangerous femme fatale we know from Munch’s paintings of Salome (1903) Sjalusi (Jealousy, 1895) and other images. Both possibilities are open, and the girl must struggle between them. The existential pain of puberty clearly emerges as the problematic aspect of female sexuality, which is situated in a masculine system that disallows female desire. The girl remains at an inchoate stage, rendered as an object for the masculine gaze, a role she still cannot fulfil.

 

In Wulff Andreassen’s works, shame is reflected in bright red cheeks, for example in Tante rød (Aunt Red, 2004). The girl here is at an intermediate stage, but in contrast to Munch’s pubescent girl, she is not subdued by shame. She does not endorse the shameful aspect of her own genitals by insisting on covering them. One central feature of Western pictorial culture is to treat female genitals as a form of absence. Venus figures hold their hands lightly over their pubic area, drawing attention to it at the same time as hiding it. In cases where the woman’s genitals are visible, hair and traces of the labia are removed. The body’s surface is dry and clean, and make-up is applied to ensure there are no tell-tale signs of bodily processes or abject material. Orifices are taboo in every respect.(7) In Wulff Andreassen’s works we find them everywhere.

 

The vaginal form in Wulff Andreassen’s works appears less intrusive than does the penis. It pops up in unexpected places, for instance as a pocket or breast replacement. As an orifice, it seems to participate in problematizing the boundaries between the beautiful and the obscene, the female body and nature, and between the idea of the beautiful female body as a passive object for desire and the shame and/or transgressiveness associated with female sexuality. Some of this problematization occurs when the young girl’s body becomes one with nature or grows out of nature, as in Through the Woods (2007), Vekst (Growth, 2007) and Deflowering (2006). Here Wulff Andreassen addresses old tropes in Western culture: the tendency to view femininity as closer to nature, using metaphors and images such as flowers, butterflies and the like to allude to female desire, and to think metaphorically of female sexuality as a dark forest. Western culture sees female genitalia as an external form that hides an inner branching of nerves. Feminine sexuality is apparently hidden; it is like a dark, undiscovered continent, to paraphrase Freud. The dark shadow looming behind the girl in Munch’s Puberty partly represents such an understanding.

 

In Wulff Andreassen’s works, we find many of the typical metaphors and symbols repeated. But they lose their power as metaphors precisely because they are so factual. It is not as if the body is a network of branches, which is what the metaphor indicates. Here the body becomes a tree; it is body-and-tree in one and the same figure, and we who look at the image remain at the intermediate stage. We are held in suspense, in a state of becoming, without knowing what we/the girl will become. The bodies of Wulff Andreassen’s girls are never seen in full, as objects for an external gaze. They experience themselves alternatingly from the inside and outside, as fragments and as complete in themselves. The body is sometimes a foreigner unto itself, as when alien growths appear; at other times it is a wanton site for desire. Wulff Andreassen gives us a representation of the girl-body’s genesis as experience. We cannot be sure this is a preliminary stage for fixed and secure femininity – we remain at the intermediate stage.

 

In the past, the figure of the young girl has largely remained in a silent position. But if we are to believe Catherine Grant and Lori Waxman, the young girl represents more than a period in an individual’s psychological development. The intermediate position between apparently innocent childhood and fully mature womanhood can also represent a site of resistance in culture’s network of meaning. Characteristic for Western culture is precisely this tendency to sort things in dichotomies: masculine/feminine, culture/nature, spirit/body, presence/absence, and so forth. For something to have meaning, it must fall into one of the opposing categories. In this structure, the young girl represents a place of becoming. By giving independent meaning to the position of the girl, Wulff Andreassen’s images destabilize the traditional gender system and ideas about femininity, sexuality and identity in general.(8)

 

Wulff Andreassen achieves several things: she exposes and dismantles the hierarchy between the active masculine position and the passive feminine position. Both the male and the female genitalia are polysemous. In addition, she explores images and ideas about the young girl’s sexual awakening, feminine sexuality, the body and identity specific to our culture. By drawing embodiment and sexuality as they might be experienced by the young girl, Wulff Andreassen gives meaning to what in our structure can only be understood as preliminary, as a place of not-yet. Since the images disallow the dichotomies masculine/feminine, adult/child and whole/fragment in the traditional sense, they also keep us as viewers in a state of becoming.(9)

The artistic expression is similar to that of earlier feminist art, the effect is another.

 

 

____________

 

1) Øystein Ustvedt, Ny norsk kunst etter 1990 [New Norwegian Art after 1990] (Bergen: Fagbokforlaget, 2011).

2) Gunnar Danbolt, Frå modernisme til det kontemporære. Tendensar i norsk samtidskunst etter 1990 [From Modernism to the Contemporary. Tendencies in Norwegian Contemporary Art after 1990] (Oslo: Samlaget, 2014). Danbolt refers to Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT, 1999). Foster’s concept of ‘the real’, which draws on a psychoanalytical understanding of reality, can be used as a starting point for discussing Wulff Andreassen’s artistic practice.

3) See, e.g., Amelia Jones, ‘Dis/Playing the Phallus: Male Artists Perform their Masculinities’, Art History, Vol. 17, no. 4 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), pp. 546-84; and Amelia Jones, Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).

4) Catherine Grant and Lori Flaxman (eds), Girls! Girls! Girls! In Contemporary Art (London: Intellect Books, 2011), p. 2. For a discussion about the young girl as a figure in Western culture in general, see Catherine Driscoll, Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). “

5) Sigrun Åsebø, ‘ “Bad Girls”, postfeminisme og humørløs kvinnesak i 1990-tallets kunst’ [Bad Girls: Postfeminism and Humourless Feminism in the Art of the 1990s], in Humaniora i nasjonen, nasjonen i humaniora. Det Historisk-Filosofiske Fakultets bidrag til hundreårsmarkeringen Norge 1905-2005 [The Humanities in the Nation, the Nation in the Humanitites] (Bergen: University of Bergen, 2007), pp. 75-81.

6) Childlike innocence as a concept was unthinkable in earlier Christian culture, since ‘original sin’ and the belief that a child was born ‘in sin’ were both strong. Anne Higonnet, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), p. 8.

7) Lynda Nead, The Female Nude, Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

8) Grant and Laxman, op.cit.

9) My understanding of the position of the young girl and the concept of becoming is rooted in Catherine Driscoll’s reworking of Deleuze, in Driscoll, op. cit. Girls. […].

 

__________________________

Cunt Cunt Cunt

 

Exhibition review, Looking For My Mother's Tongue The Drawing Society 2005

Tommy Olsson, Morgenbladet 18.11.05

 

 

 

Is it my body?

Or someone I might be?

Or something inside me?

                           - Alice Cooper, " Is It My Body"

                                  (Love It To Death 1971)

 

The title of Marit Victoria Wulff Andreassen's exhibition, Looking For My Mother's Tongue, might seem somewhat confusing, which is exactly what it is. In fact, I don't understand it, apart from the obvious pun. I really can't say where the mother's tongue is to be found here, or of what relevance it could possibly be. At the same time, this uncertainty emphasises the equally uncomfortable psyko-sexual element which even before the exhibition, I knew would dominate. It forces me to do a bit of self-examination; am I really interested in knowing where mother's tongue is? When it is obvious that it seems to be in a body other than her own: implied is the body of her offspring, always disturbingly close to an orifice where it might suddenly poke out without warning.

 

Wulff Andreassen has established a distinctive imagery that is really without equal. The appropriation of technical devices commonly found in children's books and comics is hardly uniqe in it self; contemporary art has long been flooded by variations on the theme. Usually however, it is used exclusively as an ironic platform for more or less explicit political statements. Where this work stands out from it's peers is the way it digs relentlessly deeper into the organic - with no concern for what might conceivably raise it's head along the way. Basically, it has decidedly more to do with meat than ideology. And the contrast between form and content is in itself so garishly perverse that it leaves one reeling; slightly dizzy, one notices all kinds of new sexual organs appearing all over the place. One feels both turned on and alarmed when confronted with the endless variety on offer. It is almost like reaching puberty, only worse. From this angle, it is inevitable that the words of Alice Cooper quoted above should bubble up to mind from another period; from a time when body and soul were transformed from a sweet-smelling, paradisical innocence to something impure and unspeakable.

 

But in the years I have followed Wulff Andreassen's art, I have found only one natural point of reference: Hans Bellmer. The same fine, precise line, the same desperate surrealism bordering on total psychosis, but above all the same flexibility with regards to where on the body one might place a sexual organ, or some other screwable opening. But the difference is also obvious; whereas Hans Bellmer was a pessimistic paedophile, marked by a life of bad luck, Wulff Andreassen is optimistically explorative with regards to the possibilities of an amorphous sexuality. She also has an eminent sense of humour - but without wanting to be too harsh, laughter easily becomes nervous and uncertain against such a dark sounding board, nor is she primarily out to make a comical point.

 

The little girl with the averted face and the obvious bulge under her dress is a good example. The picture inevitably prompts an initial snigger before all it's inherent implications drag the spectator down into a psychological realm one can easily suspect most people of leaving unexplored. And the wrinkled anus with a claw sticking out of it is so alarming in relation to one's own body that there isn't even time for a smile before the trapdoor of the mind opens over the abyss. What is really going on down there?

 

Freestyle sex fantasies, mainly. So intensely insistent they cannot be explained away. Utterly alien and at the same time strangely familiar; remnants from a time before one took anatomy for granted , and a foreboding of an uncertain future of conceivably genetic design.

 

It might seem as if Marit Victoria Wulff Andreassen pulls collective distortions from the dingi recesses of the right side of the brain out into the paralysing light of sincerity, where they are rendered corporeal with careful colour-pencil lines. In this exhibition there is even the odd entrail attached, as if it got dragged along in the rush. And off course the cunt, always the cunt, but hardly ever where we are used to finding it. This time it`s located on the heart itself, where it floats on a white sheet of paper with severed arteries. I hardly need to point out the myriad interpretations that are possible here, but for starters I could note the degree to which internal organs crop up in her work.

 

And I suppose it is in the cards; all body orifices are obvious focal points for energy and communication - one can stick things in them. Equally obvious is that things can come out of them. Interactivity is not inevitable, perhaps, but it is interesting. And somewhere down there in the dark is the active muscle of the mothers tongue, which will never stop licking where it feels best.

 

2016 © Marit Victoria Wulff Andreassen