In a recent talk with the indomitable Penny Slinger, to mark fifty years since the creation of Bride’s Cake (1973), I asked her about her friendships with feminist artists in the 1970’s who also used their desirability to disarm patriarchal forces. Slinger told me that connectivity amongst artists just was not as readily available in the way it is today, in the digital age. Apparently, it was quite rare to come across another artist with similar political and personal motivations, but Slinger spoke fondly of her collaborations with her friend, Carolee Schneemann. I had been reading about the lives and the works of Slinger, Hannah Wilke, and Birgit Jürgenssen, who are sometimes grouped together in exhibitions or compared thematically in books. In my mind I had forged an imaginary commune of feminist avant-garde production – all my favourites under one roof.
After seeing Body Poetics at GIANT art gallery, Bournemouth, I have come to realise that kinships between feminist artists can either be real or imagined; and if the latter, this does not dampen the visual and political synergies of their work. Tracing shared themes, symbols and motivations is fundamental to writing art history, and this is what the co-curators, Marcelle Joseph and Rebecca Pelly-Fry, have innovatively achieved. Body Poetics pairs nine multimedia artists working at the advent of the feminist theory in the 1970’s and 80’s with a contemporary artist from a younger generation. Like wise mentors, the likes of Slinger, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Senga Negudi have been brought into dialogue with Tai Shani, Rae-Yen Song, and Enam Gbewonyo.
It is important to note that some of the artists included in the exhibition – the artists whose careers came to prominence during the 1970’s and 1980’s – were not always operating in harmony to the feminist campaigners of the same period. In particular, the strategic self-exposure in the work of Slinger and Helen Chadwick was considered treacherous to the wider Women’s Liberation Movement. As the artists entered the realm of erotic representation and manipulated its traditions, some anti-pornography feminists saw nudity in self-portraiture as critically ambiguous, too close to patriarchal exploitation. Fifty years on, the feminist politics of Body Poetics takes its calling from Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter (1993), striving to illuminate the ways in which physical body is moulded by power relations. Unlike the critics who failed to see Slinger’s and Chadwick’s self-portraiture for what it was – that is, brimming with agency as they affirm their bodily awareness – Joseph and Pelly-Fry, as curators, set the body in motion. Their feminist approach is not static, but expansive, as they read the body as fluid and queer – much like the unruly body distorted by xerography.
A sense of intergenerational connectivity prevails, not only between or across the artistic pairs, but also beyond the exhibition space. Through the medium of xerography, Body Poetics has unlocked a chain of ‘feminist intervention[s]’ (in the words of Joseph) in my research. Firstly, in the numerous works by Slinger on display, whereby she has used the machine like an alchemical x-ray. Grouped together, Slinger made the sumptuous Grapevine and Rose Devi (both 1976) by using a large photocopier to capture her naked body in sections and then assembling these together to become a physically impossible body, like a multi-limbed Dakini. Characteristic of her broader practice, and her spiritualism which evolves from the concept of the Divine Feminine, Slinger has also incorporated Tantric mudra hand gestures. Defying the arbitrary beauty convention that breasts should point upwards, Slinger’s flattened body parts on the photocopier’s plate remind me of Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) (1972), a self-portraiture series which monstrously distorts the artist’s facial features. Delightfully, Slinger made Grapevine and Rose Devi at her then workplace after hours, which leads me onto Rosie Gibben’s body of work, Planned Obsolescence (2023). The opening of Body Poetics saw a performance by Gibbens, in which she enacted the role of a ‘bored office worker’ by photocopying her body parts and then haphazardly attaching them to her face using scissors and tape. As she disobeys the unspoken rules of the office environment, the performance piece refers to a tradition in autonomist Marxism, namely the refusal to work, directed against the system of reproduction organised around an exploitive wage system. In its functionality, the photocopier exemplifies the reproduction system, but Gibbens turns this into utter chaos. Beyond the transient performance piece, Gibbens incorporated the photocopier into her humanoid sculptures as if it is an additional body part. Like dysfunctional workers spread across the office space, silliness – not productivity – is the order of the day in this special section of Body Poetics. Notably, Gibbens has been paired with Chadwick, who, while not included in this particular exhibition, photocopied her own body, dead animals and debris in her major installation, Of Mutability (1986).
In xerography, these artists found freedom in the process; without requiring the labour of a photographer, they created confrontational and strangely compelling self-portraits. Commenting on the immediacy of the medium, and the intimacy between artist and machine, Slinger revelled in making these ‘true self-portrait[s]’. Xerographic photocopying was widely introduced to the office space in the 1960’s, unpredictably opening a realm of artistic possibilities to Slinger and Chadwick. Gibbens’ work testifies that the medium of xerography as a means of distorting the physical body is far from obsolete. By looking beyond the exhibition space, to the work of Denise Zygadlo, who was a friend and model of Chadwick’s, it becomes apparent that photocopying bodies continues to compel an extraordinary cohort of feminist artists. While xerography is just one strand of thematic links to be forged between, across and beyond the artist pairs in Body Poetics, I feel that this particular medium, and this curatorial approach, is a hugely intriguing way to dismantle potential intergenerational personal and political disconnect.