OCA Study Day – FEMINIST AVANT-GARDE OF THE 1970’s – Photographers’ Gallery January 2017

I really don’t quite know how to write this study day up! As per usual a large crowd met, mixed genders which was great given the topic, we mingled, chatted, looked, had some opinions, scratched our heads, felt a bit overwhelmed by it all and eventually went home…

And no wonder I couldn’t really take it all in…Feminist Avant–Garde of the 1970s,  was comprised of over 200 major works from forty-eight international female artists. All are on loan from the Verbund Collection in Vienna, which specialises in avant-garde and conceptual art.  It was such a large exhibition that it took up over two floors in the Gallery with themes that tackled the representation of the female form, ownership, domesticity and sexuality, violence and female identity. The exhibition was divided into four sections under the headings The Seductive Body, Domestic Agenda, In My Skin and Alter Ego with a distinctly different feel to each floor; one more ‘fun’ the other more edgy and dangerous.

Focusing on photography, collage, performance, film and video work produced throughout the 1970’s, the exhibition reflects a moment when protests related to emancipation, gender equality and civil rights became part of public discourse.

…questioning feminine identities, gender roles and sexual politics through new modes of expression.

The exhibition was supported by an excellent free booklet which had a page on every artist, a photograph of some of their work and plenty of space for notes.


Title : Installation Image of Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s Works from the Verbund collection on display at The Photographers Gallery at 16-18 (7 October 2016 – 29 January 2017)  Copyright Hydar Dewachi and The Photographers’ Gallery. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery, London



What do you think about when asked about feminism? Usually it’s the stereotypical ideas about burning the bra, unshaven armpits and dungaree sporting man-haters. However, contrary to popular belief that isn’t true. Especially when you look back to the time in the 70’s, when the ideas were new and radical, and this group of female artists decided to create ‘their own visual documentation of what it meant to be a woman, and a feminist.’

On wandering round the exhibition some of the ideas were bizarre and some were definitely more extreme than others, as they attempted to:

overhaul the prevailing iconography of women as passive or as muses to men — often by powerfully, and sometimes quite disturbingly, utilizing their own bodies to highlight sexism. In doing so, they created an assertive, appropriately complex alternative female identity.

The list of artists/photographers is quite extensive:  Helena Almeida, Eleanor Antin, Anneke Barger, Lynda Benglis, Judith Bernstein, Renate Bertlmann, Teresa Burga, Marcella Campagnano, Judy Chicago, Linda Christanell, Lili Dujourie, Mary Beth Edelson, Renate Eisenegger, Valie Export, Esther Ferrer, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Alexis Hunter, Sanja Ivekovic, Birgit Jurgenssen, Kirsten Justesen, Ketty La Rocca, Katalin Ladik, Brigitte Lang, Suzanne Lacy & Leslie Labowitz, Suzy Lake, Karin Mack, Ana Mendieta, Rita Myers, Lorraine O’Grady, Orlan, Gina Pane, Leticia Parente, Ewa Partum, Friederike Pezold, Margot Pilz, Ulrike Rosenbach, Martha Rosler, Suzanne Santoro, Carolee Schneemann, Lydia Schouten, Cindy Sherman, Penny Slinger, Annegret Soltau, Hannah Wilke, Martha Wilson, Francesca Woodman and Nil Yalter….and breathe!

Most of the photographers I hadn’t heard of, so there was a lot to absorb. Not only the artists to think about, but how they approached their work, why, and what was happening in society in general to spark these ground breaking practices.

Even though many of the arguments are still valid, and the imagery at the time was very shocking now many, but not all, seemed very dated. There was a lot of nudity, which I have no issue with and grasp that most of the women were revealing themselves to express their right to do what they wanted with their bodies rather than being on show just for male titillation. However, did VALIE EXPORT think that the man having a good grope in her ‘box’ gave a damn about the message she was sending or just gained pleasure from feeling her soft mounds of flesh? Got to love a bit of Mills and Boon which obviously did so much for feminism …cough. Is a breast seductively revealed by a woman making a point, no more or less a breast seductively revealed, due to the person who decided they wanted it that way? With multimedia abounding, sex still selling everything, naked flesh nearly everywhere you look what is the value of Hannah Wilke’s performance piece Super-T-Art now? Maybe a topic for an essay? I think its been done before…

Co-curator Gabriele Schor apparently coined the term Feminist Avant-Garde, to underline the pioneering achievements of artists such as , Cindy Sherman, VALIE EXPORT (apparently named after a brand of cigarettes, the Austrian artist’s – formerly Waltraud Hollinger –  adopted name, is capitalised) Francesca Woodman and Martha Rosler. The exhibition also ‘provides a rare opportunity to discover the influential work of artists including Katalin Ladik, Nil Yalter, Birgit Jürgenssen and Sanja Iveković.’

It’s going to be impossible to write up each artist in detail,  would make for a HUGE post and at the end of it I would still be just as confused as to who was who, and who did what, as I was after seeing this exhibition. Twice! 

I was a young child in the 1970’s but can vaguely remember the protests over equality, civil rights and social upheaval. Although nothing to do with this exhibition the three day week, joining the Common Market, Greenham Common, and the rise of Margaret Thatcher towards the end of the decade had a huge influence on my life and impinge on my memories.

In order for me to make sense of what I had seen I researched some of the artists and read many reviews. One such review, by Sophie Risner from This is Tomorrow, a contemporary art magazine, made me stop and think about the overall progress being made in the patriarchal art world:

Subscribing the work as a feminist-only avant-garde underscores a glitch which defines the political agency of these artists as something of ‘female’ value as opposed to something inherent within a wider social critique. It also manages to bookend the transformation of that society by ‘representing’ works made only within the 1970s – systematically adhering to the rhetoric that feminism comes in waves as opposed to being an ongoing battle worth fighting. Encountering the work through prisms of representational brackets highlights the ongoing current debate around defining female practice as feminist as opposed to something being created as a critique of the current socio-political system to which we all are accountable.

Most picked out more famous works by Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, which at the time had a huge impact:

…Rosler’s grainy, 1976 video, tap into female rage, though Semiotics does undercut its righteous anger with subtle humour: it’s clearly a parody of the kind of cookery show that was popular across US TV networks, and the big shrug the artist gives at the end is deployed to further deflect that anger.

Yet, when it was first shown, there were many who felt deeply discomforted, even threatened. “Some men really found this work frightening when it came out and that surprised me at the time, since it seemed so obviously a kind of burlesque,” Rosler recalls.

Others mention their top five, and most cite the following:

Hannah Wilke:

1. Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, One of 36 playing cards from mastication box, 1975
Wilke’s powerful yet playful series of 50 starification self-portraits takes its name from a mixture of the glamorous world of celebrity and the less glittering processes of damage and scars. The poses see the artist satirically ape glamour models, yet her skin is blemished by globules of discarded gum – a hint of dirtiness, and hinting at ritual scarring practices. The ludicrous and surreal nature of her props, here a strange fancy-dress combo of cowboy hat and shades, highlight the ridiculousness of the female body as a celebrity object; the marks show the scarring it could cause. The photograph series formed part of her performances, in which she would stick chewed gum onto visitors, then take her top off, then fetch the gum back and mould it into tiny little vagina shapes. What’s not to love?


Cindy Sherman:

2. Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Lucy), 1975/2001
We’d be remiss to exclude art world queen of dress-up and self-portraiture Cindy Sherman from this list, so here she is taking on the role of Lucille Ball, the star of television show I Love Lucy. This is significant as Sherman’s first ever film still, and forms part of the series Cindy Sherman Lucille Ball. The play acting that went on to forms the basis of the artist’s career was a true case of life imitating (or more accurately, becoming) art: at university she often spent time dressed as different characters, describing it as a “therapeutic thing” in an interview with The New York Times.



3. Valie Export, Tapp und Tastkino, 1968
Tapp und Tastkino translates as “Tap and Touch Cinema,” and takes the ideas of expanded cinema – a movement beginning in the 1960s that made cinema into an interactive, participatory event – into a defiantly feminist sphere. VALIE EXPORT (yes, it’s always all caps) officially became the name of the former Waltraud Hollinger when she turned 28. The shouty styling of the moniker looked to become a loud, proud gesture to cut through the male-dominated performance art coterie of the Vienna Actionists at the time. By taking control of her own name, she avoided the subservient and phallocentric connotations of keeping her father’s surname or taking her husband’s. Instead she chose EXPORT as a provocative nod to a popular 60s cigarette brand. Tapp und Tastkino formed part of the artist’s wider actions against modern consumerism and technologies, using her body as cinema footage and forcing the public to engage with her as a fleshy live entity, rather than a disconnected female form on a screen.

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Another one of her infamous performance pieces was Genital Panic, (1968), in which she walked around a Munich arthouse cinema where experimental film-makers were showing their work,  sporting crotchless trousers and a tight leather jacket, her exposed genitalia at face level.

More information about this piece and subsequent posters can be found on the Tate website….see I told you there was much to learn and discover beyond a single photograph on the wall!

Mary Beth Edelson:

4. Mary Beth Edelson, Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper, 1972
Edelson’s collage is seen as one of the most important works in feminist art, using Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper as a platform to highlight how culture and religion has consistently written women out of their narratives. The artist collaged the heads of women including American artists Nancy Graves and Georgia O’Keeffe over John the Baptist and Jesus Christ respectively. Since the 1970s, the poster and the others in the Death of the Patriarchy series have been exhibited at the Tate in London and at MoMA in New York.


Lynn Hershman Leeson:

5. Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Construction Chart #1, 1975
Like Sherman, Lynn Hershman Leeson often used herself as a canvas on which to explore identity and ideas of female roles in society. In her Roberta Breitmore series, which she worked on between 1974 and 1979, the artist took on a new role as a stereotypical, all-American “ideal” woman. Far from simply donning “Roberta’s” wig and makeup, Hershman Leeson went as far as creating her entire existence – verified with credit cards, a driving license, and even psychiatrist letters. The work feels powerfully resonant today, in a world where identities are never simply inherent, but constructed digitally, and these examinations of reality and authenticity of the self are needed more than ever.


These artists all use different strategies to send their messages, which with some I have to admit I struggled to grasp during this quick fire glimpse of multitudinous pieces of work. What I found most fascinating was that that artists working independently of each other shared very similar approaches for example Birgit Jürgenssen, Katalin Ladik and Ana Mendieta, each of whom are included in the exhibition with self portraits. In each instance the artist presses their face against a piece of glass in front of the camera although the complete body of work by Mendieta apparently includes images of her pressing parts of her body against the glass too.

Briefly, the bodies of work that caught my eye, for various reasons were:
Study of Two Spaces by Helena Almeida,


The Invention of Feminity: Roles by Marcella Campagnano,


High-rise No1 by Renate Eisenegger,


Originally a performance piece Renate spent hours ironing the floor…

Sculpture #2 by Kirsten Justesen,


Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) by Ana Mendieta,

I have some very sparely jotted notes that read along the lines of : the glass signifies trying to break free, a nod to the glass ceiling women have to break through, glass is transparent…transparent realities? Its fragile, it can be a mirror, it objectifies, and distorts, there is a moment of vulnerability, a moment of tension…two gazes, one very direct, a challenge? Independent streak? Two way gaze, I am looking at you, you are looking at me…make of them what you will, I think I have lost the desire to translate notes!

Destruction of an Illusion by Karin Mack,


Strip-tease occasionnel avec les draps du trousseau by Orlan,


French artist Orlan’s “Strip-tease occasionnel avec les draps du trousseau” (1974-1975) is a playful exploration of the female condition. Initially photographed as a Baroque Madonna with one exposed breast, suckling a swaddled bundle, her garments are gradually removed until, ecstatically stripped bare, Orlan finally appropriates the erotic pose in Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”. She divests the Virgin Mother of her layers of drapery in order to challenge cultural constructions of women as either virgin or whore, and by doing so, liberates her own sexual identity.

The Hot Milk, by Gina Pane,


This series of images really sparked a discussion point over the sanity of the artist! Self-harm has such dreadful connotations these days, I can’t believe she deliberately cut herself with a razor and in other performance pieces climbed a ladder with blades embedded in each run to signify the pain she feels living with oppression….no, just no!

Sexobject by Lydia Schouten.


Sexobject performance, 1979 metal frame with rubber bands and leather corset
Whipping to balloons, filled with black ink Timespan: 30 min….about sums it up, a woman whipping balloons…

I am going to lie down in a darkened room…

What did I take away from this exhibition?

  • a headache….
  • the huge variety of ways to make the same message
  • some artists are just plain WEIRD!
  • Some artists use humour to deflect/engage so that the audience can relate to their work
  • Viewing the work is an active education, you have to study it and understand it to get it (some I don’t think I want to get!)
  • a long lists of artists should I need to reference any in the future








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