Please Touch: Body Boundaries
Jersey City, NJMana Contemporary
April 29 – August 1, 2018
A documentation of Yoko Ono performing her seminal 1964 Cut Piece lies at the center of Please Touch, Mana Contemporary’s expansive two-part exhibition on femininity, bodies, and consent. In the piece, Ono puts her body on the line, sitting solemnly on a stage, and inviting the viewers to participate in the performance by cutting off pieces of her clothing. As one observes the video, the tension grows: With each cut, the potential for violence grows. The audience members approach her with sharp scissors. With each piece of clothing taken, less and less stands between them and the artist’s skin.
Please Touch finds its roots in such iconic feminist works of the 1960s, but asks how a younger generation of artists, working in a more intersectional and queer context, conceives of the place of the female body in the art world. Curators Ysabel Pinyol, Mana’s Curatorial Director, and Dana Ben-Ari bring together over fifty artists of different ages, nationalities, identities, and politics. The exhibition consists of pieces that range in tone from playful, to sentimental, taunting, visceral, and provocative. The first part of the show—located on the first floor—takes a broad look at the body as a site for feminist thought over the last five decades. The second, located on the fifth floor, examines motherhood and breastfeeding—a subject that is also the focus of Ben-Ari’s documentary Breastmilk (2014).
Surrounding Ono’s video are a wide range of artworks that each discuss agency and the female body. A highlight is Z Behl’s Rope Bodysuit (2012), hanging from the ceiling on the opposite end of the room. It is a seductive sculpture made of found rope that mimics a female form in bondage. The piece flirts with the language of BDSM. Behind it is Pinar Yolaçan’s Untitled from Mother Goddess (2009), a colorful C-print of a voluptuous woman in a full black leather suit. Both pieces bring up an old theme—namely, the consistent objectification of the female body throughout the history of art—but here, the bodies have authority under the gaze of the female artists: their objectification is self-conscious and consensual. The historic power relations of submission and domination are blurred and removed.
On the other end of the room are works that take the female body as a meeting point of politics, oppression, and history. In her powerful photograph Isabelle, Lefferts House (2016), Nona Faustine uses herself as a subject. Her bare-chested body stands boldly in front of the building, the former home of the powerful slave-owning Leffert family, which remains a landmark in the heart of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Faustine’s powerful presence in front of the camera is a demand to face what hides in plain sight, the traumatic history of this country and its ongoing effects. Olek’s monumental and playful collage I Make Art Not Babies (year?), consisting of three crocheted panels, is covered by piles of flowers, eyes, hearts, butterflies, lips, and phalluses. At the center of each is a pregnant woman, whose umbilical cord, which connects her back to the swirling mass, is made to deliberately resemble the stitched phalluses—Olek’s way of teasing with symbolisms of power.
The fifth floor begins with a room dedicated to depictions of the breast, and its use as an emblem of motherhood and femininity. Renee Cox’s iconic photograph Yo Mamadonna and Child (1994) celebrates Cox and her nude young child as royal figures on a throne. This seemingly traditional depiction was in fact Cox’s protest of the hypocrisy of the art world of the time, which claimed to support female artists but refused their maternity. On the other end of the room, we see Catherine Opie’s photograph, Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), in which the artist captures a sensual moment between herself and her child. In contrast to Cox’s body, Opie’s figure—butch, aged, and covered with tattoos—refuses the social clichés of femininity, passivity, and motherhood. The breast gains psychological meaning in Louise Bourgeois’s Self Portrait (2007), a small work on paper depicts a childlike figure grabbing onto two giant red breasts to stop its fall to the vague red void below. And in Kiki Smith’s largescale print and audio piece Saint Genevieve (1999), the female body is a site of mythological meaning. A wolf stands on its paws to join in an embrace with a nude Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, expressing the relationship between humankind and animals.
As the exhibition continues, it moves beyond strict depictions of anatomy, and gradually focuses on the social violence that surrounds the femme body. Kristianne Molina’s pieces are handsewn words on fabric pieces the size of pillowcases. In Kara Walker, Part 2 (2017), she writes out a quote from Walker on sexual violence and exploitation, and in her delicate handicraft, gives the words urgency and care. In the next room, the breast is no longer motherly but a body part that symbolizes violence against women. Zhen Guo’s Punching Bag (2014 – 15), an installation of dozens of punching bags decorated with a delicate red fabric and floral patterns covered with breast-like forms, fill the small space. The seductive and provocative piece seems to be awaiting our touch, and potentially even our punch; it expects to be violated and stands in speculation.
In the last room of the exhibition one finds works that go further, and reinterpret the breast in isolation from cis female identity. Clarity Haynes’s painting series of torsos, Breast Portrait Project (1998 – ), celebrate the character and beauty of the chest without any interest in normatively defining them. Each painting is titled after its sitter, who are all from different gender orientations, ethnicities, and races, and each a member of Haynes’s community. On the other end of the room is the queer icon Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s Spike and thee Milk of Human Kindness (2003), a humble photograph of their beloved pet breastfeeding from P-Orridge’s partner. Here, breastfeeding becomes merely an act of care and generosity that is far beyond the definitions that bound gender, sexuality, and humanity.
Please Touch’s desire to confront the body, and the complex set of feelings that surrounds it, seems grown out of the hopes and fears of the past year, marked by #MeToo—which began as a demand for political recognition and unity, but has slowly resulted in the unearthing of centuries of trauma, fear, frustration, exhaustion, and political paralysis. The exhibition is a timely response to that movement. At its best, it represents a necessary attempt to face the history and achievements of the feminist movement while allowing space to reckon with its shortcoming regarding intersectionality. But the plentitude of voices and themes in Please Touch leave no space for the much-needed context of the exhibited works. Can an exhibition truly cover a subject as vast as the female body with any depth by simply creating a roster of artists that lists all the possible voices and perspectives—an approach that seems increasingly commonplace for political group exhibitions? How can the viewer draw meaning from individual works if their specific historic and political concerns are unaddressed? One is left with a paralyzing dizziness.
And while many interesting conversations are brought about by the second half of the exhibition, it is insufficient to include a few queer and trans bodies to challenge the core cis concept that ties femininity to motherhood and female anatomy. While the subject has the potential to host many of the urgent concerns of feminist thought today—from social expectations, to performativity of gender, and class structures—using such hegemonic definitions first and foremost regenerates the marginalizing structures of power.
Raising these questions is not to disregard Pinyol’s curatorial effort. It is perhaps an opportunity to be self-critical since these concerns are widespread far beyond Please Touch. They are echoes of the complex relationship of art and politics in general in the era of Neoliberalism, pluralism, and biopolitics. What remains true is that Please Touch still fosters an ephemeral conversation between artworks from the 1960s to today that engage the subject of female identity with critically and care.