Artists at Thresholds and A Call for Action – Revisiting the Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s

 

©Lila Moore @ The Photographers’ Gallery, London

 

There is a photograph by Francesca Woodman, showing a woman hanging from a door frame with her fingertips. Walking up the stairs of the Photographers’ Gallery in London, I noticed the photograph situated so appropriately on one’s way up or down. I hastily took a snapshot of the image, which was distorted by reflected light. Coming out of one room, I was on my way to the next floor, whilst engrossed in the direct, visceral impact of the exhibition:Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s. The enigmatic presence of the hanging woman in the photograph between the rooms that display the legacy of feminist artists, seem to highlight the issues and especially the cultural void that continues to engulf the many unanswered questions that the exhibition relates.

According to Loose Associations, the Photographers’ Gallery’s publication: ‘93% of UK women do not wish to be identified as feminists.’ This is despite the fact that women still earn less than men, horrifying violence against women and children is widespread globally, extreme forms of porn culture thrive on the web, and popular culture reinforces double standards with regards to gender stereotypes. The exhibition’s introductory text makes clear that: ‘Despite all the advances […] it is one of those strange ironies for the feminist cause that the more progress made, the more determined the backlash’.

The exhibition is not just a survey of a phase in history or a passive display of objects from a previous era but calls the visitors to contemplate further thought and action. It is dedicated both to the artists who innovated the concepts and aesthetics of feminist art and to 21st century women everywhere.

On a floor above the 1970s’ radical art, an intervention by Club de Femmes, a London-based queer feminist collective, invites the visitors to sit in front of a 20th century typewriter and help write a script by answering the following questions:

‘How are women imagined by other women at the beginning of the second century of cinema? What does a modern heroine look like? What does she do? How are we encouraging audiences to engage with her?’

How does one start writing that script on an old typewriter? There are so many possible scripts and imagery for women in the 21st century, the age of the Internet and the digital cut and paste, despite the many seatbacks and adversaries. But which imagery or language will evolve for a 21st century woman?

At the start of a new century, as women, we may feel that we are standing next to a threshold, but before stepping forward toward a new era, we rather ponder some questions, such as what can we learn from the feminist artists, activist and theorists of the 1970s? How can we midwife the rise of 21st century heroines, ourselves included, based on their experiences and achievements?

Education, in the profound sense of the term, is the transfer of transformative knowledge amongst people and in between generations. As an educator, I have realized that my students rediscover and comprehend feminism as they engage with aesthetic and theoretical processes in film and the arts. Feminism starts making sense, even to those who reject the term often for insubstantial reasons or illiteracy, when discussed in relation to topics that concern most of us in contemporary Western culture.  Moreover, these topics relating to feminism become appealing when discussed with relation to artworks and films.

As part of the exhibition, Club de Femmes re-staged Circles, a video distribution organization which was formed in 1979 to distribute women artists’ film and video. It was set up by feminist filmmakers Annabel Nicholson, Felicity Sparrow and Lis Rhodes among others.

By presenting women’s work together we hope to be able to show its richness and diversity and the threads which run through and link it together. We hope also to encourage discussion and support for other women to make and show their own work, whether the subject matter be personal or political, figurative or formal and create our own ‘definitions’ and ‘contexts’ as women artists. Circles Catalogue 1979.

‘The group were concerned not only with the promotion of contemporary filmmakers but also the rehabilitation of pioneering women filmmakers such as Alice Guy and Maya Deren, who had often been overlooked in favour of their male contemporaries’. (For more info on Circles, see Luxonline, here.)

A decade later after its formation, I researched women’s feminist performance art and films at Circles, which was situated at Four Corners in Bethnal Green, and started my life-long exploration of Maya Deren’s films and writings. Coming from a culture in which feminist performance  was ridiculed, I am still indebted to my tutors who made sure to screen Circles’ films utilising a 16mm film projector.

Sitting in front of the old-fashioned typewriter, still haunted by the photograph of the hanging woman above the staircase, gazing at the reels of white paper on the table and the floor, I felt a sudden writer’s block.  And then within the dark void of my mind I saw her surfacing.  It was Maya Deren standing at the threshold between two rooms. The image is from the first scene of her film Ritual in Transfigured Time from 1946 in which she is both the initiator and the initiated in a woman’s rite of passage.

The threshold is an ancient site of many goddesses. It represents a liminal space and time, which is neither past, present nor future but a state in between, a place of tremendous potential for becoming.  The exhibition highlighted this placeless place and state for me, but I suggest that it reflects a collective cultural atmosphere that many of us share but do not know exactly how to pinpoint it. It is the not knowing what and who to become now, whilst asking: Who is the new heroine? What does she look like? What does she do? How old is she? Is she ageless, virtual, cyborg, organic, something else? Who do I or you want to create or become?

 

Additional note:

The forthcoming course on Maya Deren and the Goddess, which will be shared exclusively with the Mago community in the near future, will allow the participants not only to reflect on theoretical ideas, but take a creative, ritualistic and empowering journey of discovery. This is a journey in the footsteps of a pioneer of women’s cinema, innovator of dance and ritual forms in film, and a priestess of the Goddess.

For more info on the exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s Works from the Verbund Collection, 7 Oct – 29 Jan 2017, klick, here

©Lila Moore

 

Gongyla
Member

Suzanne Santoro, who is a member of Mago Circle, has a work in this show. I saw it when I was in London last October. I had a mixed reaction. I really liked some work, others didn’t spark much interest for me.

In Australia in the 1970s there was a very similar movement. Much of the 1970s work is considerable more radical than work I see now. The politics has too often been stripped out – or appropriated out.

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