White Cube (Bermondsey)
UNTIL 17 SEPTEMBER
“I think the idea of grouping people together is really shit. I think its really shit” proclaimed Maggie Hambling in the BBCs recent documentary Queer as Art ” I don’t think people should be put into the ‘women art lot’ or the ‘queer art lot’, the ‘straight art lot'” (incidentally, this documentary is worth a watch)
She raises a point that I’ve long had issue with- grouping (perceived) minorities to make your point is lazy and exacerbates their ‘other-ness’ . That being said, positive discrimination has its merits, and allows a strong message to be made if done well, and White Cube has certainly done it well with Dreamers Awake – a group show of 50+ women surrealist (or surrealist inspired) artists from the 1930s to present day (both the classics, and some new names) that reconfigure art history from another perspective that was there all along. Dreamers Awake takes as its starting point the notion that the female figure in Surrealism is “an object of masculine desire or fantasy” despite the movement claiming to be new-age and liberating.
Naturally, the aim of the game is to show up all those men who lay on Freud’s couch as he theorized on their neuroses, Freud himself, and all his cronies, who sat amongst themselves crying about their castration complexes. And most of all, the men who dared to fetishize the female body – boy is he in for a ride.
On entering the first room, Kiki Smith’s Siren 1994 (pictured above) hangs on the wall, a suspended torso of stuffed muslin, reduced to a breeding vessel with decorative (read: ‘feminine’) blue glass beads and feathers in place of the face and vagina to remove all traces of the female identity. Her sexuality can no longer pose a threat as a pacified object. Of course, a siren is usually a dangerously alluring woman – maybe even winged, or birdlike.
The conversation continues into the next room with the collaboration of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, Do Not Abandon Me (2009-10). Bourgeois paints male and female torsos, the women are pregnant and fit to burst, the men are erect- their aggressive sexuality on display. Emin-esque poetry (“And so I kissed you” ) and little doodles annotate the paintings, often rendering male body absurd, while a bronze amorphous figure lies in the middle of the room This is exactly how I feel right now (2016).
‘Headless. And also footless. Often armless too; and always unarmed, except with poetry and passion. There they are, the surrealist women so shot and painted, so stressed and dismembered, punctured and severed; is it any wonder she has (we have) gone to pieces?” Mary Ann Caws
We soon encounter Berlinde De Bruyckere’s morbid dangling legs, frail mortality lingering amputated over a wooden bench. In form, the legs appear similar to the flowery blankets they rest upon, echoing the domesticity of the materials used, and the domestic theatre of the feminine body- but now it is strange and unsettling. These ladies dismember themselves and serve it back up on a platter, Hans Bellmer-like, for the male artists who did the same to them – often to their disgust. And in it, they reclaim themselves as sentient and autonomous.
“Fetishize this- I dare you”, she says
By daring the male gaze to fetishize her as she is, it forces him to comprehend the body before him. It uses the body as the site of gender politics to turn the gaze back upon itself and when the political eroticised body is destroyed it can hit back, demonstrating that gender politics is anchored in corporeality.
Then there is Nevine Mahmoud’s Miss Her (Peach) (2017) – and by now we all know what a peach means. Vagina. The ladies in this exhibition have removed the vagina, they have presented it in all its un-dignified glory, and they have brought it back around to the now almost humorously fetishistic. Using orange calcite and marble, Nevine hones a traditionally masculine craft to carve a literal object of consumption. Freud’s concept of the fetish is when the sexualized object stands in for, and even surpasses, the whole- and in the White Cube the fetish is threatened, subverted, and ridiculed so one might understand the real bodily feminine narrative.
Dreamers Awake reminds me of the Breese Little 31 Women show, but on a scale only a large commercial gallery like White Cube can do. In fact, there is a crossover of artists here that also took part in Peggy Guggenheim’s seminal 1943 exhibition ’31 Women’ on which Breese Little’s exhibition was based on such as Dorothea Tanning and Leonor Fini. However, in Maggie Hambling-esque spirit, Leonor Fini eventually regretted her participation in Guggenheim’s exhibition: “Men have tried to exile, to imprison, women. A study exclusively devoted to women is still a sort of exile.” One wonders how she would have felt about this one.