Venus rising, Furies raging: bodies redressed in contemporary visual art

McKenzie, Laurel (2017) Venus rising, Furies raging: bodies redressed in contemporary visual art. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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The research centres on the power of the female body in activist feminist art as a medium for women's experience. The survey of visual representations of women's bodies in historical art and contemporary feminist practice, together with investigation of the enduring debates within feminism about the signification of bodies, led to a conviction that imaging of the body remains a central issue for creative practice. More specifically, the research problematises the residual 'essentialism' attributed to women through representations of their bodies whereby (stated simply and in the context of feminist theory and practice), women are assumed to share unique, unchanging and, hence, 'essential' attributes. Furthermore, this spectre of essentialism, and the debate about this concept during the second wave of feminism, presents, I argue, ongoing implications for the contemporary politics of representation in an activist practice and for the methodology of creative practice research.

The resulting extended analysis of feminist theory and art practice has led to the adoption of parafeminism as articulated by Amelia Jones (2006, 2008, 2009) and extended by Laura Castagnini (2013, 2015a, 2015b) to enlist parodic humour to invigorate representations of the body amid the shifting appropriations of feminism and femininity in contemporary culture. Parafeminism, in its dual orientation of avowal and critique of past feminist art, enables scrutiny of some lingering ambiguities in aspects of second wave feminist art. In the exegesis, this is traced to the 1970s, when feminists contested the historical signification of 'nature' in patriarchal imaging of women's bodies and the resulting critique (within feminism) of 'essentialism'. Artists adopted a range of approaches to the body to address or circumvent this critique. Issues stemming from the debates and practices remain, I argue, unresolved for contemporary artists and are readdressed in the parafeminist works created for exhibition. 'Woman as nature' and the 'nature of woman' are therefore posed as axes of a lingering contradiction that is experimentally redressed in the works in which (female) bodies are represented in a range of media, forms and spaces, and using diverse methods, notably the second-wave techniques of collage and femmage. My research on the debates about essentialism debates propelled me to adopt a strategic form of essentialism as an element of parafeminist parody, whereby the spectacle and politics of the woman/nature nexus are critically embraced, rather than evaded, as a necessary tactic to convey the subjective experiences of women, while recognising that no universal experience exists.

In Venus Rising, Furies Raging: Bodies Redressed, figures from classical mythology (Venus and the Furies) are counterpointed with contemporary popular culture figures and images of women, and the evocative power of meaning in materials is explored in femmage-based installations. The works celebrate, pay homage to and playfully parody second-wave feminist art and the surrounding debates about its perceived essentialism, while affirming the female body as a motif and site of resistance in contemporary activist practice. Selected works by contemporary artists are examined and situated as parafeminist precedents for their comparable use of motifs, methods and materials. The parafeminist remit is expanded through examination of Castagnini's claims for the potency of parody of feminist art, derived from Linda Hutcheon's (2000, 2002) notion of postmodern parody as 'critical distance', and Griselda Pollock's (2007) notion of time and the archive in the 'virtual feminist museum'. Examination of the contextualising literature and visual practice contributes to the formulation of a set of guiding principles for the practice, summarised as the aims to: connect with and celebrate the achievements of earlier feminist practices, while engaging creatively with the history of the debate about essentialism; contest the connection between the body and nature (or what is 'natural') in visual representation; recollect, restore and revision images of women's bodies; apply humorous and parodic critique of appropriated imagery; embody meaning in materials and evoke sensual and aesthetic pleasure in looking for women looking at art about women. Through the application of these principles, the political potential and material effects of images of the female body are enacted in the works created. An Interconnective model of Creative Practice Research (CPR) is presented in the exegesis as a framework for the expansion of contemporary feminist practice. The Interconnective model develops and extends CPR, which combines engagement in theoretical debate with informed application of contemporary and historical artistic practices. The project therefore interconnectively extends activist art practice through a process of engagement with, and critique of, parafeminism.

The research contributes substantial documentation of prevalent strategies in feminist art over a lengthy period to identify issues concerning representations of the body, and in particular the problem of essentialism in relation to imaging of bodies. This documentation, in the form of a Data Repository, is appended to the exegesis (Appendix 1). My critical appraisal of the debates relating to essentialism provide new knowledge about the history of these discourses and how they influenced the course of contemporary feminist art practices. This knowledge, and my analysis of the concept of the virtual feminist archive, comprise a significant critique of the theory of parafeminism and the claims of an impasse in feminist art made by Jones (2006, p. 14; 2008 p. 9) (Chapters One and Two). Informed by this critique of parafeminist theory, I reflect on the work of a group of artists – Pipilotti Rist, Kate Davis, Deborah Kelly and Sally Smart – who present specific precedents to my adoption of parafeminist parody in the creative practice (Chapter Three). I contribute new analytic perspectives on the works of Rist, Davis, Kelly and Smart, which illuminate how their representations of bodies are reinvigorated by the use of diverse materials and methods, inspired by earlier activist feminist practices. Utilising such diverse media, particularly collage and femmage, I apply a strategically essentialist approach to portraying the body to intervene constructively in contemporary cultural discourses. This approach eludes the impasse of 'bad girl' feminist art and offers a potentially pleasurable experience for a range of audiences (Chapters Two and Three).

The decision to work with the classical figures of Venus and the Furies, and my investigation of their representations in historical (patriarchal), popular cultural and contemporary feminist art expands knowledge of these mythical bodies as motifs and bearers of meaning. Iterations of Venus and the Furies in a parafeminist framework widen the range of their meaning and relevance for contemporary feminist practice (Chapters Three, Four and Five). As parafeminist practice critically attends to historical and contemporary feminist practices, it is facilitated by the Interconnective methodology that I have devised for this project. Interconnective creative practice research represents an innovation upon Connective methodology, especially in its elevation of the role of a set of guiding principles for formulating a cohesive research practice. While Jones's theory of parafeminism is critically appraised, its dual aims of critique and celebration of earlier feminist art are upheld in the creative practice, which adopts a limited, strategic, parodic and, hence, critically-allusive 'essentialism' to affirm the centrality of the body as a motif of women's subjectivities and experiences.

Item ID: 57376
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: feminist theory, feminist art, parafeminism, female, Venus, Furies, classical mythology, popular culture, art, women
Copyright Information: Copyright © 2017 Laurel McKenzie
Date Deposited: 11 Mar 2019 02:28
FoR Codes: 22 PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES > 2203 Philosophy > 220306 Feminist Theory @ 50%
19 STUDIES IN CREATIVE ARTS AND WRITING > 1905 Visual Arts and Crafts > 190502 Fine Arts (incl Sculpture and Painting) @ 50%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970119 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of the Creative Arts and Writing @ 50%
95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9501 Arts and Leisure > 950104 The Creative Arts (incl. Graphics and Craft) @ 50%
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