Terrains of the Body at Whitechapel Gallery
New to the Whitechapel Gallery is a display of photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. Although small (it takes up just a single room in the gallery) this exhibition is perfectly formed.
Admittedly, to frame this as an “exhibition” is perhaps pushing it a little. Beyond the fact that all the artists are women and most of the pictures take the female body as part of their subject, these works have little in common. In some ways, this is one of the display’s strengths; although this is a show about women, the practices of these artists are very diverse and go far beyond the confines of gender.
Indeed, each of the pieces presented here take the female condition as their starting point to say something, or ask a question about, human experience more generally. Rineke Dijkstra, for example, takes striking photographic portraits of young women on the cusp of adolescence; they stand awkward in their developing bodies, unsure of how to cope with the onset of puberty and unclear about how they want to present themselves. Whilst in one sense these portraits are uniquely female, on another level they speak more widely to the universal experience of coming of age and the difficulties of teenage-hood whatever a person’s gender or social situation.
The exhibition is part of the Whitechapel’s programme of opening up rarely seen collections from around the world. In this case, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which holds an extraordinary collection of photography, and a field in which women have been pioneers since the medium’s inception as an art form in the 19th century. It’s an admirable move by the gallery, and will hopefully bring these beautiful works by female artists to a wider audience by placing them in a more general institutional context.
There’s not a huge amount of information about the individual pieces, and everything is presented in a single wall text at the beginning of the display. It’s quite hard to keep the details in mind while looking round, especially with artists one might not have heard of before. Despite this, the arrangements speak for themselves in a way, creating a visual dialogue between different kinds of womanhood and different forms of human experience.
Terrains of the Body is at Whitechapel Gallery from 18th January until 16th April 2017, for further information visit here.