Action, Gesture, Performance: Feminism, the Body and Abstraction at Whitechapel Gallery
As a sister exhibit to Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70, this show offers a captivating perspective on concepts of action and gesture within women’s art. Upon entering the intimate, dimly lit chamber, visitors are immersed in the pioneering dance and performance practices of 12 women artists. Displayed across various media, including photography, prints, and video art shown on vintage television sets, the showcased works span five tumultuous decades of the 20th century marked by the rise of major feminist movements. The exhibition’s serene and contemplative ambiance sets the stage for a mesmerising portrayal of the human form.
It comes as no surprise to find the works of Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019), an innovative American visual artist who found inspiration in Abstract Expressionism, and utilised her body as a medium to explore the boundaries of paint. Photographs of her performance Up to and Including Her Limits (1974-6) capture the artist suspended from a tree surgeon’s harness and spraying paint across a room, in response to Pollock’s iconic drip process. A video of another segment of the performance is also featured, revealing Schneemann twisting and lingering on the floor, amidst paint and drawings. This work is paired with photographs from Rosemarie Castoro’s (1939-2015) journals showing her dangling from a harness attached to her studio ceiling in New York, and performing balletic contortions in front of her abstract Symphony canvas (1970). The decision to feature these two works together creates a cohesive and insightful dialogue with the larger exhibition downstairs, which delves into the exploration of the paint medium by women.
Ana Mendiata’s Butterfly (1975) film, displayed on the wall with vivid polarised visual effects, presents a haunting image of her body transformed into a spectral figure with wings. Despite her brief career, Mendiata worked prolifically and explored complex themes such as displacement, the relationship between the female body and the earth, and violence against women through various mediums, including performance, sculpture, painting and video. Discovering this lesser-known yet powerful reference in feminist performance was a welcome surprise. Next to Mendiata’s work is photo documentation of Jung Kangja’s (1942-2017) Transparent Balloon and Nude (1968) performance. Regarded as the first feminist happening in Korea, the semi-naked artist is featured with transparent balloons affixed to her body, inviting the audience to burst them. Jung’s performances frequently challenged the restrictive gender roles imposed upon women in a male-dominated and politically repressive Korean society. It is unfortunate that what appeared to be a visually stunning performance was only shown through stills here.
Shigeko Kubota (1937-2015), a prominent figure in the Japanese avant-garde movement, delved into innovative techniques of gesturalism through performance and video art. In the photograph of Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965), the artist is depicted with a paintbrush fastened to her undergarment, crouched over a container of paint and manoeuvring across a paper sheet on the ground to produce strokes resembling menstrual blood. This piece is frequently regarded as a satirical take on Pollock’s hyper-masculine, ejaculatory style, cleverly echoing Schneemann’s work.
The exhibition features many more fantastic works by a broad and diverse range of female performance artists, including Lygia Clark (1920-1988), Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2022), Martha Graham (1894-1991), Annagret Soltau (1946) and Atsuko Tanaka (1962-2005). In contrast to the Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70, which takes visitors on a vivid and colourful journey across two floors, this exhibit offers a unique atmosphere. It evokes a sense of seclusion and introspection, enticing visitors to explore the works of female artists who fearlessly challenged gender and cultural norms.
Image: The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. and Alison Jacques, London
Action, Gesture, Performance: Feminism, the Body and Abstraction is at Whitechapel Gallery from 17th January until 7th May 2023. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.