Joanne Savage finds narrow ideals of beauty under clever scrutiny at the Golden Thread Gallery
In View at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast begins with Vito Acconci’s unsettling video piece 'Pryings' (1971), which shows a power struggle between a man and a woman. The woman has her eyes shut and seems determined to keep them closed. The man does everything in his power to pry her eyes open, pulling at her lids, straining to get her head into position, taming her flailing hair. They stumble and tussle – the struggle goes on and on.
Even when the man manages to prize her lids apart, the woman turns her pupils away so that he is left with blank, useless flashes of the sclera. He wants recognition, perhaps, to be acknowledged as a subject by her gaze. Or does he want to admire her pretty eyes? It can’t be forced. She will view what she wants to view. 'Pryings' could be read on many levels, even as a perverse kind of sexual struggle or attempted psychological rape (forcing access to her eye and her brain) – the work’s strength is exactly this ambiguity.
From a woman resisting becoming a viewed subject, In View moves on to consider how the male gaze typically undermines female agency by settling on woman as an object of desire. Laura O’Connor’s video installation 'Dull, Limp, Lifeless' (2010), is a clever play on the L’Oreal ads, in which the blindingly beautiful Cheryl Cole offers L’Oreal shampoo as the solution to weak, limp, lifeless hair.
The woman in O'Connor's video glares out at the viewer confrontationally, wearing a long blonde wig, tears slowly falling down her cheeks. She stares accusingly, unhappy with her objectification, perhaps. Should she be made to care if her hair is dull, limp and lifeless? When everything from Vogue to television ads, Milanese catwalks to Hollywood films and billboards of smiling stick insects sell beauty as a woman’s ultimate achievement, that weak, lifeless hair (she is made to feel) just won’t do.
The woman who steps outside the toxic bind of this patriarchal, radically disempowering ideology does so in defiance of mass complicity and the advertising executives who want to buy yachts and small countries with the cash value of her insecurity.
The theme of female image anxiety is also explored in French artist Orlan’s 'Omnipresence' (1994, pictured above), a video recording of the artist undergoing a cosmetic procedure. Her surgery, to have two implants inserted at her temples to create two bumps on either side of her head, was an exercise in defiance of conventional conceptions of beauty. This procedure was filmed live and watched in a series of art galleries around the world, art critics and theorists pontificating on the work’s meaning and import all the while.
This was Orlan's seventh cosmetic surgery, part of a project of bodily transformation entitled The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, a kind of grotesque parody of the quest for perfection, the saint reference being a nod to the ways beauty is endowed with sanctity in popular culture.
At first the artist wanted to transform herself so that her features would embody details from famous paintings of women. So, Orlan would ultimately have the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the nose of Gerome’s Psyche, the lips of Boucher’s Europa, the eyes of Diana (as depicted in a Fontainebleu painting), and the forehead of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Then, even more bizarrely, she would create a mutant body by having bumps placed in her forehead.
'Omnipresence' is a disturbing artwork, one that makes you think about the gruesome truth of plastic surgery and the pathological responses that can be elicited by the pressures society imposes on us to look a certain way. Orlan uses her body as a site of protest, undergoing self-mutilation in what she sees as a critique of society’s narrow beauty ideals. She finally expresses her opposition to the deification of the beautiful woman by wilfully undergoing a mutation.
Risque, feminist drawings by the wonderful Margaret Harrison and video pieces by Common Culture and Katherine Nolan add to this exhibition’s nuanced exploration of the power dynamics instantiated by the male gaze, the guilt of the voyeur and woman’s collusion in her objectification.
What would be really radical though, would be artworks that engage with male objectification under the female gaze, because increasingly, it isn’t only women who are riddled with image insecurity. It seems disingenuous to imply that the actively desiring, objectifying gaze is always necessarily male, though it has become a cultural commonplace to assume that this is so.
In View runs at the Golden Thread Gallery until January 29. For more information visit www.goldenthreadgallery.co.uk.