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The Monstrosity of Feminist Art: A Conversation with Lauren Elkin

IN HANNAH WILKES’S 1974 video Gestures, the artist uses her own body as a medium, manipulating and prying the folds of her skin into a flurry of expressions—one minute, she molds her mouth into a smile, the next into a grimace, each performance losing its claim to authentic insight or readability. Just two years before, Ana Mendieta made a similar work, her iconic Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints—Face), in which the artist mashed her face against a pane of glass in the photograph’s foreground, as though Xeroxing a copy of it, all the flesh warped as if it had been melted or liquefied. These are hardly the idealized feminine bodies conventional to Western art, neither remote nor contained, nor especially pleasant.

Moments of aesthetic rupture like these, in which we see a heightened, politicized vision of how the-sausage-of-feminized-beauty-gets-made (or unmade), occupy Lauren Elkin in her latest book, Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art (2023). Elkin calls for a reorientation of aesthetics away from the disinterested contemplation of beauty and toward a more sensory, sometimes uncomfortable, emphasis on matter, a terrain best exemplified by the work of certain feminist and women artists. In a series of 25 short essays, she yokes together an archive of creative troublemakers who capture what the sculptor Eva Hesse might have called the “ucky” and which Elkin defines as “[a]n art of tactility, that restores touch to the aesthetic.”

Some of these artists, like Wilke and Mendieta, worked directly with their bodies, becoming saboteurs of propriety or conventional gender expression. Elkin isn’t merely interested in the body of the artist, however; she is interested in all of the other ways, too, in which the body is inf(l)ected by art, such as the sensory, affective, or kinesthetic invocations of Kara Walker’s colossal sphinx made of sugar, Lynda Benglis’s sludge sculptures, Betye Saar’s collages, and Hesse’s slouching tangles of latex and string. She also draws on the literary, exfoliating Kathy Acker and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and, as in Elkin’s previous book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (2016), Virginia Woolf remains a treasured touchstone.

This union of diverse—even dissimilar—case studies is itself a strategy of monstrosity, as in this nod to Donna Haraway and Susan Stryker: “The art monster Frankensteins genres and texts and materials together, there is no good or bad, same or different, self or other, there is only matter combined with matter, and what does it do now?”

Elkin’s study also coheres under the sign of the slash, a tool for holding together, adding on, conjoining, and dividing ideas on the page. The choice recalls a real slash, one cut with a meat cleaver into the flesh of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus by a suffragette in 1914 (a tear in the fabric of the feminine as smooth, untouchable, angelic whiteness). Likewise, the slash of Art Monsters denotes both an injury and an opening, a sense of possibility for looking at and living in our bodies otherwise. The scope of Elkin’s text is expansive, spanning centuries and continents, and the slash works both to hold together artists’ commonalities and to let them be in distinction. As she suggests, “the best of feminism is a movement that makes room for the at the same times, for the I don’t know what I’m looking ats, for glorious ambiguity.”

¤

TIA GLISTA: Feminist art, especially some of the body art from the 1970s that you really focus on, has often been charged with essentialism, yet new ways of reading the work are now emerging to challenge that vision and reclaim these works as transgressing boundaries of gender rather than reifying them. Can you tell me about what you see in this art that might challenge our perceptions of gender?

LAUREN ELKIN: I was coming to this work as someone who was trained by the second wave and had been through the third wave, but with this very strong sense of the possible critique of binary gender. And so I was ready to see challenges to that in work that maybe it wouldn’t have been obvious to see it in. I mean, it all lends itself to being reread. The one that is just jumping out at me, probably because it’s so multicolored and maybe not the most obvious answer, is Maria Lassnig’s Self-Portrait as Monster (1964). It just seems so full of potential in terms of what it could be or what it might be. This is one of her body awareness paintings, which she made in an attempt to translate onto the canvas what it feels like to be in a body. I think that that gesture—trying to make visible the phenomenological experience of being in a body—is the artistic gesture that I wanted to think about in this book.

In terms of its possibility to be deployed as a critique of gender, it’s really offering us this multiplicity of being and engagement, just governed by physical feeling, which is something that I think almost all of us can assent to—that’s the one thing we can agree on all having; we all are sentient bodies in the world. So, maybe that’s the beginning of a critique or a new freedom in terms of personal embodiment.

You suggest a multiplicity in a lot of these works, and the possibility of different readings. There are also a few moments in the book where you sort of rub up against what you deem to be potentially deterministic or sticky ways of reading a particular work, particularly around questions of biography. I’m thinking of how easily one tends to see the anticipation of suicide in Francesca Woodman’s photography, which you point out, and I’m curious to hear about how you wanted to navigate these tricky readings, and why you wanted to include both your own first impressions and your reactions against them, so to speak.

For me as a critic, or when I’m teaching, I’m always starting with a close reading. So, there’s always just a very attentive attempt to look at what’s actually on the page, or what’s actually on the canvas or on the screen, to attend to it, deal with it, try to describe it, try to get to terms with its inner rhythms or patterns or things that seem to be missing from it or that are surprising. I think that’s something that is often missing when I read other people’s criticism. Here in this book, I was sort of trying to think about, in Sontag’s phrase, how to try to write an “erotics of the text” in question, rather than an interpretation. I was trying to think about the role that biography might play in that erotics of the text, and it just felt like there were times when it was inescapable.

For example, when you’re writing about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and this amazing book about disappearance that comes out a week before she’s brutally murdered. Obviously, there’s the feminist aspect of the book, which has to do with the difficulty that women have taking up space and the way that there really are men in this world who want us not to exist, or who want to just fuck and leave us by the side of the road. There’s a real threat to our embodiment in this world. And our aesthetic gestures are often coming up against that persistent attitude. So, when it came to people like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, or Ana Mendieta or Francesca Woodman, I wanted to respect where their lives went, but I also didn’t want that to be the way into the text.

Speaking of Cha, what made you decide to bring both literature and art into this project, and what kinds of affinities did working on these different media produce?

It feels like it’s all work that bleeds into other disciplines in some way. So with Dictee (1982), I wrote about the text but also about the way it appears on the page because Cha was a visual artist as well as a writer. And so, that felt important then for Kathy Acker’s writing, where I included images of the kind of calligraphy that she is using, which is like an art form—she has these crazy Ns and Es with lots of extra bumps, and they’re excessive and monstrous in and of themselves. And then, with Woolf, the Three Guineas notebooks are beautiful: these marbled notebooks that she’d sewn up together and pasted in all of these bits and bobs that she was carrying around, finding in the mail, whatever. I couldn’t escape the literature, but I was going to sort of look at literature as a form of the visual.

You also write about how certain works of art exceed the limits of language and reach toward something more ineffable or experiential. Can you talk about what it’s like to confront that limitation of language in your own writing? How do you go about writing the body when you admit full well what a profoundly difficult, maybe impossible, task this is?

I think that the tactic that ended up coming out of this book was that fragmented quality of it. All of these slashes and pauses felt like a way to write the unwritable into the text. The slashes are like visual elements but also kind of like rhythmic moments, or moments to observe silence and unsayability—like in the Cha section, there’s a slash and then nothing and then slash and then nothing.

Could you talk more about the slash? What function does it hold for you as a kind of binding material for the book, where it seems you’re working with it not only as an analytic for studying art but also as a method?

Flâneuse was written with a lot of little crosses delineating different sections, and I felt like they were little crossroads in the text where you could write about different things, you could go in different places, or they were like crossroads in my life, or whatever. So, I’m thinking always about the relationship between form and content—it’s important to me, for I don’t know what reason, that there be a close relationship. Maybe I’ve been reading modernism for too long!

I found it very natural to take these pauses and to put little slashes there, and then I was like, “Well, why slashes? Why have I given up the crossroads? Or why not an asterisk? Why the slash?” So, that was what prompted the reflection on the slash, which was written originally just as a bit of freewriting. I wasn’t sure if I was going to include the reflection actually in the text, but at a certain point I realized this is actually a really important aspect of the aesthetic that I’m trying to outline. Much of the work that I’m dealing with is in fragments, or is collaged in some way, which also feels like a political gesture, especially for women making art after surrealism, to say, “You’ve carved my body up into pieces, but I’m going to borrow that technique and make my own thing with it that will be mine, and it won’t be your view of my body, it will be my own experience with my body.”

Finally, I’m very interested in the way that what you are proposing—via the slash, the ucky, the art monster—something like a counter-theory of aesthetic experience. Can you tell me about the political stakes, as you see them, of approaching art in this way?

I don’t know, I just feel like it’s important for women to be able to talk about their bodies without being made to feel like they’re being inappropriate or gross or excessive, or oversharing.

I’m always really surprised by the things that people say to me about why they liked the book or why they think it matters, so I think that it’s nice to leave room for their own candid responses. But I did meet some young women at the Edinburgh Festival last week who loved Flâneuse and saw this book as a continuation of it in a way that I hadn’t thought about: this is still about women taking up space. I wanted to be speaking to young women who feel hemmed in or frustrated or misunderstood. Maybe it’s incredibly narcissistic that I’m also just writing back to teenage Lauren, but I don’t think that teenage Lauren was so unique—I think that my teenage experiences are the experiences of a lot of young women.

What I haven’t spoken much about is that an issue for me in Flâneuse had to do with the problem of inclusivity. It’s a book that’s very much from the perspective of a middle-class, young, cis, white woman with a certain amount of privilege to up and move to Paris. If it had been written a few years later, I would have thought more critically about what kinds of women I was writing about, or maybe I would have decided to write about the same women, but I certainly would have thought about it a bit more specifically. For this book, I didn’t want to do the tokenistic “here’s my chapter about a person of color” because that also felt like a cheap gesture to try to compensate for the whiteness or able-bodiedness. It was a kind of challenge in this book to try to figure out how to decenter whiteness in terms of my approach while also being honest about the fact that I’m a white woman, and that’s what I navigate to get to the work.

At a lot of the events that I’ve done so far, people have come up to me afterwards, and they’re generally young white women, but occasionally there’ll be a young woman of color who will be like, “This is great, but why am I the only Black person here?” There’s a real problem of inclusivity not just in what we’re writing but also in terms of the way the books are being marketed or the terms the events are being marketed around, where it doesn’t feel like it’s a safe space or something for people who are not white to be there and to be in the conversation. I’m not really sure what to do about that. I think it probably has to start with talking about the artists of color in interviews and things like that.

Yes, can we talk about the composition of the book in this way and its approach to race and difference? Just because you’re dealing (mostly) with the category “woman” doesn’t mean that there has to be internal coherence to what that means for each of the artists, or to how one writes about them.

Well, my friend, the curator Lubaina Himid, was like, “I can’t believe you wrote about Kara Walker and Betye Saar in the same chapter. They hate each other!” They have these very different takes on the same history as Black women in the United States around what they have done with the history of enslavement. It’s radically different but shares certain gestures, and their beef just seemed really important to me to include, as a way of not just pretending that it’s unified throughout.

I was also writing about Hannah Wilke in the 1970s and her detractors in white feminism, who accused her of trying to look like a fashion model. My friend Sutapa Biswas was trying to make work with her naked body in the early ’80s, and was told, “Oh no, we’ve done that already.” And Sutapa said, “I’m sorry—as a Brown woman, I haven’t done that. We haven’t. Our bodies have been construed and read and looked at in a particular raced way such that we haven’t been able to access the nude the way that white women have” or in the way that she was trying to do. There are just all of these fractures within feminism, and all of these conversations around the body that take shape differently as a result of your community. It was those kinds of inflections that I was trying to look at in terms of writing about the female body and trying not to do it in a blanket way.

¤

Lauren Elkin’s essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York TimesThe Guardian, Frieze, and The Times Literary Supplement. Her book Flâneuse was named a notable book of 2017 by The New York Times Book Review and was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. A native New Yorker, she lived in Paris for 20 years and now resides in London.

The post The Monstrosity of Feminist Art: A Conversation with Lauren Elkin appeared first on Los Angeles Review of Books.

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