January 24, 2017 § Leave a comment
This essay was written to accompany the exhibition of the same name. Details below.
Donald Trump deriding his electoral opponent as a “nasty woman” is hardly the biggest problem associated with the new American president. The insult delivered during the third presidential debate does, however, have relevance to the bizarre state of affairs that is the United States in 2017. The country is currently in the grip of a self-inflicted catastrophe. Chaos is not too strong a word for what is unfolding; who knows where its all heading? But just think what the cause is — the threat of a woman holding the country’s highest office. Reality TV host and fraud businessman Donald Trump was thought a better alternative than that.
Jennifer Murphy, from collage series, 2016
Nasty personifies the idea of an embodied threat. On the occasion of Trump’s inauguration, the word takes on an added significance: as an emblem of resistance. Taking this challenge on, Nasty the exhibition is organized to coincide with the inauguration and the worldwide protests that are accompanying it. The idea of nasty connects with art in the latter’s embodied seductions — art is always in some sectors considered dangerous, in a tangible but hard-to-define way. We know from Plato that art is thought a program for deception; like misogyny, the social prejudice against it runs eons deep. If artworks and women still engender a suspect reputation, what is the problem exactly?
Image: Shannon Bool (photogram) 2016
Going back to Hilary, the New York Times ran an illuminating opinion piece last November 5th, three days before the election. Titled, “The Men Feminists Left Behind,” the author Jill Filipovic talks about an America (and by extension all of the West) in which men have enjoyed a default dominance, forever. “It was mostly white men in charge and it was white male experiences against which all others found themselves contrasted and defined.” The clearest indication that this status quo might be undergoing change is — what else? — the resistance to it expressed by Donald Trump’s electoral success. Filipovic outlines the many advances women have made in the past decades — “For women, feminism is both remarkably successful and a work in progress” — and notes that “men haven’t gained nearly as much flexibility.” Accurately derided in Vanity Fair as “shallow and mediocre,” Trump as US President is living proof that men still rule, regardless of how ill-suited they may be for the job.
Nadia Belerique, from shelf series, 2016
Is the argument of this show then that artworks are like women? Clearly, yes. More specifically it proposes that both derive their power from a position of vulnerability. This position, however, produces in its turn an entire world of invention. Writing about Clinton’s loss to Trump in the election, the philosopher Rebecca Solnit notes: “power… is a male prerogative, which is to say that the set-up was not intended to include women.” If power is not “set up” for women to share in, they have to figure out other ways to get it. Faced with this reality, the appurtenances, so called, of the feminine are a way of owning it — if not power necessarily, then an equivalent force all its own.
An heightened relevance for feminist politics provides the context for this exhibition, but its not a political show. Nasty presents work by eight women artists, each one in some way investigating the visual culture of femininity. The types of practices on view are wide-ranging. Through surface collisions of ornamentation and draping, Shannon Bool evokes the figure of the feminine, as both historically specific and timeless. Stiletto heels, rendered as both support and staging ground, form the basis for Elizabeth Zvonar’s evocative collages. The power dynamics of looking take on new — gendered — meaning in Nadia Belerique’s shelf sculptures. Jennifer Murphy’s delicate sculptural collage works hint at the poisoned barbs that lie beneath the natural world’s seductions. Against an astringent blue background, the title Shady Lady (2010), suggests the gendered nature of Kristine Moran’s gestural abstractions. Aleesa Cohene’s 2009 video installation Like, Like discovers ulterior narratives for mass culture’s female icons. With Valerie Blass’s 2009 work Touche de bois, wood and jeggings are combined to be somehow confrontational. And finally, and hardly least, Kara Hamilton contributes further embodied aggressions with the beast-like, Tonka, a work she made in 2015.
Nadia Belerique, Valérie Blass, Shannon Bool, Aleesa Cohene, Kara Hamilton, Kristine Moran, Jennifer Murphy and Elizabeth Zvonar
January 21 – March 4, 2017
Daniel Faria Gallery
188 St Helens Avenue
Toronto ON, M6H 4A1
July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
There are solid reasons why the populist tendency in politics now seems ubiquitous
20/10 2015 A quick formulation for the phenomenon of political populism could be: a tendency that gains in traction to the extent it departs from reality. To flesh this idea out it will be important to define what “reality” stands for in this equation. More of that to come.
First, some laboring of metaphor. Populism allows for a politics of aspiration, cut loose from the anchor of pragmatism. It’s an idea of a polity adrift that assumes eventually it will have to be hauled back to the dock. This means someone like Donald Trump, currently frontrunner by a wide margin in the Republican race for US Presidential nominee, cannot in the real world be the captain of the ship. Or he could be, if he became a different Donald Trump, one whose insalubrious personality and “policy views bordering on gibberish” became subordinate to the time-honored protocols and procedural methods by which the real business of government happens in the US. You see the problem here?
Like an America that cheered raucously for the Pope on his recent visit there, mostly because he represents his own special category of celebrity, the Trump phenomenon exhibits specifically American characteristics of being overblown and pretty much indifferent to the facts. By contrast, recent events in Greece provide a more European example of traits inherent to the populist tendency. In July this year, upon receiving diktats from another pulpit, that of the so-called Troika, for bailout conditions that include ongoing harsh austerity measures, the ruling Syriza party used a referendum to ask the Greek people whether to accept the terms. When the result of the vote was “no” (over 61%), the party promptly turned around and accepted an even harsher deal to secure the Troika’s bailout. “SYRIZA” may be an acronym that stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, but the political party that acts under its name can’t escape the fact of its membership in a transnational economic order, one that supersedes the interests of any one nation state that might benefit from the lifeblood of its own capital. This conflict between the will of the Greek people, succinctly expressed in the July 5th referendum, and the acceptance by its elected leaders of the bailout’s punitive economic measures points to a wider dilemma. In an article in which Slavoj Žižek calls Syriza’s response heroic (because pragmatic), he also writes: “The “contradictions” of Syriza are a mirror image of the “contradictions” of the EU establishment as it gradually undermines the very foundations of a united Europe.”
Shifting down to a micro-level, I draw personal anecdote to suggest a parallel between the situations in Greece and the US. A friend in New York, highly regarded by me, recently told me she would consider voting for Trump but never Hillary Clinton because she “takes money from Monsanto.” Throwing caution out the window, I’ll go ahead and say I believe Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama, are both progressive politicians. Yet to state such a belief is to strain my own standards for credulity because of the degree to which both are in the pocket of corporate interests. Even if Clinton takes money from lobbyists who also work for Monsanto or Exxon this is simply a necessity, a reflection of the massive scale of resources required to run for President in the US (unless you are a billionaire). Taking this into account is not meant to excuse Clinton, but it certainly does provide an example of the “reality” I mentioned earlier. In both countries, legacy political institutions are more or less functioning according to the global standard, and yet remain mired in the “three C’s” of politics when conducted as usual today: complexity, compromise and outright corruption. As Žižek, well-known expert on the topic of the Real, says: “The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our ultimate reality.”
If I used nautical metaphors earlier on in this text to evoke the idea of a political moment losing its connection to reality, I’ll revisit the concept but with on-the-ground imagery this time. In a previous post, I spoke about the risk innate to populist politics of the polity straying into “uncharted territory.” What this means is concessions made to the immediatedemands of the voting public as channeled by a populist politician are arguably incompatible with the larger legislative workings of government. Events in Greece provide a very recent example here in that no short term mechanism exists to implement the people’s desire for change expressed by the July 5th referendum. This includes the option of a so-called Grexit, which Zizek points out in a follow up article was in fact “the enemy’s plan.”
By the same token, concerns such as the everyday effects of our era’s massive income disparity lack an obvious democratic remedy within the current system. The politician or political party ready to acknowledge these facts1 will get voter traction, but at the same time be considered not serious candidates by the political establishment. The reason for this is apparently that mainstream political operatives exist simply to function as the respectable face of the economic system that backs them. Against the prevailing sense of deadlock this situation creates, our moment sees many proposed alternatives emerging. If they are in inchoate form, that’s okay. To state merely that an alternative is needed is the first step. This after all would seem to be the gambit made by the Occupy movement, which proposed itself as a model form of direct government. Working in a self-organized fashion and without mediation of a political representative, its gesture was to occupy the ground of the present. If Occupy has moved on to other initiatives, it’s important to recognize that the movement anticipated many of today’s developments, not least the addition of the term 99% to our vernacular. It’s a conceptual tool that may prove decisive in the emerging political landscape to come.
This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).
1) For instance, the currently surging in the polls, independent US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Sanders was interested less in academic arguments…than in hard numbers that “exemplify the disparities he sees and feels and hears about from people.”