!Women Art Revolution (2010) – Written and Directed by Lynn Hershman

by Margaux Williamson

(In a rush during the start of the Toronto International Film Festival, I decided to pick movies based on the names alone. Going over the first two days of programming, my eyes stopped at “!Women Art Revolution” and I investigated. The movie is from Lynn Hershman. Her 2007 film “Strange Culture”, a piece that documents a personal tragedy in artist Steve Kurtz’s life that led to an FBI investigation of his artwork, was one of my favourite things at a past Whitney Biennale. “Strange Culture” was one of the few things in the show that genuinely confused my sense of art, government and reality. Playing on a little tv in the corner of one of the galleries, it looked like an unassuming but well-developed portal out of the museum.

I was late getting to the theatre because I ran into a parade, the first sign of which was two women walking down the street with 4 legs, 1 torso, 2 heads and two enormous plush breasts protruding from their uni-shirt. “There go some balls”, I thought as they passed in front of my bicycle. I was late to the theatre but was ushered to my seat in the dark. After the screening, the director thanked artists featured in the movie who had also made it to the premiere – names, for the most part, that have been familiar to me since I was a teenager beginning to investigate art. The last shout-out was for the Guerrilla Girls. I was startled to see that they were sitting next to me. Two well-dressed women, in gaping-mouth gorilla masks, stood up and took a bow.)

Ana Mendieta, from her "Silueta" series (1976)

This movie portal starts from the museum (most of the artists featured have found some success in the art world) but goes back in time, approximately 40 years, to when women could barely get into them. The movie is pieced together from footage shot in between.

As is true with most hopeful acts of defiance against enormous adversity, hearing these cultural workers talk with humour and self-awareness about their struggle to have a voice in the world is unavoidably moving. I specifically fell in love with Marcia Tucker, a curator I was unfamiliar with. She started The New Museum in 1977. Like the movie, she seemed a fountain of good things with very few blind spots. I was sad to eventually discover (in the duration of the movie) that I had learned of her too late – as she died in 2006. But I will look for her book, A Short Life of Trouble.

In the movie, a thesis develops. Lynn Hershman suggests that these past forty years (and counting) of feminist art creation have been dominated by performance, role-playing and persona because these are the activities necessary for creating new spaces and new ways to be – creating bigger (and less oppressive and less boring) spaces for women to live and work in.

An interesting moment comes when Janine Antoni, a performance artist from the younger generation, talked about an experience she had in graduate school. Her professor, Mira Schor, looked at her work and asked if she had ever heard of Anna Mendieta or Hannah Wilke or Carolee Schneemann. She hadn’t, so she went to the library to investigate. There, she found absolutely nothing on any of the artists. Eventually, when Mira Schor brought in her own personal catalogues and clippings from home, Janine Antoni looked through the work and thought “I am making the work of an earlier generation.”

It is a pleasurable idea, and not one I take for granted, to think that some art really needs to be in the world – that there is actually a great deal of order to the often random-seeming nature of art creation. It is interesting to think that if some art doesn’t find its rightful spot in the library, this art will continue to be made until it arrives there.

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