Suzanne Russell, who writes about art and groundbreaking artists for Women’s Voices for Change, recently sat down with the curator and one of the artists from the new exhibition Intimate Transgressions. Currently on view at WhiteBox in New York City, a non-profit art space in the Lower East Side, Intimate Transgressions is a multimedia exhibition of twenty-two artists from around the world responding to the challenging theme of sexual violence as a tactic of terror.
In Part 1 of the interview featured last week, Russell talked about the transformative power of art with the London-based Fion Gunn, the guest artist-curator of the show who has curated the project with WhiteBox’s founder and artistic director, Juan Puntes. She also talked with Gail Ritchie, who is from Northern Ireland and is one of the twenty-two artists with work in the show. Here in Part 2 of the interview, she talks with Gunn and Ritchie about materials, process, and inspiration.
WhiteBox, 328 Broome Street, New York, NY 10002
On view September 3rd through October 4th, 2015
Suzanne Russell: Will you describe some of the materials that the artists use? It seems like there’s a female sensibility to many of the works, in a very positive and powerful way. I think it has to do with the materials that the artists are working with and the obsessive, handiwork quality.
Fion Gunn: I think that’s right. And a lot of the work is mixed media, to differing degrees. Andi Arnovitz has contributed some etchings, but she has also made a wonderful white cotton nightgown with many of her worries embroidered on it in little pink scar-like bumps. Chen Mei-Tsen has hand-sewn three Formosa orchids using sensual white lambskin and magenta paint and hung them on sinister-looking meat hooks. Elahe Massumi has sewn decapitated heads from colorful cloth and hung them on heavy chains. Chen Qingqing has filled an old suitcase with a pillow of spun fiber and delicate dry thorny branches. Niamh Cunningham has knit a lock and key out her own hair. Anita Glesta has used hair as an element in her multimedia video installation. Gao Yuan has turned photographs of naked bodies into paper airplanes that fragment the images. Michael Lisle-Taylor has sewn three sculptures out of ornate military uniforms.
Many of artists are working with materials that suggest feminine values or domestic activities. All of the work is meticulously crafted. I am happy to see that the contemporary art scene is valuing this handmade quality that, I think you are quite right, is a particularly female way of working.
Suzanne Russell: Many of the artists in the show appear to have an obsessive relationship to the materials that they use. This obsessive or repetitive quality is good way of depicting the persistence of pain, or the process of having to work through pain, again and again. In one of the videos that I watched online, Niamh Cunningham describes that as she was trying to knit her own hair into a lock and key, she had to have patience with herself, because the hair was so difficult to work with.
As an artist yourself trying to figure out how to approach the task of making an object that represents the situation of women in violent societies, how did you go about trying to find your own materials and your own subject matter?
Fion Gunn: I think my connection with the project started with my artwork, not with my curating. My curatorial approach has grown out of how I make artworks. I tend to work with mixed media and I guess I’ve always had a fondness for narrative: the belief that there are stories that should be told. Again, it’s not illustrative. I try to create multi-layered complex images that tell a story. I like to make artwork in which it takes the viewer time to discover all the elements.
Suzanne Russell: Tell me specifically about the work you made for the Intimate Transgressions show. There are three sculptures, two of which are with a woman being held in a box by a wooden board, suggesting a kind of pillory.
Fion Gunn: First of all, I used packing materials to make the framework of the pieces with the women. I thought that boxing the women in showed something about the commodification of the victims of sexual violence. They are packaged and become nonhuman, just statistics.
The framework is like a prison with distorted shapes pressing in on the figure of a woman, a doll. Like Gail, I’ve gone through the process of desecration. I took beautiful little traditional Chinese dolls and I had to damage them to show what was done to the real “Comfort Women.” I’ve coupled the mutilated dolls with views in the background that are inspired by Hiroshige’s idyllic Japanese paintings.
It is such an extraordinary contradiction to think that a culture that is known for its aesthetic refinement could descend into the extreme inhuman barbarity that the Nazis did. What the Nazis did to Jews in Europe is very similar to what the Japanese did to the Chinese and Koreans.
Suzanne Russell: There is a wonderful installation in the show that addresses the treatment of Jewish and Roman women in the Nazi death camps during WWII in a beautifully poetic way. The artist, Anita Glesta, uses an undersized bed, lots of hair, and three different video projections of a partially undressed woman who appears to be dancing in a sensual way.
Fion Gunn: Anita has worked with issues of history, conflict, gender and cultural identity before, so I asked her to make an installation for this show. She comes from a Jewish, originally Polish, background, but she has also lived in Spain and Australia for many years. So Anita is very aware of cultural references. The pile of hair in the installation is a reference to the fact that the women who entered the German concentration camps had their heads shaved. The hair is still there, decomposing.
Suzanne Russell: The installation is inspired by the story of SS Oberscharführer Josef Schillinger who was shot and killed by a young woman at the Birkenau Camp gas chamber while undressing. In one version of the story, the woman is a beautiful dancer who seduces two SS guards while undressing, grabs their guns and shoots them. While it’s not part of the installation, the woman was immediately shot and killed.
Fion Gunn: Schillinger was the Commanding Officer of Birkenau. I think the installation makes the point that women can also use their sexuality as a source of empowerment, as a way of trying to take charge of their destiny. The woman was killed, but at least she was able to stand up for herself in those last minutes. The positive message is that you can’t terrorize people without consequences. They will fight back.