I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like everything on this place we call Planet Earth is terrible right now. Mostly because a bigoted, beady-eyed mop man partial to Valencia-orange spray tans has power boated, ass pinched, and butt picked his way to the Presidential contest. The whole charade is sort of starting to feel like the first few chapters of a sci-fi paperback– when the autocratic overlord is hurtling toward consolidating his dystopian reign, and you can’t believe that no one saw it coming.
But instead of biding their time until the horror comes to pass, a pair of sisters are imagining what a utopian victory over the fearful mop man and the cultural tendencies he represents might look like. With the help of 24 female artists, the curators have organized Lifeforce a new exhibition opening July 26 at The Untitled Space that will assert their collective vision of a new world order, one imagined by Afrofuturism, cyborg theory, and post-gender politics.
The show’s curators, Kelsey and Rémy Bennett, artists in their own right and sisters too– “Irish twins,” Kelsey laughed (they also happen to be Tony Bennett’s granddaughters)– point to “A Cyborg Manifesto” as one of their major sources of inspiration for Lifeforce‘s thematic cluster, which is chock full of revolutionary ideas, historical precedents, and ebullient futurism.
In her 1985 essay Donna Haraway declared: “The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.” It’s sort of a perfect explanation for Lifeforce and the various visual expressions it has amassed of this squishy membrane between the dystopian order of now (i.e. the oppressive lines along which the world is organized in general: the patriarchy, racism, homophobia, and transphobia), and an imagined utopian future, when all these systems will be overturned. Because as things stand now, most of us can agree (hopefully, anyway) that these dualisms are obsolete. “It’s about not building walls, but breaking these walls down,” Rémy explained. “We have to go to that artistic extreme, because Trump’s gone to that extreme.”
The sisters also looked to ’70s feminist science-fiction, works like The Female Man by Joanna Russ. “It’s all about a woman who lives in the East Village and is visited by a woman from another planet where only women exist,” Rémy explained. “They use these terms, ‘dreaming the future’ and ‘dream laboratory,’ [that say] in order to change reality, you need to dream it and the laboratory is a safe space to experiment with these speculative futures.” Afrofuturism has a similar logic. “Any sort of oppressed person has to imagine a future where things are different,” she added.
Enter Lifeforce, the Bennetts’s multimedia all-female show that features sculpture, installation, photography, live performance, paintings, comics, and even video games, all of which express an opposition to what the curators refer to as “the culture of fear,” and instead emphasize “fantasy and irreverence over realism.” On the whole, Rémy and Kelsey are hoping to construct a multifaceted vision of “the future of the feminine.”
It’s all happening at The Untitled Space, located in Tribeca just outside Chinatown. It’s an appropriate choice on both ends– the gallery’s mission is to flip the switch on the art world order by focusing on female artists. A few months back the gallery’s founder, Indira Cesarine, put together In The Raw, a show featuring work by a cast of solely female-identifying artists whose work delves deeply into the nude form, enacting an art-historical role reversal of sorts in showcasing “the female gaze on the nude.” While the theme seemed sort of rudimentary at first, the result was a really engaging show that not only foregrounded many female perspectives, but demonstrated that the “nude” could overcome simplistic reverence and objectification of female bodies and enact entirely more complex conversations about identity, sexuality, self-expression, and what it means to be “female.”
While The Untitled Space has a mission to promote female artists in an art world that’s still very much weighted toward white men, they’re not simply enacting a quota system. Kelsey said that Lifeforce also aimed to do something much more complex than organize an all-female art show. “Both of us feel the same way in terms of not wanting to be defined by our gender, so we tried to figure out how we could take this concept of gender and break that down.”
Surprisingly, the two said that they approached a few male artists to potentially contribute to the show, but none of them seemed interested. “It’s an accidental all-female show,” Kelsey explained– as well as the first all-female art show they’ve curated. “We never like to exclude anybody from anything based on their gender or any other classification.”
It follows that the show isn’t about celebrating the stereotypically feminine. “We’re really into reclaiming imagery that’s been put forth for women— reclaiming it in a monstrous way, like a grotesquely beautiful way,” Kelsey explained. Rémy pointed to popular depictions of particularly strong or “sexually potent” women as monsters, savage beasts, or otherwise evil beings. “It’s like– ‘Yeah, well, maybe I am, and that’s beautiful.’”
The work of Juno Calypso, for example, depicts disturbingly placid images that recall mid-century values in a Mad Men-like workplace populated by zombie-eyed “career girls” in her series Joyce I. On the other hand, Lifeforce pulls from Joyce II: The Honeymoon, a sequel to the first, where a chintzy motel-stay turns into a Barbarella fantasy world as “Joyce” the large-maned everywoman transforms into a green-skinned creature while spinning dreamily inside a heart-shaped jacuzzi. The images offer a skewed examination on beauty, desire, and loneliness and depict what a half-human, solo “honeymoon” might look like.
Kelsey’s included some of her own work in the show as well– two portraits, one of Rémy and one of herself, “Artura10” and “Olympia44,” respectively– they’re made up as tough looking alien creatures that you might find at an intergalactic WWE tournament. They’re barely recognizable. “We created these futuristic cyborg characters together,” Kelsey explained. “I like the idea of something that seems kind of violent and grotesque but beautiful at the same time.”
Another artist, Amanda Turner Pohan, has taken the grotesque to a whole new level. Pohan contributed her take on “Second Life” (an online multiplayer RPG with a creepy reputation and, at its high point, around a million players) as well as an installation– the piece consists of bland looking furniture, the kind that Kelsey said you might find in a waiting room at the doctor’s office. Apparently, people are free to sit down, if they’d like, but knowing what’s on there, you might think twice. “She’s doused the chairs in this formula that’s like her sweat, vaginal discharge, all this stuff– it’s just soaked into the chairs,” Kelsey explained.
The artwork’s certainly oblique, but the Bennett sisters have made an effort to shake things up with their artist lineup as well. Two of the them are teenagers, actually– which might sound kind of innocuous, but apparently not everyone was down. Another artist the curators considered including in the show expressed their disapproval. “There were discussions that happened among people, who were like, ‘Why are you including a teenager— what have they done? What have they achieved?’” Rémy recalled. “And it was like, fuck that— almost everything we care about is the opposite of that. The whole thing is about carrying that energy you had when you were 17 years old and never letting that die.”
I asked what including so-called “emerging artists” alongside established ones accomplished for the show, exactly. “It annihilates those concepts, because they’re total bullshit,” Rémy said simply.
And the work speaks for itself. Panteha Abareshi, 16, a woman of color of Iranian and Jamaican descent, draws incredibly graphic comics depicting twisted romance, love-torn yet tenacious young women, their skin pocked, burned, and slashed– one woman looks resolute, seemingly unfazed by the three thorny roses that have impaled her neck. She told Dazed in a recent interview: “My image of ‘romance’ is warped, I suppose. I don’t have this idealistic image of marriage, or ‘true-love.'” Abareshi’s work is deeply personal– as someone suffering from mental illness, she feels the pain of stigma. “For me personally, feminism, identifying as a woman, being of-color along with suffering from mental illness, all tie in together,” she writes in her artist statement. “I make my work as an expression of the emotions, experiences and struggles I face daily.”
The curators also chose to include Taira Rice, a 17-year-old from Harlem whose illustration work they first found in Rookie magazine— she describes herself as a “self-taught artist who uses crappy Crayola colored pencils” to make her “feminist renderings.” Her piece, “Muslim Girl,” toys with what the viewer might first experience as a sense of cognitive dissonance upon seeing a woman wearing a hijab, naked from the waist down. She writes that her usual depictions of women as “monsters or aliens” aims to “satirize the traditional ideals of femininity.”
Rémy explained that it was important for them to include young people in the show, “because what they’re doing matters so much.”
All this hurtling toward a liberated future doesn’t restrict the art work to cold, machinophilic renderings of spaceships and portraits of green aliens or anything (although there’s plenty of that, too). Just as “A Cyborg Manifesto” argues for a closer relationship between humans and nature and machines, Lifeforce includes representations of a newfound hierarchy between people and their natural environments. London-based artist Maisie Cousins, for example, has included her photographs depicting girls who look like they’ve been rolling around in a bed of wild flowers or perhaps boning in a peaty bog, to put it simply. Kelsey described Cousins’s work enthusiastically as “Cindy Sherman-esque, in a way– beautiful, grotesque, dewy but murky.”
Of course, there’s something else going on here, too. As Haraway argues in her essay, a brave future replete with newfound technological power can go one of two ways– the first reflects the status quo, or “a final imposition of the grid of control on the planet,” while the other outcome allows people freedom from the fear of “their joint kinship with animals and machines.” By rejecting the dualism of nature/machine, Haraway says that people will no longer be all weird about “permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”
Cousins says she’s “inspired by all things gross and human” and describes her process as “hedonistic” and unabashedly sexual. “I make work that is erotic, visceral and always inspired by the fluidity of sexuality and gender,” she explained. “I like to create beautiful satisfying images from disgusting mess.”
The curators said that the most satisfying result of Lifeforce, so far, has been forging a connection between themselves and the 22 other artists included in the show. Their excitement is palpable, and with all the optimistic, revolutionary futurism they’ve got going on, it’s sort of contagious, too. “We wanted the art to be completely unapologetic– irreverent, anarchic, and fun too,” Kelsey said. “In a certain way the show maps out a journey to a future with no walls.”
“Lifeforce” is on view July 27 through August 6 at The Untitled Space, 45 Lispenard Street Unit. Opening reception July 26, 6 pm to 9 pm.