Tackling the topic of feminism is a monumental task for any art exhibition, let alone one that fits inside a downtown art space called White Box–which you already know, or maybe just guessed, is not all that enormous. Even if the curator had the MoMA to herself, a show like this would require some epic planning. And from the viewer’s perspective? Yeah right. Seeing everything in one go would be require an Odyssean attention span which, let’s be real, just doesn’t exist anymore.
So when curator Lara Pan was commissioned by the non-profit art space White Box to put together a show “about women,” she and her co-curator Ruben Natal-San Miguel came up with Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (on view through January 21), a 27-piece show that fits neatly within a realm of feminism she knows well. She may have felt compelled to whittle down the larger theme, but she managed to keep the feeling of an epic, history-sweeping, time-spanning, half-the-human-race, cross-culturally inclusive narrative. At the same time, the show defies what we’ve come to expect from women’s art exhibitions: those one-note, temporary deviations from the default (i.e. white men) that are plagued by tokenism, tiptoeing, stale themes, and work that’s about as revolutionary as a closet full of pantsuits.
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious avoids the usual pitfalls by bringing in a mega-diversity of artists and including artwork that’s varied not just in terms of medium, but experience and concern. The multigenerational roster has veterans like Betty Tompkins (of “Fuck Paintings” fame) alongside mid-career rankers such as Tim Okamura, and relatively fresh-faced newcomers such as Cuban installation artist Tania Brugera and Serbian-born Marina Markovic, a self-defined “post-anorexic artist.”
The lineup includes men and women, plus the one and only pandrogynous artist working in America today (so far as we know, anyway). Genesis Breyer P-Orridge‘s contribution is a massive, wall-sized triptych with a silicone-breasted Jesus at center, flanked by two visual pillars, or a series of vertically stacked photos of Genesis on the right, and h/er late partner and artistic collaborator, Lady Jaye Breyer, on the left. The post-op images depict the pair bandaged up, swollen, bruised, and bloody, within reach of realizing an important step in their collaborative Pandrogny project, in which Genesis and Lady Jaye underwent dramatic physical and spiritual transformations to become a single being. (Even with Lady Jaye gone, Genesis still refers to h/erself as “we.”)
It’s not actually a single piece– P-Orridge taps two works: Transgen Sacred Heart, 2003 and Stations of the Cross, 2003– but the show presents it as such. Pan set aside nearly half of the back wall, and since it’s facing the door, Genesis’s piece will probably be the first thing to catch your eye at “Supercali.” That’s a good thing–the work (and the artist’s entire being, really) smashes almost any definition of “female” out there. Pan declared it “one of the most important pieces” in the show since Genesis understood the curatorial mission better than anyone. “[Throughout] the span of h/er career, the work goes beyond the importance of women, empowerment, and feminism, it’s about humanity, actually,” she explained.
That’s not the only daring work staking its claim in bird-waving territory. There’s also Groom Hunter (2016), an installation piece made by two Pakistani artists, Saks Afridi, and Qinza Najm, whose collaborative effort is known as Bolo. As one of the few truly three-dimensional works, it’s been plopped down in the middle of the room– a convenient place for stopping you dead in your tracks. I sensed some weird vibes right away, but it took me a minute to recognize the veiled figure, stiffly seated, her eyes lax, mouth agape, wearing an ornately embroidered sari wedding gown and sparkly headpiece. Eventually something clicked and I realized I was staring into the sedated, droopy face and unblinking brown eyes of a blowup doll.
Don’t be fooled by her dumb smile and vortex-like blowhole, she’s no lifeless plastic ninny. Beneath her awkwardly shaped bouquet of red flowers she’s hiding a kalashnikov, painted blood red. Which explains why the chair next to her is unoccupied.
Militant feminism might seem slightly at odds with the exhibition’s Mary Poppins overtones. Or maybe not. That all depends on how you feel about “by any means necessary”– if you’re pro, that whole fetishizing-Imperial-Great-Britain thing and, by extension, romanticizing the colonial system that made such frilly Victorian comforts possible, might seem a little gross in light of the Groom Hunter’s struggle.
Then again, Poppins’s adventures take place in Edwardian Great Britain, or as the historian Samuel Hynes preferred it (in wistful, ruddy-aristocrat voice): “That leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag.” Sounds… horrifying. Let’s be clear though: that same comfort was only fully available to white, property-owning men. Even the rich ladies were tied-up, corseted, and legally-bound to their husbands as property. They couldn’t run very far, owing to the 5,000 or so layers of petticoats, and all manner of back buttons, whale bones, hoop skirts, and claustrophobic garments, and even if they could get away for a minute, it was just a question of what caught up with them first, TB or a pesky little diagnosis called “female hysteria.”
But what is this Poppins thing doing in an art show about feminism in its modern, more evolved, globally inclusive, grounded and real forms? If you have to ask, then your memories of
Sharry Bobbins Disney’s most-beloved singing nanny are (like my own) a little cloudy.
Actually, Poppins was kind of revolutionary– the independent, self-empowered working woman who had no time for marriage but plenty of fun on her own– and if she were alive today, schlepping around New York City from one nanny gig to the next with an extra-large magic bag in tow, she’d have unplucked eyebrows, a no-kids pact with her #girlsquad, and a dominatrix side-gig.
Pan admitted she wasn’t even aware of the Poppins reference to begin with. But she seemed to agree with me. “She was free, actually. She could fly. She could appear in one place, and disappear from another. She had this complete freedom,” she said. “If you remember the story, she was nannying for a family, and the wife was engaged politically, trying to push for the woman’s right to vote–there are no borders, a woman can move from one place to another without giving any explanation to anyone, without answering to the patriarchal society.”
The songwriters maintain that the word is playful nonsense. But the show makes use of a more thoughtful investigation by linguist and author Richard Lederer, who explained in his 2010 book Crazy English: “Etymologically this is not an entirely nonsense word.” In Lederer’s analysis, breaking the word down to its various roots–”super- ‘above’, cali- ‘beauty’, fragilistic- ‘delicate’, expiali- ‘to atone’, and -docious ‘educable'”–turns up, “Atoning for extreme and delicate beauty [while being] highly educable.”
Pan’s definition is just slightly different, as an inverted interpretation of Lederer’s own (which has taken on a life of its own on the internet): “Atoning for educability through delicate beauty.” And, honestly, it seems a bit more applicable to IRL-right-now women’s experiences.
Still, there’s something to be said for Mary Poppins, uptight and uppercrust as she may be, and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the stories, written by P.L. Travers (then scooped up and distorted by Disney), take place at the same time that the first wave of women’s liberation movements in the West were taking shape. The suffragettes were whatever, but figures like Voltairine de Cleyre, anarchist and author of Sex Slavery and They Who Marry Do Ill, embody the kind of freedom Pan was referring to, something that goes well beyond political equality. One artist in the show, Alice Austen, made her work during the same era. As the most successful early female photographer in the U.S., Austen had the means to live her life as she pleased. As the show points out, she was the first woman to own a car on Staten Island, where she lived openly as a lesbian woman with Gertrude Tate, her partner of 50 years.
The show includes three of Austen’s photos, taken between 1895 and 1905. The first is a self-portrait of Austen in heavy Victorian dress with a bike at her side, the second, a penny portrait of Austen and Tate, and the last is a portrait of her friend Violet Ward and an unidentified woman. Ward wrote a book titled, “Bicycling for Ladies” in 1896, a sort of lifestyle manual for women bikers that included advice on repairs and what to wear.
The best known work in the show is Dorothea Lange’s classic photograph, Migrant Mother. Taken in 1936 at the height, the photo is immediately recognizable, to the point that the image–an exhausted looking woman, covered in dust and looking absolutely depleted, with her children hanging off her– is probably what picture when you think about the Great Depression.
You’ve seen this photo a million times, obviously, but just reading the caption is a reminder that throughout “Supercali” there are multiple layers of meaning. “It’s about her social engagement with photography as well as her founding of Aperture,” Pan said. “I thought that was very important, politically speaking, and also what she represents as a woman reporter and photographer.”
There’s another equally famous name on the roster, Diane Arbus– who the curators call “the most important female photographer of her time”– best known for her intimate, snapshot-like portraits of societal outsiders and outcasts taken in 1960s New York City. Arbus regarded these circus people, or “freaks” like Andre the Giant– many of whom had to walk a tightrope spanning exploitation and a strange sort of self-empowerment to make a living– with a respectful sort of curiosity. As someone who herself felt like an outcast of her social strata, at times she could be envious of her subjects, as one of her biographers Arthur Lubow points out. Arbus once said, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
Having grown up in a wealthy Jewish family, Arbus’s photographs are evidence of her rebellion, a separate life in the “underground of New York City, where normally a decent woman should not be,” Pan explained. “Diane and other women had an impact in how they managed their lives, they’re not afraid to step out of the norms of society.”
Headless Woman NYC (1961) is a departure from the usual Arbus in that we only get to see the act, or the circus performer from the perspective of the audience, as opposed to the intimate, behind-the-scenes shots she usually captured. You might start to wonder if that decapitated body is human at all. Given the context, the photo could be read as a playful pushback on the objectification of women, or the grotesque realization of some misogynist joke about how the most babelicious body is a headless one. But the image also echoes the predicament Arbus faced as a woman artist working in the ’60s and ’70s.
As you’re well aware, she committed suicide after a tumultuous life marred by instability, extreme promiscuity, and even incest. Lubow revealed in his 2016 biography that, in the months before her death, the photographer told her shrink she’d been sleeping with her older brother, the poet Howard Nemerov– a relationship that began when they were children. It’s easy to dismiss these realities as evidence of wanton self-destruction, but Lubow makes an interesting point about Arbus and her contemporaries– other women artists of her generation– who were “typically forced to choose between precarious independence and stifling domestic obligations.”
The older work offers a stark contrast to the more contemporary pieces– instead of hidden details, symbolic gestures, and secret lives, the struggle is out in the open. Either that or women are depicted as fully-realized human beings, as their fabulous selves engaging in unbridled self-expression. Rose Hartman’s photo of Grace Jones is a prime example.
One artist acts as a sort of bridge between the old and new–Brigid Berlin, who was part of the Warhol posse and was best known for her iconic Polaroids of downtown nightlife and cultural figures from the late ’60s on. The show shied away from Berlin’s most familiar work, and has instead included a whimsical self-portrait of the artist holding a pigeon, and a distorted double-exposure (Berlin’s trademark) of an unidentified older woman.
“For Brigid Berlin, it wasn’t important to do something huge,” Pan explained. “It was to do something small, to show how every person could stand up against certain norms of society.”
There’s a caption next to the work that explains perfectly her quietly revolutionary way of life. As a child, Brigid’s mother went to extreme lengths to get her daughter to lose weight, even convincing the family doctor to put her on amphetamines and dexedrine. “My mother wanted me to be a slim, respectable socialite,” she said. “Instead, I became an overweight troublemaker.”
Marina Markovic’s work, The Void, likewise explores the sort of stifling physical expectations women face, in this case it’s the pressure to submit your body to becoming a baby-making machine. A video of an ultrasound runs on loop, the sort of spooky light-and-shadow play that’s typical of the examination highlights the alienation women must feel when they’re looking at a grainy image of a living thing growing inside them. It’s a picture that could easily have been snapped in outer space. There’s a sharply rendered vocal track that makes the process seem even scarier. Markovic recruited her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother to perform the series of monologues– what she calls “emotional preaching speech”– that sound like strong-armed lectures from concerned doctors or parents, attempting to convince the patient or mother-to-be that having a baby is the “natural” way. “You believe that you are accomplished,” the disembodied voice says forcefully. “Your womb is cursed. It is time. Can you hear your clock ticking?”
While the show’s contemporary work, for the most part, was either made by or depicts women who are relatively more liberated than their bygone counterparts, that’s not always the case– overall, the work makes clear that the fight for women’s rights has only become more complicated.
Performance artist Tania Bruguera’s piece was presented live at White Box back in November, but viewers can still watch a video of the Cuban artist-activist’s contribution, which is essentially a speech about what the country should do in the new post-Fidel era. In fact, Bruguera has pledged to run for President. “She’s this young woman artists who’s not afraid,” Pan said. “I think she’s serious in that way, it doesn’t mean she’s going to be elected, but she’s serious.”
Bruguera’s speech certainly reads like it. Now, more than ever, she says, “is the moment to stop being afraid” and the time to get to work bringing about not just political change by rejecting the authoritarianism that dominated the country for so long and enacting pluralism, but by building an “emotional infrastructure.” Cuba must reject “national paranoia,” she argues, but should still continue striving for “humanist utopia,” a hallmark of the Cuban Revolution. “Put love, family, friendship over ideologies,” she advises. “[It’s] the only way to make Cuba a nation again.”
Given the current political moment in this country, the exhibition faces a very real risk of appearing to be a reactionary swipe against Trump’s new world order. But that’s the last thing Lara wants. “This show is about something beyond the political situation in the United States right now,” she said. “A lot of people are asking me, ‘Is this a show about that?’ I said, ‘No, I refuse. My show is not a political campaign.’ I was a bit afraid how it’s going to be used or translated.”
Instead of focusing on the loathsome demagogue of the moment, the show does a much better job of reminding us that the fight for women’s equality is nothing new, and most importantly that women’s issues are united across cultures and time. Pan’s implicit message seems to be that instead of getting tripped up by Trump’s post-truth BS, artists, feminists, and all woman should focus on the task at hand.
At the end of our conversation, Pan recalled two women in their 20s stopping by the show. She overheard them discussing the show as they were leaving the space.”They said, ‘The curators are making fun of the feminists,'” Pan laughed. “In a way, I was making fun of feminism, the old-fashioned feminism. The show is more about humanity, and how it’s important to have this freedom as a human being and as a woman.”
Correction: this article has been updated to reflect that “Groom Hunter,” which was originally attributed to three artists, is the collaborative effort of two artists.