Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Visited the Center in Brooklyn Museum on Saturday. The long term installation, Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79), was a disappointment. Banners flanking the entry to the banquet hall proclaimed the work's own iconic importance in portentous Biblical language and childish drawings. The curatorial notes did not explain why the dinner table was in the shape of a triangle, when a circle would have better conveyed communion and equality. The ceremonial feel, in the banquet tables, wall mirrors and subdued lighting, was subverted by the colloquial title of the work, and the glitzy, cursive script used for writing on the white tiled floor the names of the other 999 honored women.

The porcelain plates had raised central motifs based on vulvar forms. This had the strange effect of making the vulva seem the food of choice. Why would anyone want to eat anything off their sex organs? Sappho? Much as straight men love their penises, I can't imagine them wanting to lick the sauce off the penile moulding on their plates. Is it different for straight women?

And who got a place at the table sized for 39? The VIPs began with the Primodial Goddess, and ended with Georgia O'Keeffe. The invitations were strongly biased towards Anglo-American women, not even towards Europe as a whole. Tokenism abounded. Kali was the sole Indian representative. There was no East Asian at the table. Of course, some selection must be made, but the principle of selection in this work seemed confused. Places were set for both the Fertility Goddess and Margaret Sanger, but in a "chronological" order rather than a dialogic one. Why give a place to Virginia Woolf, and not to George Eliot or Jane Austen? If Woolf was considered feminist in a way the other 2 writers were not, was Elizabeth I feminist in the way Woolf was? And why Elizabeth I and not Empress Wu zetian? The selection and arrangement of places make the differences between the women more obvious than the gender that they share. The installation exemplifies the limitations of 2nd wave feminism, challenged by so-called Third World feminists.

As if to ward off such criticism, the Center mounted an exhibition of forty recent works selected from the larger one, Global Feminisms, that inaugurated the collection. I enjoyed Miwa Yanagi's Yuka, from her My Grandmother series. Her photo conveyed the frank fantasy of the aged, without regard for its political correctness.

A mixed media painting, by an African woman whose name I cannot remember, titled something like Dismantling the Empire Within You, horrified and fascinated me by its violent dismembering of the human body. Tiny crystals gleamed from the bloody ends of torn limbs. Here was an art--unlike The Dinner Party that merely aimed to be iconic--that interrogated itself, that was truly iconoclastic. It had the fierce intensity of a very different work, Rodin's The Prodigal Son, displayed in the museum lobby.

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