Exquisite Corpse at Fuse Art Space in Bradford is a rich and provocative exhibition featuring a strong selection of work by eleven artists from Austria, Canada, Russia, UK and USA. It offers a series of feminist interventions that critically examine technology, bodies and representation through illustration, painting, photography, and video. The exhibition opens by referencing Barbara Kruger’s statement ‘your body is a battleground’ in the introductory wall text and the interpretation suggests that Kruger’s statement is just as relevant today as it was when it first appeared in 1989. In this context the title of the show, Exquisite Corpse, offers an even more sinister perspective on Kruger’s assertion that the female body is exploited in society — an apt frame for the kind of provocations and critiques offered by the works in the exhibition.
Several of the works in the main gallery space speak to the different types of surveillance, voyeurism, and censorship that images of women are subjected to on the internet today. Sarah Faraday’s magnificently titled ‘Creepshot Disaster’ (2015), shows a series of images collected from ‘creepshot’ web pages, Google images and 4chan image boards. ‘Creepshots’ are photographs of women, often young, often in public and often framed in a sexualised or uncompromising way, that are taken without the knowledge or consent of the person in the image. Posted online where the image-taker can keep their anonymity, the photographs are then viewed by millions online, shared and rated. Faraday’s selection is a chilling display, which looks to reframe the women depicted in the images whilst also gesturing to the violent invasion of privacy that such activities perpetuate.
It is a wholly patriarchal view of the surveillance and voyeurism imposed on women’s bodies in public that Lacie Garnes’ video ‘Outskirt’ (2004-5) critiques. On a hefty monitor placed on the ground we see a video of a man on a train, his figure framed through Garnes’ legs and skirt. The video points to the gendered structures of vision and power and transforms them into something that gives us access to the experience of women in public.
Rupi Kaur’s work offers us another perspective on power and classification through images which are, or are not, deemed suitable for public consumption. The exhibition presents six photographs from Kaur’s 2015 ‘Period.’ series alongside a poetic and powerful letter that Kaur wrote to Instagram following the twice deletion of her photograph from the series from the social media platform. The photograph in question, which is on display, depicts a woman lying on a bed facing away from the camera with a clear period stain on her grey coloured tracksuit bottoms. Kaur’s letter fervently remarks on the kinds of images of women that are deemed acceptable; it reminds us of the patriarchal unconscious and misogyny that governs the internet. Yet against all of this Kaur’s photographs are striking and tender depictions of the lived experience.
Several works offer humour as a vehicle for critique and Kate Durbin’s video ‘Hello Selfie’ (2014) stands out as a humorous exposition of selfie culture and image sharing. Drawing on the teen Tumblr aesthetic and what Durbin calls the ‘girl gaze’ the video documents a performance that saw a large group of women dressed in white underwear, pastel wigs and adorned in Hello Kitty stickers stage a mass selfie-taking session in public. The performers’ constant meowing becomes an overbearing soundtrack for the events’ hyper-narcissism set alongside a bewildered yet entranced public response.
In a white curtained screening room work by Evelin Stermitz, Sheena Patel, Faith Holland and Anastasia Vepreva are shown on loop. Faith Holland takes makeup tutorials for White, Asian and Black women and edits them to remove the actual application of makeup. What is left are the passive and unhappy expressions of the three women gradually, and as if by magic, being made-up. Watching the videos one after another it is hard to discern a difference between the makeup tips, underscoring the universalising — read white — beauty standards that prevail. Sheena Patel’s ‘NOW BREATHE’ (2015) is a striking video where a longer durational-loop demands our attention. Through the same static camera shot, held for sixteen minutes, we see the artist wrapping barbed wire around her naked lower body. The video seems to go on forever and the self-inflicted pain becomes tough to watch as we see the artist bent double in pain trying to complete the task.
A close look at the show reveals new and strongly articulated perspectives and critiques on femininity as a construct; the lived, bodily experience of being a woman; self-image and identity for women and the impact of technology and the internet. Exquisite Corpse takes up subversive interrogations of these questions and problems and marks them as central to contemporary life and politics.
It is important to note the stellar line-up of free concerts that accompany the exhibition until it closes and also look out for the forthcoming performance by Poppy Jackson at Fuse on Sunday 6 September.
Exquisite Corpse continues at Fuse Art Space, Bradford until 3 October 2015.
Elspeth Mitchell is a researcher and writer based in Leeds.
Featured image: Exquisite Corpse Installation View, 2015. Image Courtesy: Fuse Art Space.