‘At last. Something beautiful you can truly own.’ Copywriter Michael Ginsberg’s winning words for the Jaguar account on the advertising agency television show Mad Men (2007–15) echoed a sentiment that the luxury car industry had traded on campaign after campaign: their polished curves of steel would be more reliable, more serving – fundamentally, a better mistress – than any beautiful woman. Anne Imhof’s ‘scratch’ paintings I Promise to Be Good I and II (both 2019) – a pair of aluminium sheets covered with many layers of pristine white car paint, scratched up – shows how self-immolation may be the way to freedom: no one wants a keyed car, or a damaged woman.
Many of the works in ‘Performing Society: The Violence of Gender’, curated by Susanne Pfeffer, address notions of female psychological and bodily castration, whether self- or societally inflicted. Structural violence against women, the exhibition argues, draws faint yet impenetrable bounds around the decisions and details of a woman’s life. If she is young, she is made vulnerable by her desirability and naiveté. In the seventh century, Saint Aebbe the Younger, Abbess of Coldingham, mythically cut off her own nose to compromise her looks, thereby saving herself from being raped by the invading Viking warriors. In Marianna Simnett’s The Udder (2014), a young girl – sexualized by her blood-red lipstick and glossy black jacket – mutilates herself as a protective measure against two brothers plotting to assault her on a dairy farm.
If a woman decides to become a mother, her body thereafter belongs to her child. As Dong Jinling demonstrates in her video Dong Jinling 2–2 (2011), should she opt selfishly to claim it back, she deserves disfigurement. When Dong gave birth, she fed her child with her only left breast, deliberately reserving the right one for herself. While her left breast swelled and could spray milk, both literally and metaphorically expressing its uniquely female competence, her right breast remained dry and stayed the same size. Raphaela Vogel’s Uterusland (2017) also uses the breast to illustrate the carnally feminine. A large-scale, cheerfully coloured anatomical model of a woman’s chest, cross-sectioned through the lungs and spine, reveals an ashen lump of cancer in the same breast that feeds a horse standing several feet away, connected by white lines of milk strung through the air between them. A nearby video, screened inside an industrial milking machine, traces the path of a woman’s birth canal. The power of the female body lies in expulsion; only the tumour is latent, concealed even from the body’s inhabitant.
Beyond the miracle of motherhood, corporeal manipulation is a tested path to constructing the value of a woman. Ma Quisha’s Must Be Beauty (2009) takes the concept of self-care to its repulsive limit: if massaging luxurious serums into a woman’s skin will make her more youthful and attractive, then ingesting them will surely renew her from the inside out. Reclining on white satin sheets in a black negligee, Clinique and Chanel beauty products spread out around her, Ma slowly dips her fingers into one gratifyingly expensive jar after another, scooping the lush white creams into her mouth. Her flagrant flaunting of the manufacturers’ directions challenges the logic of their campaigns, which offer both diagnosis (you are getting older and less attractive) and remedy (this cream will restore youth and vitality so you can be desired again). Also on display, Ma’s video From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili (2007) – titled after the hospital in which the artist was born and her place of residence at the time of the film’s making – is a singlecamera direct address articulating her family’s expectations of her as a young girl. If such a passionate confessional is not enough to draw attention to a woman’s presence in the world, then the brutalization of her body surely will.
‘Performing Society: The Violence of Gender’ was on view at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, from 16 February until 28 April 2019.
Main image: Marianna Simnett, The Udder, 2014, video. Courtesy: the artist and Jerwood/FVU Awards; photograph: Kwan Sheung Chi
First published in Issue 204