What it Takes to Be a Woman: Artist Sharon Lockhart’s Call for Female Empowerment

An exhibition at neugerriemschneider, Berlin, explores the healing properties of sticks as a symbol for social change

Over the past few years, Sharon Lockhart has gathered sticks from the forests of California’s Sierra Nevada: fallen fragments of buckeye, eastern black walnut and manzanita trees. Initially, she presented them to friends as gifts. More recently, however, she began to incorporate them into her artistic practice, with their first appearance being Little Review (2017), a video commissioned for the Polish Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. Captured in slow motion, the last ten minutes of the work document a group of teenage girls running, jumping and dancing, each with a single stick in hand. The girls had attended the Youth Sociotherapy Centre in Rudzienko: a facility for young Polish women from troubled backgrounds. Following years of workshops and discussions with Lockhart around feminist theory and body awareness, the teenagers adopted the sticks as symbols of women’s empowerment. These woodland totems had healing properties, allowing girls who had lost faith in themselves to regain confidence once more.

Sharon Lockhart, ‘Movements and Variations’, exhibition view, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin; photograph: Jens Ziehe © Sharon Lockhart

‘Movements and Variations’, Lockhart’s latest exhibition at neugerriemschneider, elevates the sticks from their status as props, placing them on white pedestals as individual sculptures. In collaboration with Ikebana artist Ravi GuneWardena, Lockhart made a selection of nine sticks, which she then configured into five adaptations and cast in bronze. Each sculpture from the series ‘A Bundle in Five Variations’ (2018) constructs new relationships between its component parts. Variation IV, Seven Bronze Sticks is the most ostensibly natural composition, with its seven elements rendered in diverse hues and placed so closely that they could almost constitute a branch. In contrast, Variation V, Two Bronze Sticks highlights difference: a short, highly polished offshoot embraces a long, delicate, dark brown stem, like a snake wrapped around its prey. By merging detached single elements into new, unified groupings, Lockhart reveals possible affinities between supposedly disparate parts and, by extension, between communities and individuals. When a branch falls from a tree, it may lose its connection to the whole, but it can always be bound once more.

Similar to Little Review, the accompanying photographic series, ‘Nine Sticks in Nine Movements’ (2018), highlights the physical interaction with the sticks. Each image features the same near-life-size female protagonist, the artist and performer Sichong Xie, holding the bronzes in various postures that emphasize their distinctive characteristics. The poses, as indebted to dance sequences as they are rituals of empowerment or invocation, are not spontaneous: they are the result of a collaboration between the performer and Lockhart intended to explore the body’s relationship to the sticks. At times, Sichong stands in warrior-like positions, brandishing the objects like weapons – she is ready to strike (Movement Three) or raising a bow aloft (Movement Nine). At others, she appears to be performing ancient ceremonies (Movement Six) or surveying that which lies on the horizon (Movement Two).

Sharon Lockhart, Nine Sticks in Nine Movements: Movement Four, 2018, framed chromogenic print, 1.32 × 1.07 cm. Courtesy: the artist, neugerriemschneider, Berlin and Gladstone Gallery, New York/Brussels © Sharon Lockhart

In all but one of the images, Sichong either has her back turned to the viewer or appears side-on, simultaneously present yet absent (an apt description for women). The exception is Movement Four, in which a thick golden branch rests on the subject’s shoulder while she looks directly into the camera, determinedly holding our gaze. Unlike the other photographs, this does not show a movement but rather a condition: carrying a load. Isolated from the rest of the work, Movement Four concentrates the essence of the exhibition, confronting viewers with a visualisation of what it takes to be a woman: bearing the burden, holding the head high and trusting in a future of female empowerment.

Sharon Lockhart, ‘Movements and Variations’ runs at neugerriemschneider, Berlin, until 2 March 2019.

Main image: Sharon Lockhart, Nine Sticks in Nine Movements: Movement Two (detail), 2018, framed chromogenic print, 1.06 × 1.32 m. Courtesy: the artist, neugerriemschneider, Berlin and Gladstone Gallery, New York/Brussels © Sharon Lockhart

Carina Bukuts is a writer and curator based in Berlin, where she works as the frieze editorial trainee. She is the co-founder of the online magazine PASSE-AVANT.

Issue 202

First published in Issue 202

April 2019

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