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Gender, alarmed

Feminist art series defeated by its ambition

“We are coming out of the year of feminist art,” states Helen Reckett, a panellist at a GENDER ALARM!, a recent feminist art series in Montreal.

She has a point: 2007 marked a widespread revival of interest in feminist art. The Museum of Contemporary Art in a Los Angeles exhibit, “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” covering works from 1965 to 1980, presented an alternative art history to the current academic canon. In addition, the Brooklyn Museum’s new 8,300 square-foot space – the first major museum centre dedicated to the study and exhibition of feminist art – featured “Global Feminisms,” an international survey of works by about 80 young artists from some 50 countries.

Framed against this backdrop comes “GENDER ALARM! Nouveax feminismes en art actuel,” an art and event series organized by La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse that took place from September 17-28. The series featured an exhibition at the small St. Laurent gallery, live performances, and film screenings, as well as a panel discussion with participants known for their reflections on feminism and gender theory.

Since its founding in 1973, La Centrale has aimed to counter the underrepresentation of women in art institutions by making contemporary female artists’ work available to the public. In 2007, the gallery adopted a new mandate to more effectively engage with postcolonial and non-Western feminisms, as well as the growing discourses of trans-feminism and masculinity studies.

La Centrale’s mandate alone reveals how complex and contested feminism is within its contemporary context. With this is mind, how could La Centrale hope to tackle such a huge issue with such limited space and time?

GENDER ALARM!’s weaknesses and strengths are manifested in the centrepiece of the exhibition, a collaborative work between Canadian and American artists entitled “The After Party” – surely a direct reference to Judy Chicago’s iconic “Dinner Party,” a table set with sculptural reinterpretations of famed feminists’ vaginas. “The After Party’s” large, star-shaped structure, emulating a storefront display, is set in the window of the gallery.

A series of sculptures labelled “Lesbian Celebrity Fists” provides a feminist re-appropriation of castings of famous rock-stars’ penises. A package labelled “Feminist Hair Ware” contains a single lock of synthetic silver hair à la Susan Sontag. Books such as Ridykeulous Zine featured graphic, abrasive approaches to feminist art – including a photo of naked breasts with the words “if you don’t like feminism you can suck my cock” scrawled across it, and another of a gory severed penis sticking out of a urinal. Four clay sculptures of famous females’ vaginas, including Kim Gordon and Tina Turner, called “Vadge Cakes,” further alluded to Judy Chicago’s work. The women are represented as linked only by their genitalia – existing in different social contexts and cultural surroundings, but united by their femininity. Behind the structure were two-foot print cut-outs, with holes where viewers could put their heads and become part of the feminist artwork, thereby identifying themselves as objects for the feminist cause.

“Taste, Pant, Obey,” performed by Insoon Ha, involved the artist smearing brown liquid on the white wall and licking the aforementioned words into the dripping liquid. Ha proceeded to lick a large wall-mounted purple tongue and then bow down to it.

While the artwork and performances offered provocative and thoughtful insights into feminism, each simply addressed some island issue in the sea of feminist theory, rendering the exhibition a sort of mash-up of feminist thought. Viewers were force-fed feminist theory without any time for digestion. For me, the limited space and the events being billed as a series seemed to require the works and performances to some sort of cohesion for them to be a focused whole.

Sure, this may reflect current feminist art, as there is indeed no cohesive contemporary feminist art – or feminist theory, for that matter. But La Centrale and this art series could by no means have addressed the whole of feminism and should have attempted to create a focused message, singular to its gallery, in relation to the larger issue. Feminist discourse is too varied to provide a proper through-line for a small-scale art exhibition.

This exhibit, taken in terms of the individual works, however, did reveal some gems. For instance, “Weapons of Mass Discussion,” a diptych by Montreal artist Arwa Aowon shows how individual works could address significant contemporary issues with subtlety and artistic prowess. The work displays two photos of a young and old woman fastening bright pink hijabs at their throats with pins. Underneath each picture is a pile of pink safety pins. The work’s iconography as well as the formal presentation as a diptych evokes juxtapositions between young and old, traditional and progressive, modesty and frank honesty, East and West. The title’s pun alone, set against the women depicted in traditional Muslim dress, provides a humorous yet earnest commentary on western racism toward Middle-Eastern immigrants, as well as the need for feminist discussion.

GENDER ALARM! was a valuable event for feminist art in Montreal.The gallery’s circulation of feminist ideas and art is a testament to the fact that feminist discourse and art is active within the city. Each work offered thoughtful and provocative reflections on feminist discourse. However, the lack of unity throughout the exhibition illustrated the futility of attempting to capture feminism as a universal movement with one ultimate goal.

La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse is located at 4296 St. Laurent. The 2008-2009 programming season continues with “Figures de L’Indicible” from October 10 to November 9.