Sunday, March 06, 2011


Once, women feared exposure of their sexual desires and impulses. Those who were bold enough to express them were derided, outcast, punished or even declared insane. In the late 19th century, women's sexual frustration was diagnosed as female hysteria – a quarter of all women were said to suffer it – and treatment was clinical masturbation by a doctor, sometimes aided by Heath Robinson-like machines, until orgasm brought relief. In 1873, the first vibrator was used for this purpose at an asylum in France. Today, sexualised images of women are used to sell every kind of product. It's a strategy designed to provoke in men a desire to possess, in women a desire to emulate – which is to say, we girls want to become the objects of other people's (and our own) desires. Up until the latter half of the 20th century, almost all photographers, art directors, advertising agency and corporate marketing executives who devised how imagery of women was used to sell things were men.
Not any more.
Contemporary women understand the power of their own sexuality and objectify and exploit themelves before men – or other women – get the chance. We're starting to enjoy the liberation of being in control of our bodies but contrary to old-school feminism, being in control doesn't necessarily mean saying no. Confronting what we are not 'supposed' to be – sexual, provocative, dominant, perverse – broadens the scope of possibilities to shape our own identities in any way we want instead of choosing from the limited options men prefer to create for us. It enables us to live more open, expressive lives.
I'm often criticised for objectifying other women and myself, mostly by older women who subscribe to the outdated idea, promulgated by the first wave of 20th century feminists, that objectification is inherently degrading and/or manipulative. As another artist wrote about me, somewhat prissily, recently:
"I sometimes question if she is selling art or herself? Does she need to put these images of herself out for the world to see? Is her art good enough to stand alone without her hands down her pants at the end of the blog?" My answer to all of these is... yes.
We live in a culture where everything is owned and everything is selling something. Names, letters, colours and symbols are trademarked and copyrighted. Within this context, to objectify oneself is to to declare ownership of oneself and one's own image. Self-objectification doesn't create great work or success – if it did, then entire generations would already be acclaimed and wildly successful – but it does associate one's own image more powerfully with whatever it is one does. However, to imply that my success is related to self-objectification is simply a gripe posing as petty, moralistic censure, an anachronism rooted in a centuries-old disavowal of women who voice, let alone act on, their desires.
As an artist, I use sexually explicit images of myself to explore myself. I don't draw or photograph myself nude or having sex for fun: it can be but more often, the process is confronting. Whatever I might look like in the final image, the uncovering of my body, and with it my psyche, is a rigorous test not just of my commitment but of my ideas. As the subject – and sexual object – as well as creator, I risk fallout from my public self-exposure, not the least of which are being reviled by other women. Rather than 'selling' my art, it puts all that I've accomplished with it at risk.
Many other artists, male and female, have explored pornography. Sam Taylor-Wood and Matthew Barney have made short, pseudo-pornographic films using actors they directed at some remove. Thomas Ruff has manipulated pornographic photographs downloaded from the internet. But noone has actually stepped across the invisible line that separates artist from subject – a line that, ironically, ensures the artist can do nothing but objectifying someone else. Yeah, Jeff Koons posed, stiff-dicked and starry eyed, in a series of unabashedly pornorgraphic images and sculptures for Made In Heaven, casting as his partner Ilona Staller, a former pornstar and Italian parliamentarian – soon to be, for a short while Koons' wife and the mother of his child – but as in most of his work, the graphic sex was simply a way to idealise Koons himself and commercialise his physically possessing his then most prized object. Attaching his emerging art stardom to Staller's own as a sex symbol in Europe – where, as La Cicciolina, her celebrity was greater in the 70s and 80s than Jordan/Katie Price's today – Koons got to play out an utterly conventional male fantasy of becoming famous and fucking a porn star in his very own movie. Staller, who was far more transgressive than Koons, an elected politician who continued making porn films while in office, was reduced to a prettily dressed, fake-orgasming, Barbie-esque prop.
What I do is different. The women in my work are not well-known. When I cast them as my models – they are never my muses – it is their role, inevitably, to be objectified. No matter that as I draw and photograph them, I try to delve into their thoughts and feelings: I am still doing no more than exploiting their phsyical attributes as every artist has with their models for centuries. But the moment I enter the frame, the moment I insert myself not just as an artist but an actor in the mis en scene, the dynamic – and meaning – of what I am doing changes.
It becomes more intimate and personal, no longer a simple image but an intricate, if baggage-ladened, psycho-sexual narrative.
Whatever I am asking the model to give me – and to risk, in terms of her sexual and psychological open-ness – I am asking of myself. And I go further, eschewing make-up and making no effort to mask the natural toll my 33 years, not to mention working with toxic materials, have wrought on my body. I am objectifying who I am as an artist, as much as I am as a woman but it's not an idealised version like Koons'.
In exposing myself physically – by posing and 'acting' with the model – I am inserting myself not only into the images but the ideas I'm interrogating in order to understand them more directly. I'm creating a narrative derived from real rather than imagined experience and interpreting both as a performer and 'director'. More than mere self- objectification, the performance is the core of the art, at once liberating and instructive. Nothing is hidden.
What's the value of all this as art? I have no idea yet. And that, too, is part of the point.


Mike Wood said...

As always, a fascinating insight into your inner workings as an artist. I wish I could put down my thoughts on my photography half as well as you do.

Sacha Zoe said...

Egon Schiele

Fredrika said...

Now, this is a article, I appreciate from you! Thank you Miss Dooney for keeping your readers abreast.

Elizabeth Reid said...

Another artist for your consideration: Zak Smith, painter slash porn star.

williamoldacre said...

Nicely Put.