Gallery

Natalie Ramus

WOJO Curator

The Space Between/Within
   
Growing up as a young girl I remember I was always taught to ‘behave’ and that meant to be ladylike. This was not just something I was taught at home, but also in the wider reaches of my world. Grandparents, teachers, even dinner ladies (who expected me to ‘eat like a lady’) surrounded me. This ladylike behaviour, I would learn, meant that there was a certain acceptable way to speak, to walk, to eat, to sit. I attended an all girls high school with guidelines and rules on how to hold one's body: knees together and hands on lap. Throughout my childhood and beyond my adolescence, I was
taught that my body existed in a restricted state within a certain set of rules. A framework of rules - a cage even. Central to these rules of behaviour was to keep my knees together. I remember wondering why my brother was allowed to hold his body however he wanted, yet whilst visiting my grandparents I was expected to sit appropriately. This difference between me as a girl and him as a boy was noticed- but I was too young to understand why it was
this way, (and I daren’t ask!).


I suppose looking back on my personal history I realise that I was taught by people in authority that I was expected to take up a small amount of space, not only with my body but also with my voice. Boys were permitted to be ‘boisterous’ with their bodies, their actions being spread wild and unruly; this wasn’t the case for us ‘young ladies’. I remember a friend’s’ mother advising me that the best form of contraception was a paracetamol held between the knees. At the time I was far too young to understand what that meant exactly. All I knew was that if I opened my legs or held my knees apart, something awful might happen.



These days we are all familiar with the term ‘man-spreading’. It is an action that is visible in any given public situation. One only has to take a journey on the tube to face a man staking his claim to as much space as he can reach. It is almost animalistic; like an expression of territorial ownership with knees spread out, giving a large amount of space for his genitals to sit proudly at his core. For women, this action in a public space would be strongly opposed. I can’t help but wonder why? What does the image of a woman's legs spread open signify, and why is that not acceptable? Historically women’s bodies have been subjects of the male gaze, objectified and sexualised in a society laced with misogyny. I’m not entirely sure if it is conscious or subconscious thinking, but there seems to be an assumption that if a woman opens her legs it’s for a sexual purpose. Our bodies, especially our genitals, have been sexualised by the male gaze and by a patriarchal society.



It is as if we must keep our knees together lest we trick men into thinking that they have to have sex with us; that we may find ourselves in a situation where observers say ‘she was asking for it’. The recent #MeToo movement in response to the numerous allegations of sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein means that this precarious unspoken
attitude towards the female body as object and commodity is becoming closer to the surface of public consciousness. Women are speaking out and making their voices heard, not only on the streets in marches and protests but across the global and digital landscape. This isn’t limited to cisgendered women but also to transgender identifying individuals.



Whilst there is still a huge way to go before voices are being heard fully, a crack has surfaced and it is growing. People are reclaiming agency over their bodies. And so, as we take a stand and reclaim our bodies what does the  space between our legs, that has been manipulated, controlled, commodified and censored, actually mean to women who
occupy those bodies?



For this issue, I present a collection of works where the opening up of the space between the legs is an action of significance. It is a political expression, a reclaiming of space,body and time, and an honouring of the power that is held within that triangular space where ankles are spread and the Vagina is a central core of being. The Vagina - so often produced in imagery for and by men as a passive headless object - is actually a site of creation. As much as we are encouraged to control it, it exists in it’s abject leaking way. It is both an inlet and outlet. A site of
pleasure and also of pain. It can be sexual, but also it can be the route for new life. So, to give space for women artists to open up a dialogue beyond the space between their legs, is to allow the female body to begin to be, without limitation or imposed ideals.    



 
Mothers Pride. Natalie Ramus. (2017)
Performed at Buzzcut Festival, Glasgow. 9hours duration. 350 loaves of Mothers Pride Bread,
120L Milk, 5 x buckets, a mop and 10m Shibari rope. Photo credit: Julia Bauer.


I began this installaction by pushing my body against the weight of the wall of bread, until I ended up in this upside down position with my legs spread. I attempted to hold eye contact with the people who entered the room. It felt important for me to stake my claim over the space and over my body, and this action felt like the way to do it. I felt empowered by breaking the rules of how a mother should hold herself in public.

The feeling of my body weight hovering over my head was surprisingly comforting, reminiscent of how I felt in my body as a child. I was re-presenting my body, a mothers body, in a way that it hadn’t been seen and I hadn’t shown, before.

As my body dragged through the loaves it became a destructive act of violence - crushing and tearing at the loaves beneath my body. The inside slices spilled out of the packaging, like body parts in a war zone. Just as I dismantled the wall of bread and all it stood for, I was dismantling what the nude female body with legs spread meant in a public space. As with any act of destruction, the space it makes is filled by creation.
   
   
Train of Thought. Helen Chadwick.
(1978-9)
Originally performed by Silvia Ziranek and Brook Hoadley at the Acme Gallery, London, and by Chadwick herself and Philip Stanley at the Spectro Galley, Newcastle, and the
Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Chadwick presented a section from a London Underground carriage. A man sits opposite a woman. A recorded soundtrack relaying the internal monologues of the two
passengers plays. The woman shrinks herself, squirming as she becomes increasingly worried about the man attacking
her; whereas the man is just worried about his work.


(AMBIT, No.81, 1979, pp. 17-22).

   

   
Internal Scroll. Carolee Schneemann.
(1975)

Photo by Anthony McCall. First performed for an exhibition of paintings and performances for a largely female audience entitled,
‘Women Here and Now’.
East Hampton, Long Island.

With large streaks of mud painted on her body, Schneemann reaches down and slowly draws out a scroll from her vagina, from
which she reads extracts from a feminist text she previously had written. This text contains criticisms she had received from an unnamed male who had dismissed her film work.

Schneemann is strong in her stance. As she draws the scroll from her vagina is gives her vagina a voice - allowing it’s history to be
considered and thought about. As she reads the text her hand reached up to face height is connected to her vagina visually by the scroll.

This length that was invisible only moments previously illuminates the space within a female body; it brings our attention to the fact
that a vagina goes deeper than the vulva that is so often displayed in images made for and by men. The female body has a depth in it’s internal spaces, and so it is unpredictable in comparison to an external gaze.

 

   
Post - Porn Modernist Show. Annie Sprinkle. (1992)
New York.

Annie Sprinkle’s career is seeded in the sex industry which informs her art practice. For this performance Sprinkle narrated her career achievements; she then inserted a speculum and invited the audience to step forward to look at her cervix.

For Sprinkle, her sexuality is empowering, and whilst she is offering her body up to the close inspection of both the male and female gaze, she
remains in control and in a position of power. The audience, armed with a torch stand near the space between her legs, with her cervix at eye level.

There is something child-like in this curious gaze, fascinated with the normatively forbidden sight of an internal landscape that is almost as
alien to us as the distant galaxies in the universe.
   
   
Self Portrait with Eggs. Sarah Lucas.
(1996)
Digital print on paper. Dimensions: 745 x 514 mm. Acquisition purchased by Tate 2001. 

Here we see Lucas sitting, arms and knees spread open with feet flat to the ground. Her direct eye contact and body posture communicates strength  and despite the camera angle simulating us looking down on Lucas, it doesn’t seem like she is offering herself up submissively to the gaze, but that she is holding our gaze defiantly.

The absurd humour of the fried eggs on Lucas’ breasts contrasts with her serious face.

Wearing clothes that are androgynous and with eggs signifying her breast, the macho stance that Lucas adopts shows us that a woman’s body can be fluid in it’s form and appearance. The notion of the female as
feminine is unfixed, just as male as masculine is not inevitable.

   

   
Win. Poppy Jackson.
(2012)
Performed at Alien(s) in New York.
10 minutes duration. WIN sign, gold leaf, razor blade.
Curated by Bean & Benjamin Sebastian
Grace Exhibition Space, New York.
Photo: Anna Martinou.


Jackson’s website states: ‘Jackson maintains eye contact with every audience member as they file down a narrow corridor in close proximity to her body. She is positioned upside-down in the corner with the 'WIN' sign inserted into her vagina, a pile of gold leaf in one hand and a razorblade in the other.

When all the audience are seated, Jackson pulls her body up the wall with her legs, takes the razorblade and cuts red bird-shaped line from one shoulder to the other. As the cut bleeds upwards, over her upside-down shoulders, she sticks the gold leaf over the cut.

Jackson then pulls out the 'WIN' sign, stands, and begins to shake violently as
pieces of gold flutter from her body to the   
floor. She steadies herself, acknowledges the audience once again and parts them as she leaves the space.’


   


​​​
Jackson told me that the WIN sign was obtained at a fairground. It was a sign/target at a stall; signifying a prize to aim for, to win. By inserting the sign into her vagina, Jackson challenges the misogynistic notion of female body as commodity, as something to own and show off, like a trophy. By maintaining eye contact, Jackson commands the space, reclaims the gaze surrounding her nude body. As she opens her body up to it’s surroundings, the space almost becomes an extension of her.

The strength of her body to hold itself in position counterbalances her vulnerability. This is not a damsel in distress. This is a confrontational body, holding the space and those who enter it. The gold leaf, Jackson’s breath and the way it moves through the air of the room as she shakes her body breaks any boundary there may be between the viewer and the artist.

The notion of the here or there / external and internal is dismantled through this shaking action and also with the signifying of internal spaces occupied by the sign at the beginning of the performance. As she cuts through the audience with her path at the end, it is clear that this was a shared experience with the viewer, that these were moments of transformative liminality.

http://poppyjackson.co.uk