The Violence of Gender: Performing Society

The Violence of Gender: Performing Society, at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, Hong Kong

Installation view: Raphaela Vogel, Uterusland, 2017. Tai Kwun Contemporary, 2019

In the wake of the #metoo movement, where power, activism, feminism and gender collide, a new exhibition at Tai Kwun Contemporary at Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and the Arts proposes to look at the underlying institutional structural problems that have laid the foundations for gender inequality. Curated by German curator Susanne Pfeffer, director of the Museum für Kunst in Frankfurt am Main,  Performing Society: The Violence of Gender examines how notions of gender have been shaped by society and culture. The exhibition, which features the work of 11 international artists (with only three males) is skewed heavily in favour of exploring the violence that lies in the construction of the feminine, and the tyranny of hegemonic social and cultural female roles.

The exhibition title carries echoes of American philosopher, feminist and gender theorist Judith Butler whose work explores gender performativity and undoing gender. Indeed, Pfeffer pulls apart the construct of gender, in particular female gender, for as French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, ‘one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one… it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature.’ By looking at social and cultural conditioning–– from educational institutions, religious traditions and family structures––works in the exhibition reveal the misogyny and violence of beauty, history and politics, and of patriarchal capitalism.

Installation view: Pamela Rosenkranz, Sexual Power (Three Viagra Paintings), 2018. Acrylic on aluminium, transparent foil, latex gloves, aluminium foil, sneakers, bucket, paint bottles. Tai Kwun Contemporary, 2019

The first works encountered in the two-floor exhibition are Swiss artist Pamela Rosenkranz’s Sexual Power (Three Viagra Paintings) (2018), a series of  human-scale rose, flesh and orange-toned paintings. Leaning against the white exhibition walls they look like they have been painted in situ.  Paint splattered plastic floor-covering is spread across the exhibition space, as if the artist has momentarily left the space to get a cup of coffee.

Created after consuming Viagra– an empty packet of which lies discarded on the protective plastic sheeting– up close the panels are teasingly tactile, oozing with viscous, monochrome pigment which covers every inch of the panels. The shades of her paintings are evocative of makeup or flushed flesh tones, like pink cheeks from blushing, an involuntary reflex often associated with shame, embarrassment and female sexuality, and the only effect the male ‘performance enhancing’ drug has on female biology. It’s as if flushed or rouged flesh was melted and smeared across the panel surface.

Thick drips of pigment trickle their way down the panels. They are visceral and somewhat abject, ejaculatory, and suggestive of the expulsion of sexual and physical energy. These energetic and forceful gestures across the large panel surface recall the Action paintings of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Indeed that is the point. By ingesting the male virility drug, Rosenkranz challenges biologically and socially determined gender classification in order to subvert the idea of painting as a male dominated practice, upending the phallocentric narrative of the art historical canon.

Anne Imhof, Promise to be Good, 2019, at Tai Kwun Contemporary
Anne Imhof, Prior Park, 2019, at Tai Kwun Contemporary

Also thumbing her nose at the patriarchal art historical canon is Promise to be Good, I and II (2019) Anne Imhof’s installation of polished black enamel panels. The slick panels are evocative of works by John McCracken and the Finish Fetish artists of 1970s Los Angeles which conveyed and embodied the masculine fetishization of car culture. But these panels are not left flawless and polished, instead they are defaced and vandalised by the artist. The black aluminium panels have been violently and furiously scratched as if a key was taken to the side of a car. This is a transgressive marking of territory, a reclaiming of space on these masculine fetish objects.

The inclusion of Prior Park (2019), an empty orthopaedic chair in the middle of the exhibition room, gives the installation an institutional context. The title sounds like it could have been lifted from the name of a mental health clinic, or a severe Catholic boarding school. This type of chair is routinely used to restrain children with physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities in American public schools. It also hints at restraining measures used against ‘hysterical’ women from the 19th century until today, where in mental health facilities women are more likely than men to experience physical restraint. The installation speaks of institutional violence, discipline, indoctrination and punishment meted out to correct behaviour and emotional outbursts.

Around half the works in the show are films, which require engagement and time. This isn’t an exhibition to be walked through breezily.  On a television screen placed at ground level, Chinese artist Dong Jinling’s video Dong Jinling 2-2 (2011) explores the complexity of motherhood, female autonomy of the body, and sacrifice. Playing with the idea of Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 readymade Fountain (a urinal turned on its side as a fountain) Dong Jinling’s fountain spurts from her left breast as her hand expresses milk in the air. The work is both transgressive––the female anatomy, particularly the nipple, becomes a site for censure and controversy in the public domain–– and abject, as bodily fluid is expelled from the body.

Somewhat confusingly located was the second part of Dong’s installation on another floor which featured a nude self-portrait photograph of the artist, revealing her asymmetrical breasts, the physical repercussion of her decision to use one breast in feeding her child, and keep the other for herself. The work delineates between reproduction and sexuality, exploring the separation of individual identity from motherhood. Ironically, what the works also highlight is the still extant issues over the female body. The female body is a site of oppression and shame, exemplified by the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s (Tai Kwun operator) censoring of the show. Images of the female nipple in Dong Jinling 2-1 were censored in press materials and the exhibition is given an R 18+ rating. German artist Raphaela Vogel’s giant anatomical breast model, Uterusland (2017) which explores the violence in one’s own body as it is invaded by cancer, suffered similar censure, concealed behind a frosted glass door to the exhibition space.

Marianna Simnett, The Udder, 2014, Single-channel HD video. Tai Kwun Contemporary

Blending documentary style with fable, British artist Marianna Simnett constructs a graphic, stomach-churning and densely layered allegorical narrative about gender and the battle waged for control of the female body, in this case of the central protagonist, a young prepubescent girl. The Udder  (2014) for which she won the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Award in 2014, is shot on a dairy farm in rural Sussex, England, where mechanised milk production becomes a site of struggle between contamination (corruption) and purity.

A sense of menace and dread pervades the story as footage of dissected, infected and milked cow udders is juxtaposed with those of the young girl wandering around an enclosed paddock. On the cusp of puberty and transformation, she desires freedom but is told she’s too pretty to move freely; she could become dirty and contaminated. Chastity is the only defence against contagion, and can only be attained through absolute control of the body. Through the telling of a historical story of the nun of Saint Aebbe the Younger, who cuts off her nose (to spite herself) to avoid rape by Danish Vikings, the film explores the misogyny of mythology around ideas of female purity. The female body is an object of desire, a passive object unto which things are done, subjected to threat and violence. To keep it safe, one must keep it hidden, or destroy one’s beauty (so as to not ‘ask for it’) which the protagonist eventually does, cutting off her nose. The film examines the pervasive fear of victimisation women must live with, as well as the constant pressure to be a ‘good girl’, and the restriction on freedom of movement and behaviour.

Conversely, Ma Qiusha’s film, Must Be Beauty (2009) explores the pressures women face to maintain beauty standards enforced by society. You’re damned if you’re beautiful and damned if you’re not. The film depicts a young woman in a black slip lying upside down on a bed surrounded by dozens of jars of beauty products which she resolutely and unflinchingly consumes over several minutes. Slurping and sucking these creams, the artist rejects the intended use of the products for face or body, thereby rejecting societal beauty standards, instead consuming the toxic promise of beauty (beautiful on the inside) in a critique of a ‘misogynistic culture that rewards a culture of self-harm.’

Julia Phillips, Positioner, 2016. Glazed ceramics, metals screws, metal structure, partly glazed ceramic tiles. Tai Kwun Contemporary, 2019.

Darkly comic, twisted and uncomfortable is Who’s the Daddy (2017) by Hong Kong artist Wong Ping––the only local artist––which touches on the construction of toxic masculinity. Narrated by a male, the colourful, saccharine-looking animation explores the complicated relationship between sexual impulse and societal shaping, examining power, pleasure and pain. It is a bouillabaisse of taboos, sexual desires and perversions, from sadomasochism, cottaging, fisting, and abortion, exploring male sexual anxiety, castration complex, and feelings of inadequacy, repression, loneliness, and shame. Wong’s work explores the violence done to men, where vulnerability is condemned as weakness and exploited.

Liu Yefu, who works between New York and Beijing, is the only artist in the show whose work touches on non-binary gender identity. In his film York News (2014), the artist plays the role of a transvestite, donning red heels, makeup and a green wig. She is seemingly homeless––perhaps a discarded commodity of the sex economy ––sitting on a park bench invisible to passers-by. Inspired by Slavoj Zizek’s book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, a collection of essays on September 11, York News is a critique and condemnation of heteronormativity, hierarchical sexual structures, and the excesses and emptiness promulgated by late capitalism.

Accompanied by a female voiceover, the 11-minute film invokes an influx of images, a collage of contemporary capitalist culture with its brutality, violence, rapacious consumption, and sex, played against a variable soundtrack of classical music, techno and the theme from the Titanic. We’re all just partying on a sinking ship as capitalism devours itself, it suggests.  The film is an assault of visual information. It is Ginsburg’s Howl for a disaffected, technology and media-dependant generation, where pleasure is juxtaposed with violence, and violence and sex are part of the entertainment economy.

The exhibition explores gender largely from within a heteronormative binary. It leaves much to be desired on the subject of the construct of masculinity and how violence contributes to this construct. While the reality is that most gendered violence is violence against women, if structural violence is a gendered phenomenon surely it bears exploring the other side, the side of the oppressor, not just the oppressed and the victimised.  Nonetheless, The Violence of Gender is a bold and timely introductory chapter to a broad and complex subject matter. Confronting gender as a discourse suffused by power relations, the exhibition unravels gender as a battlefield for identity and self-determination.