Pussy Power and body art in brief
- In one of art’s usual paradoxes, one of the pioneers in the otherwise woman-dominated field of body art was a man, named Yves Klein, who in 1960 used naked women as live brushes.
- Body art’s breakthrough took place from the early 1960s and onwards.
- Body art depicts the body, parts of the body or one of its waste products. The artists often use their own naked bodies.
- From the outset, body art was closely related to feminism
- Body art is an art form in constant development
Creating your own space
Body art and feminist art were established as art forms simultaneously in the years around 1970, and throughout the 1970s they were often closely related and difficult to tell apart.
This coupling is not surprising. Within both body art and feminist art, one of the core challenges was to create a space for the woman inside the art world as well as in work and society. Where previously, women only had access to the art museums as the male artist’s beautiful and often naked motif, they now fought for access as artists. Beautiful or not. Dressed as well as undressed.
But many female artists didn’t want to follow the rules laid out by men. Meaning that they didn’t want to step onto the art scene using the forms of expression traditionally used by men. Instead, they wished to create their own space where they wouldn’t have to compete with an ancient, male tradition.
In trying to do this, body art and performance art with its many female performers play an important role. These new forms of expression weren’t as infested with a male-dominated history as the old ones and as such represent a much more free framework in which women could express themselves.
One of the strongest Danish examples of an artist working with this intertwining of body, societal- and art politics is Kirsten Justesen.
Women as living brushes
Performance art, which became determining for many female artists’ development of their own artistic universe and for body art, paradoxically has a male artist as one of its earliest pioneers.
In 1960, Yves Klein made one of his now famous performances with the title Anthropométries, where he used naked women soaked in 'Yves Klein Blue' paint as living brushes. Clad in an immaculate suit, Yves Klein instructed the women without getting paint on his fingers.
In 1963, Carolee Schneeman made her Eye-Body performance where she, over a number of photographs, explores her naked body as a visual territory. The photograph where the artist lies on her back, covered in paint and with two snakes slithering across her naked body, has especially achieved iconic status within the development of performance- and body art.
But it wasn’t until the late 1960s, that body art first started to spread. This was at the same time Kirsten Justesen made her first works within this genre.
Who’s wearing the trousers?
Voluptuous breasts and a pregnant belly proudly take the stage under the heading Pussy Power. The picture is in black & white, but the writing is in blood-red. The motif is from Kirsten Justesen’s series of serigraphies with the title Pussy Power and was used as the poster for the Artists’ Easter Exhibition in 1971.
As noted by art historian Vibeke Knudsen, the work is
“a potent image, outbidding one of masculinity's power symbols, where the pregnant belly is seen as a sign of male dominance."
Here, Vibeke Knudsen refers to the idea that the woman’s pregnant belly is proof of her having been fucked. An idea leading to interpreting the pregnant belly as a phallic triumph. But when Justesen adds the words “Pussy Power” to the pregnant belly, the power balance shifts and we’re challenged as to who’s actually wearing the trousers here?
Pussy Power also questions who it is that owns and controls the woman’s sexual pleasure. Is she just an object for the man’s pleasure? Or is she a subject who, on the same terms as the man, has the right to her own sexuality?
Kirsten Justesen touches the same issues in the work Fish & Chips from 1978, which associate professor at University of Copenhagen, Tania Ørum, interprets as a masturbation picture. A woman is in the shower with the shower head on an upward trajectory. We see only her feet and part of her legs, but, despite the relatively limited view, nevertheless, we have no doubt as to where the jet will soon hit. In this picture, Kirsten Justesen has therefore liberated herself and has literally taken the shower head in her own hands.
Both Pussy Power and Fish & Chips are examples of how body art and feminism merge in this period.
One struggle, many agendas
In the same way as it was difficult to tell body art from feminism in the 1970s, the feminists thought it important that the feminist struggle should also be inseparable from the class struggle. A problem which Justesen illustrates and comments on in Class Struggle from 1976 and which Tania Ørum analyses like this:
“As shown in the picture, there was always tension between feminist struggle and class struggle: Class struggle is on the public agenda, but the woman is mired in the private kitchen space full of children, cleaning, cooking. In her sloppy-intimate outfit, which indicate both the privacy of house work and the preparations for beautification of the female body with her bare legs in slippers and curlers in her hair, this woman is very far from the barricades of the class struggle.
What is this picture promoting? With her back to kitchen and kids, cigarette in hand and focused on her reading, the woman demonstrates an ignorance towards the home sphere and her engagement in the outer world: The emancipation from the role of house wife. However, she’s visually paralleled with the two children flanking her and with the naked sculpture in the back, which she’s almost duplicating, the same way as both she and the children duplicate the shape of the vacuum cleaner with their upper bodies while the sway of her hip and the angle of her legs visually mimic the curve of the vacuum cleaner hose and the triangle between the two parts of the hose. If the text she’s reading hadn’t read CLASS STRUGGLE in unrealistically large type (which makes it a didactically mounted foreign object in the photograph), the woman could just as well had been the classic housewife with her cuppa and her paper. Now, she’s clearly retouched and edited. A picture then, of discourse or irony if you will. But which way this irony is directed is not clear, rather it’s ambiguous.”
The battle for diversity
It is consistent in Kirsten Justesen and other artists who work with body- and feminist art that the starting point is personal, but the message is political or general. Although the model is e.g. Kirsten Justesen, the work is not about Justesen as a person but more generally about the woman as gender and about her legitimacy as subject, a person in her own right.
In Danish artist Lene Adler Petersen series Cuttings on Paper with the Woman-power Emblem from 1974, things are more or less reversed. Here, the starting point is not one woman, but many different women. And in spite of that, the work, as well as Justesen’s and others’ is about the woman’s own legitimacy. The series consists of 484 cuttings with motifs with female connotations (motifs of women or with female references) from magazines, pasted onto an A5 piece of paper and decorated with a woman power emblem.
The cuttings are from the diverse worlds of reality and fiction, but there’s not a single one of a more private nature. The work focuses on our common visual reality and is overall characterised by a disorganised and somewhat chaotic archive of the variety of roles women play, all shown together under the auspice of the woman power emblem.
Art historian Birgitte Anderberg, who has analysed and interpreted this work, explains that although the work’s meaning is determined by the woman power emblem, which figures on each piece, it is ambiguous in relation to the feminist agenda. In stead, Lene Adler Petersen has used the woman power emblem in a way so it creates many different meanings. In this way, she avoids locking the emblem and the work in one unequivocal and/or moralising interpretation.
Birgitte Anderberg writes: "Even though Cuttings on Paper with the Woman-power Emblem is structured by the Woman-power emblem as regards its significance, it certainly does not demonstrate a definite, clear-cut relationship with feminist political discourse. The work is not obviously characterised by specific political views in the form of unequivocal opinions or normative, moralising statements anchored through the sign. The Woman-power emblem evades the traditional, unambiguously value-laden and anchoring function that it unavoidably takes on within ideological contexts”