She’s not wrong. It’s hard for the female body to escape its social position as fetishised object. In the art world, this kind of escape is almost impossible. Enter Body Anxiety, an online exhibition curated by Jennifer Chan and Leah Schrager. The show features an all-female lineup of 21 artists, all using their own bodies in or as the works, and aims to totally reshape existing narratives surrounding gendered bodies and identity.
Which is, by the way, no small feat. In an artistic canon where the female body is usually represented in male-authored works, there’s a kind of liberation that comes with representing your own body the way you want it to be seen. “It’s less about gender and more about authorship,” says Schrager. “Since traditionally the man would paint the female nude, the roles are gendered. But if an artist is using themselves in a work, there’s a completely different power dynamic, and that’s the power dynamic I was most interested in in curating Body Anxiety.”
Chan agrees. “Men don’t seem to look at themselves or share the act of looking at themselves as much on social media,” she says. “It’s not ‘masculine’, or perhaps they don’t conceive of their male being and identity that way. In online spaces, women (and drag queens) get way more attention. The next step is what you do with it.”
What Body Anxiety does with this attention is a bold and badass attempt to reclaim the female nude through art, a medium with a deep historical entrenchment of presenting the female body as object. Subverting this gaze, the works in Body Anxiety defy the sexual objectification of the female form so rampant in the porn and pop media that fills our screens daily. “I think all the artists in this show have their own approach to this,” says Schrager, “and I really respect the varying strategies. I think that the model speaking and being the author of a work is a big step to reclaiming the female nude. I’ve reclaimed legal ownership over my image (as a model) and then created artwork out of that. Next would be the art world respecting an artist for doing such!”
The works themselves – by prominent and emerging digital artists such as RAFiA Santana, May Waver, Hannah Black, Ann Hirsch and Aurorae Parker – are an eclectic mixture of gif art, online performance, digital art, photography, video and poetry. Many of the works blur the boundaries between the sexual and the political: what’s sexual is politicised, and what’s political is sexualised. In her curator’s statement, Chan reminds us not to confuse sexual agency with political agency, writing:
Self-sexualisation in a way that appeases men might give women the chance to profit in a sexist world – to have a seat at the master’s table – but it doesn’t fight sexual stereotypes that women run up against every day. The problem is not ultimately how women choose to look, but everyone else looking at sexual women as exchangeable props or brainless sluts. Being uninhibitedly sexy feels great, but don’t confuse sexual agency with political agency. While dancing in a slinky dress and heels, Beyonce tells us that girls “run the world” when the majority of men in political, tech, and business leadership positions exceed women and trans people holding them by far.
If that’s the case, I ask her, how can women use our sexualities and our bodies to gain agency and power in a real, political way? “I’ve always felt there was an expanding divide between contemporary art, theory and activism,” Chan says. “While I don’t think art should always bear the burden of political representation and social change, for anyone to call their work feminist without thinking about how it exists in systems of overlapping hierarchies of race/class/gendered power is inherently problematic. The hardest thing is to look at yourself and examine that: what kinds of powers you have or don’t have, and how to include and signal boost those who are disempowered.”
In a society where femaleness is a category that comes with a strict set of rules and expectations on how to behave, performing self-realised versions of femaleness can be subversive and empowering. A deliberate enactment of femaleness-as-performance – whether for self-expression or artistic expression – can be a liberation from the social pressures of femaleness-as-lived-experience. Many of the works in Body Anxiety deliberately blur the boundaries between these two versions of the female category, challenging the audience’s views of how those categories are defined and delineated. “There’s a paradoxical liberation and disempowerment based on assumed gender identity,” says Chan. “While you can ‘wear’ a gender that’s not one you’re biologically assigned to online, this kind of empathy from society for gendered struggle somehow doesn’t carry over to face-to-face interactions.”
Not so in the world of Body Anxiety. In this space, you can ‘wear’ whatever identifier you like. “I like that performance, the web and art give a space for women and female-identifiers to play,” says Schrager. “To experiment, glorify, horrify, beautify, and all the experimentations in between.”
Thumbnail image: May Waver, “Content Aware 2”, 2014, Animated gif