April 2009, UN-SCR 1325 @ Chelsea Art Museum
Sophie Muller, Eve, 2008, Bronze, 47 in.
UN-SCR 1325: An exhibition referencing the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325
Chelsea Art Museum
556 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011
New York, NY
Curated by Jan Van Woensel
Assistant Curation by Vanessa Albury
On March 8, 2001, I joined hundreds of jubilant women in the United Nations to celebrate International Women’s Day and the establishment of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. We began with a Women In Black peace vigil on the plaza outside—exciting in itself because WIB had been for years relegated to holding its vigil across the street on the Isaiah plaza, unable to enter the UN or really be seen by its denizens. Three women performed wearing Duston Spear’s Three Women In Black dresses that had toured the world since 1993. WIB was one of the honorees receiving the Unifem Millennium Peace Prize. The mood in the room was one of elation, camaraderie, and shared pain as the honorees spoke. The most moving was a teenage girl from Colombia who spoke on behalf of Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres. She was wise and articulate beyond her years. She had experienced living in a country of war and was working for a new way of living.
That assembly celebrated the variety of roles played by women in conflict resolution and peacemaking, and shared the pain of variety of women’s suffering in war. Jan Van Woensel’s exhibition at Chelsea Art Museum is curated in the same spirit. It presents eight interpretations of UNSCR 1325 by female Belgian artists, as well as the dialogues of eight female American artists with those pieces. The Belgian pieces were commissioned separately on the occasion of Belgium’s appointment as temporary member of the UN Security Council. The exhibition in Chelsea was curated combining those pieces with sympathetic work of American artists—some of which were made expressly for the exhibition. The curators tried to match the selection of American artists in terms of career levels, while seeking work that could be presented in a dialogue with the work of the Belgians.
For the most part, the works are not expressly about women as disproportionate victims of war, nor about women as peacemakers. They play on themes of women’s roles, the singularity and uniqueness of women, of women maintaining freedom of soul in the face of oppression and adversity, and of women determining their own identity. Works address women aging, women as sexual subjugates, women as soldiers—a conflicted identity, to be sure—women playing roles that they have chosen and roles that are forced upon them. These can overlap: the sex worker has her power in the master-slave dialectic; the woman chooses to become a soldier, to wear a uniform, follow the rules—chooses in short to make her identity one which is rigidly choreographed by an institution and subsumed by the rules thereof, but one in which she nevertheless remains singular.
It is a powerful exhibition, with many provocative pieces. Most are conceptual, and most actually work as conceptual pieces should: giving multiple points of entry and inspiring many layers of meaning without the viewer ever unlocking an absolute meaning that finishes the work, sealing it off from future encounters. The representational works are as coded in concepts as the more abstract pieces—a simple portrait of a girl plays on a portrait by Vermeer, portraits of American women soldiers take up conflicted roles of peacemakers and killers. Again, women are not just victims, but are agents of their lives, catalysts for their own change.
The works combine to simulate the place of women in the world, a nebulous non-place determined by shared experiences of women and the shared dangers that we all potentially face. A few pieces were very simple, but very striking: Adrian Piper’s “Everything #4” (2004) flanked by Marie-Jo LaFontaine’s “Dreams Are Free” (2008). Piper’s piece consists of a framed oval mirror etched with the words “EVERYTHING WILL BE TAKEN AWAY.” It reminds the viewer that we must be continually vigilant of our rights and our safety, that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Also, resonant with some other pieces in the show, the theme of time and aging is present. Every time I look at the work, I am different, changed.
LaFontaine’s piece is a large black and white photograph of a woman tossing her long, dark hair. Her face is covered by her hair - the tossing can be defiance or hiding. The first impression I had was of all the women around the world who cover their hair and faces. What women hide underneath their veils is more than their bodies. They hide their dreams and hopes, they hide all expression and individuality. Though hidden from the world, these are not erased but kept in rebellion against the roles that they must play in their society.
Along with LaFontaine, Sophie Muller’s piece “Eve” seems to address women’s survival in adversity. Eve—the first woman? The mother of us all?—is a small girl of bronze, painted pale and chalky. Her hair has an African style and she wears only underpants. Her feet are stained dark and she draws brown circles on the wall with her finger dipped in—blood? mud? feces? She seems to be finding creativity in oppression, giving the piece a hopefulness. This young girl, despite her rude beginnings, is able to dream and might yet be able to do anything.
Vanessa Albury’s piece mirrors the circles drawn by “Eve,” the chains in Jen DeNike’s “Gold Rush” piece, and the crocheting and chains in Leah Singer’s work. Albury’s work consisted of yards of 16mm film draped elegantly across metal rods sticking out from the wall. The piece is an actual film that can be projected, as well as a sculpture. It is, of course, impossible to tell what action might be happening in the tiny frames. I can, however, see lengths of light and dark, each the inversion of the other; I see circles of light on the film and circles drawn with a pen. We each live with this light and darkness inside us. We are all connected together like these long ribbons of film. In fact, the circles of light also resemble chains: we cannot escape other other nor our responsibility to others. Some of the frames are redrawn in ink, reframing the action, reframing our circumstances. Written in pen in various colors appears “I took an orgasm today”—a declaration of defiance, or even violence.
Kathleen Hanna & Becca Albee and Claire Beckett address women’s femininity along with women’s need to protect themselves. Hanna & Albee made a display case for this show called “Incase of, New York City” (2009). In the case were small groupings of objects—things women need for protection and security, things we are told we need. Some were totems of our times, some for everyday safety, some for desperate measures. They included such items as flashlights and bottled water, everyday protection like an umbrella, but also very personalized collections such as real women might carry. A sample of the groupings are: lip balm and pepper spray; a photograph of two cats and a plastic bag with a single pill (I immediately think of cyanide pills such as a spy would carry, but it looked more like a birth control pill); notebooks, keys, a Luna bar (the food bar for women!), and a package of Emergen-C; $20, a bandaid, a scarf; a cell phone charging; tampon, contact lens case, napkins; and a whistle and books with titles like “How to Meditate,” “Gifts of Fear,” “Worst Case Scenarios.” Our recent presidential regime used fear as a weapon, trying to keep us always afraid and dependent. People cannot live in this state forever, with their stock of bottled water and an emergency bag packed. We have daily emergencies that override these: needing a tampon or a public toilet, a job and an apartment. Even our local subway system urges us to be constantly vigilant and to take action to protect ourselves.
Claire Beckett’s “In Training” series is a documentary project of young soldiers preparing to go to war and the training facilities. The photographs selected for this show included young female recruits. Private Rebecca Hill has a very young babyish face and thick glasses that could be problematic on the battlefield. She stands tall and stern in her camouflage and helmet, holding her automatic rifle. The young women have taken up the traditional male role in an attempt at self-protection, taken up the role of the one who points the guns at the women and children who are disproportionately the victims of wars. Even the men who take this role subsume their identities to the one dictated by absolute discipline and uniformity. As in the LaFontaine piece, where the woman tosses her hair, and in “Eve,” we wonder what part of themselves these women are hiding, putting in reserve.
Ann Veronica Janssens’s “Untitled” (1993-2008) piece suggests the uniqueness of a woman’s role and contribution. A neon light is installed on the ceiling so that it cuts through a gallery wall, with halves of the light in two different rooms. It gives the impression of light cutting through darkness, and of joining two sides together by breaking through the wall that divides them. The light and darkness plays with the light and darkness in Albury’s piece, and also with an adjacent Beckett photograph. That one, “Trench, Camp Edwards, MA” (2006), is a modified landscape, a manufactured place for conflict and safety. A hill is banked with sandbags to form a bunker, with a small opening. The darkness of the trench is suggested against the light of day, as well as the internal forces of light and dark that drive conflicts.
Unfortunately, a few pieces were not comprehensible without the explanatory text in the catalogue. These included Kati Heck’s “Zeichnung fur: Grosstadt” (2008) and Karin Hanssen’s lovely portrait “The Girl” (2008). The former referenced a pornographer and women as sex workers, though this did not come through independently. The drawing was hung facing the DeNike gold bikini and probably relates to that unseen (by me) performance. The latter was a reply to Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Hanssen’s “Girl” faces the opposite direction and is dark with dark hair, in counterpoint to the creamy Dutch of the original.
All in all, the show is a pleasure on many levels. One of these levels was the variety of thought-provoking approaches to the theme. Others pleasures were the quality of the works and the avoidance of heavy-handedness. A show such as this could have been made of works that were very much in-your-face, or of blunt one-dimensional works that did not allow any interpretation by the viewer. It was full of surprise and not at all predictable. It was feminist in the best sense, a celebration of women’s power, individuality, and solidarity, without it descending into an explicit and tired theme.
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