It is rather hilarious to hang a feminist, women-only art show at a state institution that strikes coins. And that is not the only funny thing about this fabulous show, which will run through the end of January (2018). The show is also heartbreaking, and I have to admit that within about five minutes I was close to tears, as the first room showcases a short film made to explicate and record Womanhouse, the California Institute of the Arts 1972 multimedia explosion in an old mansion in LA, brainstormed by Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago. Remember that? I do. Remember the gentlemen who were hard pressed to interpret the bathroom full of used “sanitary” products? Remember the fried eggs on the ceiling that gradually turned into breasts as they moved down the walls? Remember the penis-vagina performance, and the agonizing Waiting performance? I don’t, but they are captured in the old film. Here, miraculously, is a link to that piece. And another miracle: an online archive by the creators, here. (Net neutrality allows this to pop up, methinks. Let’s make sure we don’t have to kiss that goodbye.)
The Womanhouse space, active for only a few months before being pulled apart, well deserves the honor of being echoed and extended by this 39 artist multimedia show. (The destruction of the original show was not a political statement, by the way — the Hollywood mansion, slated for demolition, was given to the show’s organizers for a limited period of time.) To me the most brilliant performance pieces in Womanhouse 1972 were the “maintenance” pieces, in which audiences watched as a woman ironed and folded a bed sheet, and in a second piece, washed the theater floor. Those agonizingly demonstrated, killingly boring tasks have made up women’s lives for, well, ever, it seems. Ironing the bed sheets? I grew up with friends who slept on ironed bed sheets. Thank the goddess, my mother balked at that. She ironed other things, though. This show in 2017 amplifies that reality and extends it beyond 1972.
La Monnaie, which regularly hosts art exhibits, is actually a wonderful space for the show, which sprawls through many rooms on two large floors. Much of the artwork dates from that decade of the 1970s, when we all started going nuts and asserting our personhood. That’s where much of the humor comes from — not the notion that women are people (though I realize there are men and even a few women who still find that assertion puzzling if not laughable), but the art work that carries many cultural assumptions and expectations to their logical conclusions.
The exhibit centers on and tortures the relationship between women and houses: the way women are caged in houses, the work they do in houses, the transformation of both the women and the houses by their interactions. A number of sculptures and images depict women captured by houses…lying on shelves or literally built into cupboards (actually, that was part of the 1972 Womanhouse installation, which I show above). There are videos and images of women climbing around rooms; hammering down walls; being tortured in their homes; caged like tigers; trapped with their hands caught in iron gates. There are several ironing boards being used to iron humans.
Interestingly, in most of these pieces, the woman is alone, isolated, without husband or children. Those are implied, of course, by the activities she pursues, resists, or is defeated by. Several artists turn the women INTO houses, where mates’ and children’s activities are imagined. These installations swing both ways — some are exciting, some are sci-fi horrifying. The absence of the persons for whom the woman labors and maintains her confined passive existence in a weird way underlines the cultural imperatives at work here. You don’t need an external prison guard if you’ve got one inside your own body.
Virginia Woolf’s inspiring essay, A Room of One’s Own, is also quoted and honored by a number of artists, who imagine and model new spaces, some tongue in cheek, some just lost in a fantasy of designing and building a woman-centered, woman-inspired space. One room early on presents a timeline of women in architecture and design, which both underlines how very long it’s taken for men’s organizations to allow women inside, and celebrates the women’s persistence in being taken seriously.
After closing in Paris in January, the Women House exhibit will be hung at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., from March through May. Considering all the crap going down in Washington these days, if you must go to that spiritually polluted city this spring, be sure to visit this show. Oh, and strangely and wonderfully, one of my favorite photographers, Zanele Muholi, is also represented in this show, in perhaps the happiest image here.