Friday, September 11, 2009

Big Vagina and Hannah Wilke

"You can say a Gothic church is a phallic symbol, but if I say the nave of the church is really a big vagina, people are offended." Hannah Wilke, 1985
Born Arlene Hannah Butter in New York City, Hannah Wilke was a controversial figure of Feminist Art in the 1970s. She began her career sculpting with some success, creating vulval forms out of latex and ceramic, but she is best known for her performance-based work wherein she uses her own image and obvious beauty to set up the ideal of the pinup. In her best known work, S.O.S - Starification Object Series, 1974, Wilke is seen topless in a variety of archetypal feminine guises: the housewife, the fashion model, etc., but she has covered her body with vaginal objects made of chewing gum. Wilke's critics at the time charged her with narcissism and argued that she was complicit in such objectification as much as she was challenging it. Her work was rethought when Wilke showed "Intra Venus" some twenty years later, a project documenting, often with the same sense of humor as S.O.S., her battle with cancer. The criticism never seemed to hurt her career; her work is part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Jewish Museum in New York, and the Brooklyn Museum.
Gestures is a series of performance-based works in which Wilke faces the camera in extreme close-up and performs repetitive or durational physical actions. At times she kneads and pulls her skin as if it were sculptural material. Often her gestures - rubbing her hands over her face, smiling so hard that she appears to be grimacing, sticking out her tongue - take on a loaded significance when seen in the context of gender performance

Hannah Wilke was an artist who worked until her death. Rather than end her photographic practice when she became ill, Wilke recorded her illness for all to see. These self-portraits(taken for Wilke by Donald Goddard) are part of her Intra-Venus Series and were taken in or near her hospital bed in 1992. The bed, whether in sickness or in health, is a key site of our identity - it is where we are born, sleep, make love, seek refuge and finally die. Wilke herself died of cancer in 1993, but not before leaving us with an incredible collection of photographs charting the progression of her illness and the progressive decay of her body. All the images show pain but some, like the one on the right, perhaps reveal an acceptance and a sense of peace. She must have been a very strong individual.

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