Curated by Asmudjo J. Irianto
Her Scape (Subvert) His Gaze
“The economy itself is masculine;
‘woman’ can have a value within it only
in relation to ‘man’. Her role is defined as
that object which accompanies, enhance,
reflect him. Woman as individuals have
no identity in this system.” 1
Lately, Erika’s works seem to be intended for men (and male viewers). Though she does not see herself as a feminist, it is hard to deny that her art works have situated themselves squarely in the path of feminism—one of postmodernism’s main branches. Erika’s feminist nature is not evident in her daily life, but it is extremely evident in her art pieces. Like other feminist artists, Erika displays herself in her art works. The things we witness in her pieces contradict her tender and mostlyfeminine daily disposition. The Erika of her art works is not the Erika we know, sweet-natured and well-mannered. The Erika of her work is a ‘different’ sort of Erika, who airs protests and provokes the audience. In my opinion, this is why Erika’s work is interesting and worthy of notice.
Displaying one’s own body almost very plainly is something rarely encountered in works by Indonesian feminist artists— and this is not a definite requirement to begin with. This display of one’s own body is a strategy employed by many Western feminist artists. This is related to their efforts to subvert the female construction found within a patriarchal society. In many cultures and civilizations, like that of the West—currently dominating global culture—the female image is built by men for their own ends and interests. The history of Western Art has shown how women are often made into objects in works by male painters. This is especially true in 19th century paintings. The presence of the female body in works by Western painters of the time reflects how men viewed and valued female positions, often seen as subordinate to their own. Male artists controlled the appearance and meaning of the female figure in those paintings. The female figure is presented not a subject, but merely an object, that is, an object for the viewing pleasures of men. This grew into a stereotyping of female position in a patriarchal society. This, in turn, became the reason for feminist artists to overthrow such stereotypes, mainly by presenting their own bodies in the opposite way.
“By using their own bodies, women artists
are able to rid the works of the inherent
objectification involved in representing others
and potentially liberate the images from
stereotypical patterns of looking.”2
Most of Erika’s art works seen in this exhibition are continuations of her Mirror Sees Me series. If in her previous series Erika presented her own body, then in this series—titled Mirror Sees You—Erika employed the body of another woman as her model. In Mirror Sees Me, the artist’s figure is easily recognizable in her art pieces. In each of her works, her lifesized body image faces the viewers head on, daring them. Paint brush strokes around her body lend a dynamic effect, while at the same time appearing like a mysterious fog. The fact that we can easily recognize Erika in each of the figures makes her work even more “surprising”. This has inadvertently affected how viewers—who are familiar with Erika through daily interactions with her—perceive and read her works. In addition, the presentation of the artist’s own self has pushed Erika’s works closer to the genre of ‘self-portrait’. However, her work must also be seen as self-portraits with an orientation against gender bias, quite different from commonly understood self-portrait pieces. Thus, it is important to consider the existence of other texts in Erika’s works.
Nearly-nude female figures and mirrors are components used to highlight the feminist aura in Erika’s works. These are related to images of female (nude) bodies and mirrors found in works by male artists in 19th century Europe. Many paintings of that era depict women presented together with mirrors, “Most significantly, nude female ‘bathers’ or women dressing in artworks are generally represented with mirrors.”3 According to Marsha Meskimmon, mirrors have become an important element in demonstrating how women are part of male’s specular consumption, created in accordance to male whims4. Images of women dressing by the mirror, beautifying themselves, are seen as representations of female’s desire to appear according to requirements specified by the other gender, to fulfill male desires. According to Jacques Lacan, the mirror has also become an important factor to mark one’s consciousness over their personal existence, known as ‘the mirror stage’. Our understanding of self began at a very young age—from six to eighteen months—by seeing our reflections in the mirror. Through body reflections, the baby began to be conscious of its existence and its entire form (though in reality, a mere reflection of that particular form)—which is of a different reality compared to its fragmented daily life. However, Marsha Meskimmon also reminds us that Lacan’s point of view is, by definition, aimed at an entirely masculine situation.
“The viewing position which permits voyeuristic
and fetishistic looking in the Lacanian model is
by definition the masculine situation; women
who engage with the gaze in this traditional
sense do so by identifying masochistically
with the ‘woman-as-object’ or by taking up
masculine role.”5 (106)
Although the art of representational painting receded in the subsequent era of Modern Art, the supremacy of male artists continued unabated. There were almost no notable women artists in Modern Art history. The end of Modernism ushered a wave of Postmodernist artists marked by, among others, feminism. This carried over to the era of Contemporary Art. In an art context, amongst those championed and represented by most women artists is the effort to deconstruct patriarchal structures that have been erected by history, discourse, and theories of Western Art. As such, we require a close examination of works by women artists who are well aware of the problems of gender bias.
* * *
It seems that after a total presentation of her own body, Erika has in mind to embark on a different possibility. This time, her artistic urge has enabled her to become the subject, organizing scenes from outside the frame of her art works. For this, Erika needed the body of another woman to direct. There are two possibilities presented when an artist displays the body of another woman. First, the absence of a visible face on the figure may lead the viewers, who are already familiar with her past series, to assume that each of the bodies in her current works belongs to her also. Another possibility is that a body with an unknown face will lead us to an anonymous form representing women in general. In this case, the personal aspect of a body disappears into the background. Now, the body does not point at a specific subject, the artist herself. In other words, with the Mirror Sees You series, Erika attempts to place the image of female bodies as a generic construction. With the disappearance of personal identity, the body question can now be focused on questioning the construction of the female form within a patriarchal culture.
Other than the bodies and gestures, the components present in both Mirror Sees Me and Mirror Sees You are similar. An image of a female figure is printed on acrylic sheet upon which additional acrylic sheets are added to the front and sides, creating a sort of casing. Into this casing, a glass mirror is placed, facing the audience. The effect is this: the initial image is that of an almost-nude female figure with her back to the mirror. However, this piece will have arrived to the viewers in the form of a splintered mirror. The mirror is shattered inside its acrylic casing. Because the inner thickness of the acrylic casing is only slightly larger than the mirror itself, though shattered, the mirror fragments will mostly hold their places. The shattering process is often presented as performance art form, as part of her work.
The destruction of the mirror is an important “text” in Erika’s work, which we can view as an attempt to shatter perceptions and stereotypes of women as seen through a patriarchal viewpoint. The facets of male faces reflected from broken mirrors can be seen as Erika’s attempt to subvert their perceptions of the female figures portrayed in her works. Broken mirrors provide faceted and fragmented reflections, as if trying to hack away at the wholeness of a Lacanian selfreflection. Male viewers coming face to face with Erika’s work will find his face reflected on a shattered mirror. Upon seeing his warped face intermingling with images of nude female bodies, it is as though the men are being ridiculed, none-too-gently reminded of their voyeuristic tendencies and obsessions of the female form.
By using another woman’s body, Erika has more freedom to direct and record the forms within her work. This is why the forms we see in this series seem looser. As with her previous series, there are paint brush strokes that do not stop at following a body’s contour, but spilling over, continuing to the space around it. Expressive brush strokes around these forms become signs pointing at the most important medium in the history of art—as well as a representation of female subordination—that is, the medium of painting. Her brush strokes here appeared as is, like an afterthought, seemingly trying to represent the position of female artists—pushed into an awkward position within the history of Western Art. Her brush strokes also cover a part of the body from viewers’ gaze, eliciting a kind of ‘curiosity’, some sort of trigger for voyeurism. However, these strokes also convey a mysterious aura around the body on display, turning it into a figure which rejects any sure meaning of its existence—especially that of the constructs placed upon females by men. It is apparent that there is a transparent flat surface—a glass—placed in front of the model. Parts of her body, pressed close to the glass, seem distorted. If we examine these pieces carefully, we can also see other body distortions, caused by unusual camera angles. Erika did not photograph these bodies frontally, instead she has photographed their reflections seen on a round convex mirror placed above her model. The glass, pressed against the model’s body, can be read as a metaphor for patriarchal culture: solid and rigid, despite its transparency. It represents patriarchal concepts widely received as the norm, even though they have “oppressed” and sidelined the weaker sex. As such, distortions caused by Erika’s unusual camera angles can be read as metaphors for deformative constructions, created by a patriarchal culture, about women.
The Mirror Sees You series is completed by two works, composed only of drips and strokes of paint. The female figure has left the building, so to speak; these specks of paint the only evidence of her ever being present. Through these pieces, Erika seems to say that in the end the patriarchs have failed to achieve anything. All of their achievements are but reflections of their greedy faces, staring at them through shattered mirrors. It is a reflection of how a patriarchal culture has contributed greatly to human decadence. Two large hammers, also on exhibit here, remind us of the phallus, a male symbolism. A hammer covered with gold-leaves or a plain, ordinary hammer; both have the same destructive potential. The golden hammer may seem so valuable, but is nothing more than a constructed acceptance, just like gender bias is one. In this exhibition, Erika also displays three pieces done using quite a different technique from the rest: through her use of lenticular acrylic, providing an optical depth. We can see Erika ensconced within their “depth”. If in her previous works a broken mirror and the human figure serve as deconstructive images against constructs of patriarchy, then in her current works, Erika seems intent on leaving this problematic issue behind. Here, the mirrors have disappeared. However, the viewers can still see hazy reflections of themselves, thanks to the glass reflector placed in front of lenticular acrylics. It seems that Erika wishes to enter a deeper realm, a place more vague and sublime. To fully realize this exhibition, Erika will also stage a happening- and performance- art. In her happening art presentation, titled der Spiegel (the Mirror), Erika will engage the audience as part of her work. The entire exhibition floor will be covered with sheets of mirrors. As a result, the mirrors will break when visitors tread upon them. This floor of mirrors will provide a fragmented reflection throughout the exhibition space. Reflecting the title Mirror Sees You, the mirrors on the floor will also reflect the visitors images back to them. Thus, the audience will become part of Erika’s artwork configuration. The audience will no longer occupy the position of an omnipotent Watcher. Instead, they are now part of the Watched. Meanwhile, in the performance art phase of her exhibition, Erika invites her collector-audience (the portion of her audience who collects her work), to break the mirrors of her art pieces. This act is done using hammers that are also part of the exhibition. This can be seen as Erika’s attempt to involve her audience in a deconstructive act against symbols of patriarchal culture. Erika utilizes a common hammer, while the audience will be given a golden hammer to use. Here, she means to discuss the matter of identity construction, placed upon objects and things, between the functional and symbolic. In addition, the transparent patterns on her pieces caused by the disintegration of broken mirrors will lead to results that are neither controllable nor expected. Of course, the meaning and reading of this performance will depend on the “breaker”, whether they are male or female. If anything else, the works shown in this exhibition will have changed our perceptions about Erika. That behind her sweet and well-mannered disposition is an energy of great tenacity and belief. And this is why I am quite certain that Erika will continue to create stronger and more interesting pieces in here future endeavors. —
Published: April 5, 2011