Saturday, October 3, 2009

Out of the (glossy) mouths of babes

“While Doonan’s account of ‘tarted up tots’ vying for ‘the pink spotlight’ may have been tongue-in-blushed-cheek, he took an objective stance on pageants that bordered on defensive.”

Barbie may be 50 this year, but her youthful likeness thrives in today’s beauty pageant world. I thought so instantly when I saw Susan Anderson’s photographic portraits of child pageant contestants at a book launch and discussion held at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena on Thursday night.

Viewing the homogeneous group of petite pretties featured in High Glitz (2009, powerhouse Books), I had two reactions in quick succession. Initially, I experienced shrill delight at seeing the prominence of feminine signifiers (it means that I have no shortage of inspiration for my artwork, which is about gender socialization through clothing, or simply put, why little girls like pink). Once this excitement subsided, I felt nauseated. Maybe if I watched the TLC show, Toddlers & Tiaras, I would have been prepared for the degree of artifice. I was aghast at the fake eyelashes, fake tans and fake dental veneers that replaced fresh-faced girls with tiny versions of over-processed women. Truthfully, I felt like the entire cohort of ‘popular girls’ from my high school was staring me down, reminding me of their supposed superiority. I felt freaked out for today’s generation of young girls, but I also felt freaked out for adolescent and adult women. The photo of a girl in a high-cut swimsuit that showed off her hairless body served as a scathing reminder that women in their natural state are incompatible with society’s notion of attractiveness.

I have spent more time and more money than I would like to admit sourcing out little girls’ pink formal wear from clothing stores to use in my artwork. At the checkout, there is the inevitable cooing from sales clerks and fellow customers, none of them realizing that my purchase is the first stage in a feminist critique. I felt a similar feeling of being the odd-one-out at this event, both when the audience cheered for the real-life pageant winner who graced us with her presence, and when Barney’s creative director Simon Doonan read his essay from High Glitz. Everyone laughed at all the right parts while I scribbled frantically in preparation for this blog post. While Doonan’s account of “tarted up tots” vying for “the pink spotlight” may have been tongue-in-blushed-cheek, he took an objective stance on pageants that bordered on defensive. He praised them for teaching skills like endurance, and cautioned against knee-jerk reactions, saying that it’s “easy to act disdainful and superior”. Slinking down in my seat, I felt like the feminist curmudgeon, a stereotype that I detest.

Anderson, a Los Angeles-based artist, also took a fairly neutral stance. Although she is “not a performer”, she said that if she had a daughter, she would not be opposed to her entering pageants. Anderson also emphasized the dedication of contestants’ mothers being on-call for their daughters during 14-hour days, doing things like sewing sequins and curling ringlets. Hearing Anderson speak about her series, I perceived the stellar portraits as having an anthropological bent, but it disturbs me that they could just as easily be featured in a pin-up calendar.

I tried to follow their lead and be more objective in my reaction. Thinking about the fact that the subjects selected their own props and posed themselves, I conceded that they had a role in constructing their identity. But that made me think back to Grade One, when many of my classmates elected to dress as Madonna for Hallowe’en, oblivious to the fact that they looked like prostitutes. Looking at Anderson's photo of a little girl wearing Go-Go boots and a mini-skirt, or a backless, off-the-shoulder dress, I got shivers, thinking that the pageant contestants don’t even understand the implications of their attire. Doonan, however, defended the over-the-top nature of pageant aesthetics: it is “like Liberace, like Elvis, like Siegfried and Roy—it’s fabulous”. But is it fabulous to cast girls in sexy roles and to suggest that their worth hinges on their looks? Is feminist antithetical to fabulous?

Later, I ruminated on Doonan’s comment that it is “easy to act disdainful and superior,” asking myself, is making critical feminist art ‘easy’? I don’t think so. For one thing, I struggle with hypocrisy. I can ask scholarly questions about gendered preference, but I am not opposed to buying my niece a fancy pink dress for a Christmas gift because let’s face it, she’ll love it. And she is not alone. Looking at the portraits in High Glitz, the pageant winner remarked to the audience, ‘All the dresses look pretty and their hair’. Out of the mouths of babes…

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reading art

“...excerpts from novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set the tone at the gallery’s entrance.”

“I’m totally having a Hiroshi Sugimoto moment,” I mumbled in awe, standing in front of Dominique Gonzales-Foerster’s dioramas yesterday at Dia at the Hispanic Society in Washington Heights. My mind immediately went to the Japanese photographer’s luscious black and white photographs of museum displays that meld two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, replacing artifice with realism. Sugimoto might lean towards realism and Gonzales-Foerster surrealism, but there is a magical quality that links them.

After culling her personal library collection and that of the Hispanic Society, Gonzales-Foerster has inserted weathered paperbacks into naturalistic settings that range from desert to rainforest. Intended to be imaginary landscapes, they are the outgrowth of listening to the Buena Vista Social Club, which makes me love the installation that much more. It’s simulacra punctuated by realia in the form of books. Are the books discarded arbitrarily or placed deliberately? My guess is the latter, since their selection was carefully curated: each was chosen for its geographical setting or the locale in which the author wrote the book. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, appears in the desert diorama. Either way, they feel like relics of civilization, like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. The books are the only inhabitants of these scenes; there is no evidence of animal life. Single pages, curled up at the edges, evoke skin that has been shed or bones that have disintegrated into near-dust. Others appear more animated, such as an open book that is spot lit and suspended, like a bird in flight.

As a librarian, I was drawn in by the collecting impulse. Ultimately, I read the dioramas as a cautionary tale. Being immersed in a college setting where research generally begins online instead of with books, I saw these castoffs as symbols of the decline of knowledge, the side-effect of not evaluating information effectively. These are the survivors, but so what? That’s melodramatic, sure, but excerpts from novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set the tone at the gallery’s entrance.

As an artist, I was affected by the implication that creative output can be a person’s legacy. Artworks—traces of who an artist is—persevere for the next generation to ponder, dismiss, react against, build on, or appropriate. The obsession with lineage in art history has fallen out of favour, but it’s still a reality, and very much a seduction. Gonzales-Foerster is quoted in the New York Times* as saying “With a library,” she said, “you slowly build a biography for yourself” and I think the same is true of art making (or blogging, or any creative endeavour, for that matter). Biography becomes legacy somehow, whether intentionally or not.

Upon leaving, I had a very strong urge to reread Anna Banti’s fictional biography of Artemesia Gentileschi. In the heartbreaking introduction, the author mourns the loss of her initial transcript, an unlikely casualty of WWII bombings. I imagine that Gonzales-Foerster would be pleased that her installation made me want to crack open a book.

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*Kennedy, Randy. “It’s only natural, this thing for books.” The New York Times. Sept. 18, 2009.