Visual Art and Feminist Critique: A Proposition

When a female signature is assigned to authorship, autobiography, within the literary histories in the West, has been named paradoxically both as a mainstream writing genre and positioned as marginal practice. Traditional opinions on autobiography usually have been grounded within the idea of the "I" of self-identity as reflective self-presence and discussed within the terms set by the Cartesian subject: a universal, singular self - linked with the thinking, rational subject of eternal human nature. Historically this has been codified as male. For women, autobiographical spaces have been profoundly fraught with tension, since the struggles to be the subject both of and in our own writing and speaking discourse incur problematic gendered readings. By challenging the universality of self-identity, women have culturally been identified as "Other" : exotic, unruly, irrational, uncivilised, and different to the male norm. These classifications established a hierarchy of naming as well as binary oppositions ; this has had the effect of both legitimising the potential of a female speaking subject as "other" to the limits of cultural practice and at the same time, has fixed a conception of autobiography as the feminine, natural self-portrait par excellence (1).
In another register, the coalescence between women and textiles has produced a fixity of identity in the West, which has named but not always has expanded or moved beyond a single definition of both terms (2). This essay is concerned with this double paradox and ways in which I could begin to situate the self, subjectivity, and the plurality of contemporary textile practice as mobile entities that transgress the old borders and boundaries of certitude and knowledge.
What is the cultural significance of the embodiment of this double dislocation and fixity : woman / autobiography and woman / textiles? Could Rosemarie Trockel's 1988 machine knitted abstract of Descartes' Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) be considered as a signpost out of this double-bind and claustrophobic restriction? Does it not parody the Cartesian subject referred to earlier? I speculate that the mimicking of the "pure" canvas of Kandinsky is played off in two ways. First, it is mimicked by knitting and second, by reinscribing the shaky signature of the hand stitched, handwritten feminine "I" which transgresses its smooth surface of production. This idea of transgression which ruptures both the formal properties of a discipline and the "proper" place of a gendered subject is profoundly disturbing and unsettling to the body politic. Do Mike Kelly's failed power fantasies of dirty, messy, soft toys trash and transgress traditional forms of heroic media that include ideas of appropriate masculinity and false notions of domesticity? For me, each of these works speak through an "autographies" of hybridity, encompassing both the textual configurations of subjectivity in language and the potential performative role of practices which deploy textile processes and 'stuff' in disturbing and unstable forms.
As Jeanne Perreault has remarked, one way in which autographies differs from autobiography is that it is not necessarily concerned with the process or unfolding of life events as reflective self-presence. Rather, autographies make the writing itself an aspect of selfhood through which the writer experiences and brings into being the possibility of playful, even wicked, self-invention (3). Fictional manifestations may go beyond representation of the self, just as contemporary cultural practices may transgress the very naming of their gendered categorisation to produce an infinite undecidable set of contestations. These manifestations of 'throwing-out-of-joint' disrupt any notion of stable and definable subject or genre and lurk at the very margins of mobile, fluid identities and subjectivities. Perhaps l/you/we in the West can speak with some confidence about women's achievements in general both in autobiographical writing and textiles. I would argue, however, that each category remains provisional as a tentative grammar of transformations and differences. I believe that these are the new possibilities of both disciplines - of writing and textiles in an ongoing relationship which provides an eclectically errant and culturally disruptive range of practices within an expanded field of cultural terms and definitions.
In earlier decades, the linking of the metaphors of pen and needle are retold and recalled in a fragment of Elaine Showalter's own autobiographical anecdote which denotes, for me, a hidden meaning behind the text and textile which forms the very intertextuality of its pages. A women s language is evoked as a social document of female experience. Piecing and writing are analogous to the process of quilt making which "...corresponds to the writing process, on the level of the word, the sentence, the structure of the story or novel and these images, motifs or symbols that unify a fictional story"(4). As Showalter reminds me in a further essay, a number of women's 19th century texts discuss the problem of reading a quilt, of deciphering the language of pieces like pages in an album (5).
A century later, Lucy Lippard's oft-quoted observation that "the quilt has become the prime visual metaphor for women's lives, women's culture" provided a situated knowledge for a version of feminist art practice that now may be seen as universalising female experience (6). Whereas the "I" of the signature of Showalter is absent inside "Piecing and Writing," it is always paradoxically present in the writing as a controlling author of the text. Does Showalter not insist on a common ground between women's lives, women's writing and the reader/viewer who brings appropriate feminine sensibility to narratives that any woman might know(my italics)? However, this apparent coherence of the narrative and homogenisation of experience is acknowledged and also mourned by Showalter as one who has "exaggerated the importance of women's culture" in order to find "a literature of our own."
To create a separate canon of women's writing through historical orientation and the specific characteristics of language, genre and influence is comparable to material counterparts in Lippard's search for a female aesthetic and Judy Chicago's revival of feminine crafts in The Dinner Party. Are we ruining our eyes, Showalter asks, in finishing a female heritage that may have become a museum piece? Who is included in the "we" here? Is this a nostalgic reminiscence for the past or a disturbance to the certainty of knowledge in an early feminist's traditional faith of the liberating effects of identity politics and women's rights?
Rereading these texts in the late 1990s provides another train of speculation insofar as the decentered structure of a woman's text and textile fragment is refigured in the processes of écriture féminine. In the "verbal quilt" of (an) other feminist text, Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues that there is an appeal to the voice of the female body which speaks of itself as subject as: "non-hierarchic... breaking hierarchical structures, making an even display of elements over the surface with no climatic movement, having the materials organised into many centres(7).

As practiced by Hélène Cixous,écriture féminine becomes impossible to theorise. Cixous describes this practice of "writing from and of the body," as "feminine" in two senses. First, that it is potentially available to both sexes; second, that the new relations between the subject and "other" can be negotiated once the "feminine" subject position refuses fear and assimilation of the other's difference (8). This way of writing does not claim unmediated access to the body since the body is figured metaphorically and anti-naturalistically to create fictions of the self. Although, for the French writer and theorist Luce Irigaray, the conditions that moments of subjectivity signal the "irrational feminine" as an enabling force within the symbolic order of language, Julia Kristeva provides a reading of the "feminine" which is not reducible to its verbal translation or biological naming (9). A critical use of the self of the "feminine" and of textile materials and processes act as metaphoric signs of autobiographical patterns within cultural practice.
While I would not wish to remove women out of history, economics, class or race, to "write" the body may allow for a construction of the "feminine" against a fixing of identity within categories that deny the complexities of subjectivity and creative, gendered contradictions. As in the examples of work produced by Rosemarie Trockel and Mike Kelley, gendered contradictions encoded critically in the hybridisation of textiles are disturbing and troubling to viewers.
Reflections on self, on writing, on textiles are unsettling. When "I" reflects on "I", what do I imagine it to be? Perhaps "I" will only know myself when another is there? Is the "I" that makes a piece of the work the same "I" that will write its interpretation? How "I" move will be in relation to others and to the other in myself, as a subject-in-process tracking the psychoanalytic terrain of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva.
The production of the subject, and the abandonment of the unitary subject position required by the mastery of phallic language, permits us to adopt a number of positions simultaneously. This also is primarily a question of positionality in language which does not faithfully represent the already extant life. For many contemporary practitioners like Trockel and Kelley, who mobilise critical ideas in relation to their studio practices, this positionality is indexed by placing subjectivity in process, where meanings and readings are staged, played off and multiplied. Therefore, a will towards the discursive and the reformulation of experience has consequences for the subjectivities of both women and men.
A critical use of self, of the "feminine" and of textile materials and processes, combine together as metaphoric signs of new autobiographical or "autographic" patterns with cultural practice. Together they operate as a lived tension between the "I" and other, the life of the text and textile" and the terrain of the lived.
One of my favourite examples from writing is Carolyn Steedman's Landscape of a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives in which Steedman's story of the "eye" and that of another "I", the Usher of her mother's story, allows me, as a reader, to be involved in the places where what has already happened is reworked to give events meaning. Steedman tells of her mother wearing the "New Look" coat/dress of gabardine which fell into pleats from the waist at her back. On one level this is a literal image since throughout the narrative it figures as a very real and constantly present thing. Yet, it also projects an image of desire as the "New Look" of her dreams: a common fantasy for white working-class women in postwar Britain. In Steedman's story, the coat/dress has a dual function which not only refers to a specific moment of postwar Britain but also acts as a personal structure of feeling. This coat/dress is both an image and a product which represents several fragments of an autobiography written as "bits and pieces from which the psychological selfhood is made" (10).
Autobiographical references abound in the textile installation, We Knitted Braids for Her, and explode in the many different voices and guises of identity that are played with by the Austrian twins, Christine and Irene Hohenbuchler, with their sister Heidemarie. In their first UK exhibition held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1995, language, texts and textiles are interwoven to probe the conditions of subjectivity and autobiography in complex webs or chains of knitting, dream diaries and woven bundles of cloth (11).
Here, the position of textiles as a language is enmeshed, in my view, with the processes of écriture féminine. Textiles, as material processes and stuff, are literally abundant both in the installation and figured as a metaphor in a narrative flow of writing and speaking inseparable from the "feminine' as it meanders between "I" and "other."
In May 1996, Tracey Emin opened "The Tracey Emin Museum" for a month-long living autobiography to encourage people to tell their own life stories that normally they would not disclose. In Hotel International from the MinkyMankyshow in London in 1993 and in Tracey Emin Everyone I Ever slept With, 1963-1995 (Tent, mixed media, 1996), reassembled in her living museum, a tent is covered with patterned fabrics made out of all her old clothes and old household fabrics. And yet, a comforting environment is denied with a hundred names of past lovers and friends, stories of abortion, suicide attempts and debt. While quilting and embroidery techniques are employed, Emin's gigantic patchwork adorned tent refuses the first wave of a woman's celebratory experience, cited earlier through the example of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. Ideas of home and household fabrics are frequently inscribed in those earlier herstories that Elaine Showalter so meticulously recorded.
Picture-puzzle scraps of dislocated and fragmentary lives created a unified pattern, as in the overall texture of the quilt. But below these surfaces, as I know, the "monstrous feminine" resides: a place of sexual energy which is both dangerous and pleasurable, angry and "chaotic This is not the "feminine" designated subject-position of patience and prudence, nurture and nature. As Tracey Emin explains in an interview with Anita Chaudhuri, "It's boring to say that confronting these experiences and making beautiful things out them is something of a therapy for me... it's something much darker than that" (12).
I would argue that the repetition of unified patterns of experience pieced and patched into a coherent, overall whole are broken by a new wave of "bad" girl (and boy) scenarios of Tracey Emin and the Hohenbuchler sisters (13). In my view, their work ruptures the verbal and visual narratives of stereotyped femininity and autobiography to produce an autographies of hybridity. Stereotyped patterns of masculinity continue to be transgressed. For example, Neil Macinnis relates his experiences in a recent interview with Margo Mensing : "Both the domain of textiles and sexuality are informed by the conditions of habituated practice. Cultural artefacts and social interaction facilitate a meaningful history of use through sensory experience located first in the body rather than the mind''(14). If Macinnis' use of Rococo French silks correlates with an immersion into gay culture and queer theory, then the "Home Boys" described in James Levine's essay of the same title critique ideas of any essential femininity or masculinity (15). Frequently, staging the home is reworked through Freudian and Kleinian theories of childhood. I enter through a restaged "home" of cots, beds, mattresses, drapes, curtains, stuffed toys and chairs, mats, and rugs which exceed their enigmatic forms, signifying future dysfunctional autobiographical patterns.
The domestic, hybridised objects of the "English" artists, Christopher Lee and Darren Caird, Permindar Kaur and Nina Saunders, continue to disrupt familiar territories of place as rhetorical investigations of escape and fixed identity (16). The questions as to who we are in terms of autobiography can be replaced by what "we" are as the self is understood as a moving line or thread that takes us toward becoming other than that which we may think "we" know we arrive. As these hybridised objects recede into a different sense of place, so the subject is destabilised : both the maker and viewer risk their status as knowing complete subjects with calculable, gendered subjectivities neatly intact.
In conclusion, the unpacking of certitude, manifested in the works referenced throughout this essay, become further metaphors for transience, transgression and the received models of selfhood in which possibilities of "autography" are yet to be fully rehearsed. This would include my own tentative excursions into invented identities as played in exhibitions like Pretext: Heteronynms (17).
Janis Jefferies would like to thank the University of Wollongong in Australia and Dr. Diana Wood Conroy for their support in the writing of this text.
1. Janis Jefferies. " Autobiographies, Subjectivities, Selves," Act 1 : Writing Art, ed. Juliet Steyn, Pluto Press, 1995. Additionally, Autobiography: Essays, Theoretical and Critical (ed.) James Olney (Princeton University Press,1980), and Sidonie Smith Subjectivity. Identity and The Body: Women's Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century (Indiana University Press, 1993) provide useful, gendered accounts of this areas
2. Janis Jefferies,'Text and Textiles: Weaving Across the Borderlines' in New Feminist Art Criticism, ed. Katy Deepwell, (Manchester University Press, 1995) pp. 164-173.
3. Jeanne Perreault, Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography (University of Minnesota Press.1995). In her critique of autobiography Jeanne proposes that "autographics" is a kind of writing which evokes and suggests the flexible process of both autos and graphia. She proposes that although an unwieldy generic term, "autographics" can just about encompass the complexities of contemporary texts which index the conventions of autobiography but resist the monadic by bringing into being a "self" which the writer names as "I".
4. Elaine Showalter, 'Piecing and Writing' in Nancy K Miller, The Poetics of Gender, (Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 222-247.
5.Elaine Showalter, "Common Threads" in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (Oxford University Press Paperback, 1994) pp.145-175.
6. Lucy Lippard, "Up, Down and Across: A New Frame for New Quilts" in ed. Charlotte Robinson, The Artist and the Quilt (New York, Knopf Press 1983) p.18.
7. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990).
8. Helene Cixous, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 1986) and Susan Sellars, Helene Cixous Authorship, Autobiography and Love (London Polity Press, 1996).
9. For example, Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies (New York, Columbia University Press, 1993) and Julia Kristeva Desire in Language. A Semiotic approach to literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980).
10. Carolyn Steedman, Landscape of a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (London: Virago, 1986, p. 21
11. Janis Jefferies, "Text, Textile, Sex and Sexuality" in Women 's Art Magazine no. 68 (USA) pp.5-10.
12. Tracey Emin, interview with Anita Chaudhuri in The Guardian newspaper (London: Wednesday 24th January 1996).
13. Bad Girls derives from the title of an exhibition held at the Institute of Contemporany Arts, London, UK in 1993 and included the work of among other English, Irish and American women artists, the late Helen Chadwick. This exhibition was a smaller version of a larger one held in New York in 1992 which also included the work of men. It was an exhibition that proposed gender transgression in terms of traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity. While Tracey Emin was not represented in either show, her work nonetheless refers to an activity of practice which consciously deals with transgressing the boundaries of the proper name to produce a more, raw, improvisational approach to making. Process rather than end result and deliberately low-tech methods are employed. See also Neville Wakefield 's catalogue essay, Brilliant: New Art from London! for Walker Art Gallery, Minneapolis, USA 22nd October-7 January 1 1995/96.
14. Margo Mensing, "EIectronic Textiles: New Possibilities" in Fiberarts Summer 1996, p.45. See also Neil Maclnnis' contributing essays to the preconference publication (October 1995, Montreal, Textiles Sismographes and the postconference publication, A Textile ldentity (Le Conseil des Arts : Textiles do Quebec, Canada), March/April 1995 and January 1996 respectively.
15. James Levine "Home Boys" Artforum(October 1991), pp.101-105
16. Christopher Lee graduated from Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK with an MA in Textiles (studio practice and critical theory) in 1994: Darren Caird graduated from Goldsmiths College, University of London with a BA in Textiles in 1996; Permindar Kaur's exhibition.Cold Comfort, was held at the Ikon Gallery. Birmingham and Mead Gallery, Coventry, UK in May/June 1996; and Nina Saunders exhibition Familiar Territories, was held at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, from November 1994- January 1996. For an interesting discussion around illusions of home against which a range of hybrid and illusory objects subvert the familiar and gendered categorization, see Nancy Spector "Homeward-Bound" (Zurich : Parkett, 1991), pp. 80-89.
17. Pretext: Heteronyms was the title of an exhibition which took place in Clink Street studios, London, UK during November/December 1995. I participated under a different identity and practice from which "I" would normally be known. A catalogue, with an introduction by Juliet Steyn is available through Rear Window publications.