Frieda Werden

Frieda Werden, Spoken Word and Current Affairs Director at CJSF, adds to the CJSF review by Kate Lerman...

To read Kate's original review http://www.cjsf.ca/aereviews/display_reviews.php?reviews_id=240

I went to explore WACK! more thoroughly a couple of days this week, and now that I re-read your review I very much agree with your assessment of the problem of lack of meaning in the exhibit.  I don't actually think the problem is a lack of continuity with earlier or later works, though, as it is from the failure to present the matrix of feminism - in which these works arose, were played with and in many cases co-created, and from which they take their meaning.  For me, going through the exhibit, and having lived through that era, there were many pieces that were laugh-out-loud funny, but nobody around me was laughing.        

What they needed to know was that these were expressions of a feminist culture that was self-developed in strong political and artistic opposition to the masculinist reality of the world at that time (and now), and especially of the male art world. 

I thought it was really bizarre that the artists were described only by country and by art concept, and not in terms of what communities they lived in and what parts of the movement they interacted with.  One example - there was a Faith Wilding crochet piece downstairs that came from the Womanhouse project - one of the most pivotal activities in the history of feminist art.  There was also, upstairs a film by an artist with a Japanese name that was titled "Woman's [sic] House."  But nothing was posted about the content of the film, which was actually an exploration of the rooms of the Womanhouse project.  The filmmaker was credited, as if it were her individual work, but there were no credits for the creators of the Womanhouse [including Canadian-born Miriam Schapiro working with Judy Chicago and many others].

Womanhouse was created in L.A. and this WACK! exhibit was mounted in L.A.  - they must have known about it, why didn't they put anything in the exhibit about what a major collaborative project this was and its tremendous impact on other artists? 

Another example - there were some very striking pieces by Judy Chicago upstairs, from her Through the Flower series (and also a film of her early work with fireworks and women participating in fireworks rituals, which I enjoyed very much [though no mention of her role in Womanhouse]).  But there was absolutely nothing said about the progression of Judy Chicago's collaborative work in the late 1970s into The Dinner Party - a massive work

that involved more than 400 women doing needlework, pottery, and historical research over a period of many years (that studio, too, was in L.A.), and which toured the world (only recently finding a permanent home) and completely turned people's views of women's history upside-down.  I was a volunteer docent when The Dinner Party toured Houston, and I saw even grown men weep because they were so shocked and sad when they suddenly realized that they had never been taught anything at all about all this rich history of our foremothers.


A third example.  There was a very interesting video upstairs, a documentary about a group in I think it was Brooklyn, New York, called Spiderwoman Theatre.  They were a group made up of first nations women from various places who did collaborative performance art and toured with a show (that kept changing as they added improvs from their experiences) titled Lysistrata.  One of the actresses was Lois Weaver, who went on to become a founder of the Women's One World Theater Festival in New York, which metamorphosed into the WOW Cafe performance venue.  Lois was like the mother of the entire East Village lesbian performance art scene.  She and Peggy Shaw and Deb Margulies founded a touring company called Split Britches, and the WOW Cafe that they also founded became the place where many lesbian performers debuted - including the notorious Holly Hughes.        

So, even though I was very gripped by many things in the exhibit, I agree with you that it was largely a failure.  It imposed a male-sole-auteur ideal or format where it didn't belong.  I'd like to cite an intriguing if somewhat turgid quote from contemporary psychoanalyst, artist and feminist theorist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger:

"From the phallic point of view, the elimination of the archaic m/Other is the sacrifice necessary for heroic male sexuality to become productive.  Such a Hero Genius-Artist corresponds to the Canon that Griselda Pollock (1999) proposes to differentiate in her reading of art history. Anyone, male or female, who takes upon him or herself this hero configuration becomes by definition a man who eliminates the archaic Woman-m/Other. The price to be paid for this is very high if you are a female artist whose sexuality fits badly into Oedipal father & son circulation."  (Ettinger: 2004)

I think this quote perhaps illuminates why the Guerrilla Grrls were not included in this exhibit - a group of extremely famous but anonymous performers who mock US art museums for the male bias with its characteristic distinctions between art and life -  that still exists in most art museums at a very fundamental level.  (I have to say that the Vancouver Art Gallery has done better than most in including women, probably because of the importance of Emily Carr as a local art heroine.  There was a good show about Canadian women artists of Emily Carr's time in 2008 that specifically referenced their relationships to one another.)

There is also nothing in the WACK! exhibit mentioning the Women's Caucus for Art, which mounted a groundbreaking conference with hundreds, of exhibit venues all over New York City that I went to see around 1978 or so.  By the time I moved to New York in 1981, I saw many galleries exhibiting works that drew on that exhibit - fabric art, dollhouse art, self-photography, pottery art, wooden constructions, male nudes, and most of the other innovations that the WCA exhibition had brought to the fore - but the works in these galleries were almost all by men.  In this way the influence of feminism on art is very like the influence of colonized cultures on art.  It was adopted, appropriated, but out of context it became what it opposed.

While I'm more familiar with the North American art scene, I might add that WACK! also failed to contextualize the women artists from other continents in their feminist movements.  This all shows that the need for feminism is not over, and I am happy to see younger women re-inventing the movement in Canada today.  My main advice is: Don't forget to laugh! 


Thank you so much for the response, Frieda, it gave me much thought to chew on.

Indeed, I think the most memorable part for myself and my friend Elizabeth was the mattresses just for the simple tactile experience of it. It's very existence kind of brought me back from my standard adopted attitude of, "walking through a gallery, forehead wrinkled in thought, must find the profound in everything or else..." :)

The way I saw it, in my very rudimentary articulation, was like showing people chipping away at a rock. We're shown each chip up close, like super-zoomed-in. Although each chipper may have different motivations and methods, they're working together for a generally similar task of chipping away at the rock. And it's not just the chipping that makes them powerful, it's the very fact that they're chipping. A culture that historically frowns upon the rock-chipping is going to present each rock-chipper as unique, solitary, quirky in their own way. Their collective impact will be watered down because otherwise, put quite plainly, they're too damn powerful, in the eyes of the 'traditional' culture.

So I think in presentation of art, like in the WACK show, the work is so focused on, bit by bit, piece by piece, (is it an oil painting, did women experiment with needlepoint as art, etc, what's unique about this piece, etc), that it's difficult to step back and see that, hey, a bunch of people are chipping away at the rock!

That's how I explain it to myself simply, short of using hand-puppets. :)

I don't have nearly as much knowledge about this as I'd like, but what I do know about the Guerrilla Grrls was certainly one of the things that popped into my head as we walked through the gallery.


If you have something to add to the discussion about WACK! send it to cjsfae@sfu.ca

VIVO, formerly Video In, had an exhibition response to WACK! in December: "THE AFTER PARTY presents...our response to WACK!" 


--Dylan Mulvin

  • Posted on: 11 March 2016
  • By: Administrator