Feminism is funny

Recovering Mysoginist

Artist Sarah Maple’s new exhibition places feminism firmly at the centre of its work, using comedy to explore 21st century gender issues. Heather McRobie asks whether  feminism is finally coming back to the fore in the art world

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Sarah Maple’s ‘It’s A Girl!’ is deadly serious, and funny: a white dress stained in menstrual blood sits alongside an up-close photograph of a vajazzled pubic area promoting ‘Votes For Women’.  In her second show, 27- year old Maple has turned away from her earlier exploration of Muslim identity and her critiques of art world cliques to focus on the absurdities of contemporary gender constructs.  The collection is bold yet detailed, playing with a variety of media while maintaining a strong overall coherence.

Maple’s first exhibition hit a raw nerve in the art world – ‘This Artist Blows’ covered art world clichés and explored Maple’s Muslim heritage, although feminist themes emerged in her self-portraits, like the footage of her wearing a burqa with a badge saying ‘I love orgasms.’  ‘It’s A Girl’, however, feels less sarcastic and more focused on its feminist message, with Maple working in a variety of different media, from photography to wallpaper and videos.

Recovering Mysoginist 'Recovering Mysoginist' - C-type print - 100 x
66 cm - 2011. Sarah Maple/All rights reserved

Her use of her self in her work is striking, inevitably reminiscent of earlier feminist artists such as Cindy Sherman, who has famously worked as her own model in her art for thirty years, altering her physique and appearance to play with the concepts of femininity, identity and self (Sherman currently has an exhibition of her work at MoMA in New York).  In this sense Maple’s work does feel – if not derivative – then at least echoing the work of earlier generations of female artists who used their self in their work as a means of subverting the (that phrase now familiar to generations of art students) ‘male gaze’

In the generations since Linda Nochlin’s essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’, the female self-portrait has become a cornerstone of feminist art.  Maple revisits this familiar terrain with the two portraits An Artist/ A Female Artist, where artist Stuart Semple is juxtaposed with Maple – the Female Artist – in a nude body suit of overblown prosthetic femininity. But it also raises the question of whether all this dressing-up, this tradition of the female artist using her own body and image in her work, becomes self-defeating: as Maple’s piece says, she’s positioned as A Female Artist, a freakish footnote to the neutral Male. Does using her own body, image, and identity run the risk of underlining this, as much as it intends to subvert it?

Another inevitable comparison is Tracey Emin, a reference point Maple has explicitly rejected. It is, in fairness, a somewhat superficial comparison, although Emin’s much darker exploration of issues such as abortion also placed her own life and experience at the centre of her work, providing easy fuel for her critics.  But much as Maple distances herself from the Young British Artists of the 1990s, her work does feel like a return to the explicitly feminist art of ‘YBAs’ – if not Emin then perhaps Helen Chadwick.

It’s also interesting that Maple’s success, like Emin’s, has been attributed in large part to having caught the eye of Saatchi during her final year as a Fine Art student, and that she is so keen to both critique the ‘cliqueiness’ of the art world while playing its games and deftly promoting herself, placing herself centre-stage. Saatchi, as a figure, is a tricky knot to untie in the thread of British feminist art: the Conservative impresario who single-handedly makes and breaks careers of young ( often female) artists. The ‘Saatchi effect’ of his sudden “ruthless pruning” of his art collection has been known to throw Cinderella (I think Maple would appreciate the Disney metaphor) back into anonymity.  It raises two questions in particular: firstly, is it perhaps a little sexist to consider Maple (and Emin and others before her) as having been ‘discovered’ by Saatchi, as though she would never have made it into the public eye without his backing?  Yet to deny his importance would be a very naïve reading of the dynamics behind contemporary art. Secondly, after the impact of (famously anti-Saatchi) Banksy’s work on popular culture in the 2000s, how does Maple navigate this position – self-proclaimed feminist artist, ‘critiquing’ the art world’s pretentiousness while backed by Saatchi?

In some ways it’s a question that it’d be unfair to ask her, because I think it’s unfair to call women in their twenties out on whatever they do to negotiate a world that is generally inclined not to take them seriously, and crying ‘hypocrisy’ is an easy game when, for young women trying to do something creative, moments of power and moments of powerlessness are likely to be bound pretty closely together. 

But it’s important here, and curious, because the subject matter – feminism – is so bound up with the process. Her funny placards [“Recovering misogynist”; the deliciously sarcastic “I’M IN MY PRIME!”] remind me of Gillian Wearing’s confessional ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’, but in the subject matter [‘A Female Artist’, ‘Recovering Misogynist’] they also recall the punky direct action of the Guerrilla Girls, famous for the sarcastic ‘The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist’ and their work drawing attention to the gender disparities of the art world.  The comparison shows the edges of art and social activism, and the potential problematics of feeling an allegiance to both.

Moreover, in ‘It’s A Girl!’, Maple’s reference points are obvious, the psychological alphas of the contemporary world: Disney, Playboy – and, in ‘This Artist Blows’, the burqa so often so lazily referenced in our media as the only ‘symbol’ for the lives of millions of women. Maybe this emphasis is her way of reflecting the blunt prevailing visual vocabulary we’re bludgeoned with, but it also leaves her work in danger of operating with a primary-colour palette, missing the opportunity for more subtle explorations of her subject-matter. If we’re constrained by this vocabulary, the tiresome ancient virgin/whore dichotomies being played out in Heat magazine covers, Playboy accessories for nine year old girls, and the media-shorthand symbol of the burqa, does it really help for Maple to hold these under our noses once again, albeit to bring their absurdity to the fore?  In my response to her work I alternate between excitement at seeing her play with these ideas, and a desire to be offered another way of being, an escape from this. 

In fact, the way in which her work strikes me as really differentiating itself from the ‘Young British Artists’ era is simply because some of it is so Zeitgeisty it couldn’t have been produced in the 1990s: the ‘vajazzled’ ‘Votes For Women’, for instance, could be a direct illustration of Ariel Levy’s 2006 best-selling book Female Chauvinist Pigs, a comment on the ‘raunch culture’ that may have begun with the laddettes and Spice Girls of the 1990s, but didn’t balloon into its pneumatic proportions of ‘Girls Gone Wild!’ until the 2000s. 

As a sort of variation on the perennial ‘is feminism dead?’ conversation, there was much commentary last year on whether or not the ‘Slut Walk’ protests were an echo back to the 1990s-era of ‘Riot Grrl’ pop-feminism among young women, but what strikes me with Maple’s work is that it is distinctly feminist and distinctly 2012.  It speaks immediately to our contemporary lives, and perhaps to more parts of our daily lives than most other artists could hope, the thread of gender in particular being so tangled up with our private and public selves.

All of which, of course, could detract from Maple’s work, making her merely another voice in a large crowd of new-generation feminists. There is, however, one crucial thing that saves Maple’s work from becoming merely a kind of undergraduate-ish acting-out of a Judith Butler essay: she’s funny.

And this, I think, is the escape. Maple’s  having fun.  She’s toilet-humour funny, clever-funny, cultural-reference-funny, sad-drooping-Playboy-bunny-ears-funny.  And if there’s a way to move beyond the tired impasses of feminist theory, the tired impasses of art world cliques, then this is it.  Maple’s work reminds me that we’re lucky to be living in a great era for feminist comedy, from Tina Fey to Caitlin Moran to puerile internet memes like Feminist Hulk.  Since Christopher Hitchens’ regrettable 2007 essay ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, being funny and female – and the links between the two – seems to have become feminism’s best hope of keeping itself in the cultural conversation.

And no wonder, because – without a sense of humour – being female in the twenty-first century could be pretty depressing.