Breast Intentions

The Brooklyn Museum surveys the world's female artists

Something was dripping in the first rooms of "Global Feminisms," the Brooklyn Museum's sprawling survey of work by 88 artists, all women born since 1960 and hailing from some 50 countries, including Kenya, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. In the service of their (mostly video) art, these women eat dirt, bind their breasts, and shriek like flamenco singers run amok. An Israeli artist gyrates naked inside a barbed-wire hula hoop; a Guatemalan descends the steps of her country's capital building, leaving bloody footprints behind her. In photographs, they pose as famous female suicides and anonymous murder victims, devout young Muslim boys and bearded Hasidim. On film, they cuddle with Vito Acconci.

Among the giddier fantasies on display is Hiroko Okada's digitally altered photograph of two cheerfully pregnant Japanese men, and her videotape of a gravid male in floral maternity garb, contentedly shopping at Baby Gap. I enjoyed it, but the drip kept ticking, insistent as a metronome.

Its source: Turkish artist Canan Senol's Fountain, a film in which a pair of disembodied, pendulous breasts leak milk ad infinitum. An abject updating of Marcel Duchamp's eponymous urinal, Fountain's relentlessness recalled the irritating persistence of an old idea, one still tangling and confusing our notions of feminist art—that anatomy is destiny.

Brooklyn's Chicago: The Dinner Party
Brooklyn Museum of Art
Brooklyn's Chicago: The Dinner Party

The inaugural exhibition of the museum's new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, "Global Feminisms" was curated by Maura Reilly and art historian Linda Nochlin. "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Nochlin queried in 1971, in the title of an essay that found her both rejecting the terms of the question and asserting that its answer lay in systems of artistic patronage and apprenticeship.

The art world has changed for women (though not as much as people think). And one would like this show to be "great," or at least a bit better than it is. The problem lies partly in the structure of a global exhibition, with its cacophonous galleries, constant juxtapositions, and endless hours of videotape. Put it another way—now that we can have a biennale of our own, do we want or need one? This show's radical and invigorating expansion of the art world's playing field makes it essential viewing. But it risks trading the margins of art history for a meaningless pluralism.

What is "feminist" (rather than simply "humanist") about Teresa Margolles's unnerving Catafalque (1997), a plaster cast taken from a mustachioed man's body in some Mexico City morgue? Retaining bits of his armpit hair and skin, it offers an experience of physical intimacy that crosses all kinds of borders, including the divide between this world and the beyond. The feminist content of Sarah Lucas's The Sperm Thing(2005), a sculptural installation consisting of a wash bucket, a concrete cast of a soccer ball, and two pairs of used panty hose, is similarly hard to identify, though her brilliant deflation of the sexual act finds a distant cousin in Tracey Moffat's Love (2003), a dizzying montage of film clips, beginning with romance and moving on to violence and murder. And masculine preoccupations are the unlikely object of the feminist gaze in several works, including Tagged (2003), Julika Rudelius's mesmerizing video of young Muslim men, immigrants to the Netherlands, trying on clothes and talking about their favorite brands.

I've left out the main reason to visit the Sackler Center: Judy Chicago's monumental opus, The Dinner Party, now permanently installed there. Chicago began it alone in 1974; it took five years (and 400 volunteers) to complete it. Around an enormous triangular banquet table, 39 place settings (each consisting of a painted and sometimes sculpted ceramic plate, sitting atop an exquisitely embroidered runner) conjure the spirits of great women from myth and history. Fertile Goddess dines with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, Sappho with Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony. In its excess of labial iconography, The Dinner Party flirts with essentialism, but its overall effect is immensely moving; it's a work of art you can imagine changing someone's life. When you tire of "Global Feminisms' " hubbub, you can wander into its hushed and darkened gallery, and raise a symbolic glass to the glorious history of failed feminist utopias.

 
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