Right now, art institutions in Helsinki tend to highlight their positions within international networks. This might be viewed as part of the institutional amendments done in connection to the discussions about the need for a Guggenheim Helsinki, an answer to the insinuations about provinsialism and low competence.
Four exhibitions of seminal female artists this season exemplify such collaboration with leading art institutions in Paris, London, Hamburg and the Nordic countries. Ateneum is the only institution to have produced its own exhibition with works by Alice Neel (1900–1984), a collaboration with curator Jeremy Lewinson. The exhibition will continue to tour through the European networks during 2017. The Helsinki Art Museum will host an exhibition from Stockholm (previously shown in Copenhagen and Oslo) with Yayoi Kusama (1929–), although the museum has beforehand produced locally integrated satellite projects in the city’s parks. An exhibition from Paris with works by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) is shown at Kunsthalle Helsinki in collaboration with Helsinki Festival, while Kiasma presents Mona Hatoum (1952–), an exhibition that could previously be seen at both Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern.
To analyze this wave of retrospective exhibitions of female artists, one could quite easily refer to Linda Nochlins classic essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, published in Art News 1971. Nochlin’s text helps question if it is at all relevant to note that it is female artists that are being exhibited. If gender equality is indeed the starting point, why take notice of this fact?
Precisely this appears to be the discourse of the institutions, none of which explicitly highlight the artists’ gender as a point of departure for their presentations. On the contrary, the exhibitions follow the format of large retrospectives developed by modern institutions. The theme of these installations is reflected by substantial monographic exhibition catalogs, which summarize destinies and provide analysis of historical developments geographically, thematically, chronologically and/or materially. Characterizations such as “one of the most influential”, “iconic works” and ”unique artistic personality” are used to emphasize the significance of the artists.
Accordingly the presentations follow the pattern, critically examined by Nochlin, of methods for establishing artistic canon and ways of inscribing women onto male art history. This is certainly not a matter of gender, but of art. In the instances where feminism is referred to. there is a sense of past tense and “a time when the field of art was dominated by men”. The intentions of Nochlin’s critique has not lost its urgency. Indeed, in many cases re-reading and reflecting on her text appears suitable.
It is in the media discourse that the gender behind the art being presented is most discernable. Niki de Saint Phalle is perhaps most clearly defined as “the feminist artist who abandoned her children”, in a review in Helsingin Sanomat. Alice Neel’s portraits of women are described as “beautiful, distorted, and having been through a lot”, and Mona Hatoum as a warm and pleasant person, despite her “reputation”.
The female attributes appear most evidently in the personal experiences that the artists and their art is associated with. This kind of psychologization is rarely seen in conjunction with exhibitions of male artists. The hard life of Alice Neels as an abandoned single mother, Niki de Saint Phalle who early in life was sexually abused by her father and channeled her aggression through her art, Yayoi Kusama who has spent the past 40 years in a psychiatric hospital and Mona Hatoum as a representative of a life in involuntary physical and mental asylum with constant alienation and homesickness. The art is connected to personal experience, as representations of lived experience, directly translated into material form. Female experience materialized.
Another theoretician who has opposed essentialist views of women is Donna Haraway. Her text “Cyborg Manifesto”, published 14 years after Nochlin’s text, was originally commissioned as a reflection on socialist feminism during the Reagan era in the United States. Her complex critique is lodged in a resistance toward belonging and identification based on biological gender. The metaphorical cyborg violates the assumed laws of nature, transgressing and carnivalizing the boundaries between the human, the animal and the technological, representing a consciousness between the material and virtual. Haraway’s theory of human hybridity demands other categorizations and understandings than the notion of a biological, or social, gender. Man and her existence is fictionalized, turned into technology, perverted and made ironic. With such a constellation, interpreting belonging through psychologized femininity is hardly possible.
If the transgressive thought model of the cyborg is taken into the account of the four artists, one can see how the notion of a unified or divided psyche, expected social roles, aggressions, alienation, conventional ways of representing, successful careers or influnce in the art world have to be abandoned.
The artist figure and artistic production of Yayoi Kusama may be the easiest to view through this optic. The cyborg becomes visible in the combination of automated dot painting, provocations against socially expected behaviours and an existence beyond the notion of a balanced psyche. Niki de Saint Phalle, on her part, created the nana figure and developed a fictionalized femininity no longer related to the legendary She from 1966, which lay welcoming with legs spread at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Here it is rather about developing other, uncategorized forces, forms and existences that demand to live a singular life in a concretized world of the imagination.
The artistic language of Mona Hatoum speaks of being an outsider, of alienation, yet at the same time is about what is most familiar. It is grounded in a palistinian arabic accent that can no longer be geographically placed, and which time and again is re-interpreted culturally, politically and materially, as well as emotionally, until it has been hybridized, fragmented and resurrected in an ever changing form. What remains longest in Alice Neel’s paintings is the gaze. It is the gaze of a nearly dehumanized individual looking at you from Neel’s image, piercing through you until you no longer know what it is that is observing you, like an unidentified memory you would rather ged rid of. You are confronted, perhaps even identified, by someone at the fringes of the human and non-human.
In contrast to the clichéd analysis of gender, feminist critique is able to open the exhibitions like a goldmine of contemporary analysis and a neohuman or posthuman understanding of our lives. This is a chance at an intellectual challenge for anyone prepared to take a somewhat more difficult route than mainstream media.