Swimming Pools and waves: on feminisms

Art News, Summer 2016


In September 2014, Wendelien Bakker began to dig a hole in her back garden in Grey Lynn. It was warm and all her neighbours had swimming pools. She wanted a swim, so she decided to build a pool. “It’s just something I wanted to do, and I know that want is a really tricky word.”

A current masters student at Elam, Bakker took seven months to complete the pool. During that time she was dealing with male-dominated companies and hardware shops. Bakker wrote a list outlining building the pool in 38 bullet-like points. Her list is as open ended as poetry but is defined by an exacting methodology. The first bag of mortar weighs 25kg. French Grey and Miami Midnight are colours of pool plaster. Bakker buys water-testing strips to calculate the pH levels. The man from SSL says she doesn’t sound like a professional plasterer.

“It’s the hottest it’s been,” Bakker wrote. The pool she created is narrow – “it did look like a grave when I was digging it” – but its reception has been wide. For some it was about the gentrification of Grey Lynn, for others it challenged gender roles. The SSL man said he had been in the industry for over 15 years and it was the most rustic pool he’d ever seen.

Bakker describes herself as a somewhat reluctant feminist. “What I mean is that I just want to be an artist,” she says, “but I can’t not be a feminist”.

Recently she bought land on the moon. It was the only land she could afford. The deeds are submerged in concrete and priced at $4000. Her other artworks include Water from Rock (“Water is being recycled all the time, the same water I’m drinking now in my tea could be water Cleopatra swum in.”), Attempt to Catch Movement of Water (there’ve been 216 attempts so far) and Dissection of a Wave (How would a wave look if seen from side on or within?).

The fourth wave of feminism has arrived. Like recycled water, it includes the movements that have preceded it, and, like the dissection of a wave, it’s hard to define. In 2016, the Dowse Art Museum, in association with Enjoy Public Gallery, hosted the Four Waves of Feminism Symposium, which brought together influential local figures to examine the current moment. Fourth-wave feminism is engulfing, shaped by the Internet and intersectionality. In 1989 American Professor of Law, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw first used this term to describe how social categories like race, gender and class create overlapping systems of discrimination.

“The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously.” Virginia Woolf published The Waves in 1930. This novel attempts to capture “a mind thinking”, yet Woolf’s stream of consciousness now represents a brand of white feminism as popularised by the actresses Nicole Kidman and Tilda Swinton as by The Waves. The photography of recent Unitec graduate, Cass Power, continues to draw inspiration from Woolf’s A Room of Ones Own. “I remember her discussing the androgynous mind,” Power says, but acknowledges this is just one of many feminisms.

In 2015, artist and writer Georgina Rose Watson curated Bakker’s Swimming Pool into the group exhibition Vital Bodies at Dunedin’s Blue Oyster Gallery. “I was thinking a lot about vital materialisms at the time of that show and reading Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things as well as some other eco-feminist thinkers.”

Watson says, “The work being done around current feminisms and intersectional feminist thought and activism is also really important to my practice”. Reading was her entry point into contemporary art. “I was about 19 and studying photography in Hamilton and hating it and came across Susan Sontag and was seduced by critical theory.” Watson works with writing as an art practice. Her approach to authorship is layered and fragmented. For her 2016 exhibition at Auckland’s Window – mostly i harvest each green fruit with regret she produced a speculative manuscript partly by using glass.leaves, an online text-manipulation tool created by poet Gregory Kan.

Autumn of Spit was a collaboration that oscillated between “making, poetry, scripting and performance”. Watson, Joanna Neumegen and Laura Suzuki, wrote texts that curator, Elle Loui August, edited into a script. The exhibition was conceived as a show or scene for Canapé Canopy, Auckland. “I also made the snow garden outside,” Watson says.

The outdoor scene was desolate. ‘Snow’ (salt and sago with black oxide) filled a trough that could have housed a veggie garden; dry weeds and dirt crushed into the snow. Neumegen made a cobweb from hardware chains and stretched it from a tree. The exhibition spoke to the agency of these things as vital materialisms. At the opening, an actress read out the script: a series of splintered fragments that pulsated with eco-consciousness. “The rain made a door for me and I went through it.”

Dusk at the foothills of the Himalayas. In February 2016, Audrey Baldwin embarked on Log Vigil as part of the Morni Hills Performance Art Biennale, India. She sat at camp; two heavy rounds of Bodhi Tree logs piled on her lap. Baldwin thought of herself as a conduit trying to unify the truncated parts of the tree. She sat until dark, thinking about mankind and the environment, mending, healing, mourning, regrowing.

Baldwin calls herself an unapologetic feminist. A performance artist based in Christchurch, she uses her own body – often nude – as a ‘raw’ material in her gallery-based work. Her practice connects to a lineage of 1970s feminists, from Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann to self-described ‘ecosexual’ Annie Sprinkle. “No matter how we try to objectify women, the body/self can never truly become a pure object.”

On returning from India, Baldwin took on post-earthquake Christchurch in Road Portraits. “I feel as though our city has been colonised by hyper-masculine ideals – demolish, rebuild, tear down, tear up. I wanted to playfully highlight how foreign the body is in the cityscape.” Fascinated by the idea of the artist as a fool, shaman or clown, Baldwin donned an orange road cone over her head and posed nude at night: road kill.

Anna Rankin emails from A-Z West, an interdisciplinary residency, run from Andrea Zittel’s home in Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave desert. “The reception is pretty spotty out here.” Rankin is another Elam graduate “more pulled towards writing”. Rankin edited Anti-Heroine, the third issue of the online journal Hapori, in 2016.

“In addressing the question of what feminism is you have to question how ‘womanhood’ gets defined; on what assumptions does it depend?”

In Anti-Heroine, Rankin interviewed renowned art writer Chris Kraus (whose genre-breaking I Love Dick has recently been turned into a TV pilot by Jill Soloway), but also Kay Baxter (co-founder of Koanga Institute, the home of New Zealand’s largest organic heritage seed collection) and Wensley Willcox (author of Poorman Oranges: Stories of Women in Community Houses in Auckland).

Anti-Heroine reconnects with the grass-roots activism of second-wave feminism. Launched at the Auckland Women’s Centre in Grey Lynn, the issue features Gil Hanly’s photographs of local 1970s feminist pioneers, including founders of Broadsheet magazine. Pageworks by George Watson, Stella Corkery and others reinvest in essentialist – earth – imagery. Corkery’s sculptures made from kikuyu grass are evocative of birdnests. While Selena Gerzic’s concrete booties mounted on dirt are a visualisation of Ernest Hemingway’s infamous six-word story: Baby shoes, for sale, never worn.

“Equal rights, equal pay and opportunities – being able to walk down the street with dignity and not made to feel unsafe – these aren’t feminist issues, they’re human rights issues. It’s so weird that we’re even having to talk about this still,” Rankin says. Motherhood can be divisive; especially for a generation of art school students that now routinely undertakes a master’s degree. (As a snapshot: 80 per cent of current students enrolled at Elam are women, at nearby AUT, 82 per cent of current BVA students are women. Yet there is a high attrition from graduate to exhibition making artist; most dealer galleries represent more men than women.)

Lana Lopesi is the editor of #500words, a writer, artist and curator based in Auckland. She’s also about to have baby number two. “The problem with the arts is that the infrastructure is built for the single person – the obsessive studio practice, the residency, the opening, the post-opening dinner/drinks – motherhood is seen as an interruption to this obsession.”

Lopesi wrote “Young Mums: The Arts Ecology and Being Radical” for The Pantograph Punch. Her essay calls out a number of intersectional issues including the stereotyping of young, brown mums. For Lopesi, the words of British artist Tracey Emin are a pivot point. Interviewed by Red magazine in 2015, Emin said, “I don’t think I’d be making work (if I were a mother). I would have been either 100 percent mother or 100 percent artist”. Lopesi refutes this ultimatum. Emin made her bed in the late 1990s and it was exhibited at the Turner Prize replete with condoms and vodka bottles. Emin doesn’t want a baby in that bed. Fair enough. The choice is personal, but the personal is also political. In 2014 My Bed sold for £2.54m at a Christie’s auction.

Li-Ming Hu actually is in bed with Tracey Emin. Hu (like most of the artists discussed) does not have dealer gallery representation. In her video I Can’t Do It Alone, Hu dons a Tracey Emin mask, and hops into bed beneath a blankey. The soundtrack is a song from the Chicago musical about “my sister and I”. Hu’s video also features artist Sarah Lucas – another mask. Together both ‘artists’ are shown in workman’s overalls preparing in their studio for a DIY event. This video is actually an advertisement for Hu’s own pop-up artist-run space Riff Raff.

This semi-imaginary venue was created with Daphne Simons for Glove Box in Auckland in 2016. Hu was interested in how the artist-run space has become a “post-art-school marketing strategy”. Her work embodies the current moment of YouTube and reality TV, where celebrity has been stretched to breaking point. A chimeric presence, in her videos Hu is always concealed beneath a cardboard mask. From this position, she performs a range of first-world anxieties from art-world success to mega-star crash and burn.

“I’m interested in this pressure to perform and get noticed that I feel very strongly trying to make it as a newish artist, although I also acknowledge the way performance pressure is insinuated into our society’s approach to labour, the requirement to be ‘passionate’ about your day job.”

Whitney. Rod Stewart. Simon Denny. In the age of the selfie, Hu identifies as someone else. The founding members of Gambia Castle, an influential Auckland space from the mid-00s, are featured in her most notorious video work. In this, Hu and her pals ham it up as (newbie) art stars – Kate Newby, Simon Denny, Fiona Connor, and Sarah Hopkinson – frolicking about the garden at Canapé Canopy to 1980s anthem “Fame”. Fame and oblivion, like gender and identity, are fluid – as simple as slipping on the right mask.

“Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying… ” Auckland art dealer, Sarah Hopkinson is portrayed as the dance teacher from Fame in Hu’s video. Hopkinson graduated from Elam in 2005 and established dealer gallery Hopkinson Cundy (now Mossman) after Gambia Castle. Equality of representation and market value remains a contentious and complex issue.

Hopkinson says, “We are very aware that there is a historical discrepancy in prices achieved for work by women artists, as reflected most starkly in secondary market results. On the bright side we do also have collectors who are particularly focused on women artists, in an effort to redress the balance.”

In her email Hopkinson included a link to an interview with the literary phenomenon Italian author Elena Ferrante. “Women, in all fields – whether mothers or not – still encounter an extraordinary number of obstacles. They have to hold too many things together and often sacrifice their aspirations in the name of affections,” says Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym. [a pseudonym that was controversially broken by media the week this article was published.]

“I was sick of seeing feminist work that was traumatic to look at.” Hana Pera Aoake is a founding member of the collective Fresh and Fruity. Current members include Mya Middleton and Severine Costa. The collective began by running a physical space in Ōtepoti (Dunedin) and takes its name from the yoghurt its members found while dumpster diving. On Tumblr, they identify as “a social media spectacle’. They are the authors of three manifestos that are funny and frightening. Aoake wrote their first, A Sexy New Look, published on a pink background. This list of 99 points uses repetition and assertion to build its catch cry: “Fresh and Fruity sees universities for what they are: exploitative businesses, not places of ‘learning’, which place young people in incredible debts they will struggle to pay off/Fresh and Fruity is a sexy new look”.

The second manifesto is split in two: The Trouble with Art and The Gallery Girl. “Art” becomes the alias for unchecked patriarchal privilege. “Art couldn’t understand why Alysha’s parents couldn’t afford to help her with living costs while studying while he lived alone in a huge apartment debt free #quincepaste.” Meanwhile, The Gallery Girl explores feminised labour. “The gallery girl does unpaid internships waiting for the perfect admin role at the Whitney museum #werkbitch.”

Aoake describes the manifestos as “funny because if you don’t laugh you’ll cry. Every time we’ve read one of our manifestos people have come up to us afterwards and said thank you. I could add ten more things to the list you’ve written.” In 2016, Aoake and Mya Middleton traveled to Neon Parc in Melbourne to read the third manifesto, on safe spaces. This ‘cathartic’ event took place at part of the Sleepover Club project: What Has Feminism ever Done for Me?

Yet feminism remains problematic if the word is used as a mere label or decoration. Recently their focus has been on indigeneity rather than gender.

“Fresh and Fruity was raised on boil up,” Middleton says. “Please don’t ever tell us feminism is part of our brand. You’ve sadly missed the point of our work.”

This year, Jordana Bragg filmed the waves in Houghton Bay, rushing into the shore, then receding. Aoake was late for their meeting. It was the start of the Lokal Stories residency that would become Cyber Nectar. “The ocean is a really good metaphor and its also visually pleasing,” Bragg says. The ocean like the Internet is a point of connection and departure, a space where boundaries are fluid. Together Aoake and Bragg have worked alongside Sophie Giblin, the founder of Lokal Stories, to create Cyber Nectar.

“It’s a beast of a project.”

Cyber Nectar is in part a critique of Roy Ascott’s term “moist media’. Ascott, a pioneer of cybernetics, uses “moist media’ to describe where art is now: a multiplicity of media manipulated in infinite ways by distributed authorship, publication and distribution. Cyber Nectar is a community project of pop-up exhibitions and events in Wellington but it is also a portrait of the artists as young women online. In August, Aoake and Bragg took over the Lokal Stories’ Instagram and Twitter accounts for a week. Aoake wrote almost 1000 tweets; Bragg erased them.

On a white background, the Cyber Nectar logo surges up and down like waves. The promotional videos for this hybrid project depict Aoake, Bragg and Giblin connecting in a parody of lifestyle aspirations. They’re also swimming; each woman alone in a public pool as though in a private nirvana.

Aoake says, “There was this sense that cyberspace would be able to ‘free’ the body but we know now that the body is never free”.

While Giblin says, “The Internet makes us local”. And it is still young. “We have the opportunity to shape it and be constructive about it.”

Learn the right pronoun.

“Be empathetic,” she says.

Postscript: Wendelien Bakker still chlorinates the pool. Sometimes her flatmate walks past her room, towel slung over his shoulder. The pool is refreshing in summer, but “it splashes out a bit”.

image: Wendelien Bakker, Swimming Pool, 2014-15.