The text is published in REARTIKULACIJA #9, diet 2009, Radical Critical Practice
http://www.reartikulacija.org/?p=683

 

Abstract:

What I am currently engaged in – within the frameworks of ‘aRtivism’ – is a discussion of myth-building mechanisms pertaining to the figure of an Amazon woman and her gender role in contemporary culture.

The article looks at a concrete example: the exhibition Amazons; Re-construction of the Myth mounted in Belgrade in 2005, including my contribution Amazon Woman without a Body; Image and Consequences. In my opinion, construction of the Amazon myth currently implies a logically consequent, but nevertheless problematic order of its transfiguration. The first mechanism re-activates the myth in terms of emancipation of women in contemporary society, in accordance with the feminist and gender theories and respective activist practices. The figure of the Amazon woman was initially introduced in the contemporary social discourse to pursue emancipation of the woman as an independent subject, independent from the male subject, that is. The second mechanism re-produces the myth through popular culture. She, as a figure of emancipation, gratifies female desires for a possible transformation or, at least, a well done simulation. But, at the same time, her powerful and perfect media-produced female body gratifies men, being designed precisely for this purpose.

The question I am interested in here is: When/How did the figure of an Amazon woman become a market commodity? The answer or explanation I find the most accurate and critical is the following: presence of the figure of an Amazon woman in contemporary culture implies a logical, rather then chronological, sequence:

emancipation  >>>  transformation into a sex object.

Consequently, following the process of emancipation and introduction of the powerful and independent ‘business woman’ as a culturally acceptable gender role, the Amazon woman became an irritating threat to the overwhelming patriarchal social order which ultimately transformed her into a consumer-friendly mass-media product.

In broader terms, what I underline here is the question of social operation of aRtivist practices accomplished through an institutional system – the system of always-already established social order and its respective pre-scribed protocols of realization. It is, accordingly, a kind of warning, calling attention to the (media) materiality of aRtivist procedures and actions.

In this article I am looking at two plausible aRtivist tactics of a female subject in art, drawing from an example pertaining to the contemporary local cultural context. Belgrade’s cultural centre Deve mounted in May 2005 an ’all–female’ exhibition[1] titled Amazons; Re-construction of the Myth (I also took part in) at the Gallery of the Student Cultural Centre. Position of the organizers/curators was emancipatory, stemming from feminist and pro-feminist leanings to support and advocacy of the feminine subject, primarily creative subject addressing the realm of art. Precisely this position represents, in my opinion, the critical point of aRtivism in the local art context, raising the question whether the problematization of this position in this context is sanctioned – in other words, is this still aRtivism or its denial? Considering the topic of the exhibition (myth of the Amazon warrior women) as an activist art practice, I will address it as a symptom of the mechanisms of integration of a woman in the art world if she complies and remains in the frameworks of this tactics, without questioning the position of a female subject of art, and perceiving its limitations.

 

“The myth, forged in the dim past, when strife was dire and inevitable, had played its part. As outward pressure relaxed, and men became more enlightened, the story lost much of its grimness, but had not spent its power: the poet and artist made it their own, drawing from its grim details new meanings, refining its lessons to fit them for a happier stage of civilization. And so they softened the story of Amazonian cruelty to serve their own ends, promoting the cult of the beautiful by holding up the splendid human figures, at once strong and graceful, to the emulation of maid and matron, and by calling for masculine admiration and pity.”[2]

 

This quote from the book The Amazons written in 1910 – addressing the myth of warrior women and attempting at its objective historical reconstruction – will be used here as a starting point for discussion of similar myth-building mechanisms at work in contemporary culture.

For this purpose I will disclose two tactics: two starting points and two lines of production of the Amazon myth. Besides, according to the aforementioned quote, I perceive in this mechanism a logically consequent, but somehow threatening transfiguration of the myth, to be addressed and warned against in this discussion.

 

The first position and line concern the re-activation and utilization of the Amazon myth in terms of emancipation of women in the contemporary society, within the frameworks of feminist and gender theories and activist practices. The second position and line imply the re-production and instrumentalization of the myth or, more precisely, its appropriation by the popular culture.

The figure of the Amazon woman, it could be argued, was initially re-activated and introduced into the contemporary social discourse to pursue emancipation of the woman as a unique, self-contained subject, relieved from relationships to the male subject. On the one hand, I find this occurence not irrelevant for the local culture, where many issues of gender and sex relations remain unsolved, nor even seriously perceived: mysoginy in the public discourse (mass media, pop culture, academia included) and daily conversation (catchphrases, curses, bywords), few women authors/artists featuring on the art scene, large proportion of men occupying high positions in politics (almost entire leadership of the Serbian government; parliamentary election lists etc.) However, my approach to dealing with this problem, as adopted by the Cultural centre Deve, is contentious, because merely one step after this emancipatory admittance of the Amazon figure, many (often previosly ignored) problems ensue.

Accordingly, my contribution to this exhibition (in cooperation with the art theorist Ana Vujanović) had contentious aims. Video installation Amazon Woman without a Body; Image and Consequences is a piece situated in the context of an emancipatory exhibition, conceiving the contention on two levels (two images and two screens):

 

  1. simulation of a typical movie trailer advertising the figure of an Amazon warrior (powerful woman who ‘takes control’) constructed as a media prosthesis awaiting/seeking/projecting her (real, material) body – the trailer is screened, featuring the distinct sound accompanying the entire exhibition, on a large wall in front of the Gallery. This image is what the audiences encounter first while entering the exhibition space;

 

  1. portraiture of different women, shot at the marketplace, on the street, at home, at the workplace etc. – black & white silent documentary featured on the TV screen; in the video instalallation the TV is set directly opposite the video beam projection: documentary portraits of women are confronted with the attractively mass-media constructed content (trailer) addressing them.

 

This ‘cold’ confrontation of mass-media featured and ordinary female bodies induces disturbing meanings questioning the myth as a mechanism of historical and cultural reconstruction.

Portraits of the women, as recipients of the trailer’s content, individually and collectively take part in the foisted media myth. Identification with the media-produced, screen figure of the Amazon warrior creates the illusion that change is possible – by way of the gaze[3]. And precisely through the illusion that for HER individually change is attainable and within grasp, SHE loses what she never had in the first place[4] – a possibility of respective change (that is, by way of identification with the Amazon figure). This mechanism renders the struggle for change as lost in advance, because the Amazon woman can not embrace a critical, subversive or defying tactics of the contemporary female subject, being as such already assimilated in the mass-media culture as a market commodity.

The title Amazon Woman without a Body paraphrases Žižek’s title Organs without Bodies[5], and relates directly to the basic concept of the video installation. The Amazon Woman without a Body is the Amazon woman as a Phallus (Phallus features in Žižek’s book as this ‘organ’, symbolic member detached from the real body, although it foists itself upon it). She is a symbolic power structure relieved from real bodies in real life, a social prosthesis awaiting flesh.

 

In this way, the Amazon woman – however drawing her emancipatory power from the context of feminist readings – acts as a figure in the wider social context – the patriarchal system which overpowers and makes twofold use of her. As a figure of emancipation she gratifies the woman’s desire for a possible or at least plausiby simulated change. But, at the same time, as a figure featuring a powerful, perfect, mediated female body, she indulges man’s gaze – being designed to please him and to become yet another desirable consumer product in the marketplace.

My primary concern with this double mechanism is: when did the Amazon woman become a consumer product? The structure of this mechanism of the Amazons’ presence in contemporary culture displays a logical, rather then chronological, sequence: emancipation – transformation into a sex object. Accordingly, following the process of emancipation and introduction of the ‘successful woman’ as a socially acceptable and sanctioned cultural code, the Amazon woman became a figure of threat to the patriarchal order, which ultimately subjugated her and transformed into a desirable sex object, reduced to a mass-media product for easy consumption. Consequently, though the ambivalent figure of the Amazon woman should be assessed mainly in cultures and societies (Western European, for instance) where emancipation of the female subject has been at least partially at work, one should be more cautious with the local (Serbian) context – because the process of women’s emancipation is here still only emerging. However, I consider this kind of assessment of the Amazon figure relevant for the local context, as ‘advanced problem solving’ necessarily awaiting us. Actually, what is awaiting the Amazon woman here when she establishes herself as a prominent and relevant figure on the artistic, cultural, and political scenes? She will be ‘disarmed’. Her potential subversiveness will be diluted when she becomes just another commodity, just another pornographic feature.

To support this warning, here are some results of a WWW search on Amazon women-related contributions to cinema:

-       An epic from the dark ages about the legendary lost tribe of warrior women!

-       The girls fly into danger…

-       A secret cult of beautiful, large-breasted female warriors plots to take over the world by killing off important male politicians.

-       A group of archaeologists asks Tarzan to help them find an ancient city in a hidden valley of women…

-       Two musclemen come up against a tribe of Amazon women.

-       Hell hath no fury like 10,000 women!

-       A Thousand Tempting Beauties… They Fought Like Ten Thousand Unchained Tigers!

-       Women Warriors as Sensuous as they are Savage. Women Rulers as Passionate as they are Powerful.

-       Three sisters, all raised as boys, have trouble fitting into male-dominated society.

-       A lady doctor and three nurses fight off a number of men attackers, in a confuse plot about pills who have strange effects on women’s self-determination and sexual behaviour.

-       This is the Lost Tribe of White Women Savages! Each a Beauty…Each a Deadly Trap for the Men They Make Their Love Slaves!

-       A party of explorers in the Amazon jungle are captured by a tribe of women, and learn that they are to be used as the tribe’s ‘love slaves.’

-       Her power was more than any man could handle.

-       A sailor escapes a mutiny on his ship and finds himself stranded on a jungle island-with a tribe of gorgeous Amazon women.

 

Therefore, I would like to conclude this piece of writing with an alternative, a different mode of artivist engagement of a female subject (in art). It is not emancipatory and perhaps it will escape these traps of the mass-media society. In other words, it will not represent such a predictable element of the existing social structure with roles a priori cast, and will not so conveniently enter the marketplace of the (men-dominated) art world. I opine that we can start from the assumption that every collective identity (even the emancipatory identity of the woman-artist perceived as an Amazon warrior) eventually becomes oppressive to the individual („In reality, the Amazon woman is nothing more than a ‘bait of interpellation’; especially in the first person singular.“[6]) Namely, the main problem with this figure is absence of an Amazon woman in the singular; there is no woman-artist in the singular, she always implies the rest of the tribe of women-artists in existence merely as a collective social subject ‘WE’. And this WE implies a preconceived role, requiring a body of an ‘independent, successful, emancipated woman’ or a ‘woman-artist’, and reducing it to that role. That is precisely why the figure of the Amazon warrior is not effective for the individual subject, it does not communicate anything about him/her – it arms him/her with nothing but an already rehearsed role pertaining to a collective identity, as part of the existing social structure. In response to this I suggest a kind of ‘post-identity’ tactics, tactics of desintegration of each subject whose identity reduces and petrifies the individual, particular, incidental, unstable, ambiguous, queer… That would be a tactics of establishing female subjects of art which embrace and exert identity theories and practices – remaining open for the singularity of an individual which can not be reduced to a single (collective) social role[7].

In the last instance, that would be a tactics of assuming all competencies from the (male) subject of the artworld, among the key ones being problematization of the very notion of identity. In those terms, I also suggest an identity switch of a ‘woman-artist’ (implying actions within the frameworks of the pre-conceived, and competencies of that fairly narrow sector of the artworld termed ‘female writing’) with an ‘identity-free’ (neutral) subject of art projecting the scope of its actions and competencies across the entire realm of art.

 

(First published in Serbian in TkH Journal for Performing Arts Theory, No. 11, October 2006, Belgrade, pp. 153-158.     )

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] All (8) participating artists were women.

[2] Rothery, G. C. (1910) The Amazons, 1995, Senate Classics, London, pp. 22.

 

[3] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, originally published in Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18. https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/MarkTribe/Visual+Pleasure+and+Narrative+Cinema

In this article Laura Mulvey employs Lacan’s concept of the mirror phase to elaborate a system of identification pertaining to a screen/mirror gaze: „The mirror phase occurs at a time when the child’s physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity, with the result that his recognition of himself is joyous in that he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body.“ Precisely this moment is crucial for the constitution of the ego when recognition is burdened with misrecognition, the recognized image is perceived as the (superior) reflection of one’s own body, generating future identifications with others. This very (joyous) moment of recognition of a woman in the mediated body of the Amazon warrior renders her rebellion impossible and futile for it is just a moment capturing her gaze into the screen, a moment prepared/arranged for HER.

[4] Ana Vujanović, ‘Halo, Amazonko… pa… halo Amazonko…’, exhibition catalogue Amazonke, Deve, Belgrade, 2005

[5] Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies – Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge, New York, 2004

[6] Ana Vujanović, ibid.

[7] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, The Overlook Press, New York, 1959, pp. 15. According to Goffman, „A “performance” may, be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants”. It is important to note here that the roles are conceived before they are performed by individuals: in other words, attempts at a change are assimilated in advance.

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