The ex-primary school that houses Primary was once populated by young girls and boys attending lessons, filing through corridors and dashing about in the playground. It was superseded by young adults taking contemporary ballet classes in what was then a dance college. When the building was adopted by artists, it naturally maintained an echo of its past: chipped wooden hand rails, a fully mirrored wall, working school bells and wiggly markings on the playground floor. It is in many ways uncomfortable to hold these images in mind in relation to Anna K.E.’s ‘Leaving the Rock Stage’. Nevertheless, the building’s current use as a gallery and artist studios prompts us to do so.
Pivotal to the exhibition, through physical dominance and content, are photographs supported by stage trussing. These are structures that would, as the exhibition title suggests, be at home within the context of large stadium gig. Entering from what could be perceived as the ‘back’ of the stage, coming in through the wings and initially weaving past the other components, there is a build-up of tension. Not seeing everything at once heightens a sense of eagerness to reach the ‘front’.
Photographed in a bathroom with what could be imagined as a self-timer, are close-up photographs of one woman’s vagina morphing into various forms - androgynous, phallic, abstract, alphabetic - shaped by her own hands. The vagina appears autonomous. It questions itself; enacting the point at which a girl turns into a woman and - as the pubic hair is removed - back again. It even questions its own ability to suggest a new gender for itself.
The vagina is no longer a ‘shocking’ subject-matter as it was once claimed to be when first-generation feminist Judy Chicago commandeered it as a symbol of female recognition in ‘Dinner Party’ (1974-9) or Hannah Wilke metaphorically took over the Corcoran Art Gallery in 1976, collaging vaginal forms over its facade. Contemporary artists such as Anne Hirsch are, however, using themselves as subjects as a way of now playing the internet at its own game, acting up to its ability to expose and disseminate, and as a means of questioning notions of sexuality.
As a woman, writing in 2016, I feel I should not be experiencing feelings of awkwardness when presented with these images of female genitalia. Oddly enough I do and in this respect, feel it functions as a deliberate and clever device. The seemingly inconsequential setting within the photographs, the fact the subject wears a scraggy bracelet that would have been removed had it been planned, heightens the notion that it’s all a bit spontaneous, exploratory, naive. This subsequently creates a further level of tension. Placing these images on display with such drama feels flippant, premature, irresponsible.
Retreating back again, and under directional speakers set at varying heights suitable for a standing adult / crouching adult, are short monologues spoken by a female voice:
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to say ... because its you, you, you. It’s cold ...”
“You should smell like a girl and I will love you even more ...”
“I can move up for you if you need me to. I can move up for you …”
In a tone reminiscent of Billie Whitelaw, performing Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I’ in 1973, the voice is whispered, manic, hysterical, mocking, and most significantly, as if in response to a silent repressive force. These dialogues provide an uneasy vibration to the space. One that feels loaded with complications for us as viewers; a sense that we are witnesses to an unhealthy interaction.
The female as someone who is out of control of the gaze of another, who is exposed or chooses to expose, arises as a thematic, not only through the photographs but in the presence of a number of computer-generated eyeball motifs, printed within larger vinyl wall panels. Symbolic of the act of looking, these forms appear out of their sockets and without lids (the only thing that would have stopped them from their otherwise persistent stare.) Upon their glassy surfaces, as well as the almost pube-like veins, are reflections of the windows of the gallery space itself - windows being an architectural feature that again suggest a lack of boundaries - the internal peeped at by the external and visa versa.
The final component to the work seems to attempt to bring part of the playground upstairs into the gallery. It includes a floor-to-ceiling pole around which a yellow hoop is attached - yellow being a colour that also features heavily throughout the building. In this instance, the hoop form appears as another framing device, something that could circumnavigate a body, entrapping it and exposing it at the same time to the gaze of others.
Anna K.E. uses such sculptural and display devices to simultaneously hide and expose. When the genitals, the eyes and the voice are removed from the context of the whole body, they adopt their own agency. These parts they act as symbols that bring to light how multiple behaviours may shift in accordance and opposition to, external forces.