The Austrian Cultural Forum could not be a more appropriate setting to show ‘Tender Touches’. The beautiful furnishings of the converted West London home are an apt frame for works made between 1970 and 2016 that highlight the complex relationship between the female body and domestic environments. The exhibition explores the impulses of desire, pleasure, intimacy and objectification through tongue in cheek humour or through the use of mirroring and reflection.
The feminist theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term ‘the male gaze’ in her 1975 essay ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, deconstructing power dynamics inherent to looking within a western patriarchal structure. Mulvey argued that gender power asymmetry results in images being constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, with the figure of the woman often relegated to the status of an object. Women creating images are not unaffected by the male gaze, and, following Mulvey’s assertion, participate by looking at themselves through the objectifying eyes of men. The works in the exhibition, regardless of context, tackle these issues through different methods.
‘Tender Touches’ takes its name from a series of works made by feminist Austrian avant garde artist Renate Bertlmann. Bertlmann’s Super 8 film shot in 1978 remains urgent and contemporary and she is considered by many to be one of the most controversial feminist artists. The work that is included in ‘Tender Touches ‘scandalised audiences in Germany so much that it was banned from a major exhibition of the movement, ‘The Museum of Money’, when it toured to France and Holland in 1978. ‘Tender Touches’ rejects the female and male body and uses instead images of latex teats caressing one another. The piece is erotically charged and its tempo painfully slow, with a notable scene showing foamy liquid oozing in slow motion. The effect is at once sexual and disturbing. The work encapsulates the messy emotions that surround lust which are also present in Zoe Williams’ work. Williams’ video work and ceramic sculpture invoke the tactile. A yearning for touch is made visible. The exhibition places younger contemporary artists from the UK – Williams and Eva Stenram and Austrian-based Russian artist Julia Zastava – with Bertlmann and her contemporary Freidi Kubelka. The exhibition’s timelines are blurry – how far have we really come since the 1970s?
Zastava’s basement installation includes a large projection on the back wall that emulates the aesthetic of the computer game Second Life. In front are several sculptural objects covered in grey snake skin as well as an actual skinned snake draped over the central piece, accented with pink sequins. This inquiry into domestic space continues in Zastava’s video which jumps between kitchen and bedroom scenes, with the artist herself superimposed in the settings. The artist seems to be poking fun at the stereotypically female role of a subservient domestic goddess and the eroticism attached to its representation. In Zastava’s video, a disembodied hand clicks on the artist, moving her from one space to another at random. In one scene, we see the artist in a forest setting sucking on someone’s toes, pushing the work into the realm of fetish. The question of control and the relinquishing of it to an external force is the central thread of the work.
At the back of the room are Stenram’s lounging pillowed textiles in both fleshy and black and white tones. Stenram’s two photographs feature reclining nude figures on the very same textiles. Representation of sexual fetish continues in a series of six black and white photographs by Bertelmann acting as a go between for Zastava’s and Stenram’s installations. The six images show Bertelmann leisurely and tenderly undressing a mannequin. Bertelmann’s face is obscured by a hat, so at first glance, we assume the figure is a man. The press release corrects this. The work plays on the power of patriarchal social conditioning to subvert how images are read.
The second half of the exhibition takes place in the first floor reception room complete with a large grand piano and a marble mantel piece, where the prop-like semi functional ceramic work of Williams takes pride of place. She also collaborated with pianist Viki Steiri who musical pianointerludes on the opening night. The pastels of her sugary sweet ceramic cake and candle sticks are mirrored in her HD video work ‘Chateaux Double Wide Aide’. The video stimulates pleasure, with manicured hands caressing fur, silk and skin. The woman’s face is never revealed, a strategy employed by many of the artists in the show. A heightened example is the digitally altered photos by Stenram that remove all trace of the female figure bar a severed leg. The photos are a macabre reminder of how female body parts continue to be represented as separate from the person within popular culture.
Kubelka’s 1970s black and white photographs are shown on the far side of the room. They were considered subversive at the time because Kubelka shot herself as a pin up in Parisian hotel rooms, taking pains not to show her face but training her lens on the mirrors of mantels and ceilings. Of course, these photographs hold contemporary resonance. The lingerie selfie is now an everyday tool of the ‘self-empowered woman’, taking charge of her sexuality and self-representation. But how is it possible that these images, radical in the early 1970s, are still being replicated ad infinitum? Is a woman taking charge of her own representation and embracing her sexuality still a mode of resistance? Is it in any way still a radical act?
The exhibition places inanimate objects alongside the female form in a search of other modes of representation and other ways of seeing women. The exhibition plays with existing gender stereotypes, highlighting their continued dictation of perspective. The contours of feminism have changed dramatically since the 1970s, with intersectionality and the voices of women of colour, trans and queer communities becoming integral to its progression. When, then, are these diverse voices absent from this exhibition? Despite its many highlights, with its absence of diverse perspectives, this exhibition is unable to present a truly expanded discussion of gender politics and female representation for 2017.