“All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body, or of any one’s body, male or female. The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean. The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame, Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity, Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman”.
Walt Whitman wrote the poem I Sing the Body Electric for the 1855 collection Leaves of Grass, “making a case for the inclusion of women in the democratic body by deconstructing the idea that the figure is always gendered”. The poem is a universal declaration of love to the human species, which cherishes all bodies and identities.
The exhibition We Sing The Body Electric, on show at Gallery 46 until 28 August 2019, has been curated by Camilla Cole on behalf of Cole Projects as a celebration of female agency, working at the intersections between body and soul, identity and technology.
I had the pleasure of discussing with Camilla ideas of gender inequality in the arts, addressing curatorial and marketing strategies.
Francesco Ferranti: Good morning Camilla, can you first introduce yourself and your approach to curating?
Camilla Cole: I had worked for commercial galleries and private collections for over a decade – producing huge off site shows with massive budgets. The access was amazing, I got a real sense of the art market, but I wanted to get back to working with, and for artists. There is so much talent out there, that is unrepresented and undiscovered, so I wanted to bring my experience into a new model that provided visibility and potential financial support. The way I curate is that I do a lot of research and try to see patterns, questioning what is really going on with the issues that contemporary artists are dealing with today- if it it can catch on to something that we experience on an individual level, and also within a larger societal construct, then hopefully the exhibition will appeal and this will do more for the artist’s that are included in the exhibitions I do.
Francesco Ferranti: “Structural change doesn’t come within the snap-of-a-finger but creating permanent channels of visibility for historically underrepresented artists and practitioners”, writes curator Nora-Swantje Almes in the essay ‘More‘ accompanying the catalogue. Despite progresses being made, gender imbalance in the arts is still evident in collections and programming. What do you think are the strategies for rethinking power structures in art institutions?
Camilla Cole: You’re right- there is still a huge amount of gender imbalance in the arts and institutions and unfortunately it reflects the rest of society as a whole too. The thing about the arts that is unlike other industries, is that we can call for action in a safe space – and this is reflected by the surge in exhibitions dealing with gender and equalities within it. There are so many curators doing really amazing work supporting unseen and unheard voices. The trick is, according to Nora-Swantje Almes (my esteemed friend and fellow curator wrote for the essay in the catalogue ‘MORE’) – is to ensure that this zeitgeist does not just fade away, and that real societal change is created as a result of it. “If diversity were normalised, intersectional inclusion would no longer be merely a trend”. She suggests that the strategies we need to implement are very real ones – we must have more people representative of minorities – whether of race, religion and sexualities on boards. As directors, CEOs and all levels of art workers. There are wider issues at play here too, such as the expense of going to art school excluding wide demographics within societies – but this is no reason to do what can be done right now.
Francesco Ferranti: We Sing The Body Electric takes inspiration from the Walt Whitman’s poem I Sing The Body Electric. The poem, included in the 1855 collection Leaves of Grass, celebrates the body as a fluid entity, Female-identifying bodies have been and still are objectified and sexualised by the male gaze. I think you have done a brilliant work, “queering” the gaze and incorporating intersectional experiences of womanhood by including black artists such as Enam Gbewonyo and Cherelle Sappleton. What were your main thoughts and concerns in envisioning and putting on the show?
Camilla Cole: Again, another really interesting question. A concern with putting on the show was to ensure enough different voices were heard that were representative so that there was not just one way of re accessing the male gaze- as this would do exactly what has been done before, just creating more boxes and stereotypes to put ourselves into. I wish I had a larger space to include even more voices and work. That said, I didn’t really have a problem with shifting the perspective as there is so much powerful work that deals with identity, sexuality (and therefore gender) coming out from unrepresented voices. In fact, I might argue there is more so as these are very real issues that are being dealt with. The question of gender is very complex, so I think really the fact that the artists are all female is sort of just a catchphrase- its more about the attitude they all portray about their bodies, and other people’s bodies. There’s a huge strength in the work, and sometimes even a sense of violence that runs alongside notions of desire and a renewed sense of ownership.
Francesco Ferranti: Can you choose three highlights from the show and discuss them?
Camilla Cole: I love all of them! I enjoy the performativity of the ‘Block’ (2019) by Copenhagen-based interdisciplinary artist Marie Munk , a sculpture made out of silicon and mince meat. The piece is a not so subtle reminder that underneath it all we are just flesh like Whitman’s poem states “the naked flesh meat of the body”, the silicon functioning as a metaphor for body/gender fluidity, slowly decaying over the course of the show.
Next, Alix Marie‘s ‘Flesh Light Study Work‘ series (2017) is amazing. The projects stems from the idea of the female genitalia being isolated and reconstructed probably by male engineers for other male pleasures- which then get subverted by the artist turning one inside out to see how they would engineer female genitalia- I find this fascinating, but I also love the fact it takes the mystery away from the organ, makes it just a tool.
Ingrid Berthon- Moine ‘s ‘sculpture ‘Under the Belt‘ (2007), made out of paper mache, elasticated belt and tights, reconstructs the male genitalia in a similar fashion (below)- rearranging the penis into a different shape, making it gender-less.
Finally, I’m a huge fan of Laila Majid‘s Videos ‘Loop, Cut, Subdivide‘ (2019)- there is something about these abject loops that draw me in- assuming I am witnessing some sort of bodily function, but in reality the actions portrayed are innocent- it makes me question my assumptions and probably says more about our own perspective on sex and the body than it does the artists!
Francesco Ferranti: Can you name some recent examples of positive female representation in art galleries in the UK or worldwide?
Camilla Cole: In the UK- again, I would say that Mimosa House has an amazing programme, and essentially it is not for profit- so that eliminates the treat of capitalising on identities. Mother Project is another amazing initiative, one that recognises that women are sometimes for forced to choose between mother hood and their careers- instead of this being a damaging thing, it has included motherhood into the arts. Hervisions is also doing incredibly well and is a force to be reckoned with- also, the aforementioned Nora-Swantje Almes has curated some incredible projects with both Hervisions and Mimosa House and Raven Row, supporting and promoting non binary artists.
We Sing The Body Electric is running at Gallery 46, E1 2AJ until 28 August. For more info about events and upcoming exhibitions, visit the website.