This resulting prestation was, however, defiantly complex rather than simply celebratory. The works included suggested that the representation of women by other women is as fraught with the dynamics of power as the representation of women by men. If the exhibition began with Mulvey’s
the premise that ‘pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’,
it went on to draw from cultural critic Wendy Steiner to question the degree to
which the viewed object is always already identified as essentially female, and
the subject (viewer) as essentially male.
In this sense, whether the male gaze is present or not,the phallocentric mindset was everywhere in the work. Pieces such as Maria
Lassnig’s Girl With Wine Glass (1971) or Lisa Yuskavage’s Heart (1996–7) depict the female nude in various positions of repose, erotic pleasure and vulnerability. The works refer to a long art historical tradition and tread
upon the territory traditionally prescribed by the male gaze. As a result,
although these are works that have been produced by women, the male gaze in
many ways continues to haunt the images.
Other works explored the question of whether (and to what extent) the perceived object can move into a more active position. This endeavour was captured in its most literal sense in the first gallery, which
offered a collection of photographic portraits, each of which returned to the viewer a gaze that is less easily identified as passive and is instead cagey, challenging and opaque. These works date from the early 20th century (BereniceAbbott’s Mme. Theodore
van Rysselberghe, 1926–30) to the contemporary, such as Roni
(Isabelle Huppert) (2005).
In a separate gallery, Rineke Dijkstra’s Tiergarten, Berlin, July 1 (2000)
elaborated upon the notion of the resistant photographic subject. The image
depicts a pre-adolescent girl in the natural backdrop of the Tiergarten.
Essentially pre-sexual, the girl is also not yet socially subjugated; this
sense of being resistant to sociological context and pressure is literally
emphasized by the backdrop of wilderness. The correlation Dijkstra forms
between sexual and social subjugation is both subtle and convincing. Fiercely
resistant to the sexualizing gaze, the girl is – for the moment – more subject
An equally striking Marilyn Minter photograph completed
the transformation from the object in the conventional sense – passive and
subject to the gaze of the viewer – to the object in the Lacanian sense. As
Lacan formulates it in The
Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964), the gaze
belongs not to the subject, but to the object that is perceived; these objects
effectively return the gaze to the viewer. The gaping mouth of Minter’s
large-format photograph Wangechi
Gold 3 (2009) is a classic embodiment of this idea – the mouth
looks as much as it is looked at, and makes demands as much as it is sexualized.
Whether this work could have been produced by a man seems almost irrelevant;
the image subverts the traditional notion of the power relationship prescribed
by the gaze, of the subject versus the object, in a manner that is neatly
severed from gender.