The video works is this gallery were made in the 1960s and 1970s by women artists from the United States and Europe. These were the early years of video art.
Artists use the camera as a means to observe and record, performances in which their own body takes centre stage. A few years ago, the Van Abbemuseum decided to highlight these important and pioneering developments in a period replete with social and cultural change and to add these works to its collection. In 2000, the museum started buying video works by artists like Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham and John Baldessari. Works by women artists like Carolee Schneemann, VALIE EXPORT, Martha Rosler and Joan Jonas are to be added to this collection. They regard the human body as a medium that communicates social and cultural codes. The body represents a reality that is analysed in the videos. It is subject and object, something that watches and is watched at the same time.
The videos are shown in a gallery whose white walls are covered by wallpaper specially designed for the Van Abbemuseum by Lily van der Stokker (’s-Hertogenbosch, 1954). She is one of a younger generation of artists and uses other media and imagery. What links Van der Stokker to these artists is the question of whether and how a woman artist can adopt a sovereign position, how she can thematise the relationship between the personal and the public. By introducing colourful, decorative wallpaper, carpeting and matching furniture
to the white galleries of the museum, the modernistic palace for art, she plays a subtle yet subversive game with the dominant modernistic canon. Her ‘decorative embellishments’ break through established standards, toy with taboos and introduce a subtle feministic attitude into the museological platform. Although her work is explicit as an autonomous statement in its own right, it also serves as a ‘decorative backdrop’ for the pioneering work of the previous generation of important women artists whose work Van der Stokker so respects and admires.
In the early 1960s, American Carolee Schneemann (1939, Fox Chase, PA, USA) begins using her body in performances she ﬁrst captures on 16-mm ﬁlm and then on video. Schneemann regards her body as a source of knowledge. Her work is personal and private. By revealing herself both physically and emotionally, she introduces feminine sexuality and eroticism into her work, contesting man’s exclusive right in this ﬁeld. ‘Fuses’ (1964-66) documents her love affair at the time. Intimate sexual scenes alternate with pictures of the house, the cat, the window and the beach. Parts of the ﬁlm have been treated with chemicals, making the images almost abstract. These treated recordings combine with double takes and recognisable pictures, shifting the audience’s attention from the medium to the content and back again. The scratched sections suggest censorship but at the same time, they emphasise the emotionality and intimacy of the recordings. ‘Meat Joy’ (1964) is a choreography for several performers and the audience, and includes the use of attributes such as paint, plastic, rope, paint brushes, paper, ﬁsh, chickens and sausages. The choreography is partly prearranged, partly improvised. At the beginning, you hear Schneemann reading out instructions for the cast. The piece itself is erotic, sensual, sometimes wild but also graceful and light-hearted. The recording shown here was shot in Paris. During the show in London, the police raided the theatre and stopped the performance.
Joan Jonas (1936, New York City, NY, USA) also focuses on her own body in her performances. She analyses it as a subject, but also as a sex object. Jonas attempts
to uncover structures, break down role patterns and analyse identities. In the performance entitled ‘Left Side, Right Side’ (1972), she misleads the viewer’s perception by using mirrors. She records this on video and shows the pictures as an integral part of her performances on the wall with projectors or on monitors. Performance, synchronous reproduction and her perception and that of the audience generate complex layers of signiﬁcance. In ‘Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy’ (1972), she uses masks and costumes to create her alter ego ‘Organic Honey’, an erotic, cold seductress. In some scenes, her interest in magic, American Indian traditions or Japanese Kabuki and No theatre is clearly visible. In ‘Vertical Roll’ (1972), Jonas gets the images to roll across the screen by manipulating the frequency, fragmenting the medium of video into rhythmic repetition. The video ‘Songdelay’ (1973) is based on a performance on an empty lot on the banks of the Hudson river in Manhattan. The audience looks on from the roof of a ﬁve-storey building while the 13 members of the cast perform a number of simple actions.
In her work, Martha Rosler (Brooklyn, NY, USA) studies the inﬂuence of society on the individual. She analyses the white, masculine, capitalist society and shows how social and political ideologies affect the daily lives of the individuals who live in it. She does not restrict her work to society in general, but also looks at the power of one race or gender over the other, of one social class over the other. The video entitled ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ (1975) is put together like a TV programme. Rosler shows the viewer kitchen implements in alphabetical order, starting with apron and ending with tenderiser. The aggressive way in which she portrays these items is dryly humorous but, at the same time, it expresses suppressed rage and a protest against the still popular opinion that the woman’s place is in the kitchen. By using the alphabet as a means of order, she indicates that not only economic, social and cultural structures force women into this position, but that it is also embedded in our communication system, including our language and visual culture.
VALIE EXPORT (1940 Linz, Austria) lives and works in Europe. Her work is a response to the male art of
the ‘Wiener Aktionisten’, who made the male body the key feature of their work. EXPORT analyses the social coding that determines the position of man and woman in society. In the ﬁlm ‘Cutting’ (1967-68), she explores the signiﬁcance of this word by alternating between a cinematographic (editing) context and a more everyday situation. She cuts a piece of text out of a large sheet of paper, a hole in an article of clothing and a piece of chest and pubic hair from a man’s body, jumping back and forth between form and content. She does the same thing in the video entitled ‘Visual Text: Finger Poem’ (1968-73), in which she uses her hands to form the words: “The body as carrier of information, in order to convey both spiritual and physical contents, is the reﬂected image of the internal/psychological and of the external/institutional reality”. In the video entitled ‘Body Tape’ (1970), she enacts things that are announced beforehand in a text on a sheet of paper. This is her light-hearted way of exploring the relationship between language and action. ‘Touch Cinema’ is the ﬁlm of a street performance in which EXPORT invites her male audience to touch her breasts. The men are asked to put their hands into a box that EXPORT has tied over her breasts. This is EXPORT’s way of portraying women as sex objects while blocking the masculine view at the same time.