Rinat Schnadower's solo exhibition PLAY is composed of three elements installed in three different spaces in the gallery: a triptych, a video work and a series of photographs, which is the central piece of the exhibition. In general, Schnadower's visual language refers to traditional gender art. Her works present only the female body, nude or in costume, and when dealing with a masterpiece from art history, she chooses a man’s work presenting wide open female genitalia, which may be perceived as a threatening wound.
From Schnadower’s questions about the body, beauty, pleasure and fantasy, combined with gender discourse in art, stems her young, new and often harsh voice. Even in a world in which everything seems like déjà-vu, her clear voice wishes to supply new ways of looking into old problems.
I choose to tie the issue of erotic pleasure in her works to the erotic perception of art, despite recognizing its forgery and inaccessibility as defined by Roland Barthes. In his essays from the 1950’s, Barthes defines the erotic as connecting between the unimportant and the object of desire. The erotic belongs to the beautiful, yet it is neutral. Why beyond beauty or ugliness, eroticism is a product of curiosity. In contrast, following the steps of performance artists from the end of the 1960’s and on, works such as PLAY GROUND are the product of a performance: the artist installs the camera which follows her, a naked ghost, both strong and vulnerable, in the public playground. Like many artists before her, Schnadower challenges the patriarchal dominance of the woman’s body. Presenting female nudity might always be interpreted as a pornographic act, in which the man is the subject enjoying the woman, the pleasurable object; but what happens when the artist controls the situation herself? When she is both the object and the subject?
In the middle space of the gallery, a video called This is Not Courbet’s Cunt is screened almost in its original size. The work is based on Gustave Courbet’s painting from 1866 The Origin of the World. The prevailing hypothesis is that the owner of the vagina who was Courbet’s model was his lover Johanna Hiffernan. The oeuvre is considered a milestone in the history of Western art and many artists have used it critically. In fact, Schnadower’s work deals a lot with the geography of the body and the public space, an artistic genre which Tal Dekel calls Cunt Art. This genre, which flourished in the 1960’s and 1970’s along with the second wave of Feminism, aimed to use the female genitalia differently. In many works in the genre, artists use images of flowers and other organic, hairy and often threatening objects. Despite the original intent, it seems to me as surrender to the patriarchal dichotomy of man/woman, culture/nature. Many works have been created on the subject since those times, some of which based on Courbet’s The Origin of the World: a bleeding sex organ (Dana Gillerman), a flesh and blood vagina (Annie Sprinkle), a paper roll pulled out of the sex organ (Carolee Schneemann) and others. In this respect, Schnadower’s work is not only a paraphrase of The Origin of the World, but relates directly to all paraphrases of Courbet’s work created till date. For many generations Courbet’s painting was perceived as pornographic. If we follow Catherine Mackinnon’s equation according to which a graphic image of women = sex, then Schnadower offers us a truly different sex. In fact, for the first time in this continuum, we are offered the simple option of the female pleasure as an end rather than means, which returns the vagina back to its legitimate owner: its lady. This act is reinforced by the work’s title: This is not Courbet’s Cunt, drawn from the text in René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images. Magritte writes “This is not a pipe” under an image of a pipe to spur a discussion on sign and signifier, image and text, the non overlapping of fantasy and reality, as the realistic representation shall always remain a fantasy and this video work a simulacra of taking pleasure.
Simulacra and fantasy are present especially in Angie, the central series of the exhibition. Eight photographs depict a woman in different situations in a house, which appears desolate and crumbling upon a deeper look. This series was shot in an abandoned villa in Caesarea, and features motifs which appeared in Schnadower’s previous works, like playfulness, wearing costumes, sexuality and layered fantasy. And what better place than Caesarea to represent Israeli fantasy: nouveau riche looking palaces, swimming pools and green golf courses serve as background to short stories of alienation and loneliness built by the artist’s alter-ego Angie out of the house’s ruins. The imagery is taken from interior design magazines and staged here trying to break this pattern by using costumes and controlling the camera and the image. Thus the regard is exposed to an unrealizable fantasy, where the erotic actually signifies the inability to achieve satisfaction, at least for the man.
In this series, Schnadower continues her conscious reference to artists, mainly Cindy Sherman, and at the same time redefines performance art as acting in front of the camera, the tool through which performance gained immortality and without which, says Schnadower, it has no right to exist today. Angie’s series is characterized by self aware cynicism and dragism, neo-modernist glamour accompanied by withering and death. Considering Tanya Reinhart’s claim in regards to Madonna’s images in the book Sex, it seems that Schnadower also creates a pattern of simulacra images supposedly transmitting sex and sexuality, where in fact it is a system of shadows that lost their potency. It is neither pornography nor erotica, but the fall of a decadent society. A vanishing dream: Angie (named after Angelina Jolie?) as Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), going down the stairs to take a picture for her new film without knowing the photographers are press photographers and that she is accused of murder.
Liav Mizrahi, 2013
(Translation: Annabelle Shemer)