The first two effects are also the most surprising. First there is the size -1.80mX 1.26m, then the restful relaxation. And when the photographed are women, this is unexpected. Such a large woman, taking up so much space; is there a woman, and especially a large one, deserving so much space? And she is comfortable, unafraid, but also un-defying, her gaze non-seductive but also not downcast. Two unexpected effects, contradicting each other: a woman comfortable within her immense size. We are used to seeing such large women in large scale advertisements, as a convention of consumer seduction, when she becomes the metaphor of the consumer world. In one glance, the size of the photographs itself, as we enter the exhibit, undermines this convention. And then what further disturbs our automatic glance is the women's gaze. They are relaxed. They aren't trying to motivate me into action; they aren't trying to catch my eye. They aren't attempting any manipulation. They are simply looking quietly ahead, at me, upon me, giving me an un-intentional, un-objectifying look.
Woman is marked by the "to-be-looked-at-ness."As a rule, in western culture the gaze at a woman is an objectifying gaze, staring at the female body, drawing sexual satisfaction from the fact that the woman does not return the sexual gaze. In the absence of reciprocity, the gaze uses the female body as an object for fulfilling desires, her body itself lacking any desires of its own, devoid of privacy. But here, not only is the gaze directed at the gazing viewer a female gaze, nullifying the possibility of a one-directional gaze, it also defies its own objectification. It doesn't defend against being objectified, doesn't protest its own ability to stare at the viewer. This gaze isn't proudly displaying its feminine body, isn't trying to subvert the objectifying gaze, undermine it or demolish it or even submit to it. It simply gazes at the viewer, relaxed, serene, quiet, unafraid - and unintimidating.
Within the convention of gazes by and on women as part of consumer society, this is a gaze of "gift economy," an economy of give and take, which exists when there is no commodity to trade and no control of capital. These women cannot be my entry point into the commercial world, since their photographed image does not fulfill its role in it: they are not surrounded by feminine objects or project a feminine lifestyle which they might offer the viewer for exchange or as a mark of solidarity, as the female viewer is also a gatherer and collector of these items. There is an economy of gazes between us, trading in reciprocal gifts rather than in the symbolic capital we share - the alluring feminine gaze, handed-over in exchange for the ratifying masculine gaze; the "worthy" feminine downward gaze, submitted to the regimenting masculine gaze. The woman in the photograph is looking directly and only at me. There are no distractions around her that can draw her attention away towards something more important such as a man, a child, or property. And my gaze is focused totally on her, she in herself and not as a symbol of something else, such as nationality, motherhood, or sex, or as a stereotypical representation of "femininity." The gift-economy of gazes that occurs between us is feminine not only because it is not a replacement to commerce in commodities or representations, but because it is mutually constituting. I gaze directly at her without objectifying her but rather, necessarily, constituting her subjectivity because she is already gazing at me, not downwards. The woman in the photograph is looking at me without looking through me. She is not haunted nor is she hunting, she is not watchful or alert towards any possible threat I might pose. She is gazing at me understanding the mutual terms we both exist in - terms within which we are allowed to be "large" or denied taking up space, we can or cannot be a content, relaxed, self-assured subject.
These photographs could have become a study in "serial femininity" - a series of fourteen interchangeable women, representing the same things, none of them unique - since even though they look different, dress differently, of different ages, still they are the same size, in the same pose, from the same social standing. What could have become no more than the convention of interchangeable women becomes, rather, an alternative to the male hegemonic order of things: this is not female seriality; this is a feminine dynasty. On the one hand, each woman stands alone, devoid of her usual baggage of family, objects, lover or career, and not symbolizing a female type, characteristic or ability. But on the other hand they are all "together": their un-stereotypical standing alone, each one of them by herself, self-assured, relaxed, each one of them unique, un-replaceable - precisely that makes them all similar in their individually unique presence, precisely because of that they become a group, a "community," and their gaze allows me to become a part of it, never forcing me nor forcing an invitation on me.
There are no female dynasties. A dynasty is a masculine structure, where the male name is carried from one generation to another. But in this exhibition we are presented with a community that is not dependent on the conventional generational or capitalistic dynasty, but rather on our "sisterhood" - on our being sisters of social positioning. We, of the social class which visits museums, together with the women in the photographs, who are of the same class, look at each other devoid of conspiracy, of fearful bonding, but in realization that the mere fact of being "alone," each one to herself, is in itself undermining the conventional positioning, the stereotypical representation, of women. A man alone is not an enigma. A woman on her own, not inviting the viewer to join her, and not gazing in horror at what might be awaiting her outside the picture-frame - is. These women's community stems from their "alone-ness," which allows me, all of a sudden and in my own singular way, to be myself alone, relaxed while on my own, stomach muscles loose, everything soft.
Thus, being alone can be relaxed also thanks to the very existence inside a frame. The framed women are not looking at what is outside the frame: they do not search for a way out. Their gaze is not wary of what is outside and threats to come in, and is not terrified of staying inside and seeks for an escaping route. Their legs are cut by the frame, but the frame is large enough to allow space for their entire body: they don't need running legs to enable them to escape the frame, the photograph. Almost paradoxically, being fixed as representation provides protection. Their corporeality, their flesh and blood, which is under a constant threat, vulnerable because of its femininity, its delicacy, because of the objectification of the female body, is converted into representation, and is guarded by the frame which is strengthened by the black background divider.
This over-emphasized being-a-representation exposes even more the representation-ness of the living matter, now no more than a photo of flesh, an artificial affixing of what is living and as such subjected to pain caused by the leg of a chair, a cesarean section or an intentional bodily brush in the street. And yet, the serenity that comes with the acceptance of their pictorial existence, forever a representation, forever in lieu of corporeal flesh and blood serves to emphasize women's existence prior to representation, when physical danger is ever present and they are unprotected from the always-already menacing world. In this way, the represented flesh peeking from the garment exposes the vulnerability of the actual, material flesh and blood through the etching of times-past on the neck, the wrinkling of face and breasts, the waddling arms and the veined hands. What is represented is what is living and therefore characterized by being scarred time and again, as it is a body and not symbol, corporeal and not a metaphor, it is matter with a past. But in the photographs before us this past does not turn, as it usually does, into a coherent continuous historic tale (even if personal, autobiographical), which can be inferred and reconstructed from the photo. All we can see is the relaxed present; the past is not a heavy shadow, but rather a part of what she is today, a scar and a scratch and a wrinkle in her body with which she is perfectly at ease. In her present as representation she is protected from the potential injury to the living female flesh as well as from the commitment to the stereotypic women's historiography, outside of which she cannot be counted as a "worthy" woman. She is who she is, now, in the present which contains her past as an etching upon her material body. And she is at peace in her present, with her past as it is incorporated into the present, not haunted by her history or by the patriarchy that might harm her everyday feminine bodily existence. In this moment of the present, of being a picture, a representation, within a frame, she is protected.
The refusal to accept the dictate of women's historiography, reflected as it is in the relaxed gaze, is fully apparent in the black background. This is not the sharp loud color of Catherine Opie's portraits, which she uses in order to bring her deviant, "perverse," subject to the foreground. In Opie's words, she chose these backgrounds to emphasize the tattoos, the piercing, following Hans Holbein the Younger "use of color behind his characters."2 of Cindy Sherman's mock self-portraits. It's not the background of documentary photography, laden with "typical" details, which Martha Rosler rebelled against. It is not even the "blue screen" background you can project historic images of time, space, and events on. The black background neutralizes any contexts beyond what stems from the image of the women (they're healthy, they've reached old age) and the way they dress. Their status - the privileged middle class - allows them to be relaxed and peaceful. Any contextualization would demand a realization of the absence of context of "woman" - her absence from the social, political, economic space. The black background frames "woman" as always on her own: without a proper context even when she is within a society, even when she is powerful or a political activist. This is precisely the reason why the social protest of the summer of 2011, the protest of the same class of the women in the photographs, was without context: it was a protest of women. It was a feminine protest in the deepest meaning of "women's life": a protest against the price of everyday life, of food, of housing, of education. It was also a feminine protest in the stereotypical meaning: the women's protest was dubbed "the stroller protest" - women substituting themselves by objects, becoming a metaphor in order to enter the context, enter the discourse that can only contain them as precisely that - a metaphor.
But it is through this non-context that women marked an alternative. The 2011 protest was led by women: women who were searching for an alternative language (collective hand symbols) to the screeching language of power struggles, women who were searching for a dialogic language connecting between groups of protesters rather than languages breaking up into sects, women who refused to accept leadership and crown themselves as leaders. They were seeking a path that will allow them to be themselves within their community while refusing the hierarchic political discourse composed of organized and rehearsed answers rated by their quantifiable proven importance. When they are outside the context of life, they have no choice but to act, indeed, "out of context" - as if there is their economical status has nothing to do with "politics," as if it isn't obvious which side of the bread is buttered, as if there is no connection between the occupation and the price of food or the link between financial capital and political capital - as if there is no context.
The black background externalizes the imposition to walk through life as if "woman" has no context; therefore, her only option to enter into a discourse of change is through pretending that there really is no context. But, correspondingly, emphasizing the present of the photographed women forces me to admit that this does not entail shedding of responsibility, since responsibility is the burden of the present. It stems from my present condition; it is my accountability for all that I am, for better or worse. My responsibility to the Naqba, to the oppression of the Mizrahim, and to the commitment to create a "bearable life" to all3 results from my privileged present.
The black background, in hiding the specific context of each of the 14 photographed women, intensely emphasizes the context-less-ness of women, and allows me, along with them, one single repose: to be comfortable with myself, as myself. To relax with my own body, protected as a framed representation, and with my past, etched upon my own, private flesh and blood. It is only through the calm acceptance of myself as myself that I can take responsibility - and search for a context where my self-acceptance can translate into the possibility of action in the world.
- Ferguson, Russell, 2008. "How I Think, Part, I: An Interview with Catherine Opie," in: Catherine Opie: American Photographer, 2008. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, p. 104
- Butler, Judith, 2004. Undoing Gender, New York: Routledge, p. 1.