A Feminist Avant-Garde: Photographs and Performances of the 1970s from the Verbund Collection, Vienna, curated by Gabriele Schor, constitutes the main exhibition of the 53rd Rencontres d’Arles. It continues the photography festival’s dedication to address its gender and racial imbalance, which began in 2018 when the collective La Part des femmes sent an open letter to the former Director Sam Stourdzé, campaigning against the lack of women photographers.1 This request was translated into reality under the programming of Christoph Wiesner, who assumed the role of Director in 2020. Hosted in La Mécanique Générale in the Parc des Ateliers, where the LUMA Foundation, Zürich, launched an interdisciplinary creative campus in 2013, A Feminist Avant-Garde is the first French staging of this touring exhibition. Comprising works from Austria’s VERBUND COLLECTION, which Schor has grown with an emphasis on 1970s feminist art, it was first shown at La Galleria Nazionale, Rome, in 2010, and included the work of seventeen artists. As it has subsequently toured to many international venues, it has significantly expanded, as evident in Arles, where it includes seventy-one of the collection’s eighty-five international and transcontinental artists, and over two hundred works of mainly photography, film and video.
Schor’s strategy of expansion locates, archives and displays works by women artists active in the 1970s, many of whom have been marginalised or excluded from exhibitions and art-historical debate. Although the documentation of these artists and this history is one significant aim of the project, its continual growth resists a defined canon, instead (re)discovering artists, such as Renate Bertlmann (b.1943) and works, such as early photographs by ORLAN (b.1947). In response to location, the touring exhibition dynamically and organically changes in size, context and emphasis, and in Arles the focus is on film and photography. Size matters when it comes to the inclusion of women artists. This is also demonstrated by the catalogue, a substantial publication – typical for Schor’s books, which include the 2021 expanded two-volume Feminist Avant-Garde (first published as single volume in German and English in 2015 and 2016, respectively) – beautifully illustrated with all the works in the exhibition and reinforcing the strategy of claiming space and presence for women artists.2
Echoes and repetitions among the works and concerns of artists from different nationalities play across five exhibition sections: ‘Mother / Housewife / Wife’; ‘Locked Up / Break Out’; ‘Tyranny of Beauty / Female Body’; ‘Female Sexuality’; and ‘Identity / Role-Play’. The first of these sections opens the exhibition with I Want Out of Here! FIG.1 by Birgit Jürgenssen (1949–2003), a photographic self-portrait of the artist pressing her face and hands against a pane of glass, across which the titular words are written in German. A similar manifestation of confinement and escape appears in other works, such as a photograph from the series Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) (1972/1997/2009) by Ana Mendieta (1948–85), Against the Glass (1982/2019) by Gabriele Stötzer (b.1953) and Poemim (Series A) (1978) by Katalin Ladik (b.1942). These images of pressed female skin reference invisible constraints, evoking the ‘glass ceiling’ often encountered by women. This challenging of the prison-house of patriarchy threads throughout the exhibition, returning in many works that utilise methods of confinement and restraint, for example, four works from the nets series (1980) by Anneke Barger (b.1939) and all eight of the Isolamento sequence FIG.2 by Renate Eisenegger (b.1949).
The entanglement of isolation, restriction and motherhood is analysed in the video work Einwicklung mit Julia (Wrapping with Julia) (1972), in which the artist Ulrike Rosenbach (b.1943) binds herself to her young daughter with bandages, an image that plays on bonds, bondage and the labour of motherhood; the German word wickeln refers to changing a child’s nappy. Elsewhere, artists frequently represent themselves entrapped, for example, in Orshi Drozdik’s (b. 1946) photographic documentation of her aktionist performance in which she crawls out of a cage, Individual Mythology. Cage FIG.3, and Sculpture #2 (1968) by Kirsten Justesen (b.1943), an (open) cardboard box with a photograph of the artist curled into a ball, whereas a nineteen-year-old ORLAN metaphorically breaks from the frames of art history in Attempting to Escape the Frame FIG.4.
The systemic and systematic violence experienced by women is revealed in works that, as Schor puts it, range from ‘the poetic-subversive to the performative-offensive’.3 This violence is often explored through repetition or seriality, for example the insistent chanting of ‘¡Negra! ¡Negra! ¡Negra! ¡Negra!’ by Victoria Santa Cruz (1922–2014) in the 1978 recording of her poem Me Gritaron Negra (They Called Me Black), which counters the relentless repetition of racist and patriarchal violence. Similar references are also clearly laid out in the film and protest text In Mourning and in Rage (1977) by Suzanne Lacy (b.1945), which states: ‘I am here for the half a million women who are being beaten right now in their homes. I am here for the thousands of women who are raped and beaten and have not yet found their voices’.
In the ‘Female Sexuality’ section, Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969) by VALIE EXPORT (b.1940) shows the artist wearing crotchless jeans and posing with a real machine gun – a critique of the objectification of women in commercial cinema, through the male gaze. It is shown alongside a selection from the Bride’s Cake Series (1973) by Penny Slinger (b.1947), in which the artist photographs herself as a parodic-erotic wedding cake. In ICU, Eye Sea You, I See You FIG.5, Slinger’s legs are splayed, her crotch collaged over with an image of a rolling wave covered by an eye. This is followed by Annegret Soltau’s (b.1946) (purposefully mistitled) stitched photograph Vagina I (1978) FIG.6, in which an eye is sutured into a vulva, evoking the wounds encountered in the process of childbirth. These works are juxtaposed with a range of films, including Consumer Art (1972–75) by Natalia LL (1937–2022), in which acts of consumption are insistently eroticised, forming complex dialogues and interconnections, revealing the significance of touch and corporeality and showing the ways in which humour, irony and wit are significant tools of these artists’ critiques.
The universality of patriarchal oppression, evident in the transnational range of work, offers a strong argument for Schor’s identification of a ‘feminist avant-garde of the 1970s’, reclaiming a term that has mainly been used to define a vanguard of experimental male artists. Demonstrating this collective concern of women across nationality, sexuality, race and class is more urgent given the current erosion of women’s and human rights, evidenced most recently by the chilling reintroduction of United States anti-abortion laws. Such proposed collectivity does not underplay the remarkable nuances and distinctions between individual artists. For example, Free, White and 21 FIG.7 by Howardena Pindell (b.1943) is a narration of the artist’s personal experiences of institutional, organisational and social discrimination, mapping the relentlessness of the oppression that Black women are exposed to but which, as Pindell’s film illustrates, are often explained away as unreal and ‘paranoid’ – another version of the invisible boundaries that surround women.
This exhibition demonstrates that feminism dynamised a huge, global, politically astute avant-garde. In 2013 the painter and photographer Alexis Hunter (1948–2014) noted in a conversation with Schor that ‘Feminist art is the most powerful theoretical movement in modern art, but much remains to be discovered’.4 This exhibition certainly performs this vital journey of discovery.