Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Identity and Biology

Gertrude Stein's famous line, "rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" makes clear that despite the all-male roster that dominates the art history discussed so far, reproduction has also been a central concern of women artists.[1] To name just a few from the past century: Janine Antoni's compulsive repetitions [PLATE 33], Judy Chicago's embroideries [PLATE 34], Kathy Grove's Other Series [PLATE 35], the Guerrilla Girls' advertisements [PLATE 36], Hannah Höch's photomontages [PLATE 37], Jenny Holzer's message loops [PLATE 38], Barbara Kruger's mass communications [PLATE 39], Sherry Levine's replications [PLATE 40], Bridget Riley's Op Art [PLATE 41], Faith Ringgold's quilts [PLATE 42], Miriam Schapiro's femmages [PLATE 43], Cindy Sherman's recreations [PLATE 44], Laurie Simmons' simulations [PLATE 45], Lorna Simpson's wigs [PLATE 46], and Kara Walker's silhouettes [PLATE 47]. The 1997 Guggenheim exhibition "Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography," pushes the connection between reproduction and identity even further, punning on Duchamp's feminine alter ego Rrose Sélavy (which sounds like "Eros, c'est la vie" or "Eros, that's life").[2]

When Walter Benjamin states that "even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be," he is describing reproduction as an outcome.[3] Reproduction, however, is not just a mechanical or digital result, but a profoundly biological process. Just as "[t]he uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition," according to Benjamin, so to are human identities formed only through the social and biological processes of reproduction.[4]

Reproduction becomes dizzyingly complex in the context of identity politics, with its demographic multi-dimensionality. But the lens of identity also simplifies one aspect of the discussion. Sexism, racism, and classism are at the heart of the historical prejudice that places reproduction at the bottom of the Western cultural hierarchy. Western aesthetic hierarchies have long relegated the traditional creative work of women to bottom rung, ranging from the medieval Bayeux Tapestry [PLATE 48] and other forms of textile design and manufacture to a wide variety of decorative arts.[5] Feminists and people of color from cultures throughout the world certainly do not share this view of the triviality of pattern and decoration.[6] Categorizing, stereotyping, marginalizing, and negating are not only the mechanisms for discriminating taste and differentiating between high and low; they are the basis for the reproduction of social structures, the classic way in which the powerful maintain their position of cultural dominance.[7]

Reproduction in its many forms, as well as its absence, has been central to shaping the history of identity politics. Reproduction spreads fame; omission silences pluralism. Reproduction means sex, birth, death, and evolution. Reproduction is rooted in the body and self image. Sexism and racism are all about reproduction and control, difference and illusion, lineage and heritage, integration and segregation, hierarchy and oppression. The myth of black lasciviousness is a typical racist stereotype to demean and restrain. The idea of "woman's work" centered on the home and reproductive duties is a typical sexist ploy. Both use reproduction as a hierarchical weapon of domination. Striking back are artists who are feminist, people of color, and queer (or LGBT: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), exploring reproduction and their diverse relations to it as biology, technology, and sexuality in ways that disrupt dominant cultural understandings.[8]

No wonder that the culture war's prime targets all happen to be artists who are people of color, queer, and/or feminist, including: Karen Finley [PLATE 49], Robert Mapplethorpe [PLATE 50], Chris Ofili [PLATE 51], Andres Serrano [PLATE 52], and an entire generation of hip hop artists whose experiments with sampling challenge the fundamentals of intellectual property law. There is an ancient tangled history of sexism, racism, and hierarchies of reproduction. Centuries before licensing first became law in England (focusing on mechanically reproduced print), the Catholic Church used ecclesiastical licenses to regulate the power of midwives vis-à-vis biological reproduction [PLATE 53]. These skilled women were so intimately involved with the sexual, moral, and mortal implications of reproduction that the Church felt compelled to use witchcraft as the ultimate means of accusatory control.[9] With the founding of universities in the Thirteenth Century, all-male medical faculties essentially outlawed female doctors. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) enacted Europe's first medical licensure, requiring candidates to "swear to never consult with a Jew or with illiterate women."[10] From the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries, thousands of European women were burned at the stake for the "crime" of attempting to heal others.[11]

The historical linkages between racism, sexism, elitism, licensing, reproduction, and exclusion are as culturally deep as any factor influencing contemporary art today. The rub is that artwork which has remained furthest from public view for all manner of prejudice stands to benefit the most from the greatest reproduction and explanation. That is precisely what is needed to bridge the gap between message sent and message received, between hostility towards difference and openness towards familiarity. Remnants of tribal instincts compound the forces of separation. Artistic expression is a profoundly personal experience that strangely provokes intense psychological resistance to explanation and promotion. For most artists, it is far more difficult to write a simple, compelling artist statement than to produce their best masterpiece. No matter how technologically and culturally sophisticated our society becomes, we must struggle with base motivations. Is not that reality at least partly why a sacred image submerged in blood and urine provokes such strong reaction?[12]

We are living not only in an age of intellectual property and digital reproduction, but also an age of biology. Reproductive rights and copyrights are two of the most profoundly complex and intertwined areas of political contest in the world today, touching all aspects of our society and psyches, from the deepest held religious beliefs to the food we eat. Man-made things—seen onscreen or within urban settings—have replaced nature's prior visual dominance, enveloping our eyes within legal constraints. Artist, curator, and scholar Michael D. Harris points out that "images imposed from power are more difficult to subvert than language…. [I]mages are produced by the few to be consumed but seldom manipulated by the masses."[13] Our most advanced technologies of reproduction are disseminating images and advancing science to such an extent that they not only shape our individual identities but the very future of species, from genetically altered crops to the most advanced interventions of human embryology. Artists such as Brandon Ballengée [PLATE 54], Bureau of Inverse Technology co-founder Natalie Jeremijenko [PLATE 55], and Eduardo Kac [PLATE 56] explore the complex implications of these bio-tech developments.

Clone is just another word for reproduction, but what shivers it sends. Human aversion to technological reproduction is most biological, but there are complex cultural components to such attitudes as well. Internet pornography may be the ultimate technological reproduction of reproduction (process without product; product without process), and its meteoric market growth reveals an insatiable human appetite that is as biological as cultural. Artnet Magazine editor Walter Robinson calls "institutional critique" artist Andrea Fraser's "Untitled" video of having sex with her collector for $20,000 both "the most radical artistic gesture" of 2004 and "the most trivial" [PLATE 57].[14] In all of our roles as human beings—consumers, producers, thinkers, citizens, procreators, artists, etc.—each of us contributes to the evolution of these profound social, technological, and biological processes of reproduction.

1. Janine Antoni. Gnaw (detail). 1992.
600 lb. cube of chocolate gnawed by the artist, 24 x 24 x 24 inches. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Brian Forrest. Courtesy the Artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

2. Judy Chicago. A Chicken in Every Pot. 1998.
Painting, needlepoint, appliqué and embroidery, 24 x 18". Collection of the artist and needleworkers. Courtesy of the Judy Chicago and Through the Flower.

3. Kathy Grove. The Other Series: After Lange. 1989-1990.
Silver gelatin print, 71x 66 cm. This photograph digitally morphs Dorothea Lange's classic image "Migrant Mother, Nipopmo, California" (1936) into a smooth-faced model with dirt-free kids, air-brushing real-world problems into Madison-Avenue oblivion. Courtesy of Kathy Grove.

4. Guerrilla Girls. Women in America Earn Only 2/3 of What Men Earn. Women Artists Earn Only 1/3. 1985.
Poster. Copyright © 1985, 1995 by Guerrilla Girls, Inc.

5. Hannah Hoch. Made for a Party. 1936.
Photomontage. Institut Fur Auslandsbeziehungen Collection, Stuttgart.

6. Jenny Holzer. Xenon Projection. 2000.
Fundación PROA, Buenos Aires.

7. Barbara Kruger. Untitled (I shop therefore I am). 1987.
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 112 x 113 in. (284.5 x 287 cm). Private collection.

8. Sherrie Levine. Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P.). 1991.
Bronze sculpture. Courtesy of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN.

9. Bridget Riley. Breathe. 1966.
Emulsion on Canvas, 117x82 in.

10. Faith Ringgold. Flag Story Quilt. 1985.
Acrylic on canvas, dyed, painted and pieced fabric, 57 x 78". Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas.

11. Miriam Schapiro. Mother Russia (fan). 1994.
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas (femmage), 82 x 90 inches. Courtesy of Steinbaum Krauss Gallery.

12. Cindy Sherman. Untitled #205. 1989.
Color photograph, 53 1/2 x 40 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica, CA.

13. Laurie Simmons. Untitled. 2002.
Photograph, 5.5 x w: 8.5 in / h: 14 x w: 21.6 cm, edition: 25. Courtesy of Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art, New York.

14. Lorna Simpson. Wigs (Portfolio). 1994.
Portfolio of 21 lithographs, sheet (each): 23 x 18" (58.5 x 45.8 cm) or 32 x 16" (81.3 x 40.7 cm). Publisher: Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago. Edition: 15. According to MoMA: "Depicted here is a diverse group of wigs in an orderly presentation that suggests a lineup of scientific specimens. Simpson has used the traditional format of the print portfolio in which a sequence of images produces a cumulative, narrative effect." Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.

15. Kara Walker. Jockey. 1995.
Cut paper mounted on canvas, 10 x 10 inches. Courtesy of Brent Sikkema, New York.

16. The Bayeux Tapestry. 1073-1083.
Embroidery in wool on canvas or linen, 70 m by 49.5 cm (231 ft by 19.5 in). One of the largest pieces of needlework ever undertaken, it depicts the Norman conquest and events leading up to it. Courtesy of Microsoft Encarta.

17. Karen Finley. 1-900-ALL-KAREN. 1998.
Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art (Ridgefield, CT), Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin, OH), Arizona State University Art Museum. (Tempe, AZ), Contemporary Arts Forum (Santa Barbara, CA), CSPS (Cedar Rapids, IA), Diverseworks (Houston, TX), Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens (San Francisco, CA), MOCA (Los Angeles, CA), Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (San Diego, CA), Nexus Contemporary Art Center (Atlanta, GA), Out North Contemporary Art House (Anchorage, AK) and Wagon Train (Lincoln, NE).Commissioned and Organized by Creative Time, New York.

18. Robert Mapplethorpe. Self Portrait. 1985.
Photograph. Copyright © The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

19. Chris Ofili. The Holy Virgin Mary. 1996.
Painting. Courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London.,8543,-11504640117,00.html

20. Andres Serrano. Piss Christ. 1989.

21. Medieval Etching (not Trotula). nd.
"The belief that women were capable of doing physicians' work is represented in this mid-15th century image of Medicine as a Woman. This allegorical image depicts a woman holding up a flask of urine, often shown as the trademark of the physician in medical images during this period." Paula Findlen, Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History, Stanford University. "Images of the Female Body: The Middle Ages and the Renaissance," 2001.

22. Brandon Ballengée. Cleared and Stained Multi-limbed Pacific Tree frog. 2002.
Aptos, California. Ballengée's work provide disturbing images of deformities occurring in North American amphibians. The clearing and staining procedure involves a series of chemical treatments in which a specimen's tissue is "cleared" using a special enzyme. The cartilage and bone are then dyed red and blue resulting in a specimen that resembles a three dimensional x-ray. Digital imaging courtesy The Institute for Electronic Arts, School of Art and Design NYSCC at Alfred University, Alfred, New York. Courtesy of the Green Museum.

23. Natalie Jeremijenko. OneTrees Project. November 1998 - March 1999.
According to the artist: "OneTrees is actually one thousand tree(s), clones, micro-propagated in culture. The clones were exhibited together as plantlets at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. This was the only time they were seen together. In the spring of 2003 the clones will be planted in public sites throughout the San Francisco Bay Area."

24. Eduardo Kac. Alba (fluorescent bunny). 2000.
Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine. According to the artist: "My transgenic artwork "GFP Bunny" comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein. "GFP Bunny" was realized in 2000 and first presented publicly in Avignon, France."

25. Andrea Fraser. Untitled. 2003.
Still from video. Courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery.

[1] Stein 1913.
[2] Blessing et al 1997.
[3] Benjamin 1935.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Gouma-Peterson and Matthews 1987, p. 332.
[6] Art Museum of Missoula 2004; hooks 1995, p. 196.
[7] Bourdieu 1984.
[8] Corber and Valocchi 2003; Axsom 2002.
[9] Brown 2003.
[10] Group and Roberts 2001, p 24.
[11] University of Iowa 2002.
[12] Hudgins 1987.
[13] Harris 2003.
[14] Robinson 2004.

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