Planned prior to Trump’s presidency, the 21C Museum Hotel’s The Future is Female displays a myriad of international female artists – ranging in their modalities and sociopolitical concerns – whose works bridge third and fourth-wave feminist concerns. Built on the foreground of second-wave feminism’s civil rights advances, the third-wave occupies subjectivity and inclusive diversity, located in the show’s diverse and international participants. Fourth-wave feminism, a term circumscribed to social media and new media modes in combating sexual harassment and violence against women, denotes contemporary cases where activism and intersectional occupy a haptic virtual sphere, devoid of economic, sociocultural, or geographic bounds. The Future is Female bridges these two moments in contemporary feminism, with adept timeliness and artists whose works occupy affect-based installation art, collage, print media, photography and video art. Traversing the 21C’s gallery space one finds history, commodity fetishism, identity politics, genealogy and mythos facilitating interrogations of power through visual culture’s gestural activism.
Alongside the contemporary socio-political zeitgeist, the show occupies a moment that follows the momentum of the #MeToo movement, where patriarchal celebrity figures, media moguls, and Hollywood financiers have been unveiled for exploitive practices, particularly towards their female compatriots. Hence, despite the show originally curated before the current unpredictable tenuous political climate, the observed feminist concerns posit a uniquely comprehensive relay. The Future is Female exhibits work by established contemporary American artists like Zoe Buckman, Marilyn Minter, Swoon, Kiki Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems. These well-known names are accompanied by a wide display of foreign activists including South African installation artists Daniella Mooney and Penny Siopis, Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi, Taiwanese paper artist Fay Ku, and German portrait photographer Bettina von Zwehl.
21C curator Alice Gray Stites’ exhibition employs interventionist strategies, developing a borrowed language from second-wave feminist artists like Judy Chicago, Mira Schor, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, and others who merged art and activism, elevating everyday materials, methods, and experiences to challenge conventional notions about how, why, and where art is created or consumed (Goodman). Alongside works that address economic conditions of production, diaristic pieces facilitate a compelling dual operation as The Future is Female transpires during active discourse on sexist practices in media and everyday life.
It is this issue of temporality that the show best addresses, as the exhibition entry room is occupied with a myriad of larger-scale installation pieces. These works – which balance visually seductive aesthetic operations alongside theoretical underpinnings – are visually fantastic and curious. Mexican artist Margarita Cabrera’s installation Vocho (2004) displays the eponymous Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle, displayed in a dull leaden-blue color, the zippered seams the hue of contused flesh. Cabrera Cabrera, an artist whose work has focused on the collaborative engagement of local communities and transformative practice, often utilizes art pieces that facilitate cultural and historical artifacts through a dialectic materialist relay, utilizing commodity culture’s objects to document subaltern experiences, struggles, and achievements. As an artist interested in American-Mexican relations through a subjective lens, Cabrera’s Vocho uses a life size VW sewn with surfaced seams and exposed threads, metaphorically suggesting the exposed relay of botched Mexican-American relations and bigoted political sentiments in contemporary U.S. politics. In a post-NAFTA free-trade economic moment scarred by xenophobic political entrepreneurship, Cabrera’s work, which marries vinyl and found automobile parts, offers sociopolitical critique while visually curious and uncanny. The deflated VW car invites tactility – an index to the undocumented immigrant subjects behind the automobile industry- with a ballooning and careening spine, bubbling rippled hood, and a dark, hollow vacuum of an interior. Cabrera’s Vocho frames the genealogy of production and labor in Mexico, where the Volkswagen Beetle was manufactured for three decades, while inviting subjectivity and curious inversions of form and discourse.
Having recently returned from a week long stay in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I had experienced Judy Chicago’s poignant “The Dinner Party,” a seminal feminist work on display in the Brooklyn Museum, the 21C Museum Hotel’s Future is Female presented a myriad of large-scale installations that similarly utilize repetition and form to facilitate narratives. 21C’s Future is Female, however, wields a preferential penchant towards actively analyzing modes of production rather than borrowing Chicago’s language of “quoting” seminal feminist leaders. Such is the deconstructivist ethos of third-wave feminism’s aesthetic endeavors, as Tiffany Carbonneau’s Well (2005), for instance, is comprised of 3,000 white porcelain bottles that respond to the forced closing of an India based Coca-Cola bottling plant in 2004. Consequently, the Coca-Cola company exhausted the Plachimada community’s water reserves while poisoning the water supply. Carbonneau’s still, clinical porcelain bottles, which form a large billowing mass stratified by layers of cardboard supports, employ craft-based traditional techniques and offer critical responses to the commoditization of natural resources. The show’s post-Marxist system of critique subtlety and effectively transpires in Carbonneau’s inquisitive work.
The Future is Female’s pieces tend to focus on contemporary political matters, making it relevant and readily accessible to 2018 audiences. Alison Saar’s work often explores vernacular folk art alongside cast-off objects in highly personal and emotional candor, with Hades D.W.P. (2016) rooted in the imagery of classical mythology. Saar’s five glass jars of water are accompanied by literary quotes from poet-activist Samiya Bashir and the piece functions as a response to the recent poisoning of drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Inviting both concerns of environmentalist preservation alongside social inequality, Saar’s work navigates surfaces of history and personal mythos to respond to present sociopolitical issues.
Indian artist Vibha Galhotra’s topographical installations and video art works address globalization and the restructuring of society along economic forces, with Manthan (2015) – a single-channel video projection – vividly and cinematically dramatizing the damaging effects of pollution. By examining the implications of industrial waste through lucidly poetic, magnetic macro shots of industrial run-off and tar-stained water, Galhorta’s eleven minute film addresses Hindu mythologies of immortality where “gods churn the ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality” (Matijcio, Steven). Performing the balance between environmental ethics and sublime aesthetic poetry, Galhorta’s meditative video operates around the Yamuna River, which accounts for the majority of New Delhi’s water supply. Several men in scuba gear wring Stygian black water out of soaked towels, as Galhorta’s camera unapologetically focuses on the dripping deleterious waste – a product of late capitalism’s commercial pollution.
Frances Goodman, who originally showed Medusa (2013-2014) during Rapaciously Yours (2016) at Richard Taittinger Gallery – an exhibition that, throughout, evokes the motif of acrylic nails – is concerned with the material quality of fake nails, having used them to suggest relationships of sex, power, and desire regarding the performance of gender and femininity. Medusa professes a scaly, serpentine, and tactile composition where tentacle tendrils composed of multicolored, undulant acrylic nails beckon viewership, much like the denoted Medusa myth. Goodman’s pastiche reverberates with re-appropriative prowess while alluding to natural forms, lore, and art history alike.
Perhaps one of the strongest pieces is multi-media artist Monica Cook’s Phosphene (2014), which splinters, intertwines, and abstracts a pair of dichotomous semi-transparent female and male forms. Integrating a range of materials including resin, plaster, urine, salt, blood, wax, skeletons, wire, and ceramic teeth, Cook’s sculpture occupies an ethereal “inter-space,” where the female form occludes and submerges into the male beneath. “Phosphene” refers to a retinal phenomenon during light perception, and the piece confers ephemera alongside crackled limbs and fleshy pink skin notes. As the two figures segment into shards of desecrated glass, devoid of any and all gendered signifiers, Cook’s work alludes to the non-binary, genderqueer telos of contemporary feminist activism.
However, the slogan “The Future is Female” – which Stites denotes appeared during the 1970s on a t-shirt designed for the first women’s bookstore in New York City – does ascribe an identity-politics based collusion in a moment where contemporary feminism lionizes the undoing of binaries. The exhibition includes a diverse assemblage of female artists from international backgrounds but is devoid of trans or markedly queer voices/works, steeping the show in selective activism. Granted, the works do succeed in utilizing affect, displacing commodity fetishism, and deconstructing the genealogy of materialism under a historically patriarchal body politic. “The Future is Female” was originally a slogan on folk singer-songwriter Alix Dobkin’s t-shirt in 1975, when queer photographer Liza Cowan pictured her then-girlfriend for an advert in the magazine DYKE: A Quarterly, which Dobkin co-edited with Penny House (Gush, Charlotte). The shirt, made for Labyris Books – the first feminist bookstore in New York City, which opened in 1972 and was owned by Jane Lurie and Marizel Rios – has become revitalized vis-à-vis Los Angeles-based retail shop Otherwild, who has reprinted the shirts. Subsequently, the slogan has become popularized and the byword “The Future is Female” has re-circulated through social media networks over the past two years.
As The National Review‘s Heather Wilhelm, Think Progress‘ Jessica Goldstein, and Argot Magazine’s Deidre Olsen have highlighted in recent op-ed pieces, the slogan “The Future is Female” reverberated of trans-exclusionary sentiments and has become an object of commodity culture itself, with the dissemination of t-shirts and hashtags alike. Hence, although the 21C exhibits a diverse range of artists from international backgrounds whose works illuminate dire sociopolitical realities, The Future is Female show also parallels the motto’s exclusionary claims, reinforcing binarism and a closed reading of feminist visual culture. While works like Zoe Buckman’s Champ (2016) present patriarchal control – manifest in a bright neon glowing sculpture of ovaries adorned with boxing gloves – subtler works like Monica Cook’s Phosphene explore inter-spaces and deconstruct gender, signifying the true future for feminist activism. During a contentious sociopolitical moment rife with alt-right traditionalism, white nationalist sentiments, and xenophobic bigotry it is pivotal that visual culture employ multitudinous narratives and move beyond dichotomous binaries.
Ekin Erkan is a free-lance writer, senior art history student, and video artist studying at University of Cincinnati, DAAP. My research and art practice concern new media, virtual networks, and affect theory.
Goldstein, Jessica M. “The Fight Over ‘The Future Is Female’.” ThinkProgress, 8 Dec. 2015, thinkprogress.org/the-fight-over-the-future-is-female-c1ce89ececd9/.
Gush, Charlotte. “Casting Spells for a Female Future with 70s Lesbian Separatist Liza Cowan.” I-d, Vice Media, 7 Dec. 2015, i-d.vice.com/en_au/article/kz8k43/casting-spells-for-a-female-future-with-70s-lesbian-separatist-liza-cowan.
Olsen, Diedre. “The Future Is Not Female – It Is Two-Spirit, Trans and Non-Binary.” Argot Magazine, 5 June 2017, www.argotmagazine.com/first-person-and-perspectives/the-future-is-not-female-it-is-two-spirit-trans-and-non-binary.
Rodney, Seph, et al. “South African Artist Nails It with Sculptures Made from Thousands of Press-Ons.” Hyperallergic, 4 Apr. 2016, hyperallergic.com/284874/south-african-artist-nails-it-with-sculptures-made-from-thousands-of-press-ons/.
Stites, Alice Gray. “The Future Is Female.” 21c Museum Hotels, www.21cmuseumhotels.com/museum/exhibit/the-future-is-female/.
Matijcio, Steven. “Vibha Galhorta.” Vibha Galhorta Absur-City-Pity-Dity, Jack Shainman Gallery, 29 Oct. 2015, www.jackshainman.com/exhibitions/past/2015/vibhagalhotra/.
Wilhelm, Heather. “No, the Future Is Not Female.” National Review, 8 Feb. 2017, www.nationalreview.com/article/444699/future-female-problematic-feminist-slogan.