- Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America
Radical Gestures explores 'those forms of feminist performance that have responded and contributed to the discourse of performance as a [End Page 418] practice within the visual arts.' Jayne Wark situates this topic carefully and thoroughly in the broader visual art and critical theory contexts with a view to understanding how feminist performance art was, indeed, radical as feminist politics and art practice. Setting her stage in the 1960s and reminding readers of the worldwide unrest and political upheaval that characterized the decade, Wark notes that feminist art makers 'saw how art could serve as a powerful weapon for women's emancipation struggles, both within and beyond the art world.'
A strength of Wark's book lies in the detail with which she contextualizes the development of feminist performance. On the one hand, she argues, feminist performance art must be understood in relationship to performance practice generally, and here she looks back to appropriate visual arts and theatrical precedents. On the other hand, it is necessarily part of the second-wave feminist movement – something that must be understood not only in its activist forms, but also through the emergence of academic feminist theory. The latter needs to be understood, too, she asserts, in the wider framework of modern and postmodern critical theory.
Despite this multi-layered background detail, it is the work of feminist artists that forms the core of Wark's analysis and she brings together an impressive range of examples from across the North American continent over the last forty years. Radical Gestures combines oft-described (canonical?) and less well-known American feminist performers with an important catalogue of women working on similar projects in Canada. Wark is attentive, however, to the significant social and political differences between the United States and Canada, and her analysis of feminist performance is usefully nuanced this way. In Canada it is certainly long overdue to have the kind of discussion of feminism and performance art that Wark so ably provides. This book provides an otherwise unrecorded history of this work in Canada, something that should prove useful to scholars, students, and – perhaps most importantly – artists.
A starting point to this timely history is the particular emphasis of feminist performance artists, which, Wark argues, differentiates them from other so-called radical practices in the visual (and other) arts: 'By making performance so conducive to their critical and political objectives, feminist artists were able to do what others had not – that is, to initiate a radically innovative practice that reengaged the aesthetic and the social after a long period of neo-Kantian autonomy and depoliticization.' Each chapter looks at particularities of feminist performance practices in their own historical moments, moving through the celebratory essentialism of the 1970s to embodiment and representation in the 1980s and a new awareness of difference across race, class, geography, and sexuality. The sheer range of example from Judy [End Page 419] Chicago's The Dinner Party to Joyce Wieland's Reason over Passion, from Adrian Piper's The Mythic Being to Lori Millan and Shawna Dempsey's Arborite Housedress makes Radical Gestures a wonderful sourcebook.
In a brief conclusion, Wark suggests, 'Far from being obsolete, feminist art, like the feminist movement as a whole, is remarkable for its longevity.' And her book is remarkable for archiving so much important work and for its presentation of the material in an engaging and accessible style that works equally for the expert reader and for a visual arts student encountering feminist performances for the first time. In these final few pages, Wark suggests some of the Canadian artists working today 'demonstrate that feminism's commitment to aligning the political and the everyday can indeed continue to arrest us, challenge our comfortable ideas, and make us laugh at the same time.' More analysis of these kinds of feminist performances would have brought the project more powerfully up to date, but this is a rich book that hails a feminist readership to both celebrate and interrogate how feminist performance art...