Just getting to the exhibition had been interesting in itself. We accidentally caught the wrong connecting train and ended up at a station slightly further away from where we needed to be, but were happy to walk the extra distance. As we emerged from underground and set off in the direction of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, we were stopped in our tracks by the distant rumblings of a crowd. We couldn't yet see it, but knew it wasn't a rowdy sports crowd or a crowd of revellers. No, this was a sound I knew well from my activist past. Sure enough, we could see as we got closer that it was a political rally of some sort. My soul stirred a little, and again when we got close enough to realise what they were protesting about: the Muslim and refugee bans had just been imposed in the US, and Australia's hardline policy on refugees was scarcely any better.
Sydney was in the midst of a heatwave, but our convictions were such that we stayed a good while to listen to the speakers from Syria and elsewhere. If we had got on the right train and arrived at our intended station, we would've missed it altogether. And not being on Facebook, there wasn't much chance I would've heard about it online either. Going to an art exhibition entitled Nude felt a bit frivolous after that, but we only went because of the tickets we were given for Christmas. Where the rally was unexpected, the exhibition was unexpectedly good. If it had been up to us, we would've missed out on both of these experiences, but fortunately, the unexpected intervened and dictated otherwise.
The exhibition was almost as crowded as the rally outside, but the aircon came as a welcome relief. Nude started off predictably enough: the white, male, hetero gaze upon white female flesh. I was already formulating a critique in my head about all the other kinds of desires not represented in the exhibition, and expressed this to my partner. She took my point about the absence of works depicting female desire for men, before quipping: "but the male body just isn't as nice to look at!" It turned out I had spoken way too soon. Things got interesting very quickly, starting with Herbert Draper's The lament for Icarus (1898), which, according to the accompanying panel, shows "a male figure subject to a desiring female gaze". It was still by a male, heterosexual artist, though, so it's conceivable that his work may have been less about female agency and more about wanting to be wanted himself.
Finally we got a painting by a female artist: Vanessa Bell's The tub (1918). The nude subject was female too - a woman about to take a bath - and no desiring gaze seemed to figure into it. She seems lost in her own thoughts, and unconcerned with arranging herself for the pleasure of the painter.
Another work even more notable for its depiction of a nude that was in no way sexual was Francis Gruber's Job (1944). Here we simply have a man broken by war and deprivation, and its effect on me was arresting, particularly in light of the rally earlier in the day. This could be a scene in today's Aleppo, only there would be ruins and rubble in place of intact buildings.
Ambling through the exhibition space further still, I encountered probably my favourite work of the show: Ithell Colquhoun's Scylla (1938). Inspired by her view of herself in the bathtub, her thighs and knees were rendered as rocky islets upon an eerily calm sea, and her pubic hair as seaweed. I loved the parallels it suggested between body and geography, reminding me of the corporeal landscape poetry of Italian-Nicaraguan writer Giaconda Belli.
Before reading what the painting was about, my partner had seen two penises in an act of frottage - quite the delicious irony! Without ruling out that this ambiguity may have been intended, what this painting was actually about was the vagina and female agency. As the panel explained, Scylla was a female sea monster from Greek mythology that "inhabited narrow straits and devoured passing sailors". The sense I got was that we were being invited to re-imagine the vagina, not as something passive to be penetrated, but as something active that devours. Concomitantly, the penis passes from being an active entity to one that is simply consumed. A fascinating reversal of the dominant perspective.
Other works interesting for their non-white/male/hetero gaze and norm-breaking subject matter were Barkley L. Hendricks's portrait of a gay, black male in place of the usual white woman; Louise Bourgeois's sculpture of a vulnerable (as opposed to heroic or powerful) male body, perhaps challenging the artifice of alpha-masculinity; and an old political poster from the seminal bad-asses, the Guerrilla Girls:
The curator finished brilliantly, with the last piece before the exit being a series of three photographs by Rineke Dijstra (1 | 2 | 3) of mothers with their young babies, aged one week, one day, and one hour old respectively. Said the panel: "Nude ends, appropriately, at the beginning, as a new baby enters the world, naked".
For the philosopher, Hannah Arendt, the birth of a child becomes the means with which to understand the genesis of novelty generally. "Each birth represents a new beginning and the introduction of novelty into the world", according to the entry on Arendt in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. By way of the concept of natality, Arendt extends this thinking to the newness that activists and revolutionaries attempt to bring into the world. In a sense, every political movement - including the feminism encountered in the gallery and the movement for refugee rights encountered in the street - is a new world struggling to be born.
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