What is it like to celebrate International Women’s Day in Perth?
By Martyna Majewska
Welcome back after the Spring Break, which I hope you all enjoyed, whatever you did. Though it’s been almost a month, I want to reflect on the International Women’s Day and the way my AH4214 module group got to celebrate it.
I come from what used to be the Soviet Block, and is now usually referred to as ‘Eastern Europe.’ Hence, even though I was born after the fall of the Iron Curtain, to me, Women’s Day has always seemed a rather outmoded affair, connoting the contrived equality of the communist regime. Yet, probably because I was never given the red carnations and stockings that my mother and grandmother would receive each year, I have managed to embrace the International Women’s Day as a completely distinct celebration and, importantly, an entirely positive and much needed event. The class trip to Perth on the 8th of March, which was part of the Body/Politics module, gave me a chance to reconsider IWD and feminism more broadly, both inside and beyond the former Eastern Bloc. It was also a remarkable opportunity for our class to see a live performance.
We were invited to participate in a conference entitled ‘3 Generations of Women Artists Perform,’ which was held at the Threshold Art Space. Located in Perth’s Concert Hall, it is a truly unique exhibition site. Artworks – predominantly video projections – are situated in the threshold spaces of the building: balconies, corridors, even public toilets. Imagine: you’re mindlessly washing your hands and as you approach the hand dryer you encounter a screen, so instead of impatiently waiting for your hands to dry you get to watch a video performance!
Fortunately, the conference itself took place, rather conventionally, in one of the lecture theatres. We got to hear two talks about the history of performance. Our module coordinator Dr Catherine Spencer introduced the history of feminist performance from the Western perspective, while Dr Amy Bryzgel of University of Aberdeen talked about feminist art in the USSR-controlled countries before 1989. Whereas artists like Carolee Schneemann and Mierle Laderman Ukeles are well known to most Art History students and our library provides us with a number of publications on their works, rarely do we get a chance to hear about what was happening in the arts behind the Iron Curtain. Furthermore, as Piotr Piotrowski (often cited by Dr Bryzgel) points out, there is a tendency in Western Art History to talk about the art of Easter Europe as not only separate, but also homogenous. This is why I think it’s important that we heard Dr Brygel’s insightful – but at the same time highly accessible – lecture. One of the interesting facts she shared was that the Polish artist Natalia LL, author of the iconic Consumer Art photographs and video, was never keen to be regarded as a feminist. She intended her project to be a celebration of life rather than a statement on female pleasure and freedom. Furthermore, Natalia LL quickly understood that the Western feminist intellectuals such as Lucy Lippard, who was determined to champion her work outside of Eastern Europe, were guided by a misconception of an egalitarian soviet society, which was actually just a deceitful façade the communist regime had created. Dr Bryzgel also introduced the two artists, who later performed for the audience at Perth.
 Piotr Piotrowski, ‘How to Write a History of Central-East European Art?,’ Third Text, Vol. 23, no. 1, (2009): 5–14.
Tanja Ostojić is a Serbian artist, whose work focuses on the problems of displacement and migration, as well as on the precarious position that women occupy in various minorities and Europe’s developing countries. At the conference, she performed Naked Life, a monologue about the forced migrations of the Roma people from the wealthiest European states to the countries of former Yugoslavia. Dressed in an attire associated with the traveller groups, she recounted stories of people who suddenly found themselves displaced to a country that gives them no support, no job, or accommodation. As she spoke in an increasingly dramatic manner Ostojić gradually took off items of clothing until she was completely naked. For many of us in the audience, it was the first time we had encountered performance including nudity. From my point of view, the artist’s nudity was not gratuitous; it compellingly reflected the weakness and vulnerability of the deported people whom she was describing. It was thus completely desexualised. Although there were aspects I found overly dramatised and perhaps superfluous, overall, Ostojić’s performance gave me a chance not only to learn about the fate of people who are somehow excluded from the daily news, but also to relate to them. It also made me realise, especially during our class discussions that followed the conference, that performance which entails such a direct encounter with another person often elicits contrasting responses. It is therefore especially important to be able to confront your reaction with those of other audience members.
The other work performed at Perth was Karolina Kubik’s Stick Piece. The Polish artist has staged her piece in various settings and in different forms. This time, she invited the entire audience to follow her on the streets of Perth, where she stopped random passersby to perform with her. She would simply approach them and, without explaining what she was doing, put one of her sticks between herself and the other person’s body. A performance like this offers a crash course on the difference between performance and theatre. Neither Kubik nor the audience knew how the artists’ ‘targets’ would react to her weird behaviour. Some did participate and lasted in the uncomfortable position for several minutes. Others tried to escape. We even ended up following one elderly gentleman through a hotel lobby – he was desperate to run away! I must admit, I am not sure I understand the link between Kubik’s initial speech about the rape statistics in Poland and her act itself, other than the fact that it included an invasion on other people’s personal space. However, her Stick Piece allowed me to trace the very mechanics of participatory performance: the artist can never fully anticipate the participant’s response.
I think our trip to Perth was not only a valuable lesson about performance art that complemented our course, but also an opportunity to see how International Women’s Day can be used to highlight the continued importance and value of feminist activities and discussions. Women’s Day is no longer the ossified Eastern European tradition, repeated mindlessly with no consideration for women’s plight; instead it encourages us to remember and re-examine the work of the women who pioneered feminist art and to celebrate contemporary artists who expose gender inequality while advancing greater equity nowadays. Finally, we should support initiatives such as the ‘3 Generations of Women Artists Perform’ conference and art venues like the Threshold Art Space, precisely because they are located in Perth and not in London or New York. Indeed, feminist discussions and feminist art should be encouraged also outside of the world’s major academic centres, so that they become accessible to wider audiences.