No Woman is an Island

Thirteen Australian artists come together for a group show at Melbourne’s BLINDSIDE to present a cross-section of contemporary female experience. I spoke to curator Sophia Cai about how the show challenges traditional conceptions of gender by sifting the vicissitudes of womanhood through the lens of the ‘female gaze’.

Why appropriate John Donne’s poem ‘No Man is an Island’ as your exhibition title?
I was interested in exploring the idea of community and conversation through multi-generational feminist art practices. My choice of the title can perhaps be understood as an optimistic view of the future, emphasising collaboration, support and community in contemporary art practice.

Jessica Cochrane, Smile Bitch, 2016, mixed media, 84 x 119cm. Courtesy the artists and BLINDSIDE, Melbourne

The notion of the ‘female gaze’ challenging the traditional framework of the ‘male gaze’ could be considered outmoded in today’s complex cosmos of gender fluidity. Do any of the works consider how the female and male gazes are no longer neat binaries but simply two players sitting on a spectrum of ‘gazes’?
This is something that I feel all the artists grapple with to some extent in their practice. One of the key criticisms of Feminism (with a capital F) as a theory is that it caters to a particular narrative of womanhood, at the risk of excluding other viewpoints of identities.

Zoë Croggon, Dive #2, 2013, c-type print, 80 x 83cm. Courtesy the artist and Daine Singer, Melbourne

I wouldn’t say that ‘No Woman is an Island’ positions the ‘female gaze’ as a counterpoint to the ‘male gaze’ in those strictly binary terms, and I was interested in looking at artists whose works complicate these gender relationships and expectations from a variety of viewpoints. For instance Jessica Cochrane’s paintings stem from her encounters with female bodies as depicted in fashion magazines and advertising. These glossy images are created for female consumption, but I wouldn’t say they come from the place of a ‘female gaze’ or subjectivity.

Stephanie Leigh’s installation ‘Acquiescence 1’ (2016) comprises three yellow breast-like wall sculptures to be pulled and prodded by the viewer. How is the ‘female gaze’ operating here?
Leigh’s works are very interesting, because she works at this intersection of art history and contemporary sculpture with a particular focus on the abstracted female body. Acquiescence 1 (2016) is a work about consent, in that audience members are invited to don gloves and interact with the sculptures. The work is based on the perception of occupying a body within a space, and how this relates to others. In a subtle way, Leigh is addressing the rights of women over their own bodies, from her own position and ‘gaze’.

Zoe Wong, “I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck”, 2014, C-type photograph, 76.2 x 76.2cm. Courtesy the artists and BLINDSIDE, Melbourne

In her photographic work ‘You’re a Good Chinese Girl’ (2014), Zoe Wong explores how being half Chinese and half Australian stretches her identity across East and West in a ‘bizarre floating space’. In what ways does Wong link this cultural liminality to her experience as a woman?
Zoe Wong explores not only her identity as a woman, but also her cultural heritage and experience of ‘in betweenness’. Her works look at the trope of being a good ‘Asian girl’ and what that might mean. By appropriating images from Disney’s ‘Mulan’ (1998), a cultural product from the West that depicts a stereotypical ‘Chineseness’, Wong’s photographic series critically looks at the double expectations placed upon her in terms of both gender and cultural identities.

Zoe Wong, I will never pass for a perfect bride or a perfect daughter, 2014, C-type photograph, 76.2 x 76.2cm. Courtesy the artists and BLINDSIDE, Melbourne

I’m interested in Clara Bradley’s silken ‘love letter’ to her never-to-be-conceived daughter. Can you explain what this work is about?
Does society still expect women to be mothers? Are you less of a woman if you don’t raise children? We live in a world where if you are a childless woman in the public eye, eventually you’ll be questioned on your choice. Bradley’s AUROPHOBIA (2017) is a subtle activist work that addresses this social expectation, particularly in relation to the ethical or moral questions of raising a child in today’s climate taking into consideration the strains placed on our natural resources by overpopulation. The work is highly personal confessional dialogue between the artist and her future self, and the choices she makes. It is a love letter as much as it as an apology letter.

Elli Walsh is an arts writer based in Sydney.

10 to 27 May, 2017