In Dan Simmons’ novel Carrion Comfort, a pair of men are walking through a park, musing on the nature of violence. “You treat violence as an aberration,” one says to another, “when in truth it is the norm.” Though Simmons’ story exists in a realm of fantasy, these words ring true of society today. Violence is often met with feelings of anger and discontent, though it is a widespread and common occurrence that manifests itself on a structural level all over the world.
Through a series of videos, installations, paintings and more, Tai Kwun Contemporary’s latest group exhibition, The Violence of Gender, brings a gendered discourse to the forefront. The art is at times uncomfortable and often confronting. But behind the initial shock factor, the exhibition’s intent is clear – to challenge the need for a gendered identity and sexuality. The artworks offer an alternative to the heteronormative narrative and its constraints and controls.
A widely-accepted understanding of the notion of violence is the deliberate exertion of force by one individual or collective against another. Bearing this definition in mind, the exhibition’s home appears to be a particularly poignant one. Tai Kwun – a former police station and prison – was itself once a site of violence, dominance and exertions of power. But is this the only way that violence can be understood? To be overbearing, as well as invisible?
In the exhibition, 11 artists use the mediums of film, video, performance, painting and installation, among others, to discuss one core concept: why structural violence in societies is an inherently gendered phenomenon, and the ways that fundamental freedoms are restricted as a result.
The exhibition raises a multitude of questions. For there to be an oppressor, must there be an oppressed? A victim for every perpetrator? For there to be a stronger entity, does there need to be an inherently weak? The answers they present are many and varied and, often, incomplete; mirroring the frequently fragmented societies we live in.
An us-versus-them dichotomy runs rampant in popular culture and everyday life, from the damsel in distress narrative prevalent in so many Hollywood films to the structural limitations on social mobility and the gender pay gap that still exists across industries, cultures and geographic borders – all serving to reinforce the stereotype of a weaker sex.
The exhibition’s curator, Susanne Pfeffer, sought to research how these stereotypes can be challenged, how barriers can be broken down, and identities reclaimed – to exist outside of sexuality or gender. Pfeffer, who is the director of the MMK Museum of Modern Arts in Frankfurt, was approached to curate the exhibition following the conclusion of her exhibition trilogy, Speculations on Anonymous Materials (2013), Nature After Nature (2014) and Inhuman (2015) in Kassel, Germany. Following the invitation, she embarked on an intensive research project. “I am not sure that art is the perfect medium,” she explains, “but it is definitely able to venture into fields of knowledge, aesthetics and understanding that might open new ways of looking at and thinking about things.”
The “sheer amount, and the quality of work” had taken Pfeffer by surprise, which explains how the considerable preparation for the project spanned a period of three years. The resulting exhibition incorporates often confronting and disconcerting visual presentations.
One of the most prominent and eye-catching installations is Raphaela Vogel’s “Uterusland,” a large-scale sculpture of a dissected female breast. “For me, producing art is an act of violence and invading,” says Vogel. “It is a brutal process to push something through, to exhaust the limits of oneself and the institution, without caution.”
“Uterusland” demonstrates a duality, with one-half of the installation bearing exposed sinew, tissue and muscle riddled with cancers. The sculpture is connected by a white string to a wild steed – itself an overt portrayal of masculinity – dependent on the breast as a lifeline of survival. The act of creating the art was, for Vogel, “not unlike the process of giving birth or breastfeeding, [which] deprives oneself of an immense amount of energy”. In front of the sculpture, Vogel’s film depicts the inner-workings and confines of a milking machine, symbolising a woman’s birth canal as the woman featured passes helplessly through without agency.
Echoing this lack of autonomy, Julia Phillips’ art reflects the use of violence to deny fundamental freedoms. The artist’s four creative offerings – “Exoticizer (Josephine Baker’s Belt),” “Expanded VIII,” “Intruder” and “Positioner” – portray a series of different objects of oppression used against women throughout society. The sculpture “Intruder” transforms a contraceptive intrauterine device into a corkscrew, channelling violent connotations of bodily examinations and the invasive nature of medical procedures conducted on women.
There are also artworks which are less overtly graphic or sexual, though by no means less impactful. Take Pamela Rosenkranz’s “The Viagra Paintings.” The “chemically mediated and anti-expressionist” work comprises three large-scale panels in varying red, pink and flesh tones that lie in an expansive room in the gallery.
Leaning against a wall, the evocative panels are surrounded by what appear to be haphazardly cast-aside objects. Rosenkranz defines violence as “entering without empathy.” In “The Viagra Paintings,” paint-splattered shoes, a can of paint and a plastic sheet are all seemingly discarded but deliberately placed to suggest the work recently reached a state of completion.
“Identity is a material,” she explains. “It emerges from the interplay of physical interactions, such as neurochemical processes, and cultural or social forces.” Rosenkranz ingested a Viagra pill while painting the pieces, internalising a symbol of masculinity and male virility and making it her own during the creation of her art. The act of ingestion, for Rosenkranz, is used “to construct a filter of male potency.” While the unseen tablet has little bearing on the viewer’s interpretation of the art, its ingestion is intrinsically linked to the artwork’s moment of creation; the scattered objects and its title are a constant reminder of this.
An obvious but nonetheless important takeaway from the exhibition is its focus on violence against women, despite its title exploring a gendered notion of violence more generally. The creative forces behind The Violence of Gender, including its curator, are, for the most part, women, with Liu Yefu, Oliver Laric and Wong Ping the only exceptions. But asked on the focus and whether this reflects social reality – that violence is most frequently expressed against women – Pfeffer responds, “Yes, unfortunately, it is”, citing it as the most commonly encountered form during her research.
But what of those who exist outside of these heteronormative, pre-constructed gender roles? There appears to be an absence of discourse surrounding LGBTQ and gender non-conformist communities, who have without doubt been constrained by the hands of heteronormative discourse. Would presenting several oppressed groups in a collective exhibition serve to strengthen, or weaken the exhibition’s cause? The Violence of Gender has a clear scope, though its title could easily be altered to allude – almost exclusively – to violence inflicted against women.
Animator Wong Ping is one artist who confronts the relationship between violence against both genders in the short film Who’s the Daddy. His films, he explains, “are a mixture of my experiences, my point of view towards a lot of things, things I see happening in daily life – like an archive of myself.”
Wong’s art initially reflects the widespread assumption that “animation should be innocent or happy, and that it should be for kids.” But Who’s the Daddy reflects a much darker tale. “In my short [films], I talk about how different layers of violence can exist in a relationship – it can often be about pressure,” he says. The controversial artist’s animation delves deep into the construction of toxic masculinity and the harm and violence inflicted on both genders – where the fragile nature of a man’s vulnerability is expressed as weakness.
Wong is the only Hong Kong-based artist to participate in the exhibition. While not specifically commissioned for the show, Who’s the Daddy fits with what Wong describes as a universal need to deal with the issues of violence and gender. Wong’s film, like many of the artworks that featured in the exhibition, makes for uncomfortable viewing. The theme of violence and expressions of torture and pain will unsurprisingly be met by feelings of repulsion among some viewers. Uncomfortable though it may be, it does pointedly lead to self-reflection, leading to questions of why challenges to the normative discourse are so confronting.
“Art can be an eye-opener in more than one way,” says Pfeffer. But can it challenge convention enough to help us understand society as a non-gendered construct? And if these conventions were to disappear, what framework would we leave in its place?
Performing Society: The Violence of Gender runs until April 28 at Tai Kwun Contemporary. Click here for more information.