My current work explores the complex inter-relationships between the female gender and the world; examining female-ness and femininity as subjected by the male gaze in both a wider-world context, and within the domestic sphere.

This lens exposes the cultural conditioning and socially ingrained objectification of females from birth, inside and out of a family unit; employing preconceived ideas of neglect and sexual pressure on children and teens within Western culture to illuminate these entrenched attitudes and power relationships.

I am an autobiographical artist. My practice explores relationships, fragility and power. My most recent works challenge the idealisation and functionality of the family unit, focussing on the sexual pressure within Western teen culture. This blog shall critically evaluate my practice and understand its relevance in a wider artistic context. For the purpose of this blog my practice is broken into three parts surrounding my identity:

The Womb:

I revisit my first home and connect with the memory of the wallpaper that covered every inch of it. I will explore the works of Robert Gober and study the short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins; exploring its use of narrative and symbolism, and the otherness in society. There shall also be an investigation into the variations of Perkins’ identity versus conditioning and her environment.

 

 

 


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To comprehend the subject of cultural sexual exploitation and visually decipher it’s many constructs; I started drawing, experimenting with ink, form, the age of the girl and her poise. In figures XXXVIII the girl is alone and younger. The spots of red in figure XXXVIII indicate the inevitability and foreboding onset of puberty and with it, the male gaze. In figure XXXIX the same girl, only after this developmental change.

Figure XXXVIII

Figure XXXIX

Figure XL

Figure XLI

  Figure XLII

Figure XLIII

Figure XLIV

 

Figure XLV

In figure XLV I explored a mix of vulnerability, adult behaviour and misplaced confidence. The child in the picture is smoking, drinking, seemingly tipsy with the tilt of her body. I also thought of her as slightly confrontational, as my friends and I were. The confrontation highlights her naïvety and furthermore her vulnerability (see Appendix 2, p43).

Figure XLVI

I took a life cast of a child’s feet and cast them in wax. I dressed the feet in white socks and pink daps. I placed size 12-13 year old knickers down around the ankles, mimicking the illustrations (see Fig XLVI). However, unlike the illustrations, the girl in her entirety is absent, so I drew her on the wallpaper behind. When the feet are placed inside a domestic setting, the piece changes; it is no longer about cultural sexual exploitation of teenage girls, but domestic sexual abuse. The urban is paramount to the piece.

                                                      Figure XLVII

Figure XVLII

I placed the shoes in an urban setting, similar to where I consider a sexual encounter may happen (see Fig XVLIII); and then photographed the work. On viewing the photograph, I longed for the illustration, the girl, so I drew her back in over the photograph.

 

The process of photographing site-specific can bring about presentational dilemmas and how to successfully introduce the urban into the gallery space.

 

In figure XVLII, the drawing seems overkill; however, the urban graffiti and subway location is relevant and adds to the dialogue.

Figure XLIX, 13, mixed media, 2016

As an atempt to bring the urban into the gallery, I took a cast of tactile paving. The paving was created in light of  “Blind and partially sighted people who use pedestrian crossings” (Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions,1998)  I used this type of paving due to its tactile warning of a crossing point. I found it relevant in light of the sexual boundary that would be crossed, but also the warning for the blind person. Arguably the teenager is blind to her exploitation.

To test the piece 13 (2016) in a gallery setting, I curated an all woman exhibition entitled: Dead Paper. The exhibition theme was the subjection of women in Western culture. As a result, 13, as a piece of sculpture, needs further consideration.


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Culture

 

My father used to say to me, “lucky your pretty with your Dyslexia, at least you can be a glamour model, no need for brains in that game”. It seemed evident very early on that I would be defined by my face, not my brains. Soon enough my body changed and long before I was ready, I was looked at. This was emphasised with the toys I played with, the books that were read to me and TV. I grew up believing that I was not only subordinate to men, but also an object for them. This idea continued in to my teens (see Appendix 2, p1, p21). Lucy Anne Holmes founder of ‘No More Page 3’ proposed: ‘When you’re 11 years old and the men around you talk about the breasts in their newspaper everyday, it shapes the way you see your own.’

I found it hard to feel positive about myself in a world that used the word ‘girl’ as an insult. This is beautifully illustrated in a short film by Lauren Greenfield, (Always, 2014) where actors are asked to run, hit, throw like a girl, challenging the negativity associated with the word ‘girl’.

Sam Cleasby (2016) a photographer, blogger and public speaker states:

I was 14. I met him in Meadowhall, he called out to me and said I was beautiful.  I was flattered as he was older. If an older man thought I was attractive, then I must be pretty cool, right?

She continues to tell a familiar story:

He says I came for sex. I’ve never had sex before, I snogged a boy once.  I’m scared.  I try to act like a grown up in a film, I toss my hair over my shoulder and laugh.

This arguably common scenario was in the focus of the public eye, recently with the case of footballer Adam Johnson regarding his sexual conduct with an underage girl.

During Johnson’s trial, the public put blame on the young victim. The prosecution stated: “She endured a year of being called a liar and a slag while you encouraged your fans” (Rawstone. 2016).

 

One social media user commented upon the story, stating, “Society should be held responsible. As should the girl. No way this young woman didn’t know what she was doing…. and society/parenting are to blame” (anonymous).

Caroline O’Donoghue, a writer for The Pool, wrote in response to the Adam Johnson case:

It’s hard to sound surprised about what happens every day…

I want us to own up the fact that society creates teenage girls who are eternally receiving mixed messages about their own sexuality. I want there never to be a picture of a child star captioned by how she’s ‘all grown up (O’Donoghue, 2016).

Unwanted sexual contact of some sort is debatably inevitable for some young girls. In an interview with Nancy Spero, Sue Williams (1993) talks about her shock at the reality of her story, a story that is not that uncommon.

I was so surprised to find out how many people have had to deal with incest, have been molested or raped. I couldn’t believe it. People almost take it in stride. And that’s the way it is, it’s always been this way. This is a horrible thing that I went through. I had no awareness of my rights as a person, I did the classic thing. It’s so humiliating. People would ask me, “He beat the hell out of you and you went back to him?” I thought that this person loved me and that this was my home. I didn’t like it, but I was used to it (Spero 1993).

In a recent study of interviews, included 2,000 British women, it was revealed “that a fifth of women were exposed to unwanted sexual contact as schoolgirls” and “Plan UK state that 22 per cent reported having some experience of sexual touching, groping, flashing, sexual assault or rape while they were “in or around” school” (Smith, 2016).

It is this aspect of our culture that I want to challenge within my practice, that a young girl might look or act like an adult, but should be safe and able to practice adulthood without adults utilising and exploiting this vulnerable section of a girl’s life.

The film Fish Tank (2009) directed by Andrea Arnold is a strong example of exposing and highlighting this section in a girl’s life; encapsulated in the title. A review in The Guardian by Peter Bradshaw suggested that Arnold had “fluency in the social-realist idiom”. Mia, the 15-year old heroine, like Billingham is depicted growing up on a council estate. She similarly has a dysfunctional family. Bradshaw (2009) continues to describe Mia as having:

An enormous, poignant capacity for love, but she has never received any, certainly not from a damaged mother, whose one moment of intimacy with her daughter comes when she ferociously tells Mia that she was thinking of having her aborted.

figure XXXV

The film attempts to be truthful to a specific sub culture in Britain. A way of life that is relatable, with authenticity. The film depicts the accelerated growth from baby to woman through the three female characters. The youngest sister, aged 9ish, demonstrates a blurred mix of child and behaviour associated with adulthood. She plays games and tricks, tries to play fight with her older sister, giggles, but also smokes, swears, drinks and holds an opinion against the adults around her. The elder sister, Mia, seems lost in a world that does not ‘pull any punches’, the only affection comes from the mother’s new boyfriend, which is laiden with indistinct lines between father and sexual predator. Sadly it is the latter. “Some reviews call Connor a paedophile. I think he’s more of an immoral opportunist” (Ebert, 2010).

He may not be a paedophile, but nor is he an immoral opportunist. It could be considered that Connor grooms Mia and exploits her vulnerability, in the pursuit of sex.

The mother, a product of her enviroment, maintains the cycle of abuse.  There is a celebration of otherness, or at least a recognition of it. This ‘otherness’ is noticed and commented upon in Christopher Tookey’s critical review:

It’s about a foul-mouthed, violent, uneducated 15-year-old… living in a depressing council flat with her unloving, sluttish, boozy single mum…, and a disturbed, hate-filled little sister… (Tookey, 2009).

Tookey (2009) continues to write: “Fish Tank seems to have had all the optimism leeched out of it.” Alluding to an unrealistic portrayal of broken Britain, “it’s yet another piece of relentless British miserabilism”… “without any attempt at social or psychological analysis”.

This it seems is an opinion from an outsider’s perspective, one that cannot relate, and uses derogatory language towards the presented sub culture; to a point where Tookey fails to recognise different agendas within character groups. When describing a scene where Mia is assaulted by two brothers and rescued by one other, that she later has a relationship with, the critic misreads this as; “a half-hearted attempt early on to rape her. She doesn’t seem to take undue offence, however, and even starts to date one of them…even though he looks as if he smells.”

The sexual exploitation of teenage girls could be considered as part of our culture, and one where responsibility is still under debate. Plan UK (cited in Smith, 2016) support this.

Part of my practice evaluates this dialogue and pulls the subject of underage sex with older partners into view (see Appendix 2, p1).  In my experience the expectation to be sexually active with the older, car-driving boys, was inescapable. My gender defined me and the size of my breasts told the male world I was ‘up for it’. It took time and age to realise that my friends and I, at 12 years of age, were sexually exploited and that we were victims. This cycle perpetuates through the younger girls.

It was the way it was; and as adults we bore the shame of it, the embarrassment. As Nancy Spero concludes to Sue Williams, ‘You are victimized but you are the one embarrassed!… I know, but I can’t help that . . .” (Spero 1993).

I admire Williams’ courage in her paintings. In Through Glass: “. . . no we r just good friends . . .” (2005/6) (see Fig XXXVI), the mixed expressions of shame and seemingly learnt behaviour on the girls positions and faces appear authentic.  The colours are vibrant, graffiti-like. The background with partial coverage and scribbles bares a likeness to Mia’s sister’s bedroom wall. ( see Fig XXXV).

                         Figure XXXVI Through Glass: “. . . no we r just good friends . . .”(2005/6)

Additionally, I appreciate Egon Schiele’s observations of the body and his ablity to convey vulnerability in his subjects. Arguably because they were vulnerable. The absence of line and the strengh of line seems paramount within his work (See Fig XXXVII).

Figure XXXVII Nude Egon Schiele


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Using a camera opens up a secondary world. The photograph itself is often a documentative tool, arguably a medium of truth.

An installation however, within a gallery setting may appear staged. Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) is a good example of a successful installation, where the boundaries of what is expected are challenged; dragging the real into the white gallery space. Emin’s work tests perspectives, self-portraits, honesty and material culture. It was created by the artist – her space outside of its space.

 

The photograph it seems is one step away from the artist, it could be trusted in its own right, and it arguably captures the real. Susan Sontag suggests, “there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it…” but also, “photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings…” (Sontag, 1979, p6).

Cameras are now accessible to the masses; they are not simply “the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed” (Sontag, 1979, p7). The camera has become a tool to edit, and memorialise; it is used to document the idealistic family unit and present a perfect photo album. The true reality of the family is often uncaptured or deleted; as Haughey (1996) comments: “photos of crying children, angry parents or divorced spouses [are] conveniently erased from memory”.

 

Similarly to the realist movement in the 1840’s where “the Realists democratized art by depicting modern subjects drawn from the everyday lives of the working class.” Ross Finocchio (2004). Richard Billingham challenges this idea of not only “memorializing the achievements of individuals” (Sontag, 1979, p8), but the idealisation of the family unit. Billingham is an artist who works in the medium of photography. He is best known for his documental series entitled Ray’s A Laugh (1996) (See fig XXXIII & XXXIV), nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001. The photographs are of his family, caught unaware in the family home; they were initially meant as reference works for portrait paintings. The images offer an insight into Billingham’s intimate world; a world that could be perceived as ‘the other’.

Critics and interviewers of Billingham describe Ray’s A Laugh from an outsider’s perspective; which, in some respects is inevitable. Unless the interviewer/critic is a member of Billingham’s family, it would be a perspective of one from the outside, but the description of his work continues. They expand past the realms of the direct family and one from the description of the home, the material culture, the council flat and alcoholism. Adams (2016) describes this world:

 

Ray, toothless, shirtless and swigging from his pop bottles of homebrew, vast Liz in her raucous patterned frocks poring over her 1,000-piece jigsaws, surrounded by knick-knacks and wild-looking animals, fag in hand…

 

 

Haughey (1996) bolsters the view of ‘the other’, in that he conveys an undeniable distance between social worlds. Ray’s a Laugh “…invites intimacy, encouraging the viewer to relate to the family by their first names, disguising the real distance between them and us… there is an undeniable distance between the family and viewer”.

 

There is an assumption that the viewer is looking in on a deprived world. That alcoholism, obesity, junk food, the décor, the council flat, the time in care is alien to the viewer. Robert Chesshyre (2001) states “the Billingham family is not an extra-planetary species”, by doing so this implies that the viewer needs to know this. He continues to argue, ‘one critic described the flat and its inhabitants as Billingham’s personal ‘safari park’. In truth, they are ordinary.” Arguably to suggest they are ordinary is to assume you need to be informed, due to their un-ordinary-ness.

Billingham in contrast, cannot see the abnormal in his normality. In fact, he is shocked with the impact of his images on the art world. Stating, “Has nobody ever seen a dog licking the floor before, or a woman with tattoos?”

 

It could be seen that Billingham informs Chesshyre on this otherness of worlds.

Of this world, the culture he grew up in, Billingham postulates:

If you say to a working-class person, “You can have £100 now or £500 next year”, they’d take the £100. If you’ve got money, you spend it. You live like Lord Muck for a day, then starve for six days – You don’t see a future (2001).

 

When asked if Billingham had forgiven his parents for his upbringing, he responded: “I’m totally accepting of it because that’s the way it is, that’s how life is (2001).

 

Figure XXXIII

 

Figure XXXIV

 

What strikes me most about Billingham’s work is the raw honesty and sheer lack of editing, emphasised further through armature style photography. It is the documentation of his every day, breaking the boundaries of silence and the ideal. Revealing this other world, exposing it for what it is, and placing it pride of place in a gallery setting; to be viewed and judged.

I feel however, that it is where these works are viewed and the local demography to those places that make the work so powerful. There is a sense that the photographs capture a far more relatable scenario than the hegemony would like to consider; that Billingham’s life is more encapsulating of a sub culture – not a freak show, but a spotlight over a reality within our culture.

This element of exposure on the working/under class in Western society is something that I would like to take forward in my practice.

 


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When creating the doll, I felt connected to the materials, such as the baby grow and the little booties. I stuffed the outfit with newspaper and armature to stabilise the form. When I held it, it felt empty to me. I thought of it as this empty vessel, merely a symbol for my memories, only as a reference that I was there.

I visualised all my memories in this way; within Figure XXVII the clothes became a carrier for the key events in my life. The individual baby grows were filled with different volumes of expanding foam, this process reflected the impact of the events that had occurred whilst the child was wearing this soft suit. The foam becomes a metaphor of emotional baggage.

I found the outcome completely rewarding. These half deflated forms seemed pathetic, vulnerable and very disturbing.

Figure XXVII

I piled all the inflated baby grows on top of each other. (see Fig XXVIII) They seemed discarded, like an image of genocide, heaped up bodies – discarded memories, discarded outsiders and reminisce of otherness.

Figure XXVIII

                                                  Figure XXIX

I pulled one form from the pile and photographed her seperatly. (see Fig XXX) This process presented a question: Does the work function more effectively when viewed as a singular entity, or, as a collective body?

                  Figure XXX

The sight-specific sculpture and photography was something I felt worked with in my practice.

Rather than thinking about all the spaces I have ever lived, I focused on one and the impact of that one space. The space I focused on was my bedroom when I was 11. I thought about Sleeping Baby (2016) and how choice-less the baby was. I considered how choice-less I was when I was 11 and how choice-less other young girls can feel. The space of the bedroom acted as some point of safety, the space in the house where the door could close. I considered the reality of being plonked, choice-less and hiding under the world’s eyes, under the world’s feet, and what that would look like.

I remembered the feeling of the world’s eyes on my every move, and my decisions and efforts adapting or stifled with adult intervention and adult ideals. I failed very quickly in the values upheld by schools. I felt trapped in a small, exposed space.

In reflection to this, I took a cast of a 9-year-old child, in the foetal passion. I placed the cast on a bare single mattress and under pink bed covers. I placed the installation outside in an urban setting. Everything is on show, her strewn out cloths, her dirty knickers, socks, shoes, her homework. She hides under the covers from the world that stares and walks past. Ultimately she has been ‘plonked’, the walls of her bedroom removed and her private space dragged out into the open for all to see. Her hopes and dreams crushed with the corrections of her teachers’ red pen (see Fig XXXI). The piece reflects the other in society, the deprived child, the un-idealised family, the creative, the girl.

Figure XXXI

Figure XXXII

 


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When responding to what it is that physically makes me, I reviewed my surroundings. How they have influenced my life and how they have influenced who I am. How much of my life is a direct response to my location, my era, my gender.

I thought about documenting these places and times; considering one element like my schooling or the places I have lived as a child. This idea led me to explore all the places I have ever lived. I have lived in 34 addresses throughout my life: (see Fig XXIII)

Figure XXIII

I wondered if there was some kind of pattern in the addresses. The absence of story seemed to leave space and wonderment. The names of the homes offered some dialogue, however, the address of a ‘The Field’ could be confusing.

 

I am considering returning back to all the places that were significant to me. To photograph everywhere I have lived. Through this series I am analysing the visual interpretation of one element or theme of my life, and what that could look like as a collection.

I created a small doll that I placed in the frame of each image. Each address meant something to me, a story in its own right happened there; I try to emulate this through the doll.

 

Figure XXIV

I lived in Townhill, Swansea for a time. I returned to that address with the doll and took a photo (see Fig XXIV). I was 14; this was the second address after foster care. It was also 6 years after not seeing my mother and then living with her and getting to know her again.

Figure XXV

Mayhill 17, I was a mother in a domestic violent relationship with my baby’s father. (see Fig XXV)

Figure XXVI

In figure XXVI I am experimenting with position. The photo is taken in the space where I would congregate with fellow The Big Issue sellers, waiting for the shop to open. This project needs further exploration and I am not sure if, emotionally, I am able to fully consider it.


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