In our Internet based system of social relations, where the pornography industry has become "adult entertainment", masturbation is seen as a major leisure activity. Sexual fulfilment, it would seem, is becoming a solitary activity.
Someone once described masturbation as the victory of imagination over biology, but it has also attracted opprobrium everywhere from the Bible to Baden-Powell’s warning to young men of the dangers of self-abuse to the idea, still prevalent in vernacular culture, that it is a practice associated with inadequacy.
It is also mythologised as a wholly male practice.
Miranda Whall’s self-portraits in which she pleasures herself with her fingers or a vibrator are watercolours which, in two of the works, have been animated to produce video works. In Ladybirds, shown as a large projection, multiple figures are combined with large out of scale birds whose song provides the sound track. In the smaller monitor based piece, Simon and I the figure mechanically, obsessively and endlessly masturbates, vagina towards the viewer, whilst a ginger cat rolls around her, purring.
The delicacy of the watercolours is enhanced by the flickering quality of the animations and yet the work has an almost overbearing sense of melancholy, enhanced by the images becoming slightly insubstantial. However, the use of the birds and the cat locate the activity in a different kind of psychological space and allows a different set of meanings to co-exist within Whall’s evocation of ennui.
This is work which is has both political and therapeutic power, the use of the birds and the cat seem to locate the mechanical desperation of the act into an order of things which can allow human beings to come to terms with certain kinds of pain and survive.
These are not pornographic images, and in a culture in which the female body continues to be sexualised in the mainstream, this is important work in negotiating the personal and the marketplace in terms of sexuality and its role in our make up.
Whilst it is true that poses Whall adopts are reminiscent of the porn model cliché, she does not repeat the codes of the market but makes something else of them through the use of watercolour as a medium. Walter Hartright, the drawing teacher in Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, was representative of a tradition, in which young ladies were taught the way with pen and brush, which along with the pianoforte and needle work, were deemed to be suitable activities for a lady.
What were the subjects that such women were expected to represent in watercolours, if not pretty and sentimental? Whall has subverted the medium and its association with what is proper, and has created a work in which a sense of liberation coexists with the confessional and the seemingly abject.
Artist and Associate Senior Lecturer in Photography at Northumbria University