“Never before has society demanded as much proof of submission to an aesthetic ideal, or as much body modification, to achieve physical femininity,” wrote novelist, filmmaker and sex worker activist Virginie Despentes in her book King Kong Theory.
Despentes argues that the pressure on women’s bodies comes as a result of the rebalancing of gender equality rather than despite it, with women complicit in their own submission to aesthetic pressures. As she asserts, “the overbranding of femininity is an apology for the loss of the male prerogative.” Contemporary art and performance have begun to investigate this paradox in the broader context of a re-evaluation and assessment of the legacy of historical feminist art practice. In these cultural contexts, explicitly feminist artists have both paid tribute to their antecedents and simultaneously handled them with a playful, irrelevant flair, aware of the weight of significance their gestures carry. The use of humour and parody by these artists is a strategy to deflect and disarm continued attacks on the female body.
Australian feminist theatre collective I’m Trying to Kiss You explore this conflict in their work titled Madonna Arms, currently in development for Melbourne’s Next Wave festival. Collaborators Allison Wiltshire, Anna McCarthy and Zoey Dawson were struck with the idea when they all joined a gym together, conflicted by their desire for the ‘ideal’ body – at once skinny and toned, while also soft and feminine. Google ‘Madonna arms’ and you get a divided internet – half of the first page of results is YouTube clips of instructional exercise videos (“Get Madonna arms with this amazing 10 minute workout!!!”) and half is revolted body-shaming (“What is wrong with Madonna’s gross arms?”). It seems the muscle tone of an incredibly successful (not to mention highly paid) performer is the tipping point for the ideal female body – simultaneously an image of aspirational desire and abject disgust.
Like Despentes, I’m Trying to Kiss You frame the desire for this ideal as a conflict flecked through with violence, domination and complicity. Reconfiguring Barbara Kruger’s aphorism “Your body is a battleground”, Madonna Arms deploys the tropes of male-dominated film genres –sci-fi, war, apocalypse – to present a fractured narrative that reveals the “against natural, impossible and absurd” relationship women have with their bodies. But rather than reiterate the conflicts of preceding generations of feminist performance practitioners, I’m Trying to Kiss You state their intent to make work “with a sense of humour and a sense of hope”. In doing so, they hope to reveal the absurdity of this self-defeating battle.
On a stylistic level, Madonna Arms reinvestigates the legacy of the practice of endurance performed by artists such as Marina Abramovic and Gina Pane. Abramovic’s 1975 performance Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, in which the artist compulsively brushes her hair in an increasingly violent frenzy, is a provocative antecedent. Madonna Arms is an attempt to insert levity into that tradition and reposition it in a personal context, one that despite being informed by that history, is not beholden to it. “We wanted to see what else we could come up with to talk about issues that are already very real and very painful to us,” assert ITTKY’; “we want to participate in this conversation joyfully – sincerely, but joyfully.” Madonna Arms sees the performers exert their bodies to the limit, but places them in another context – one informed by celebrity idolatry, weight loss reality shows and Hollywood sci-fi films. The effect of this strategy is not only to contextualise the history of feminist art practice within the contemporary moment, but also to demonstrate its ongoing vitality and importance.
ITTKY’s previous work, I Know There’s A Lot of Noise Outside But You’ll have to Close Your Eyes, originally devised for the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival, also investigates a female space where men are absent but whose influence casts a dark shadow The dialogue, at once confessional and catty, slowly unravels as a pair of girls gossip and compete for dominance. I’m Trying to Kiss You explain this impulse to take each other down as a reflection of the inner conflict women experience in dealing with the personal weight of cultural expectation as ‘an attempt at differentiating ourselves from those most similar to us’. The use of dark humour in this work casts light on the ‘inherently ridiculous’ way our culture speaks to women about themselves, and how that filters through in the conversations we have amongst ourselves. They explain, “It is at once a rebellion, an attempt to subvert, a giving up, and a celebration.” Their approach embodies Adrian Piper’s definition of feminism as the “state of affairs in which women compete with men to give support and encouragement to one another, rather than competing with one another for rewards and approval doled out by men.”
I’m Trying to Kiss You are positioned in the context of an explicitly feminist Australian performative practice which revisits and recontextualises the grand narratives of 20th century feminism. The work of other collectives such as The Kingpins, post and Brown Council (incidentally all Next Wave alumni), simultaneously celebrate and investigate its continued legacy, while using humour and parody to undermine continued gender bias. Brown Council’s practice is a direct appropriation of the process-based performance art of the 1970s, and inserts a distinctly female presence on what was often perceived to be a male-dominated practice. They recently presented a project as part of Performance Space’s 30 year anniversary program that directly addressed the concept of this legacy. This is Barbara Cleveland ‘commemorated’ the influence of long-forgotten 70s performance artist of the same name through a filmed documentary which included rare archival footage of the artist’s endurance practice. However, Cleveland was an entirely fictional person and the archival footage was performed by Brown Council themselves. Barbara Cleveland is cipher for the heroine they wish they had and a commentary on how historical narratives are constructed and manipulated.
Both Brown Council and I’m Trying to Kiss You recently featured in an exhibition and roundtable that examined the historical legacy of humour in feminist practice. BACKFLIP: Feminism and Humour in Contemporary Art, curated by Laura Castagnini at the Victorian College of the Arts’ Margaret Lawrence Gallery, grouped works by artists such as Guerilla Girls and Louise Lawler with younger Australian artists in order to demonstrate an intergenerational continuity in slapstick, bawdy jokes and irony as strategies to transgress, disarm and undermine cultural hierarchy. Framed by Jo Anna Isaak’s 1996 book Feminism and Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter, the exhibition made a case for the continued centrality of humour as a key strategy of audience engagement, and as a radical upheaval of ‘serious’ discourse.
The playful strategies of these artists are in the vein of those described by Gavin Butt in a recent conversation with Irit Rogoff as part of Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures series, in which they discussed the primacy of ‘seriousness’ in contemporary art and performance. Butt advocates Anna Pellegrini’s phrase ‘camp sincerity’ to describe queer performance that uses theatrics and frivolity as a mode of address to discuss politics, violence or trauma without trivialising or acting heavy-handedly. This, he describes, conveys irreverence toward the cultural hierarchy and transgresses the limits of the permissible, while retaining the ‘seriousness’ of the subject matter. This formulation of playful sincerity is a useful way to describe the strategies of contemporary feminist artists who reactivate the approach of their forbears without reneging on their radical promise. Further, it allows these artists to explore the legacy of humour in that historical practice, while acknowledging the ongoing complications of that legacy.
The strategies of humour and parody used by I’m Trying to Kiss You dismantle the edifice of expectation that continues to hobble women’s attitudes to their own bodies. They enact Despentes’ rally not to pander to the whining wounded expectations of men in the wake of feminism, as she writes, “The eternal feminine is a massive joke… it seems the male identity depends on keeping up this lie.” By deconstructing the stereotypes of gendered strengths and weakness, they demonstrate the revealing the absurdity and futility of those stereotypes. Further, they pay tribute to the efforts of their forbears to disarm the cultural hierarchy, both in the field of performance practice and in broader society. Rather than a recent phenomenon, the radical strategies of I’m Trying to Kiss You are an affirmation of Despentes’ empowering conclusion, “Ours has always been the gender of endurance, courage and resistance.”
Madonna Arms will be presented by I’m Trying to Kiss You as part of Next Wave at the ArtsHouse Meat Market, 30th April – 11th May 2014. For more information about Text Camp, Next Wave’s arts writing mentorship programme, visit the Next Wave Festival website.
 Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. Trans. Stephanie Benson. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009. p. 14.
 Interview with the author, 20 January 2014.
 Despentes, p. 129.
 Despentes, p. 130.