Art

A New Swiss Museum Shows Women’s Art Through a Multivalent Lens

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women at the Museum Susch suggests that letting women be multivalent is a critical piece of letting women be seen.

Monika Sosnowska, “Stairs” (1016-17) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SUSCH, Switzerland — It takes some time to determine what artworks are part of the Museum Susch’s inaugural exhibition, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, and what belongs to the museum’s permanent, site-specific collection. There’s minimal traditional signage and wall texts have been renounced in favor of a smartphone app. The app works most of the time but not always, and not knowing who made an artwork or whether it is in the exhibition turned out to be pleasant intellectual stimulation. This ambiguity allows layers of meaning to settle, fantastically, on Monika Sosnowska’s “Stairs” (2016-17), for example. The large-scale installation of a staircase deconstructed by invisible forces but straining to rise up read as an effort to ascend from — to transcend — patriarchal models of femininity and womanhood, leaving the exhibition title resting, like dust, on its rungs. As part of the permanent collection, it becomes the museum’s spinal cord, transmitting the knowledge that perspective is always partial.

Hannah Wilke, Through the Large Glass (1976)

Of the works included in the exhibition, Hannah Wilke’s 1976 video Through the Large Glass is a critical piece. Sited outside of the main entry to the exhibition, in its own little cavern, Wilke’s striptease at the Philadelphia Museum of Art next to Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” (1915-23) enacts the exhibition’s title as women watch men in the room watching Wilke undress.

Wilke’s ritualistic disrobing clearly both challenges and allures her audience. But she also subverts Duchamp’s power and authority with her own. Wilke’s work feels like a spell being cast on visitors before they cross the threshold into the main exhibition hall. Duchamp has described the bride here as the “Pendu femelle”: a female equivalent of the hanged man in Tarot. Perhaps the inclusion of Wilke’s video is a signal that any outdated male/female dynamics must be abandoned upon entering this exhibition.

Muzeum Susch

On the other side of the threshold, several paintings explore how female bodies conform to the male gaze, or don’t. In these works women look directly at the viewer and, in some cases, turn the gaze back on us in ways that feel disconcerting. For example, Ida Applebroog’s painting “The Ethics of Desire” (2013), which portrays helmeted, jackbooted, but otherwise nude women marching in formation, implicates the voyeuristic viewer in fascism or Nazism. Conversely, Teresa Pągowska’s semi-abstract painting “Yellow Room” (1970) shows what looks like a woman melting under our gaze.

Sarah Lucus’s “Florian” (2013), a giant, gold-plated bronze sculpture in the shape of a butternut squash, is the primary representation of maleness in the room—but, in fact, it lies in a fetal position on the floor instead of standing upright. It still nearly dominates the space, with its size and shiny surface, but its outsized power is neutralized by the many women surrounding it.

Installation view with Ida Applebroog, “The Ethics of Desire” (2013) on left
Installation view, Sarah Lucus, “Florian” (2013) in foreground; Teresa Pągowska, “Yellow Room” (1970) in background

In a smaller room, works by Lucio Fontana, Renate Bertlmann, and Magdalena Abakanowicz push the boundaries of painting towards sculpture and performance. They treat canvas as a portal or interface rather than a surface, and the results are often easily read as vulvic.

Once the surface has been ruptured, sexuality becomes more explicit in the exhibition. The show includes works by many of the art world’s heavy-hitting feminists, including “Fuck Painting #9” (1974) by Betty Tompkins and Carolee Schneemann’s large “Vulva’s Morphia” (1995). Dorothy Iannone’s “Let Me Squeeze Your Fat Cunt” (1970-1971) represents the strategy of many works in the show by wresting sexual language and imagery from tradition, handing it from men to women to exploit both the sexual content and its recontextualization. Comfort & Joy (2015), Julie Verhoeven’s giddy, polymorphously perverse film, employs everything from feathers to cake in service of demonstrating how sexist and archaic Alex Comfort’s 1972 manual The Joy of Sex is, and acts as the capstone of this section of the show.

Carolee Schneeman “Vulva Morphia” (1995)
Dorothy Iannone, “Let Me Squeeze Your Fat Cunt” (1970-1971)
Julie Verhoeven, Comfort & Joy (2015)

The rest of the exhibition addresses less explicit experiences, such as motherhood, and, more frequently, mourning in relation to motherhood, as in Andrzej Wróblewski’s “Mother with Dead Child” (1949). Cocks reemerge here and there in the upper floors of the museum — but it feels like the focus has shifted away from the form, to color and texture. One possible addition to the show could have been a work accessible only via the app — perhaps a sound piece bringing the strong history of feminist artists working in virtual spaces into conversation with this primarily earthbound collection of works.

Many of the museum’s permanent and site-specific works are also by women and seem to address themes adjacent to those of the exhibition. In some ways these other works, though not explicitly included, feel like part of the show, and speak to its fluid boundaries. Among the exhibition’s works, the same artists re-appear with different identities in different rooms — for example, Hanna Wilke, who opens the exhibition as a performance artist, is represented by delicate sculptures near the end. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women seems to say that letting women be multivalent is a critical piece of letting women be seen.

A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women continues at the Museum Susch (Surpunt 78, Susch, Switzerland) through June 30. The exhibition is curated by Kasia Redzisz.

comments (0)