Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Can’t do it Like a Man: Het Pissende Vrouwtje


Can’t do it like a man
but I like to stand under the shower
in the bath
in the sea
under a tree
(and imagine you seeing me)1

In 1996 Marlene Dumas was commissioned to produce a series of prints based on
the work of Rembrandt. The work she chose was a small etching departing a woman
urinating against a tree.  In Rembrandt’s original, the woman is crouching and
cowering, engaged in a conscious attempt to not be seen, whereas in Dumas’s
images the figures squat or stand, facing the viewer, meeting their gaze and
often smiling.   The challenging and confronting view offered by Dumas appears
to embody the worst nightmare of the abject unstable female body. The spectre
of urinary incontinence as well as formlessness of flabby thighs are exploited
in the medium of ink and watercolour, transformed by the hand of Dumas from and
expression of feminine constraint into runny chaotic liquid masses.

As in most of her other works, Dumas has explored an ambiguous interpretation
of Rembrandt. A superficial reading of the series, especially when accompanied
by the poem above (entitled Homage to Rembrandt) would indicate that Dumas
is ‘taking the piss’ out of the grand master of Dutch painting; playing the
naughty giggly ‘Bad Girl’ role. However, a closer inspection of Dumas’s oeuvre,
indicates her closeness and indebtedness to the work of Rembrandt; Dumas echoes
his depiction of the psychological intensity of faces with nuances of light and
shade, and exploits the capacity for the simplest gesture with a brush to
convey exquisite subtleties of human forms and flesh.

The Rembrandt series indicates that Dumas’s work cannot be regarded only in
terms of it’s signified, but the signifying capacities of her materials are
central to an appreciation of her art. Dumas’s work deals with issues of
representation and play, and is strongly related to concerns of contemporary
feminist art. However her works involve constant references to art history and
contemporary artists. If Dumas can be seen to be drawing on mass culture
representations of women, she is equally drawing on the history of her medium;
painting; re enacting, transcribing and remaking techniques and references from
art history. In this way, Dumas illustrates that art history is itself open for
contestation by contemporary female viewers and artists, and not only art

The  Rembrandt series involved a deliberate transcription of the work of a
specific ‘old master’ of painting and much of Dumas’s work is a reflection or
derivation of work by male artists. Even “Het Pissende Vrouwtje” had been
transcribed by Picasso as “La Piseuse”  thirty years before Dumas. Dumas is
often compared to male contemporaries or predecessors, such as Rauschenberg and
Warhol as well as Richter and Igmar Polke. Dumas’s oeuvre bears a strong
resemblance to Polke in his proliferation of ‘dumb drawings’ as well as the
mercurial appropriation and utilisation of multiple art styles, and reflects
the radical roots of pop art as a witty challenge and radical détournment of
art world elitism and of commercial imagery.  

Feminist art historians have repeatedly cited the dilemmas associated with
situating the work of female artists within a  ‘patrilineage’ of male
forebears.  While Dumas has repeatedly cited the influence of contemporary
female artists on her practice, her work is still heavily influenced and
involved in a visual art tradition which is largely dominated by men. The
gendered dominance of image making and viewing strategies which plague mass
culture extend equally to the art world. Just as women’s viewing strategies in
film, erotica and publishing are largely seen as subordinate to men’s
voyeurism, inevitably women’s own artistic practises are often seen as
imitative or derivative of masculine innovators.

Women artists have traditionally been regarded as excellent imitators,
displaying a technical mastery in their imitation of the works of male
forebears and associates, but lacking in imagination or genius of their own.  
Ever since women were admitted into art institutions, they have been rewarded
for their docility and discipline, while rebellion and disruptiveness in male
students and artists has been tolerated if not endorsed.  The female gaze is
largely seen as something nebulous and taboo, and mirroring the gaze of men.
Dumas constantly represents the female gaze upon other women as endless,
fascinated, multiple. Not something shy or denied. Dumas’s uses a presumed
heterosexual identity to make this fascination even more disturbing. If Dumas’s
pin-ups were the product of Lesbian desire, they could be more easily explained
as an introjection of male heterosexuality. Dumas as the lesbian could be seen
as a transvestite male voyeur, using the objectification of women as part of a
satisfaction of her own desire. This view of lesbianism is problematic enough
and has been dealt with elsewhere, and it doesn’t evade the question of how
Dumas negotiates her own femininity and femaleness in reproducing such images.
The position o the feminine is itself seen as undesirable, an object, and  the
passive vehicle of men’s desires.

If the work of Dumas can be regarded as largely derivative of phallocentric
viewing regimes, and imitative of male dominated visual traditions, this
mimesis can itself be regarded as a strategic means of negotiating the only
position available to women artists in male dominated culture. The marginalised
position of women within the visual arts is echoed in other male dominated
cultural regimes, such as philosophy and psychoanalysis, which would suggest
that women’s only options are in wilful ignorance of the canon, or acquiescence
to their subordinate position within it. This dilemma for feminist epistemology
is discussed by Grosz , and she proposes that the most viable means of
negotiating the dilemma, is by a type of ‘strategic flaunting’ of mimeses, as
typified by Luce Irigaray in her interrogation of the canons of western
philosophy.  Irigaray has been cited by some feminist artists in terms of a
literal adoption of her ideas of ‘speaking the body’ of reclaiming and
expressing a subversive feminine discourse and language. However a literal
reading of Irigaray’s essentialist project, reduces the politically subversive
nature of many of her writings. As discussed by Grosz, within philosophy,
Irigaray has seen to be effecting a direct challenge to the phallocentrism of
many texts, by a type of parodic mimicry. In works such as “Amante Marine”,
Irigaray interrogates Nietsche, not through an externally
oriented ‘deconstruction’ (which objectifies the text and retains the
invisibility of the speaking subject) but through a mimicry of the role
allotted to women within the text itself. By extrapolating a silenced voice of
the feminine, and using it to effect an engagement within the text itself,
Irigaray indicates the silenced elements of the male authors own corporeality;
the extent to which this has been transformed onto an imaginary female

The premise upon which Irigaray conducts her interrogation of philosophy and
psychoanalysis, is by acknowledging the impossibility of an externalised
subjective position. Irigaray states that the external subject position is an
illusion, created by the philosophical texts themselves, and also that she
herself is too strongly influenced by her own training in psychoanalysis, to
try to effect an excision of herself from its language and conventions.
Irigaray’s attack from within involves more than ‘using the masters tools to
destroy the masters house’. Irigaray doesn’t seek a demolishing of philosophy
as such, more a means of strategic engagement, which disrupts to seamless
phallocentric conventions which govern its reception. The engagement allowed
women within the constraints of phallocentric culture is confined to mirroring
the expectations of men, or to women’s assumptions about men’s expectations, so
women can only participate within male dominated culture as a mimic. Some
feminist philosophers have adopted Irigaray’s use of mimesis in a somewhat
startlingly literal manner. This approach is typified by a rereading of
platonic epistemology according to a labial binarised model, which diminishes
the subtlety of Irigaray’s own détournment and almost reduces it to parody.  

Irigaray’s ideas on imitation are derived from her reading of psychoanalysis.
Irigaray explores the role of the female hysteric, which informed much Freudian
theory. Irigaray posits the hysteric as the mimic par excellence, one who
mimics the ailments of other patients, mimics the proscriptions on her
sexuality and personal expression, mimics her infantilisation by a male
dominated society. For Irigaray, the hysteric reproduces such constraints,
enacting them on her corporeal schema to such a level that they appear
excessive. The overflow of mimetic excess, symptomatic of Hysteria offers a
challenge to the constructedness and imitabability of the gendered expectations
which women are meant to fulfil.  In her interrogation of philosophical texts,
Irigaray posits herself as a hysteric; as a mimic. Hysteria is characterised by
a production of mimetic excess, where the denial of subjectivity on which
feminine mimicry is placed is taken to its furthest extremes, to the extreme of
an obvious elimination of subjectivity, to levels of transference and confusion
on both sides.

Like Irigaray, Dumas has been trained in psychoanalysis, and this may
contribute to the sensibility Dumas adopts in her challenge to male dominated
conventions of representing women. Irigaray’s strategy of mimetic interrogation
can be seen as analogous to the way in which Marlene Dumas engages with the
male dominated conventions of viewing and imaging the female figure. Dumas’s
use of the female figure is not a form of re-idealisation and to see her work
as providing a corrective to existing representations would exclude the
subtleties and ambiguities in most of her images. Dumas’s subject is not women,
but men’s depiction of women. In reproducing such images, Dumas effects a
primary détournment, by using text to give the characters a voice – a diagesic
strategy, common to much art by feminists, such as Zoe Leonard.

The cultural ‘jamming’ proposed by Irigaray can be seen in Dumas’s
transcriptions of Rembrandt. In effect, Dumas has actively adopted the position
available to female artists throughout history (or to ‘new’ artists in post
modernity) which is to reproduce the work of the great ‘masters’ of art.
However, if this were the only aspect to Dumas’s subversion, it would have been
sufficient in the case of Rembrandt, to juxtapose the poem (above) with the
original print. Instead, Dumas has transcribed, copied, mimicked and
interrogated the original print in a variety of guises. Dumas relies on the
inherent fecundity of her medium to effect mimeses as excessive. Dumas supplied
a series of imitations, not merely one or two, but multiples, in effect a swarm
of copies that each has the stamp of authentic individuality (they weren’t
prints or photographs but all drawings), however each was in effect a copy, not
even of an original but a print! Rembrandt’s original image is still regarded
as the original, even if it is one of a multiple edition. Dumas’s works were
all seen as derivative and imitative, because of their citation of
their ‘source’.

The attribution of mimesis has a particular history with the projection of
alterity within Eurocentric cultures.  Within anthropology ‘outsider’ cultures
were often depicted as imitative of their imperial or colonising powers, and as
fascinated with the mimetic machinery and ‘technological mastery’ of the west.
The adage “monkey see monkey do” was applied to the construction of ‘primitive’
cultures in their encounters with European colonisers. This mimetic
characteristic has been more recently deconstructed as a Eurocentric construct,
as a means of projecting and restaging the fascination within imperialist
cultures with their own superseded technologies and industrial artefacts . The
anthropological fascination with the mimetic facility of ‘outsider’ cultures is
analogous to the way in which psychoanalysis and art history projects the
mimetic facility onto women.

If women accept their classification as a ‘second sex’, then they are condemned
to be regarded as a shadow of men’s own fascination with themselves. However
where the notion of a singular humanist subject is itself being contested, (by
a multitude of geographic, political and social factors) than this allows a
greater space for women highlight the slippages in the apparent seamlessness of
phallocentric discourse. Mimetic détournment is an ideal strategy for this
because it simulates acquiescence, and yet provokes the viewer into challenging
their own assumptions about what is being allegedly represented. Taussig cites
this process in the ‘molas’ made by female Cuna Indians from Panama.  The molas
are elaborately embroidered vets, worn by women who enact the embodiment of
exotic Indian in comparison to Cuna men, who imitate the dress of westerners.
In the twentieth century the molas depict western commodities and advertising
images, interspersed with glyphs, brocade sand elaborated into ‘tribalised’
form of pop art. The fascination of European and North American art collectors
with these manifestations of indigenous postmodernity, are according to
Taussig, merely a projection of the fascination industrialised societies have
with their own (rapidly superseded) artefacts of industrial culture. In the
historical study of the Cuna, Taussig cites their use of the mimetic projection
of alterity as a strategy of negotiating varying exploitative forces located
within the Panamanian state and internationally. By ‘playing Indian’ or
mimicking ‘whitey’s fantasy of Indian’, the Cuna were able to exploit the
conflict between the USA and Panama to their own ends.  Ultimately, Taussig’s
own theory of mimesis is that it derived from an elaborate theatre designed to
mask men’s fear of women’s capacity for childbirth. Taussig states that’s
women’s own use of the mimetic facility is in dissimulation, ‘not to simulate
an Other …….but to pretend to believe in the Other’s simulation’.

Dumas’s girlhood copying of magazine images of women can easily be interpreted
as a type of female mimicry of consumer culture’s fascination with images of
women. Young girls who unable to transform themselves into glamorised spectacle
of femininity, are encouraged to project this mimicry onto dolls, paper cut-
outs, and drawings. There is something disturbing in Dumas’s continual
reproduction of glamorous icons of girlhood. Where some contemporary female
artists seem to be satisfied with remaking themselves into the image of
femininity, Dumas continues to make paper copies of it. Dumas articulates the
appeal of drawing as a fecund and promiscuous medium, and her multiple drawings
of feminine icons  and pinups could easily be seen as an overflow, of the
manifestation of mimetic excess, characteristic of hysteria and alterity. The
description of mimetic performance as dissimulation provides a more nuanced
approach to the performative aspects of Dumas’s imitation. By constantly
redrawing women according to male dominated ‘codes’ of femininity, Dumas is
enacting a type of dissimulation, a pretence that the spectacular presentation
of women is able to represent who women actually are. While Dumas exposes
aspects of the male dominated viewing of femininity, by her use of text, she
slyly avoids positing an alternate iconography in its place. Within the work of
Dumas, female agency consists in strategies of subversion and humour and
an ‘alternate’ femininity remains undefined.

While the work of Dumas can be aligned with Irigaray’s strategic use of
mimesis, it cannot be simply reduced to a literal interpretation of it. There
is very little in Dumas’s work, which lends itself to a gynomorphic figurative
expression, although Dumas’s works place embodiment at the centre of her
creative agency, by her use of manual based image making techniques. The
corporeal sensuality in many of her works is related tot the nature of her
works, and the nature of the visual tradition in which she is working.
Rembrandt’s paintings of faces, and of women’s bodies, have been the source of
much inspired writing on the seemingly transcendent, feminine qualities of his
subjects. Cixous’s discussion of Bathsheba exemplifies how Rembrandt’s images
of women imply a deeper subjectivity than as a superficial object of
surveillance. The richness of Rembrandt’s oeuvre lies in its multiple
possibilities of interpretation. Rembrandt’s images have a multiplicity and a
complexity, derived from his own complicated and ambiguous relations to the
society around him, and an extended and dynamic relation with his medium.
Dumas’s détournement of  “Het pissende Vrouwtje” is based on a reflexive
engagement with the fluidity of the drawing medium. Ink on paper is unforgiving
of mistakes and less yielding to conceptual caprices of the artist.  Dumas’s  
dissimulation of Rembrandt, involves a play on her own ambiguity as both
subject and artist. “can’t do it like a man”, but women still do it.


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