Looking at women

“XX Feminine Body Layers” offers a refreshing and daring perspective on female aesthetics.

Noa Zilberman happily embraces the aging process (photo credit: GIDEON LEVY)
Noa Zilberman happily embraces the aging process
(photo credit: GIDEON LEVY)
Sex sells, right? Even in this so-called PC-keen postmodern world of ours, there is still plenty of flesh being bared to sell all kinds of products, and it is generally of a female ilk.
The female body, and the general perception of what is considered beautiful – nay, sexy – is one of the burning issues addressed by the “XX Feminine Body Layers” exhibition currently on show at the Arie Klang House in Ashdod.
“We penetrate the outer layer – whether that is gender-related or not,” explains curator Anuk Yosebashvili.
“This exhibition engages in feminine activity, the power of women.”
Idealizing the portrayal of the human body has been around for quite some time. Take, for example, the classical era in ancient Greece, which roughly covered the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, when statues generally came in the form of male hunks from the demi-god or hero category. It was only in the subsequent Hellenistic era, which ran for the next three centuries, that artists began conveying the idea that we weren’t all weightlifters built like the mythological Adonis, and that men could be balding and pot-bellied, and even express emotion tending towards distress.
The Ashdod show is a multifaceted affair that takes in political and highly sensitive matters, intimacy and the celebration of femininity. The “acceptable” – a.k.a. the heterosexual male – view of the woman’s body is challenged several times across the works, none more than in the offering by Dutch artist Anke Huyben.
Huyben, one of 10 female artists – and the only non-Israeli – whose work is deftly displayed along the walls of the generously proportioned and well-lit Ashdod exhibition hall, has clearly put body and soul into her self-portraits, with the visual accent on the former. Huyben’s photographs depict parts of her own figure, which is plainly not of the athletic, trim variety. The Dutch artist’s torso is shown in framed excerpts, and it is not always obvious which area of her anatomy we are viewing. Flab freely abounds, as do the folds between the fleshy layers. Huyben not only bares her “unshapeliness,” she also utilizes some of the cavities and overlaps in her corporeal topography by making tailored casts and, in turn, using them to produce brass-looking metal forms that accentuate her seemingly unfashionable proportions.
“She says she was never comfortable with her body, and was ashamed to expose it,” Yosebashvili notes. “She consciously decided to decorate her body, and to wear jewelry she created on herself. By doing that and by photographing her body and the jewelry she made, she presents us with her own authentic body.”
In this day and age of Photoshop- enhanced and air-brushed “perfect” figures, that must have taken a lot of courage.
“We normally conceal the folds in our skin, the spare tires we carry around with us,” says Ricky Eytan Birenboim, who conceived the idea for the exhibition. “There are all sorts of works here that tend towards sculptural elements, like Anke’s.”
Derring-do is the order of the day wherever you look in “XX” (the title, of course, references the chromosome fusion necessary for producing female offspring). This is a multidisciplinary spread, taking in photography, sculpture, video art, an installation, embroidery, jewelry and sewing.
Eytan Birenboim also contributes to the layout with some compelling large-scale works that combine images of various areas of the body, printed on silk fabric. After the high-definition image was produced, Eytan Birenboim augmented the print with snaking lines of finely detailed embroidery. The initial impression one gets is that the thread was stitched directly into the model’s skin, thus, possibly, alluding to the toil and physical discomfort that some women endure to make themselves conventionally attractive.
“It was a lot of work,” observes Eytan Birenboim. The cliché of suffering for one’s art seems to be poignant here.
“I see people looking at my work here and the expressions of wonder on their faces – wondering what went into this, and what they are looking at.”
Yosebashvili explains that “XX” is also about female empowerment.
“Each of the artists penetrates the outer envelope, which is the body. One embroiders on, or into, the body. Another photographs the face and the inward gaze, and another concentrates on her inner world in order to hear her inner silence.”
The latter refers to Tami Eshed’s picture of herself holding delicately designed gold earplugs attached to a necklace, as she prepares to place them in her ears. Her facial expression already projects a sense of soulful tranquility. The work goes by the self-explanatory title of Enjoy the Silence.
“The idea of penetration is a recurrent theme here,” says the curator. “All the artists looked inward, to find the spark inside them which, somehow, we have lost, or has become blurred and unrecognizable.”
Eytan Birenboim points out that “XX” was not meant to be a strident expression of womanly outcry.
“I come from a feminist background, while Anuk is less of a feminist. But the idea behind the exhibition was to show the special feminine characteristics. It wasn’t meant to be about shouting or reshuffling the pack. It was about introspection, and looking at what makes us special, as women.”
The exhibition incorporates a wide range of mindsets and expressions of womanhood – or burgeoning womanhood, as portrayed in Jacqueline Magen’s video art offering The Fruit at Its Peak. Yosebashvili’s own slot, N-54, is an intricately embroidered mesh of interwoven crosses and orbs. The inspiration for the work came from Georgia, her country of birth.
“I went back to Georgia to do the research for this,” she says. “I brought the thread from there and the felt. My grandmother lives there. I consulted her about embroidery and how to do this.”
N-54 is clearly the result of painstaking labor.
“I used a very fine needle, and there is crocheting and metal thread, and then I used an industrial machine. Each X here took around six hours of work.”
That is some going, and Yosebashvili says the protracted creative stage spawned all sorts of benefits – and some hard-earned wisdom, too.
“It was a project. I didn’t despair and I went through some sort of process of inward focusing.”
Yosebashvili invested plenty of sweat and even some blood to bring the idea to physical fruition.
“I sometimes pricked myself with the needle, and drew blood.”
It was a hardening process.
“To begin with I’d cry with pain and I thought I wouldn’t do that anymore, but after a while, I’d wait for the needle to prick me. It sort of woke me out of some kind of reverie and then I’d get back to work. That would make me fully conscious of what I am doing.”
There is also an alluring video work by Noa Zilberman, called Wrinkles in which the artist strategically places delicately crafted spindly jewelry items around her face, to replicate the aging process. Ayelet Landau’s revealing Open Your Eyes, a photographic study of faces of women of all ages and cultural baggage, is an appealing work, too.
“XX Feminine Body Layers” offers a refreshing and daring perspective on female aesthetics, providing an opportunity to ponder how societal and market- driven demands can lead one to act against one’s better interests.
XX Feminine Body Layers closes on May 4. For more information: (08) 922-1883