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‘Suddenly everyone is interested in the subject of women’ reads one of the texts within Emily Floyd’s latest installation. We might be excused for thinking it is a comment on the internationally resurgent interest in feminist art practice over the past year. Instead, the words are quoted from Germaine Greer’s landmark book of 1970, The Female Eunuch.
Like the various recent retrospective exhibitions, including Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum and WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Floyd’s work is motivated by the spirit of revival and reassessment. These projects all also have the benefit of critical distance from the text afforded by the passage of several decades since the book’s publication, and since the rise of the phenomenon it belonged to—feminism’s second wave. Floyd’s approach to the text is both personal and academic: she belongs to the generation born shortly after the book was published, the generation whose mothers it strongly influenced, and her work questions what currency the text might still hold.
An eccentric and often exasperating book, one characterised equally by gross generalisations and flashes of insight, The Female Eunuch’s central argument is that the liberation of women depends on their sexual liberation. According to Greer, women have become separated from their libidos. The idea of a woman who is castrated by the repression of her sexual desire provides the text with its central rhetorical figure, the so-called ‘female eunuch’.
Emily Floyd is known for works in which she reconstructs quotations from canonical works of literature—including The Stranger by Albert Camus, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky and The Trial by Franz Kafka. In other distinct works, like The Cultural Studies Reader and Art School, she explores didactic themes from her own artistic education. In Temple of the Female Eunuch, both of these separate strands are at play.
This new work is made up of multiple modular elements: large upright figures and smaller book-like blocks of various dimensions, all of which are inscribed with quotations from Greer’s text. The elements are displayed in a meandering line giving the appearance of a long procession. Were the procession true to the spirit of the rallying-cries the figures bear, this would resemble a protest march, but instead they give the impression of being slightly aimless and sheep-like. The overall effect is of a tableau vivant but like all good tableaux vivants the figures are arrested, blank, and lifeless.
Organic in shape, the figures also feature flatness and frontality, like the relief sculptures of Hans Arp. Created from slabs of timber laminated together (all of it recycled from cabinet makers’ off-cuts), they have a void at the centre to allow for the contraction and expansion of the timber with changes in temperature. Two holes puncture their upper surfaces like eyes, but they could also represent breasts. Greer would of course call them tits. The tallest figure is the height of a standing adult female. Each derives in part from the famous illustration of a naked female body, in the form of a costume with handles, from the book’s classic cover designed by John Holmes.
Text has been applied to the works’ surfaces largely in the form of pokerwork, a folk craft especially popular in the 1970s and often associated with the ‘outsiders’—prisoners and gypsies—who practised it. The typography is reminiscent of political posters as well as magazine and album covers. The font Floyd uses, designed for the Hot Wheels brand of die cast toys, is a product of the era when The Female Eunuch was first published. The installation’s overall look is of varnished timber, but sections of the blocks have been laminated with coloured rectangles of vinyl. This strange alliance of wood and plastic appears unholy by today’s standards but is in keeping with the schizophrenic fashions of the 1970s.
The work adopts the aesthetic look of that decade on the principal that we can access the ideas of a particular period partly through its style. It is an era that is currently subject to a revival: the Scissor Sisters are channeling the Bee Gees, owls and Scandinavian folk design proliferate in furnishings and textiles and the movie Hippie Hippie Shake—based on Richard Neville’s memoirs about the launch of Oz magazine in the United Kingdom and the subsequent obscenity trial—is due out this year.
But if reconnecting with the look of something is an aid to reconnecting with the concepts, the danger is that both may be shown to be outmoded. In fact Floyd’s installation serves to remind us that The Female Eunuch is a book many of whose ideas have not dated well—and not merely because Greer appears to have recanted some of her intellectual positions in subsequent books Sex and Destiny: The politics of human fertility (1984) and The Whole Woman (1999). Laura Miller, writing on the website Salon, says ‘to…go back and reread The Female Eunuch in search of the Germaine Greer who fired up so many women in the 1970s is as disconcerting as seeing a horror movie that terrified you as a child only to realise that it’s pitifully tame’.1 Yet the book’s strength remains the exuberance, candour, force and boldness with which the author weaves her polemic out of, mostly, speculation. And no amount of nitpicking can alter the simple fact that many people claim it changed their lives.
The Female Eunuch falls well short of a feminist bible, even if it did provide a blueprint for a generation. It retains many flaws, but it is a product of its era. Its revolutionary call to action is still there, even if the eunuchs we witness here are shown to be a little too mute, a little too frozen to be answering it. Unlike the works of fiction that have formed the basis of other art works by Emily Floyd, this text is not open to allusive suggestions and fluid slippages. Drawn from such a polemical text, phrases such as ‘time to think’ and ‘the new left’ simply do not lend themselves to the same free play of poetry as quotations from Crime and Punishment, The Trial or The Stranger. But Floyd is always more interested in the character and logic of a text than its literal content, and the feel and logic of this artwork, like that of the book it pays homage to, is a little bit folk, a little bit scattered, and a whole lot of do it yourself.
1. Laura Miller, ‘Salon brilliant careers: Germaine Greer’, 1999 on the website Salon, http://www.salon.com/people/bc/1999/06/22/greer/index.html?source=search&aim=/people/bc