Most of the artworks show just a fragment of a body, and the accumulation of tongues, fingers, heels, cleavage, bellies, hips and eyeballs build one body across the show. The unbound, grotesque figure becomes the party, feeding its own desire.
It’s Our Party and We’ll Cry If We Want To
I listen to Lesley Gore on repeat when I’m bothered with the way things are. In these moody eras, I’ll get up before work, headphones in, and walk around my misty neighbourhood. The song titles the newest exhibition at Hackney’s Guts Gallery. (It’s My Party) I Can Cry If I Want To is further inspired by the final scenes of Věra Chytilová’s 1966 film Daisies. In it, two women find a banquet hall; in a frenzy, they gorge all its food within minutes. Co-curators Ariane Heloise Hughes and Guts’ director and founder Ellie Pennick set the show in this space between hysteria, parties and consumption, having women ‘devour the world in a narcissistic act of self-indulgence and, in doing so, prevent the world from devouring them.’ In this vein, women’s bodies represented in the exhibition are uninhibited and messed. They’ve stepped beyond the social politeness of parties. They’re pink, sticky and self-obsessed. Body substances and food stick to fingers and clothes.
"pink, sticky and self-obsessed"
It’s worth clocking that concurrent with this exhibition is Gillian Jason Gallery’s Hysteria, which similarly frames this gendered dogma, but in a less abject way, and with more resistance. Their exhibition criticises the overemphasis on women’s emotions, with their bodies seen as objects, almost forgotten as beings. While Guts has women’s bodies unwinding into pleasure beyond their physical and social limits, Gillian Jason shows their capacity to morph into illness. Like in Guts’ exhibition, bodies are in excess. But dissimilarly, hung together, with painterly flesh and corporeal essence, they affirm one another. Then, Eve De Haan's hot pink neon sign asks, ‘You look good,’ glowing with irony. Yeah, but do you feel good?
At Guts, the answer is: nah, I don’t, but let me try. The manifestation is sublimely sinful. Granite (2022), by Caroline Zurmely, freezes in on an ankle, awkwardly bending as the foot balances on its strappy high heel. Is the wearer dancing or tripping? Will she break or perform? The moment induces excitement and agony. In Savour, by Brittany Shepherd, a woman licks a white substance off her shoe. Again: the line between pleasure and discomfort is toyed with. Across the collection, disgust has the artwork exit distress and give way to… satisfaction? I can’t say - does anyone know? Have we ever been able to act and feel this way?
"feminism has been plateauing into the polite and repetitive"
Perhaps, I don’t know because feminism has been plateauing into the polite and repetitive. For ArtReview, Eliza Goodpasture wrote about boredom with feminist art books, which treat women artists as “a distinct and cohesive category across the ages.” Getting at this lack of spice in feminist art discourse, Eloise Hendy, for Plinth, argued that the same battles are fought in cycles and tend to repeat themselves symbolically. But repetition limits new depths. That’s not anyone’s fault: having to rise again and again in the decade of MeToo, Roe, Iran is defeating, if not overwhelming and scary - not empowering. No matter how much we try, we don’t get what we need. It feels so long since we had pure altruistic energy to fight. Looking beyond the exhausted intellectual battlefield that consumes other feminist expressions, Guts' show slips back into the primal. It asks: with our needs unmet, what if we dived into desire, emerging bloated and sweaty? In Elsa Rouy's Bloodflowers - an erotic, uncanny work - a person’s fist is covered in blood. They look vacantly over their shoulder with an unsettling overbite, as if to ask the viewer, "What do you want?" Instead of community, you, the audience, will be glared at, licked, and ignored in (It’s My Party). Its women have started caring a lot less, detaching a little. Instead of admitting defeat or fighting for more, they feed their id.
Not long ago, I skipped through a mall, holding hands with a friend. We sprayed $400 perfumes on our wrists, over and over, with the salesperson side-eyeing us; we put their Dior scarves on our sweaty hair. It was gluttony, glee, ill-behaved. Rare. She told me later it was like a return to youth; I thought it was unrestrained, forgetful, silly. We wore ourselves out. There’s a photo of us that night: our crisscrossed legs over each other on her sofa, my friend asleep at her own party, mouth open, dripping, my eyes drooping, fingers in her hair. When I went to take an Uber home, her boyfriend tried to wake her up, and she just sluggishly waved.
I thought of this day while encountering Juno Calypso's A Beginner’s Guide to Erotic Photography 2. There’s a mesmerising softness to this body lounging on watery berries in privacy, away from the party - caring about no one but herself. Perhaps, the exhibition feels feminism’s dawning era of narcissism: diverting from last decade’s interest in gender equity en-masse sprinkled in with self-care to now, or in the near future, caring only about the self to preserve it from harm. At her party, the exhibition’s woman is hedonistic, prioritising her flesh over the duty of communal care and female solidarity. There’s no smile, no joy. It’s a little - we could say - toxic. But, as Lesley Gore sings, ‘I’ve got no reason to smile.’ Zoning into the self is a break from the disappointment of our ongoing oppression; Guts doesn’t suggest that it’s aspirational, just alluring. Maybe 'beyond caring' is the sad mood of the times.
"Instead of admitting defeat or fighting for more, they feed their id"
A decade on from Wrecking Ball’s yearning ‘I will always want you’, now Miley sings, ‘I can buy myself flowers, I can hold my own hand’. ‘Rest as resistance' and ‘productivity is an ableist fantasy’ are emerging as Insta-cute slogans. Jacinda Adern, after modelling her leadership on kindness, no longer had 'enough in the tank' and left office. Before we bottom out, we want to sob and play in the periphery of the mess. It’s the year of Cringe, it's Sad Girl Theory. We’re unbothered, more embodied. Guts dreams it up. As in in Olivia Sterling's Don't Be Timid (Nigella's Midnight Snack), our fingers are about to devour our cake from the fridge.
Stroppy, strutting my suburb, listening to Lesley Gore, I haven't reached the feral resignation of Guts’ women yet. I haven’t given up caring to bask in my own glory, but I’m far from the fever pitch circa mid-2010s striving for a better world with, and for, other women. With others, maybe, I’m over it, ready to withdraw and bless myself. It’s not helpful, but we will indulge rather than exert: with tears, shooting whipped cream down our throats and over our bodies, music cranked, sweaty, alone. In the exhibition, the final work (or first, depending which way you turn), by Hughes, depicts a beautiful eye with a single teardrop: it abandons hope for sadness. You would cry, too, if it happened to you.