Sacred & Profane

Laurie Langford and Betty Sager

April 21 - May 10, 2012
WKP Kennedy Gallery
North Bay, Ontario

 

June 15 - July 22, 2012
Thames Art Gallery
Chatham, Ontario

Exhibition

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Installation shot: Thames Art Gallery; Chatham, Ontario

Installation shot: WKP Kennedy Gallery; North Bay, Ontario

Betty Sager, right

Essay

SACRED AND PROFANE

by Dr. Lorenzo Buj

 

One of the stock truths taught by Western Feminism 101 is that women of the none-too-distant past (as recently as the 1960s) were still enslaved by imposed duties and impossible ideals. Why “still”? Because the long struggle for equality and recognition, which began climaxing in the Sixties, wasn’t enough. A line of progress ran from Mary Wollstonecraft and Marie Gouze to the Seneca Falls conventioneers (whose resolve was fortified by Frederick Douglass) and the suffragettes of the next century. By the start of the Seventies, hard-fought gains had been made in the battle for parity. But was parity really the desired end-point of the journey? Wasn’t something else needed; wasn’t it necessary to explore “woman” or “the feminine” within the domain of its own ontological mystery? The answer was a resounding, vaginal ‘yes’, as emblematized in the labiology of Judy Chicago’s great banquet table.

 

Why did post-Sixties feminism—and women artists in particular—turn in this direction? The Marxist critique of pop culture affords one answer; philosophy gives another and more tangled explanation. The fight for women’s rights was being bought out by “the establishment.” The new woman of Sixties ads and sitcoms was either a dupe or a willing conspirator. Fighting for voting rights and equal pay was fine, but Laura Petrie (Dick van Dyke’s wife) was just another sanctified slave. As for her liberated descendants, any achievable equality that they aspired to simply solidified the ranks of male hegemony. One of the hit t.v. ads of my late teenagedom showed an Enjoli Perfume model spraying herself and strutting at the viewer, while the backing vocal played “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re man.” Critics drew the obvious conclusion: feminism was being co-opted by corporations, ‘woman’s lib’ was just another marketable signifier.

 

In the Seventies, the feminist vanguard shifted direction. Artists and writers turned toward feminist anthropology. They searched for the enigmatic essence of womanhood. What they discovered is what every reader (female and male) of this exhibition pamphlet should discover by reading Angela Carter’s 1977 novel, “The Passion of New Eve.” To wit, that women and men aren’t binary opposites but nor are they perfect complements to each other. There are attractions and repulsions, negotiations and partnerships possible, perhaps even a reengineering of the biological machinery that we’re born with, but there’s no holistic balancing of the sexes. This meant that the campaign for social equality was a human rights issue, but deep-down differences would perpetually divide male and female. Yet the ontological quality of those differences couldn’t be fixed. Women and men were different but what was the mysterious underlying X that made the difference?

 

The quest for essence in Seventies feminism took its impetus from two sources. The new, gynocentric turn was directly indebted to the social equality struggle. The relative success of this struggle emancipated the feminist imagination from the trammels of activism. But essentialism also presupposed an earlier, philosophical attack on the concept of a God-given human nature. This was, of course, paradoxical; for how could you deny the overarching notion of a human essence while continuing to search for a feminine essence? The seeds of this dilemma could be traced back to the Forties and Fifties, when the partnership of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir put existentialist and feminist philosophy on a new path. Sartre had argued that there is no definitive essence to humanity. Together with de Beauvoir, he rejected the categories of “man” and “woman” as closed sets which add up to two halves of single complete way of being “human” (today, this view has reappeared in the implicitly fluid and open-ended concept of “sexual orientation”). Existentialist feminism allowed women (and men) to reinvent and discover themselves in their sovereign otherness. The psychic and sexual spaces of women’s and men’s experiences were fascinating precisely because of their differences. Yet the paradox persisted: this glorification of difference, which was so rife with essentialist temptations, could only arise after the notion of a definable and innate human essence had been discarded.

 

After the Sixties it was clear that cultural feminism could never settle for the same limited goals as purely political feminism. Womanhood was too multivalent for that kind of ideological reduction. It was at this point that feminism fractured into multiple trajectories and global subsects. In the West, one of the trajectories led to creation of Women’s Studies programs. Here, bourgeois feminists could build privileged careers by critiquing mainstream media constructs or decrying the co-option of women by North American consumerism. And so it went, right down to our own time and the right “to bitch” at large about the same topics that mild-mannered academics and tenured radicals are busy deconstructing. That’s precisely what Laurie Langford, author of “The Exhibitchin’,” a recent display of shadowboxes at Chatham’s ARTspace, does in her current two-person exhibit (with Betty Sager) entitled “Sacred and Profane.” The former was a forerunner to this new show, which carries over some of the earlier works and tempts me to say that a good subtitle for “Sacred and Profane” would be “Bitterness and Bravado,” because that’s what Langford’s ensemble of boxed-in Barbie dolls seems to want to communicate.

 

Yet Langford’s special brand of feminist invective (“I am woman, hear me bitch”) is no stranger to deeply-felt forms of poetic commemoration, nor is it incapable of eulogizing in places where its critiques are fiercest. Two of the twelve pieces in the exhibition stand apart. These are “1914” and “1944,” which look back to the Great War and the Holocaust. They affect a bittersweet grief tinged with comedy. “1914” takes us back to the guns of August. A large decorated group of Knights Templar stand in costume on the steps of the Parliament Buildings (a mere two weeks before the start of WW1), overhung by two Union Jacks protruding from a bullet cartridge. Skulls have been painted over some faces.  When the guns sounded their heroic death call, thousands of men marched to their young and muddy graves. This is memorialized by a spray of poppies held aloft by a ceramic woman’s hand vase. The comic touches are found elsewhere as well. We’re in the faintly absurd world of the Edwardians, with their prim bearing, the men sporting waxed handlebar moustaches and the women bundled into their stays and corsets. The punch line is Franz Ferdinand’s face in the lower left hand corner, garlanded by a cheap little elastic necklace spelling out his name with alphabet beads. Though he brandishes a toy sword and is surmounted by a floating crown, he never took his seat on the Habsburg throne. Gavrilo Princip cut him (and his Duchess, Sophie) down on a Sarajevo street, and today any tourist can stand in the teenage assassin’s footsteps and mug for a snapshot.

 

The poppies reappear in “1944,” the D-Day year, but here the punctum and its side elements are Anne Frank’s thirteen-year-old smile bracketed by the outspread wings of a monarch butterfly and a matching orange-tinged star bearing the infamous legend “Jude.” A single strand of razor wire crosses Anne’s photo and a white, splay-eared ceramic 1960s “Welcome Baby” lamb vase that wears a black ribbon bearing the word “Hitlerjugend.” The lamb’s ears and its goofy, infantile smile are in counterpoint with Anne’s portrait, with her hair flung back from her face. This wretched little animal makes direct, cloying eye contact with us, and seems to me to be an indicator of the idiomatic origins of the word “kitsch,” which emerged from a nineteenth century German milieu.

 

Shadowboxes are appropriate formats for gathering up the relics and apparitions disgorged by the past. They’re like little mini-museums of sepulchral junk. Nostalgia and rubbish are frozen into a creepy tableau that’s been asphyxiated by the passage of time. Every face, every ray of smiling sunlight that once lit the lives and sighs of our ancestors (or our own distant youth) is washed by death and desiccation. Langford’s inventory of tea saucers and tableware, of toys and poppies, faded photos and newspaper clippings, Virgin Marys and appliance parts (the list goes on) definitely has this air. Everything looks like something retrieved from an old overstuffed drawer where only spiders and cobwebs live. But Langford’s cheap, crappy collectibles, so lovingly arranged around a centrally pinioned Barbie doll or a Nazi kitten, are also burlesque broadsides. The sequence that forms the backbone of “Sacred and Profane” are the Saints’ boxes. Each is a kind of tabernacle or mock shrine that celebrates the glories of modern womanhood. The words “celebrate” and “glory” are meant to blow up in our face. When I suggested that her Saints were satirical, Langford shot back in an e-mail:

 

I'm mocking religion/proper womanhood/the media . . . by mangling a universal symbol of girly perfection (Barbie). Deriding. Bitching, really. (Hey—did you know that Barbie is banned in Tehran? After all, if girls in Tehran play with Barbies, they might want to learn how to read. Then they'd get uppity. Can't have that.) There's anger . . . . Nietzsche said "You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star." I think I'd order the Satire main with a side dish of Bitching. Something pushed my buttons today at the doctor's office—a beautiful, full-page magazine ad featuring a 16 year-old female model who, by placement, is extolling the virtues of night repair wrinkle cream. THAT'S the are-you-freaking-kidding-me feeling that got me creating the Saints Series.

 

In fact, there’s both testimonial and attack at work in the works themselves. There’s lampooning interlarded with bitching. My reluctance over this last usage (“bitching, “to bitch”) should be noted. I feel nearly the same hesitation when I have to write “white,” “heterosexist,” “capitalism,” “resistance,” or “patriarchy” without scare quotes. But the reasons for the reluctance differ. “Bitch” is a sexist term, and only those who’ve been victimized by wrinkle cream mountebanks and the June Cleaver/Martha Stewart model of being a woman or a mother are entitled to use it. Things are a little different with heterosexist, patriarchy, and other such scare words. The problem here is that they indoctrinate us with politically approved perspectives on Western history. They hector and bitch free thought into rote submission, until only a simple, censorious conclusion remains: the best thing to learn from that history is how not to be evil and stupid like the people (the men, mostly) who made it.

 

The Saints Series is (as Langford said in another e-mail) “bipolar,” not “ambivalent” (which was my word).  It pays homage to the countless, untold women who stoically bore up under the strain of their socially assigned roles and sacrificial lives. But it does so by lashing out at the Berkertex bribes that can suck women in even in an era of bra burning rallies or Planned Parenthood marches. Whether she knows it or not, Langford is channeling the “Penis  Envy” that Crass jeered at in a 1980 album of that title:

 

One god. One church. One husband. One wife.

Sordid sequences in [a] brilliant life,

Supports and props and punctuation

To our flowing realities and realizations.

We’re talking with words that have been used before

To describe us as goddesses, mothers and whores,

To describe us as women, describe us as men,

To set out the rules of this ludicrous game . . .

 

(“Berkertex Bribe”)

 

Flowing realities and self-realizations have indeed been restricted. Saint Barbie appears in six different avatars and finds herself pinned back against colourful backgrounds that contrast with the heavy feel of the outer framings. She is surrounded by bits of toy and bone, which remind us that culture is as excrementally fertile as the good earth and that history—either as public memory, e.g. clippings from the Great War or the Death Camps, or in the form of personalized shrines and reliquaries—is best known by the kinds of garbage it leaves behind. Sometimes “the waste remains and kills,” as Empson wrote. But sometimes it’s sublimated into collectibles and keepsakes, or converted into ammunition. Pino Pascali, the short-lived Italian artist from the Sixties, described the sources of his art like this: “My toys were piles of objects found in the house that constituted weapons.” This fits well with Langford’s own arte povera approach. “St. Margaret the Barefoot” is a topless G.I. Jane. She wears a combat helmet and a gas mask, and nurses an infant as she perches on a toy iron. The other Saints carry equally comic names, inspired by Langford’s browsing of Catholic hagiographies. I’m more sanguine about this ancient genre than Langford is, but then I’ve never had to carry the white or black or brown woman’s burdens. Hagiographic compilations such as The Golden Legend are a worthy read. A relatively modern variant, framed as an art history guidebook, was produced by the Victorian feminist Anna Jameson, a good, cultivated Christian woman who once travelled through southwestern Ontario before there was such a place.

 

For her own Acta Sanctorum series, Langford tends to emphasize martyrology over miracle. “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” is a made-in-Japan 1960s knock-off Barbie. She’s stuck upside down, head and neck wedged into a medicine bottle prescribed by a Dr. Sugiyama, from a drugstore called Clark’s that served Chatham during that decade. The work resignifies the Rolling Stones’ song “Mother’s Little Helper”—the drinks or drugs that gave the housewives of old a shot of steely reserve, or a little relaxation as they tackled their daily duties. As we plunge onward (men and women alike) into new wastelands of ennui and anxiety, medicating ourselves with fresh batches of morality-enhancing feel-good pharmaceuticals, Langford’s hindsight may yet prove prophetic.

 

“Our Lady of Perpetual Light” is bound by a vintage strand of Christmas tree lights extending from her feet to her face. Standing atop a bulldog but also surrounded by bright songbirds and magically uplifted by feathers, which sprout like angel wings from behind her shoulders, she seems to be bound down and ascending at the same time. The birds mark out a bygone day: they’re vintage Sixties spun-cotton Christmas Tree ornaments, made in Japan and bought from iconoclastic department store Montgomery Ward's. But the larger allegory is much more contemporary. Bound by cords that leave her Aryan hair, eyes, and breasts exposed, Our Lady is a victim of today’s theocratic crazies. The dog that supports her may wear a crucifix, but Langford is taking a back-handed shot at misogynistic purdah regimes that restrict women to burkas.

 

It’s intriguing to learn that entire Saints Series had its genesis in “The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” where some of the familiar props make their debut (birds, a show curtain, saucers, tableware). The “BVM,” as James Joyce liked to refer to her, tells us something. For what does this mean, what do all these relics and props point to? Despite the Barbie dolls and the toy figurines that pop up in every last box, it’s not childhood or girlhood that’s being flayed but what Julia Kristeva sees as the depassioning of motherhood. The wholeness and the stability of the traditional family almost always centers on the presumed goodness of the mother, and so it was until the Sixties brought on a sea change. We think we know how religion served its own patriarchal interests and what it tried to accomplish by perpetuating and regulating, and ennobling, motherhood. At the end of the essay entitled “Motherhood Today,” Kristeva juxtaposes traditional Judaeo-Christian tropes with the feminist and social-scientific discourses that have taken hold in the secular age:

 

In the bible the woman is a “hole” (such is the meaning of the word “woman”—nekayva—in Hebrew) and a queen; the Virgin is a “hole” in the Christian trinity father/son/holy ghost and a Queen of the Church.

 

Today, by contrast, motherhood is hardly holy and is seen as but one dimension—and perhaps not even an essential one—of womanhood. Its meaning resides in the domain of gynaecology, not myth and religion. Sixties feminism has done its work, says Kristeva, and by maintaining focus on the biological and social aspects of motherhood as well as on sexual freedom and equality, we have become the first civilization which lacks a discourse on the complexity of motherhood. 

 

No wonder Langford’s Barbie doll saints take us back to the Sixties and beyond. While feminism made huge and necessary gains on the political and sociological fronts, motherhood stagnated as a cultural discourse and lost the resonance of its old magic. The myth of the BVM was nothing if not resonant, a fact that can be discerned in Langford describing the Mary she uses for her shadowbox as “beautiful.” The Saints Series may seem to be saying good-riddance to all that old crap, that fraudulent ‘magic’ that I just invoked. But these are shadowboxes, a medium that preserves and commemorates, albeit through gritted teeth and bipolar outrage. At the same time as motherhood went kaput and the post-maternal woman emerged on the historical floorboards, the Sixties also saw the rise of a parricidal trend. What began some fifty years ago with the pill and the feminist revolution, and the first public death throes of the great symbolic Father (e.g. God, Christian truth, sports heroes, war heroes, honourable politicians who saved the world from the scourge of fascism and communism), has come down to us as the end of marriage as a multi-millennial heterosexual monopoly, the rise of growly riot-grrrls, and—as I happened to read in the paper the other day—the surge of adolescent  teenage boys surfing the web and getting off on scenes of aggressive fellatio by hot-to-trot MILFs. Sacred and profane indeed.

 

Dr. Lorenzo Buj

June 2012

© 2017 by Laurie Langford, artist.
 

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