In the late 1970s, Marianne Wex published a massive set of work entitled Let’s Take Back Our Space (subtitled “Female” and “Male” Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures). It was shown in the form of panels arranged in exhibition spaces, and there also is a book. A form of visual sociology, Wex used photographs she took alongside photographs from publications and advertising plus art-historical images to talk about how male power (the patriarchal structure) expresses itself through body language — and vice versa (David Campany wrote about the piece).
What’s interesting about Wex’s work is not only its visually persuasive power: you can literally see patriarchy if you pay attention (a statement that I don’t think will surprise many — if any — female readers of this site). But there is more, given that the mix of materials — photographs made for specific purposes such as advertising, photographs made by observing everyday people in the streets and elsewhere, and art-historical artifacts — shows that the relationship between the different aspects is complex.
While it is tempting to take the title of the work literally, it carries more meanings than women merely re-claiming physical space that is being taken up by men. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. And keep in mind that Wex made and published this work decades before people started to become vocal about manspreading. Talk about visionary work!
But the re-claiming Wex was after extends beyond physical spaces into larger, non-physical ones. Reclaiming space here also (and explicitly) entails re-claiming the power over one’s own representation — a rejection of what came to be known as the male gaze around the time the artist assembled the work. Specifically, rejecting the male gaze simply by placing oneself behind the camera is no guarantee that the desired goal will actually be achieved (just look at, say, female fashion photographers who perpetuate the male gaze to this day).
This fact makes the mechanics of the male gaze — much like patriarchy itself — altogether more complex and noxious than you might imagine. Fighting it and thus re-claiming the power over how one is being represented visually thus can include any number of photographic choices. One of them entails placing one’s own body into the very circumstances from which its depiction is supposed to be liberated. This seemingly paradoxical approach was used by artists such as Jemima Stehli (if you’re curious, this interview has you covered), Yurie Nagashima (this interview is really good), and now Tarrah Krajnak in RePose, published in conjunction with an exhibition in Amsterdam.
The structure of the book is very simple. In every photograph, you see the same woman strike a pose, dressed in bright clothing that set her off against the darker backdrop. Eventually, you will notice the device that triggers the camera’s shutter. Often, it’s in her right hand, but occasionally, it is placed elsewhere. What might be going on? I’m tempted to think that at some stage, however early or late in the book, you will recognize the pose in a photograph: it is something you have seen before.
For me, this happened a few pictures in, when I discovered a re-creation one of the well-known photographs that documented the performance of Interior Scroll by the late Carolee Schneemann. The photographs in RePose are re-creations of well-known depictions of women. At first glance, it might seem strange to discover both Schneemann’s photograph and a recreation of what I believe is known as The Wet Chair Dance from a popular 1980s movie.
I have never seen that movie; yet I am familiar with this particular scene. And that, I believe, is why the photograph from Schneemann’s decidedly feminist performance sits alongside the polar opposite of that — the male gaze on the worst type of steroids in a 1980s Hollywood movie: these images have become at least partly decontextualized and have become embedded in our larger cultural consciousness, each in their own ways defining a part of how women are to be depicted.
This is a very interesting and provocative approach that acknowledges how even after decades of feminism, there still is so much more work to be done. Patriarchy, bolstered by capitalism itself, has the capacity to appropriate even the most feminist imagery to ultimate neuter it or, even worse, to turn it around against its original goals. Hence the re-creation of the images by Krajnak in the work, hence the title of the book.
At some stage, the cycle will be broken; at some stage, the male gaze will have lost its power. Will there be the need for another book like Krajnak’s, much like there was the need for one roughly 30 years after Wex’s? I don’t know. These days, I find it especially difficult to remain optimistic. Still, at least there is the opportunity for us to look now — and then to try to attempt to understand.
RePose; photographs by Tarrah Krajnak; essay by Justine Kurland; 48 pages with multiple gatefolds; FW:Books; 2023
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