What kinds of corporeal politics are possible today? In 2013, I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu give honour to his friend, Nelson Mandela, who had just passed away. I was in the car and unable to stop so these words are my fractured memory.
As a senior performance artist, the question of the current expression of corporeal politics is one that I have continued engagement. Emerging artistically during the radical cultural shifts of the 1970’s that gave birth to the second wave of feminism, the early environmental movement and ideas around the materiality2 dematerialisation of the art object. This gave ground to both happenings and performance art practice. Happenings were perhaps an early iteration of current pop-up community and participatory performances, whereas performance art practice, both collaborative and individual, centre and de-centre the body as a site of activism. This is a broad stroke linking between individual agency and the cumulative movement towards paradigm shifts.
For women in particular, the body as subject rather than object, led to a radical evaluation and reaction towards the male gaze upon them. Women returned their gaze with female agency, empowered through feminist and artistic activism. During the 70’s in Australia, and earlier elsewhere, nudity, sexuality and overt representation were possible with the potential to shock, scramble and dismantle pre-conditioned attitudes towards women. We claimed the rights over our bodies, a fight that has re-emerged with the present rise of neo-liberalism. During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, we let our guard down and a whole generation of young women found feminism had not kept up with their lives. This was also coupled with the misunderstanding that feminists were man haters. In truth, most feminist activists and artists were straight women navigating family, art practice and employment. How many ways can the body be split? The death of corporeality by a thousand cuts.
The current power of social media has now put issues of violence, sexual abuse and female absence in roles of power squarely in the public sphere. There are many collectives, collaborations and events where young artists, male, female, non-binary and intersectional are consciously included, enabling spaces for voices to be heard and seen. Performances embracing humour and parody have become political vehicles where individual authorship is not so important. There is strength in numbers and room for a global multiplicity of voices and perspectives. Feminisms are plural.
Before the digital age, Australia was far away from European and American cultural epicentres. As a colonial nation, Australian artists were reliant on postal subscriptions to art magazines and libraries. We were educated by grainy pictures filling art history books. There was a conflict in the desire to be like the Avant-garde of the epicentres, and its actual relevance here down under. This time-lag, measured by idea of the cultural centre being far away, made the 1970’s fertile ground for performance work pertinent to an Australian context. At this time the emergence of Australian Indigenous activism towards political self-determination palpably broke through W.E.H. Stanner’s 1968 term, Great Australian Silence.3 However, acknowledgment in both the constitution as well as in practice is still our unfinished business, where open wounds, and the nation’s corporeal largess cannot heal until the whole country makes practical retribution and recognition of sovereignty a fact. The rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart4 in 2017 by the Turnbull Government shows that the act of listening is far from an accomplished attribute in our complex corporeality.
The collective body has seen LGBTI marriage enshrined in law, a corporeality no longer feared by most people. Our bodies finally able to love as any other love. It is curious that LGBTI acceptance came before Indigenous recognition and I wonder if this is because Indigenous belonging to the land, that we have collectively taken possession of, is a deeper more threatening concept that challenges the very concept of whiteness that clings to power. Could this be a fear of reversed dispossession?
I have seen the word environment, that was a mere whisper in the 1960’s and 1970’s, come into being as a global political force with its accompanying denial and opposition by vested interests. The earth as a corporeal entity has sustained denuding, its veins pumped with poison and its creatures forced to survive cheek by jowl amongst suburban sprawl or left in the archives of extinction. This is corporeality writ large when one understands that the earth is a single living entity, where everything is alive, interconnected and reliant on a finite system of resources. Humans are gearing up for the next colonisation in space, to leave the planet to heal and adapt without us, but only the most powerful can buy tickets on the good craft, Noah’s Enterprise. With this dooming thought, there is power in action, engagement and agency of which contemporary corporeality both individually and collectively can and do create change for the better.
1 My fragmented memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
2 Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The dematerilization of the Art Object from 1966- 1972, University of California Press, 1973