a woman’s choice

Katalogtext zur Performance Marianne Maderna | */HANDYHEADS: Fatzkes/*_


Historians often want to categorize an artist’s body of work in comparative terms with broader art movements and other artists. They seem to think that such an approach is a vehicle to validate an artist’s work. Frankly, I find such an approach boring.

Yes, in Marianne Maderna’s case, analogies could be drawn to a number of internationally renowned projects and movements. For instance, there is a definite communality with a feminist body politic, which is an integral part of Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, Valie Export and Cindy Sherman’s work. Some of her performative actions, as when she scaled the 40m high walls of a Flakturm in Vienna, show an allegiance with endurance performance – one of the best-known examples being Vito Acconci’s Seedbed performance at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York.
It could also be said that Maderna’s MUTANTS and HUMANIMALS series share the abject aesthetic of Arnulf Rainer’s portraits. But, then one could also bring in to some extent many other artists that represented anguished existential states. For instance, Francis Bacon.

But, Maderna’s output should not be formally or historically pigeonholed. It is extremely varied, ranging from performances, performative actions, enactments, videos, films, drawings and sculptures. I would even venture to say that this kind of fertile and meandering creative output often solicits a failure of critical interpretation.

Yet, I will venture to say that whatever creative ingredients are at play, Maderna’s art suggests one consistency – the becoming of a woman’s language.

act I: a woman’s choice

Marianne Maderna’s one night event titled HANDYHEADS held at the GRAF+ZYX media space in Neulengbach near Vienna, was as deceptively simple as complex.

Right in plain view at the entrance to the gallery, Maderna hung a four-meter long paper triptych with fifteen small portrait heads, which the artist calls HANDYHEADS. True to their name, the faces and expressions are rendered in what could be described a handy, economic way. It is surprising what a wide range of emotive states the artist is able to achieve with a few bold gestures, an occasional mark, a deliberately pared down palette of colors. Indeed, the pictographic simplicity brought the HANDYHEADS close to me, within reach. Viewing them, I experienced a near-at-hand, shared moment of intimacy.

The second stage of Maderna’s event evolved during the few hours of the scheduled opening: the artist drew expressive portraits of the attendees on her cell phone, simultaneously projecting the drawing process on a gallery wall. Later, Maderna laser printed, signed and gave them away as freebie gifts to the sitters.

HANDYHEADS enfold a fluid subject.
Whether displayed as drawings on paper or drawn on the cell phone and simultaneously projected on the wall, HANDYHEADS evoke spontaneity, fluidity = capturing slippery, momentary (’handy) identities … a transitional moment … a fleeting essence of identity. The simple, stark facial outlines and shadow plays suggest traces of a tenuous identity.

These faces are ambivalent, intermingling drama and slapstick, anguish and the droll, the wretched and the ludicrous. Marionettes suspended in a psycho-dramatic limbo of existential anguish or traces of an irreducible being, which does not conform to an elementary concept?

HANDYHEADS enfold a transformal identity.
They skirt legibility and compose individuations different from those of well-formed subjects. Round black heads shot through with holes and pierced with cuts = they describe borderline identities peripheral to the notion of a ‹total’ or ‹whole› being.

It is this ‹incompleteness› that interests me most.
I read the HANDYHEADS as beings in becoming.
From my perspective, the transitional, the fluid, the fleeting and the incomplete – are aspects of a becoming that subverts the foundation of a ‹dominant language›. By ‹dominant› language I mean the whole phalocentric historical system of social, political, economic and sexual representations that were ‹written› and ‹spoken (enacted and executed) by men.

By contrast, I suggest that in meta-poetic terms, HANDYHEADS present one woman’s very personal voyage towards a woman’s language, while discovering her own language …
her own speech … her own sensibilities … her own identity.

The intersection of the all these concepts demands yet another question: What links the drawings displayed, the drawing performance on a cell phone and the final act of giving away the thus made drawings?

act II: a woman’s gift = act of sharing

Maderna’s event describes a specific kind of act of sharing, which intersects significant contemporary topics that effect most all of us and raises the fundamental question on the nature of sharing within a global capitalist economy – and the exchange dynamics underscoring social media.
Over the span of a few hours, as the action progressed so did the enthusiasm of the people present as was evidenced by the jostling to get into line to be portrayed – and to be given the gift of a signed (i.e., legitimated) artwork.
Marianne’s act of gifting challenges the theories of gift – giving that have dominated discourse since the French socio-anthropologist Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology. In his classic work from 1925 The Gift, which is still essential reading by students of sociology and anthropology, as well as culture theorists, Mauss argued that gifts are never ‹free’. Rather, that human history is full of examples that gifts give rise to obligations of reciprocal exchange. American philosophers Chris Gregory and Marshall Sahlins took up Mauss’ concept of gift exchange. Chris Gregory refers to it as an «inalienability» that exists in a commodity based economy when there is a strong distinction between objects and persons based on the notion of private property. Gregory believes that one gives gifts to friends and potential enemies in order to establish a relationship, by placing them in debt.
This materialistic view of gifting is not without its distracters. To some extent Gregory struggles to distinguish between a gift economy based on obligatory reciprocation and what he terms a «true gift» given with no expectation of return. French anthropologist Alain Testart argues that there are «free» gifts, such as passers-by giving money to beggars. British anthropologist James Laidlaw provides another example of nonreciprocal gifting. He describes the social context of Indian Jain celibates, living an ascetic life of spiritual purification and salvation. The Jainist interpretation of the doctrine of ahimsa (a rigorous application of principles of nonviolence) influences their diet and compels them to avoid preparing food as this could potentially involve violence against microscopic organisms. Since Jains do not work, they rely on food donations / gifts from lay families. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida best problematizes the very possibility of gift giving in relation to receiving and taking. For Derrida, a «genuine gift» requires that the Self and the Other be radically disparate, and have no obligations or claims upon each other of any kind. He argues that a «genuine gift» must involve neither an apprehension of a good deed done, nor the recognition by the other party that they have received something. Finally, for Derrida, there is no solution to this reciprocity – obligation – dilemma of gift giving – a dilemma stretched between conditional and unconditional gifting.

Mauss’ famous question that drove his inquiry into the gift was: What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?
My question: Who wrote these discourses?
My answer: Men.

Marianne Maderna’s simple action of sharing transforms these still operational, conventional concepts of the gift. The seemingly simple act of giving away portraits introduces the spirit of the gift between individuals without obligation.
Maderna’s process of generous gifting of signed portraits of the audience in the gallery over-turns the still dominant model based on the economics of value, utility and productivity.
She gifts as a woman – generously without reserve; as WOMAN who has been, for the most part, excluded from male –dominated (phallocentrist) discourses based on power, authority and monetary exchange.

post-script: social media – ethics and generosity

On another level, Maderna’s use of a cell phone references social media as one of the most widespread tools of contemporary exchanges of communication. I read both the act of drawing on her cell phone and gifting the sitter with the drawings without any reciprocal obligation or profiteering a direct meta-poetic and meta-ethical statement on the nature of sharing.
A wide spread English proverb about housework goes: «A woman’s work is never done» and, may I add – rarely paid. Ironically, the historical exclusion of women from this economy of exchanges has a lucky side: women give and share on another level. Of course, the shadow of co-option always looms. Thus, we often have WOMAN becoming MAN. For instance, exemplified by individuals the like of a Margaret Thatcher, a.k.a., Iron Lady. One can cite a cautionary quote on this type of insidious co-option:

Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition. ~Timothy Leary

Despite all the prettified democratic jargon, the ‹free flow’ of communication and information within social media is often corrupted by a lack of ethics and a lack of scruples fed by still prevalent – phallocentric – economic models of monetary exchange, self-promotion and power. Democracy and liberalism are two different things. In ancient Greece, Athens was acclaimed as one of the first democracies, but not for women. Perhaps, women can find their language through liberally open-ended experimentation. The beauty of Maderna’s action of sharing is that it is purely intuitive – a pure product of her imagination and her inner self. There is nothing artificial or staged about it. It is a woman’s sharing – without any strings attached.
It is an experiment in generosity.

I do not wish them (women) to have power over men, but over themselves. ~ Mary Wollstonecraft

Maia Damianovic

# Kuratorin und Autorin # Mitglied bei IKT (international Association of Contemporary Curators) # korrespondierendes Mitglied der (Wiener) Secession # http://maia-damianovic.com # creative co-director of futuresystemsprojects # http://www.futuresystemsprojects.com