Yelena Myshko (1985, Kyiv) is an Artist based in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She is exploring the social and visual phenomena of the current Zeitgeist. With both her theoretical and soma immersive research methodologies she tries to find and extrapolate existential tension points within the socio-cultural environment from which she creates Art, Fashion and Theory. http://www.yelenamyshko.com
My journey to become an artist began with the admission assignment to my local art school in 2005. Until the last week before the interview I was tormented by a lack of inspiration. The assignment was simple: a day in your life. However at the time my days were spent at home in front of the computer. Eventually I decided to document my mundane life that featured me lying in bed, sitting on the toilet, eating at the kitchen table and sitting in front of the computer. My life seemed empty and mundane. There was nothing to impress the admission committee with, but I had to do something to prove my artistic potential. While examining the pictures I noticed the dominating presence of the tree in the back yard. For me the tree was a symbol of continuation of life. It had a connotation of a higher purpose. It was a link to something bigger than myself. However I was too busy preparing my portfolio to create an artwork. Last minute I made some sketches based on my daily activity in relation to the tree. I proved my artistic potential by transforming the mundane, by tapping into the tree as a source of inspiration.
This assignment marks a starting point of my artistic oeuvre. It features the elements that I use in my artistic practice to this day; documentation of my body and amplifying the mundane and bare life. Significantly enough these elements were painstakingly distilled from years of artistic practice after graduating art school. It was a lot of work to unlearn the thought process of a designer and get back to basic of being an artist. That assignment also marked the beginning of my search for inspiration and higher purpose of my artistic expression. The focus on my personal experience and encounter with the World prevailed. That led me to engage with performance art and feminist activism. I was hoping to find answers through lived experience but my encounters with the public and the establishment raised more questions. It was only through reading about reflections of scholars on their encounters with the World that I began to find words to describe my insights and was able to articulate the higher purpose of my artistic practice. As the result I consider myself an engaged feminist maker. In this essay I would like to theoretically underpin my artistic practice and elaborate the urgency for my chosen title.
Documentation always plaid a significant role in my creative process however I only began to consider it as an artistic practice after reading the article Art in the Age of Biopolitics by Boris Groys. In this article Groys notices that the art world has shifted its interest away from the artwork and towards art documentation, and argues that for those who devote themselves to the production of art documentation rather than of artworks, art is identical to life, because life is essentially a pure activity that does not lead to any end result (Groys, 2002). According to Groys the difference between artwork and art documentation can only be described through narrative history: the place and time in which the picture exists (Groys, 2002). Documentation evokes the unrepeatability of living time. The artificial can be made living by narrating the history of its origin, its “making”. Therefore art documentation is the art of making living activity out of technological practice: it is a bio art that is simultaneously biopolitics (Groys, 2002).
The term biopolitics was popularized by Michel Foucault who refereed to it in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1970s that reached an international audience after being translated and published in 2000s. For Foucault power lies in the productive forces of everyday life. He demonstrates that the body is fashioned by various institutions and practices. Biopolitics deals with life as a politically governed construct. Kevin Grove summarizes biopolitics as “techniques and rationalities of power mobilized in pursuit of the security, growth, and development of individual and collective life … Biopolitics acts in the interest of individual and collective life through producing knowledge of the processes that sustain or retard the optimization of various life processes” (Grove, 2013). Precisely this definition of biopolitics as optimization of life processes sparked my imagination. As I mentioned in the introduction, bare life plays a significant role in my artistic practice. Through close reading of Groys and Foucault I realized that amplifying bare life is a significant choice.
Groys suggests that “if life is no longer understood as a natural event, as Fortuna, but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, than this makes life automatically politicized because the technical and artistic decisions with respect to the shaping of the lifespan are always political decisions” (Groys, 2002).
Foucault suggests that parrhesia is an intrinsic part of politics. In Fearless Speech he determines parrhesia as the root of the critical tradition in the West. Parrhesia is the courage to say what one thinks to be true and is ordinarily translated into English as “free speech”. The term parrhesia first appears in Greek literature in Euripides and can be found in ancient Greek texts throughout the end of the fourth century and during fifth century A.D. In the Greek tradition parrhesia designates those who take a risk to tell the truth; the citizen who has the moral qualities required to speak the truth, even if it differs from what the majority of people believe and faces danger for speaking it. For example it was supported by Plato and his mentor Socrates, who used dialogue to break apart complex issues in search of absolute truth or knowledge. Foucault developed the concept of parrhesia as a mode of discourse in which one speaks openly and truthfully about one’s opinions and ideas without the use of rhetoric, manipulation, or generalization. The courage to speak the truth always demands a questioning of one’s motives and actions and establishes a polemic relationship with the World. According to Bibi Straatman parrhesia manifests through specific testifying procedures that help to produce truth, art is one of them (Straatman, 2017). Artists do not just claim autonomy to create whatever they like from a certain romanticism; they most of the time defend the aesthetic gesture, the choice of the subject, their conceptual assumptions, in more arenas then their atelier (Straatman, 2017).
In chapter ten of The Courage of Truth I found a hypothesis concerning descendents of ancient tradition of Cynicism, in which Foucault proposes modern art as aesthetic descendant of the tradition to speak the truth. According to Foucault the modern idea of the artist’s life is that it “should constitute some kind of testimony of what art is in its truth” (Foucault, 2011). He goes on to say that “The artist’s life must not only be sufficiently singular for him to be able to create his work, but it must in some way be a manifestation of art itself in its truth”, and proposes that this theme of the artistic life basically rests on two principals. First: “art is capable of giving a form to existence which breaks with every other form, a form which is that of the true life”. The other principal is that: “if the artistic life does in fact have the form of the true life, then this in turn guarantees that every work which takes root in and starts from this life truly does belong to the dynasty and domain of art” (Foucault, 2011). Precisely this idea, according to Foucault, “of the artistic life as the condition of the work of art, as authenticating the work of art, as work of art itself, is a way of taking up again, in a different light, from a different angle, and with a different form of course, that Cynic principle of life as manifestation of a scandalous break by which the truth becomes clear, manifests itself, and becomes concrete” (Foucault, 2011). Thereby modern art establishes a “polemical relationship of reduction, refusal, and aggression to culture, social norms, values, and aesthetic canons” (Foucault, 2011).
In chapter thirteen of The Courage of Truth, Foucault goes on to say that “Cynic courage of the truth consists in getting people to condemn, reject, despise, and insult the very manifestation of what they accept, or claim to accept at the level of principles” and this manifests through Cynic scandal: “one risks one’s life, not just by telling the truth, and in order to tell it, but by the very way in which one lives … one ‘exposes’ one’s life. That is to say, one displays it and risks it. One risks it by displaying it; and it is because one displays it that one risks it. One exposes one’s life, not through one’s discourses, but through one’s life itself” (Foucault, 2011). Foucault concludes that Cynicism constantly raises the question: “what can the form of life be such that it practices truth- telling?” (Foucault, 2011)
I can relate to this question through my own artistic practice. Although I studied fashion design, my attention shifted to performance art after graduation. I did not find my way as the creator of illusion and craved something more genuine. Through performance art I could express emotions and relate to the public in a direct way. To me performance felt real and honest because I could express myself without a filter.
Terrorism was one of the themes I began to work with. This topic was omnipresent in the media for many years and I could draw a parallel between the fear of terrorist today and the fear of werewolves in the middle ages. Both are not a real threat yet their otherness haunts the public imagination. I could relate to the terrorist because I felt like an outsider and I wanted to confront people with emotions they wanted to avoid. I created three performances inspired by terrorism: The Bomb 1 & 2 and Terrorist Treatment.
The Bomb 1 was featured a terrorist themed fashion collection that I had created during my studies and have sent to a fashion show in Oxford, United Kingdom. My collection was not used in the show and was send back to me in a box. For an exhibition called One Hour Art at Centraal Museum in Utrecht in 2010, I decided to present the collection out of the box. The box had a connotation of a bomb in the context of terrorism. I unpacked the box at the exhibition and dressed in the outfits one by one. After I got dressed I paused for a moment and then walked into the audience. This gesture was symbolic. By walking into the audience I was confronting them as well as blending in the crowd. I would repeat this until I presented all four outfits.
The Bomb 2 was presented at Project Mousewalk during Noorderlicht Festival in Rotterdam in 2011. This time I used a bag with some of the clothes from the terrorist collection. The performance was accompanied by the sound of a ticking bomb as I dressed myself in garments out of the bag and walked into the audience. I would confront the audience through provocative body language and physical impact. Towards the end of the performance Femke Vernij emerged out of another bag that was in the audience all this time. She was dressed in red and encountered the audience through provocative body language and dance moves. She made her way through the audience to tackle me and cover my head with a red scarf. This confrontation culminated in a scream: Explosion! Then we walked away from the audience into the distance.
The third performance was titled Terrorist Treatment and took place at a club, The House of Rising in Amsterdam in 2012. This time I brought the red dress with me in a bag. I walked into the public looking completely normal and then began to undress myself and eventually put the red dress on. After that I began to body paint my face red, then my hands and feet until my whole body was covered in red. When I was done I proceeded with another performance but this is irrelevant for the point I want to make.
These performances were designed to be disturbing. However I never understood what I wanted to achieve. After the performance I would feel lost. The problem was that there was no feedback from the public. I did not know if they understood that I was confronting them with terrorism, that I was flirting with violence, that I could have injured or killed them if I carried a real bomb.
The problem was solved when I encountered FEMEN. They used the female body as a tool to disturb authority and got feedback through police involvement and the international media attention. Their actions felt much more urgent and real. I was fascinated by their otherness and felt related to them at the same time. The performance element of their protests was attractive and had an authentic allure. I became a FEMEN activist. My interest in feminism led me to enrol in a minor in Gender Studies program at University of Utrecht. This in turn led me to discover the Gender Studies community, Feministisch Verzet, Kritische Studenten Utrecht and University of Colour. Through the engagement with these groups I expanded my view on feminist activism. Although I disengaged myself from FEMEN after two years, it made me identify as a feminist and influenced my artistic practice. Through FEMEN I became more conscious of my female subjectivity and the potential of performance art as a social catalyst.
I decided to use these insights to further develop my artistic practice during the master. Through my research I realized that I keep returning to the experience of bare life as truth and that it is a significant decision. I want to challenge the social construct of norms and aesthetic canons in the Cynic tradition described by Foucault as “an attitude, a way of being … life as scandal of truth” (Foucault, 2011). Out of my lived experience two strategies emerge that form my parrhesiastic practice: performance and feminist activism.
According to Kristine Stiles in performance the artwork is the artist. “Through its emphasis on action, performance recovers the social force of art. Performance art both is, and is a representation of, life itself” (Stiles, 2003). Also performance requires that “two previously incommensurable experiences be united in an uneasy and irresolvable alliance: mimesis and reality” (Stiles, 2003). Stiles goes on to say that “Performance operates through representation and presentation, and therefore may be understood as an aesthetic discourse on what it means ‘to be’. In performance, artists present and represent themselves in the process of being and doing and these acts take place in a cultural context for the public to witness” (Stiles, 2003). Speaking from experience, this process of being and doing is accompanied by anxiety and doubt.
Through reading Rollo May I discovered that anxiety is a necessary part of creativity. In his book The Courage to Create, Rollo May argues that creativity is an encounter with the World (May, 1994). He goes on to say that “World is the pattern of meaningful relations in which a person exists and in the design of which he or she participates. World is interrelated with the person at every moment. A continual dialectical process goes on between World and self and self and World. What occurs is always a process. Therefore we should not speak of a ‘creative person’, but only of a ‘creative act’” (May, 1994). May argues that “anxiety comes from not being able to know the World you’re in, not being able to orient yourself in your own existence” (May, 1994). He goes on to say that “To live into the future means to leap into the unknown and requires courage” (May, 1994). Kierkegaard, Nietszche, Camus and Sartre proclaim that courage is not the absence of despair; it is rather the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair (May, 1994). According to May creative courage is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built (May, 1994). He claims that “to encounter ‘the reality of experience’ is surely the basis of all creativity” (May, 1994). To create art therefore one needs to poses creative courage that goes hand in hand with anxiety and doubt. Only by confronting anxiety can the artist reach true creative expression and create true art.
Confrontation with anxiety as artistic medium is prevalent in the performance I Like America and America Likes Me executed by iconic artist Joseph Beuys in 1974. For that performance Beuys flew to New York, where he was wrapped in felt and transported in an ambulance to a room in the Rene Block Gallery. The room was also occupied by a wild coyote. Beuys spent his time with the coyote in the small room, with little more than a felt blanket and a pile of straw for a period of 8 hours a day for the next three days. While in the room, the artist engaged in symbolist gestures, such as striking a triangle and tossing his gloves to the coyote. At the end of the three days, the coyote, who had become quite tolerant of Beuys, allowed a hug from the artist. Afterwards Beuys was transported back to the airport in an ambulance. He never saw anything of America other than the coyote and the inside of the gallery. The artwork is his encounter with the World.
Significantly Joseph Beuys is a man who was raised and socialized in a complementary manner. Since I am a woman, I began to wonder how this position influences the art that I create. I began to look into feminist theory that developed in opposition to “the authoritative universal voice – usually white male subjectivity masquerading as non-racial, non-gendered objectivity” (Rich, 2010). Simultaneously I began to study female artists and noticed that they encounter the World through their body. This aligns with feminist critique.
In the Notes towards the politics of location, Adrienne Rich calls to locate feminist issues in the body: “Begin, though, not with a continent, or a country, or a house, but with the geography closest in – the body … locating the grounds from which we speak with authority as women. Not to transcend this body, but to reclaim it” (Rich, 2010). She suggests that there is: “The absolute necessity to raise these questions in the world: where, when and under what conditions have women acted and been acted on, as women?” (Rich, 2010). In other words women should be critical about how they are presented in the World. I found many female artists who raised this question in the 1970s. A retrospective exhibition The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s featuring key artists such as Orlan, Cindy Sherman, Annegret Soltau, Francesca Woodman, Carolee Schneemann, and Valie Export, among others, was held at Hamburger Kunsthalle in 2015. One of the emerging themes was the critique of woman as object.
In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey proposes that the male gaze constructs women as objects of desire while men represent active subjects. She argues that “the paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its World.” (Mulvey, 1999). She goes on to say that “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (Mulvey, 1999). In the same article Mulvey argues that “destruction of pleasure is a radical weapon” and that “it is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” (Mulvey, 1999). This suggests that the construction of woman as object can be subverted through the destruction of pleasure in looking. This strategy was explored by artists such as Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta, and Hannah Wilke.
In Art must be Beautiful, Artist must be Beautiful that was performed in 1975, Marina Abramovic explores passive aggression, constructing the actions around her body. During the performance she aggressively combs her hair with a hair brush and a hair comb. As she is doing so she recites “Art must be beautiful, Artist must be beautiful”. In her voice you can hear the discomfort and pain that she is going through but she proceeds combing her hair until the pain becomes unbearable. Through this performance Marina comments on the commodification of art and artist by critiquing conventions of and demands for female beauty in art and contemporary culture. The testing of physical and mental limits (sometimes at the risk of her own life), the intensity and endurance of her performances and the creation of extreme situations that also involve the audience are just some of the characteristic elements of her artistic practice to this day.
In the series Glass on Body Imprints created in 1972, Ana Mendieta implies violence by pressing her face and body against a piece of glass. Although the purpose of this artwork might not be physical pain, she undeniably experienced physical discomfort to create it. From another perspective, the series can be seen as a parody of the male gaze. She objectifies herself as she applies the glass to her body by distorting and exaggerating the features of the female body that are valued in patriarchal society.In a more recent work, Intra Venus created in 1991-1993, Hannah Wilke documents her battle with cancer. This series of photographs is a record of her physical transformation and deterioration resulting from chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant. The photographs were taken by her husband Donald Goddard and confront the viewer with personal images of Wilke progressing from midlife happiness to bald, damaged, and resigned.
These works questions the conditions of performance art as a time-based medium and as a form of cultural transmission, staking a claim that performance should be understood as an active part of art history and art criticism.
While studying the work of performance artists I noticed that there is a difference in documentation of performance as an event and a staged situation. As I was looking for words to describe the difference I discovered the term “performalist self-portrait” in the introduction to Body of Art by Jennifer Blessing. I later discovered that the term was coined by Hannah Wilke to credit photographers who assisted her while she acted out performances for them to capture. It has since been primarily used in reference to Wilke’s work. I would like to adapt this term to refer to my own work because I work in a similar way. However I take the pictures myself without external assistance.
My work also resonates in the aesthetic tradition of amplifying the mundane and bare life. As I was looking for the words to describe this aesthetic I stumbled on a genre in literature called “dirty realism”. The term was coined by Bill Buford and was the title of summer 1983 edition of Granta magazine. Writers in this sub-category of realism are said to depict the seamier or more mundane aspects of ordinary life in spare, unadorned language(Buford, 1983). According to Buford “it is realism so stylized and particularized – so insistently informed by a discomforting and sometimes elusive irony … It is possible to see many of these stories as quietly political, at least in their details, but it is a politics considered from an arm’s length: they are stories not of protest but of the occasion for it” (Buford, 1983). In my work I explore the same aesthetic through the choice for a simplified setting, no make-up and everyday objects. Through these aesthetic choices I protest against glamour and beauty standards. I use dirty realism as a tool to destroy beauty.
In my artistic practice I often use my body. I challenge the socio-cultural construction of the female as an object of desire in the tradition of feminist artists of the 1970s. Feminist artists challenge the traditional construction of women as passive objects by becoming active makers of art and presenting their body from a subjective point of view. They have been successfully exploiting the alliance between mimesis and reality in performance because the female body is governed by socio-cultural meaning that construct the female as soft, passive and subordinate to men. Reclaiming the female body emerges as a political act. This allows for critical reflexion on the World.
The necessity for assuming a radical attitude in the encounter with the World makes me realize that my affiliation with feminist activism is a valuable resource for my artistic practice. My female subjectivity and participation in the World as an active maker are parrhesiastic practices. I am an engaged feminist maker.
As a woman, I have a subjective point of view. As an engaged feminist maker I am interested in this subjectivity as the means of self expression. I extrapolate existential tension points within my socio-cultural environment and project them on my body to create confrontational art. I use my body because it is laden with social constructs that attempt to regulate my gender and should be deconstructed and questioned in order to transform them. I practice performance art because in performance the artwork is the artist, and the performance is an act of life. It allows me to express my truth as a body. Through my performalist self-portraits I explore the phenomenology of identity production. I create ambiguous content to grab the spectator’s attention with the goal to provoke an associational thought process. This allows me to create an engaged feminist identity that is a reflexive actor in stead of an object in art.