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Yang Fudong’s Not-So-New Women

Presented as “an experience that immerses the viewer,” Yang Fudong’s current exhibit at Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo is anything but innovative. Before the viewer enters the dark room containing Fudong’s colorful, tranquil videos, they receive an all-too accurate preview of what they are about to see. The curator’s description, far from shamefacedly minimizing the retrograde reality of the representation of women in The Coloured Sky: New Women II, actually trumpets it.

The exhibition summary is precise — the viewer will see “deliberately silent and disembodied” women, who are “young, naïve and seductive,” and wear tight skimpy clothes. The eternally passive characters (that is, women) who decorate the videos “play a game of seduction.” After all, what else could a woman possibly do?

When one enters the exhibition, the promise is certainly kept. Uncritical viewers will easily immerse themselves in a calm world of intense colors and thin, beautiful, quiet women, restricting themselves to the occasional giggle — not ‘new women’ at all, but rather the embodiment of the dream of patriarchy.

The activists Guerrilla Girls, eschewing their passive role, have relentlessly denounced this pervasive sexism in the art world. The statistics for the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 1989 were pretty depressing — “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” In 2004, it was 3% and 83%, respectively. And this is obviously a universal problem. For example, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo had 6% female artists and 60% naked women in 2017. But these examples just scratch the surface — the situation is the same in every major museum in the world.

The Chinese artist Fudong, in the end, is just following a path forged across the centuries, wherein, men create, and women shut up and pose. The poor guy, he doesn’t [want to] realize the worn stereotypes he is reinforcing. And this is certainly not an Asian problem, but rather a global one. The bracingly honest text explaining the work also draws a connection to Western art. It is likely referring merely to aesthetics, because it is obvious that the curator is ignoring — whether deliberately or not — the clearest commonality of all, its blatant sexism.

The reality of the art world is that, as Guerrilla Girls put it, it’s easier for women to appear in a museum if they’re naked — and quiet. In March 1914, Canadian suffragette Mary Richardson managed to make a clothed appearance at the National Gallery – with an axe! She visited the museum with a simple purpose — to slash Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus. Richardson made an attention-grabbing denunciation of the representation of women as objects and its effects on real women, as well as the lack of opportunities for women to create, and to have active roles. Oh, Mary, if you happen to come back from the dead, please don’t visit the Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo — or, if you do, bring your axe.

The reality of the art world is that men can show whatever they want — no matter how brutal — and get away with it. Everybody loves Picasso, even though his widely-feted Minotaurs, at their root, simply illustrate beasts callously raping women. Of course, Picasso did not intend a denunciation of this practice, but instead a celebration of virility.

The reality of the art world is that men can do whatever they want — no matter how brutal — and get away with it. Carl Andre’s works are largely acclaimed, even though he fought with his wife just before she “fell” from their New York’s apartment on the 34th floor. Even though celebrated artist Ana Mendieta — whose works, ironically, denounced violence against women — left Andre with injuries all over his face in attempted self-defense, Andre was acquitted and continued to produce artworks, which now bring in millions of dollars — hardly the price of justice.

The reality of the art world is that, for much of the history, women literally weren’t allowed to create it, and — even today — we are slow to recognize the work of the few who overcame the odds to become artists. The Prado Museum in Madrid, founded in 1819, hosted its first solo exhibition of a female artist in the year 2016. 17th-century Flemish still-life artist Clara Peeters was the representative the Museum chose to say, ‘You know, women can paint too — and they can actually do it well!’ It only took them 200 years to acknowledge this, but, hey, at least they did it.

Despise women’s efforts to come to the fore and affirm their existence in the world of art, many male artists, curators, museum heads and gallery owners seem to reject the concept of truly new women. We’re hopefully making progress but, in the meantime, Fudong gets a full exhibition space to prove there’s still a lot of work to do. Women with clothes on are still invisible. Female fragility is still in. And Mendieta is still dead.

Image: Guerrilla Girls