No girl so sweet: An Introduction to SUGAR

This is an essay that I wrote several months ago to accompany an exhibition that I helped curate. The show, titled SUGAR, was a collaborative exhibition between two female-identified artist collectives, Cork’s Bunny Collective and Finland’s Areole. 

Sugar, oh, honey, honey
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you

As a word, sugar is highly provocative when associated with women. It implies a term of cloying endearment, restrictive femininity, essentialist claims to woman’s innate ‘goodness’ and equally, woman as vice, temptress, as Eve with her sweet, ripe apple. In contemporary life, dubious studies have ‘scientifically’ proven that women prefer sweeter foods to men, and in advertising, woman’s ‘biologically-determined’ sweet tooth is actively used to peddle chocolate, ice-cream and a whole cornucopia of sweet, sugary products. Take, for example, on Irish supermarket shelves Gem granulated sugar can be found in explicitly gendered packaging. A cerise pink lipstick stain accompanies the caption, ‘Spread a little sweetness’, thereby inferring that the consumption of the product is equated, if not, sealed with a woman’s kiss. In culture, women are as sweet as sugar as the old nursery rhyme would have it:

‘What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice, and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of’.

Sugar, then, is a suggestive title for an exhibition featuring self-identified female artists (with the exception of one agender artist). It summons all these socially-inscribed clichés and stereotypes that would make anyone squirm. Sugar is sickly; too much of a good thing triggering queasy stomach aches and crumbling tooth decay. For others, specifically girls who grew up in 1990s/early 2000s Ireland or Britain, the title may bring the eponymous teen magazine with its twinkling typeface, ‘flirty’ fashion, ‘celeb’ gossip, and embarrassing tales of crushes gone awry to mind. Much like the now defunct teenage tome, in many ways, Sugar, as a title, is wince inducing, or ‘Cringe!’ as Sugar would have it.

More than that, sugar, and sweet foodstuffs in general – consider terms like honey, sweetiepie, tart – have long been ascribed to women cementing this widespread cultural metaphor. As Caitlin Hines writes in her essay, ‘Rebaking the Pie: The Woman as Dessert Metaphor’, the result of this is to reduce women to the status of sugar: as a harmless, inessential frivolity lacking in sustenance and illustrative of both pleasure and vice.[1] Too much sugar is not necessarily bad; it’s just naughty, just as women are not very threatening. In this sense, sugar has come to represent femininity in its most stereotypical guise: as polite, inoffensive and pleasing in small doses.

Sugar3 Hobbes Ginsberg

Taking sugar as its title, this exhibition unfolds from that very place of nauseating, stereotypical femininity. This is the point of departure: it is what SUGAR hopes to encompass, but at the same time, what it seeks to question and break away from.

The result is a response to femininity that is contradictory, strange, multi-faceted, problematic, humorous, at times, jarring and often deeply personal. There is nothing definite about the eventual outcome: SUGAR does not strive to offer a complete rejection of the syrupy tropes of archetypal femininity, but more so, seeks to instigate an exploration of them, and by extension of this, of womanhood as a whole. In light of this, SUGAR hopes to start a conversation that covers both the clichéd and complex dynamics of what female identity might entail.

Sugar 1 Hinni Huttunen

For many of the artists, this exhibition provides a space in which to think about their own selfhood against this backdrop of saccharine femininity, and how that personal response might deviate from cultural conventions and stereotypes. Take for example, Hinni Huttunen’s video Venus (2013)  in which the artist’s is pictured from the shoulders up, tugging a brush through her hair. Immediately, the subject matter recalls Marina Abramović ‘s 1975 video, Art must be beautiful; Artist must be beautiful, in which she engages in the same activity, repeating the eponymous lines over and over again in what eventually emerges as an angry rumination on the expectations of female beauty in art and in culture. While Huttunen’s video does not offer the same black and white-hued drama and vigour as the original video, nonetheless, her stoic expression suggests something of the tedium involved in the rituals of femininity – a resigned boredom in the monotonous, feminised act of brushing one’s hair. For the artist herself, Venus, presents a crossroads in personal identity rooted in an interrogation of femininity. Of the video, Huttunen writes: ‘I can imagine how Edgar Degas saw pretty girls standing on a shore, dressed in white and combing their hair. I stare at myself and try to figure out if I should be more like a riot grrrl or those girls in their white dresses.’

Of course, the title, ‘Venus’, hardly needs an introduction in a discussion on femininity and art. Venus, the goddess of love, beauty, sexuality and seduction, has been immortalised in art for centuries and in many of these depictions, particularly those by Renaissance artists such Botticelli or Titian, Venus represents a classic ideal of feminine beauty. Vanessa Omoregie’s work, taken from her highly successful CamGirl project, seeks to explore the actuality of that ideal for women in contemporary life. By digitally inserting webcam images into the fabric of famous paintings, Omoregie compares and contrasts depictions of women in art historical tradition with contemporary portrayals of women on the internet. In doing so, these images propel the viewer to think about the circumstances of representation – for example, the gender, race, pose and dress of the portrait subject – and particularly what it means for the female subject to partake and control her own image construction.

SUGAR6 Louise McKeown

Indeed, self-imaging is central to SUGAR and both Louise McKeown and Aoife O’ Dywer present self-portraits, or at least versions of that tradition. In her digital drawing, If it weren’t for you I would probably have led a meaningless life (2014), McKeown considers the impact of romantic relationships on her own sense of self. The quote itself is borrowed from Garnet/Dagger, a character from the popular computer game Final Fantasy IX, and is uttered at the end of the game as she attributes her accomplishments and growth as a person to the love and guidance offered by the male protagonist and love interest, Zidane. In combining her self-image with this quote, McKeown offers both a uniquely modern and vulnerable approach to self-portraiture. In sorbet shades, McKeown depicts herself in her underwear with a self-conscious arm pressed against her stomach. Simultaneously, there is sense of laying bare and of restraint; of wanting to reveal but equally, of uncertainty and perhaps, fear of revealing too much. Yet, in picturing herself directly alongside this textual fragment, she positions herself against the cultural stereotype perpetrated not just by computer games, but by TV, film and literature alike,  that women must be ‘saved’ by a hero in order to be fully realised. Ultimately, she asks the viewer to consider the validity of that narrative, not just for her, but for themselves also.

sugar2 Aoife O’Dwyer

Meanwhile, Aoife O’Dwyer suspends her self-image from the ceiling. Like McKeown, she similarly presents herself in a state of undress with hands clutching at her middle. This time though, the image has been manipulated to include multiple pairs of arms and hands: a second set sprouts from the natural upper arms and another set of hands emerges from the chest, covering her face. The result is a striking composite form that appears to float in the space and defy gravity as her hair shoots upwards as though pulled by some unknown force. In startling definition, so much so that the bristles of leg hair are visible to the eye, this work represents an experience of one’s body and the myriad of feelings that accompanies that. An Extended Occupancy (2014)allows the viewer to think about the anxiety involved in revealing oneself like this, and what it means to overcome these highly complex and personal feelings of shame and embarrassment and eventually, arrive at the possibility of self-acceptance.

In some ways, Siinä Vaiheessa’s video-performance piece At that Point (2012) addresses similar issues in terms of intensely private feelings of shame and acceptance. In an intertwining and fragmented sequence, the speakers deliver anecdotes from their childhoods that caused embarrassment in a sort of psychological re-working of those embarrassing stories in teen-girl magazines like Sugar.  The result is a slightly eerie confrontation with personal memory that addresses universal issues encountered in the process of growing up:  friendship, sexuality, self-esteem, bulling, and peer pressure. In a way, one is reminded of Margaret Atwood’s astonishing story of memory and schoolyard bullying, Cat’s Eye, where memorably she writes: ‘Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized’.[2]

SUGAR5 Samantha Conlon

Samantha Conlon’s photographic series Be the Good Girl You Always Have To Be (2014) presents the most direct exploration of girlhood through her investigation of gender formations. In this series, Conlon emphasises the socially-constructed nature of feminine identities by photographing her niece in her Barbie-pink themed bedroom. In amongst the gauzy, glittery canopy and teddy bears, the little girl defiantly stars back us. With hand propped beneath her chin, she lounges with a confident ease in a pose that is strikingly assertive for her young age. Although angelic with blond hair and blue eyes she may be, the image reveals a child who is startlingly self-aware, as though she is very much conscious of the identity construction that she is expected to partake in. Equally, Hobbes Ginsberg interrogates these questions of gendered identity in highly saturated, stunning self-portraits that recall the performative photographs of Cindy Sherman, except this time captured through a decidedly grungy, riot grrrl-style lens. Ginsberg, who identifies as queer and prefers the pronouns ‘she’ or ‘they’, asks us to reconsider how we assign and perceive gendered identities, forcing the viewer to rethink the often very narrow view of these ideas in mainstream society. Of this, she writes:

‘You have to navigate between this concept that nothing (none of the behaviours or clothes or personalities etc.) we assign to any gender is inherent while still being in a society that is so heavily structured around this idea of a strict binary. It’s something that is confusing to navigate and hard to navigate but I feel like as a “queer girl” I can decide for myself what is feminine and girly and beautiful and me and I sometimes find solace in that fact that maybe it is all made up and most people just haven’t learned that yet’.[3]

Sugar4

In the end, SUGAR hopes to expand beyond the realm of femininity and emphasise something else. That something else is epitomised by the symbol for this exhibition: the chemical formula for sucrose (table sugar) in order to promote a different thought process behind the term. In using the molecular diagram, SUGAR moves past our initial assumptions regarding the relationship between sugar and femininity, instead proposing a new idea rooted in chemical bonding. The chemical diagram becomes a metaphor in itself then, one grounded in composite combinations, connectivity and possibility. While SUGAR does not wish to uphold the concept of a total or universal experience of femininity, it does wish to accentuate the strands that bring us into dialogue with one another: how our identities overlap and collide and diverge again in brilliant constellations; how we are united by our fears, doubts and inadequacies as much as any concrete and certain sense of self. In this sense, the symbol becomes more like a web signifying not just the collaboration between Bunny Collective and Areole, but the collaborations operating within the exhibition as a whole: in the literal collaboration between Rosemary Kirton and Manuel Arturo Abreu, for example; in thematic concepts such as gender fluidity; and through the way in which the works powerfully converse with each other throughout.

‘These correspondences connect us both to ourselves and others, promoting transformation rather than stasis, equality rather than hierarchy, and an “unfinished universality” rather than closed order.’[4]

Notes:

[1] See Caitlin Hines, ‘Rebaking the Pie: The Woman as Dessert Metaphor’, in Bucholtz, ed., Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 145-162.

[2] Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, London:Virago, 2009, 140.

[3] Quote taken from Ginsberg’s Tumblr blog in response to the question, ‘Are you trans male to female?’. http://hhobbess.tumblr.com/post/93539705538/are-you-trans-male-to-female

[4] Kaja Silverman, Flesh of my Flesh, Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, 2009, 2.

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