The body is perpetually subject to a range of competing personal, political, social and technological concerns. The ways in which these complex issues impact the female body are pulled together in video works by Ericka Beckman and Marianna Simnett across two separate solo exhibitions at FACT, Liverpool.
On the ground floor, Beckman’s Cinderella (1986) and Hiatus (1999/2015), a single and dual-channel projection respectively, deploy an unmistakably 1980s aesthetic to interrogate female identities and responsibilities through the language of early video game technologies. “I have broken apart the story and set it as a mechanical game,” Beckman explained in 1984, “with a series of repetitions where Cinderella is projected back and forth like a ping-pong ball between the hearth and the castle. She never succeeds in satisfying the requirements of ‘the ‘Cinderella Game.’”
Hiatus, meanwhile, takes the technologies and the rules of ‘the game’ we play one step further. Here, within a VR role play situation, an all-American avatar named Wanda is subjected to the power grabs and desires of various male caricatures. Both works, through non-linear narratives, song, low-fi props and motifs recalling fairy tale and film, explore systems that serve to control and entrap.
Upstairs, Simnett’s work complicates these narratives by introducing specific questions of adolescence, sexuality, disease and beauty into the mix. Two adjacent films The Udder (2014) and Blood (2015), feature the same actress/character, a young girl called Isabel, who attempts to navigate these issues affecting the/her body. The highly painful infection, mastitis, experienced by dairy cows and breastfeeding mothers alike, is circled in The Udder. The narrative interlaces family and gender politics, and the anxieties experienced by a little girl on the verge of womanhood, with the technologised processes of dairy farming and hygiene maintenance. In Simnett’s fable, animal and human bodies become confused: fingers, noses, nipples, teats and the phallus are conflated. Bodily desires and priorities compete. The message that arises, like so many moralistic fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm to contemporary tabloids, is that chastity ensures that the (female) body remains healthy and whole.
“A woman is a sack made to endure,” we are warned, in Simnett’s companion piece, Blood. It depicts scenes from the life of an Albanian sworn virgin who has taken a vow of chastity so that within the rigidity of the patriarchal system she might live as a man. The penalty for breaking the oath is blood. Isabel’s encounters are paralleled with her experiences before and in the hallucinogenic aftermath of the removal of bones from her nose – nasal surgery was a Freudian ‘cure’ for female hysteria and menstrual complications. In Blood, the fluid nature of gender is foregrounded; questions of bodily autonomy, choice and power are posed.
Positioned next door is Simnett’s intense light and sound installation Faint with Light (2016), in which the artist repeatedly makes herself hyperventilate. The work reclaims the female body/breath, referencing the endurance of performance art but also a family tale in which her grandfather escaped a Holocaust firing squad because he fell unconscious. To a degree, this sums up Simnett’s work. Like Beckman’s it is aesthetically compelling, but Simnett’s keen visceral impact upon the body of the viewer makes her work all the more powerful.
Commissioned and published by Photomonitor, 19 June 2019.
Ericka Beckman and Marianna Simnett
29 March – 16 June 2019