Two feminist photographers exhibit on gallery walls in Sydney. At first the two shows have little in common. The one at Stills Gallery by Ella Dreyfus is composed entirely of large, black and white photographs of pregnant nudes. It draws hundreds of people to a small, newly founded gallery in Paddington and receives significant media attention. The other show, at Watters Gallery in East Sydney (one of the founding institutions of contemporary art in Australia), is by Sue Ford and at first sight is dissimilar to the Dreyfus work, although Ford is well known for her black and white portraits of women form the 1960s through to the 1980s. In Ford's case the photographer seems to have decided that clad subjects rather than nudes are the way to go.
Ford's current project, titled 'From Van Dieman's Land to Video Land', is a far cry form her portraits of women. Her subject matter is, broadly speaking, Australia's history, its landscape and their representation. In contrast to Dreyfus, Ford takes an extremely elliptical approach to the subject matter. her representational strategies highlight the fact that if Australian history and landscape form one part of her content, the technology and apparatus of the gaze which surveys that history and landscape are equally important. Eight large works depict haunting, poetic images alluding to such historical moments as the deportation of convicts, contemporary tourism, the nuclear bomb, missionisation and religious fundamentalism. All these images are composed of laser copied enlargements. Some of the works are overlaid in oils while other images come from Ford's own videos and have been photographed from the TV monitor. The ninth work, titled "'And God was happy to have a new country,' said the nun to the gathered children", is composed of 14 ink and watercolours on paper done in a "naive" style. These images also allude to historical moments, in this case to the missionisation and colonisation of Australian Aboriginies. Despite their differences in content both the Dreyfus and Ford shows engage troubling questions about the nature of representation and the gaze. A comparison of the two shows is of interest precisely ecause of their very different approaches to these issues.
In her catalogue essay Dreyfus clearly states the aim of her show:
"Prenancy Series seeks to challenge the genre of the classical nude, where female beauty is contructed by male artist...By presenting the nude as pregnant, questions arise that subvert the original meaning...My aim is to present women with images of themselves that they can be proud of...My photographs validate women's experiences at a time when pain and deprivation are the order of the day...The depths of feeling, empowerment and love we experience cannot be hidden away, not matter how entrenched the fear and denial mechanisms are."
The theory behind this set of photos assumes that a particular kind of representation of the female body, with all its marks, hairs, freckles and moles, as well as it's curvaceous volume, has been submerged or forbidden. Dreyfus proposes a representational strategy which will empower that form, and enable those who bear (or at least potentially bear) that form, to feel better about themselves. She seeks to render the form visible through a process of mimetic representation, in all its truth. This approach, of rendering the unspeakable, the suppressed, the ugly or the absent visible via representation is a well respected and well trodden path for the artistic avant-garde. The path crosses all genres, from Manet and Baudelaire, to Judy Chicago, Kathy Acker and Diane Arbus. This position, the claim that one is rendering the invisible, and thereby empowering not only the artist, but also that which is represented, is problematic - even though it may succeed in its intention of empowering the audience or confirming some aspect of the viewer's identity.
We are now a long way down the track from Manet's famious claim for the truth of painting and it is almost a universal and somewhat irritating claim by those who put objects into galleries that they are making some truth visible. The more vexing issue for contemporary representation lies in the relam of strategy. Dreyfus's images are in the genre of the beautiful photograph. Indeed, they conjure an ullustrious heritage, evoking Edward Weston, Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus. The 'Pregnancy Series' attracts and holds the viewer with its evocation of classic, formal beauty while at the same time rendering the truth of the bodies' size and 'blemishes'. The formal element of these bodyes is facilitatied by a series of framing devices common to the history of photography which Dreyfus uses knowledgeabley, and deliberately, in her attempt to subvert the sign of the nude. These bodies are often headless. They are all placed in dark, shadowy and anonymous spaces which eradicate any traces of a particluar place or time. While hightlihgting the form of the nudes such devies also decontextualise them.
In her desire to render beautiful and seductive that which she feels the dominant culture renders invisible or ugly, Dreyfus leaves unexplored some important questions about the context, and the framing devices which surround these prengnant forms. In an era when Sally Jesse Raphael, Oprah Winfrey and 'People' magazine, as well as the medical and religious establishment - in an uncanny echo of the artistic avan-garde - urge us to reveal all for the sake of truth, these absences in the Dreyfus works are troubling indeed.
It is precisely these questions concerning the technology and apparatus of the gaze, the frame of vision, which Sue Ford attempts to address and highlight in her show. While Ford also tries to make representations which intrigue or hold the viewer, which may be as close as anyone can get these days to beauty, her strategy is to constantly remind the audience of the apparatus of their gaze, of the way in which their view of a situation is constructed. In these works one is constantly aware ot the technologies, of camera, photocopiers, television and video which intervene and construct the relationship between the subject and object of the gaze. This strategy of making the audience highly self-conscious of their vision, and of the technologies which construct their gaze, is entirely differernt to that adopted by Dreyfus, whch submerges the self-consciousness of the audience and the apparatus, in order to highlight the object of vision. The strategy adopted by Ford serves to remind one that our framing devices, the object which they frame, and our own identities are not easily separated from one another.
Dreyfus's work is a tour de force in that it brilliantly circulates around the terrain of the beautiful and the ugly. It is, after all, no mean feat for someone to recall both Diane Arbus and Rob ert Mapplethorpe at the same time. Sue Ford's work on the other hand is a tour de force of deconstruction, in that her images manage to make one extremely self-conscuous while still seducing the viewer into engagment with the works. The effect of Ford's exhibition extends beyond rendering visible the apparatus of contemporary technology, for, through the inclusion of the ink and watercolour drawings, we also become conscious that all the apparatus of representation, oil painting or realism for example, as well as the notion of history and technology itself, are constructions or framing devices. In this way Ford's work avoids the nostalgia which the 'Pregancy Series'risks. By rendering visible the technology of reresentation itself, any notion of the 'truth' of representation is constantly subverted.
The different representational strategies adopted by these two photographers also effect the distance created between the audience and the work. The Dreyfus show seems to assume that women are a homgeneous group. Both the author's statment and the framing devices which decontextualise the froms assume universalities of the feminine which ignore differences in the audience of women. To a woman who wanted but could not have children to take only the simplest of examples, these images might not be confirming and empoering but instead, depressing and excluding. If this assumption of identity with the audience of women is problematic in the 'Pregnancy Series', the Ford work runs the risk of making the viewer so self-conscious of the apparatus of vision that too great a sense of distance is created between the viewer and the work. As in most deconstructive tasks, the result is to make the readers turn in upon themselves, creating a sense of isolation and disengagment.
When one compares two shows in one reiew there is always the risk of the either/or problem: one is seduced into thinking there is always a winner and a loser. In a period, however, when I have been assaulted by a show called The Phallus and It's Function, hosted by a contemporary art space, harassed by football hoooligans on Oxford Street, and open my TV guide to find that the topic of the day for a talk show is somehting like 'My Mother is a Slut' I am very happy that the work of both Ella Dreyfus and Sue Ford gets an airing at all. Does our rescue lie in dreams or awareness? Once I was sure of my answer, but now, as I reel in Future Shock, I'm just not sure - but I know it's not and either/or.