Alluding to Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 feminist text, Gasworks’ latest exhibition in their newly renovated premises presents the work of Sidsel Meineche Hansen in ‘Second Sex War’. Immediately challenging and provocative, the exhibition uses the hotly desired Oculus Rift headset device to present a biting critique on the world of pornography. However the refreshing perspective of a contemporary female artist thus presents questions and ideas that may not be commonly considered in the realm of expressing sexuality and, perhaps more crucially, sex.
The urge to feel either repulsed, overtly excited or squeamish about Hansen’s work is soon sated by the variation in media featured in the show. That ‘Second Sex War’ is such a sensory experience is nothing like a happy coincidence, as the use of installation, video and laser-cut drawings make the body of work feel rounded and comprehensive, using technology in a way that is not overpowering. Although at times chaotic due to the marriage of boisterous sound and CGI animation, there is no doubt that the viewer is provided with a thorough investigation into the artist’s visions and research.
‘DICKGIRL 3D (X)’ is where most viewers will find themselves gravitating towards first; the works do not seem to have been curated in such a way that demands any singular route through the space, which is useful in assessing the exhibition as a whole and as fragments. A clearly collaborative project, the main feature is its CGI animation, which presents an intriguingly genderless figure performing a frank, systematic, mechanic sex act. There is no real narrative here, which truly sets the piece apart from the myriad contemporary artists working with sexuality, sex and objectivity. An accompanying soundtrack by the DJ Nkisi is titled ‘Exotica’, placing further emphasis on the status of not only women as a foreign body, but the body of colour, and how this might be perceived and fetishised. It is strongly implied, to say the least, from the video’s title that the figure is a female bearing a phallic prosthesis, forming an experience which is simultaneously compelling and uncomfortable. While this is certainly contributed to by the foreboding, frantic electronic drumming found in ‘Exotica’, I pondered on whether it is challenging to see a female character making distinctly male sexual gestures, and if so, why? The irony of the lack of humanity in the piece is certainly not wasted, as the virtual reality element of the work later highlighted.
It would feel almost cliché to say that the ‘problem’ of gender has been subverted in Hansen’s work, and it would not seem fair to use such a phrase, as the artist seems to be investigating the idea of gender being neutralised when it comes to the oft-discussed topic of sexual activity. In the twenty-first century, we hope that sexuality is no longer a taboo subject, to the point that it is irrelevant (contemporary art has done much in furthering this), but the genderless nature of the figures found in this show insist that the viewer looks deeper into what these beliefs, only reinforced with the knowledge that the subject is female. This becomes politically charged again in the exhibition’s second CGI animation, ‘No Right Way 2 Cum’, which appears to address the legislation passed in December 2014 in the UK which banned female ejaculation in pornography. While the video shows another animated figure, this time undoubtedly female, masturbating, we are reminded of Carol Hanisch’s manifesto ‘The Personal is Political’, in which she states that recurrent issues that women have which are to an extent collectively shared, are indeed political and circumstantial to womanhood.
Separating the videos are several laser-cut drawings by Hansen. The technique with which they have been created is reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s drawings depicting female intimacy, as they appear frantic and automatic in their nature. Facing ‘DICKGIRL 3D (X)’ is ‘No Baby’, and it is at this point in the exhibition that the viewer begins to gain insight, as a result of all works but particularly prompted by ‘No Baby’, the potential future, or at least current state, of feminist art. The drawing portrays a sleeping woman, by no means idealised in form, with a thought bubble of a foetus with a line drawn through it. Highlighting conception, contraception and abortion issues, the idea of being a woman in the twenty-first century is being shown to Hansen’s audience – and there are no pseudo-feminist ‘icons’ to be seen.
Finally, the use of virtual reality in ‘SECOND SEX WAR ZONE’, which should be discussed separately from the aforemtnioned videos. As the viewer sits on what we are assured is a vegan leather beanbag and dons the headset and headphones, the familiar sound of ‘Exotica’ emerges again. Initially confusing and disconcerting, moving your head around the room, before looking towards the ceiling, reveals the ‘DICKGIRL 3D (X)’ video once more, except where the figure was making the sexual gesture at the inanimate object, the viewer is at, if you like, the receiving end. I am refraining from using terminology that is too specific, as there is no real indication of ‘intercourse’ per sé; the main focal point is the aggressive nature of the act, and that it is being performed by a female character. Understandably, this is not an exhibition for minors, but otherwise this is a body of work which borrows from topics incredibly salient to the contemporary lifestyle, especially in the world of the internet and intersectional feminism and its causes.
By Issey Scott
Sidsel Meineche Hansen: Second Sex War, 17 March – 29 May 2016, Gasworks, 155 Vauxhall Street, London SE11 5RH.