Since its inception photography has been implicated as an important mechanism in feminist resistance to patriarchal codes. “Men act and women appear,” commented art critic John Berger on the conventional photographic dichotomy, “men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Rather than bending their pliable limbs into submission, the female photographers of Whitechapel Gallery’s new exhibition Terrains of the Body are placed behind the camera and in control of their own representation.

Focusing primarily upon work from the 1990s to the 2000s, Terrains of the Body involves 17 artists from 5 different continents, taken from a collection of work from the National Museum for Women in the Arts, in Washington D.C., the only major institution in the world dedicated to the achievements of females in the visual, performing and literary art worlds. Instead of compressing the various strands of female experience in to one centralised narrative such as ‘the bored housewife’ or ‘the powerful leader’ Terrains of the Body carves out a space for multiple voices. From Daniela Rossell’s images of upper-class Mexican women to the torn, bruised skin of Ingrid Mwangi’s film stills, the images tangle together to portray a diffuse and shifting image of identity and the body.

Daniela Rossell. Medusa, from the “Ricas y famosas” series 1999?Chromogenic Print?152x127cm. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.?© Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Lee Stalsworth.

The exhibition begins with an elegantly dysfunctional self-portrait of Nan Goldin from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Documenting the tumultuous wreckage of New York’s bohemian subcultures in the 80s, Nan calls this series, ‘the diary I let everyone read’. It provides an intimate record of intoxication, substance abuse, AIDS, violence, and undiluted female desire. In Self-portrait in Kimono with Brian, a fuzzy orange glow illuminates a scene of dejection as the artist and her boyfriend appear to be drowning in hapless isolation.

Juxtaposed alongside the grungy realism of Goldin’s study in ennui is Anna Gaskill’s A Short Story of Happenstance which acts like a vignette in to a sick-twisted fairytale. Against a deserted forest the body of a woman sways upside down, bound tightly to a tree trunk with the zinging white folds of her petticoat exploding out of her black skirt. Through the alignment of various subtle coordinates, Gaskell makes the fantastical image scream of violated sexuality.

Nan Goldin. Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC. 1983?Chromogenic Print?73x104cm?National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honour of the Tenth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts?© Nan Goldin, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery Photo: Lee Stalsworth.

Elsewhere, artists document the shifting formats of the female body. Justine Kurland captures girls in rigid uniforms playing with a handmade raft in the sea like characters from Huckleberry Finn. Soft light is matched by a sanguine expression on the girl’s faces as they play listlessly in the sea, their eyes and hair drifting through salty water.

Hellen van Meene. Untitled (79). 2000?Chromogenic Print?41x41cm?National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.?© Hellen van Meene and Yancey Richardson Gallery?Photo: Lee Stalsworth.

Whilst in her Waterfall Mama Babies Kurland captures a group of women breastfeeding on the jagged rocks of a cliff, their malleable bodies pulsing in harmonic union with the running waters. The colours and staggered arrangement recalls sentimental Victorian images of nymphs. The women’s bodies are rapt gently over their breasts in naturalistic poses as their intention lies with their children and not with the camera lens or the voyeur waiting beyond it.

Nearby, Rineke Dijistra depicts a trio of Polish girls at the seaside. One has squishy skin, pumped full of puppy fat while the other two appear scrawny and pre-pubescent in sagging bikinis designed for womanly bodies. Both awkward and self-assured, they stare into the abrasive flash-light waiting for the convex eruptions which will swell up their bodies into unrecognizability.

Nikki S. Lee. The Hip Hop Project (1). 2001?Fujiflex Print?79x104cm?National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.?© Nikki S. Lee?Photo: Lee Stalsworth.

Rather chronicling its changing landscape, other artists used the female body as a site for performing and discarding various different identities. In the vein of Cindy Sherman’s staged dress-up, Korean artist Nikki Lee immerses herself in the surface codes of various sectors of American society. Wearing tribalistic markings and acting out different worldviews, Lee becomes anything from a bored office worker to a stripper. Given 20 years distance, this cultural tourism appears naïve to the modern eye, illustrating how contentious the battleground of the presentation of the female body remains.

In The Ohio Project, Lee leans out of the doorway of a trailer in low-wasted hot pants, and static peroxide hair bunches, performing for the camera as a human in a poor ‘white trash’ community. In The Hip Hop Project Lee’s pale skin is smothered with a mahogany brown spray tan and a cartoonish outline of full lips is drawn around her mouth. She lolls seductively in the arms of Mob Deep and their fans, her body fading into the limbs of others. It’s like a game of Where’s Wally as her real identity bleeds into transparency.

Marina Abramovi The Hero 2001 Chromogenic Print 126x126cm National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C. © Marina Abramovic Archives Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Candida Höfer provides a similarly disjointed image of selfhood. Dwelling in the centre of the Palazzo Zenobio’s unpopulated, gaudy architectural interior is a small reflection of Hofer’s body as it clasps the camera. Through photomontage and image editing an infinite regress is choreographed into the image, as Höfer’s body flashes repetitively in a set of mirrors as they eternally fade back. It is at once a picture of an artist at work and an illustration of the solipsistic world view that the outlandish Baroque decor permits.

The political fight in Terrains of the Body comes from the geographical territories that are normally marginalised by the art world and conventional feminist discussion. In Shirin Neshat’s On Guard hands inscribed with Farsi script clasp an old-fashioned microphone, testifying to the female bodies which remain silenced by religion, tradition and male authority. Whilst in Adriana Varejao’s Qualquer Coisa hands are daubed with patterns derived from Portuguese ceramic tiles that decorate colonial buildings in her native Brazil. The image testifies to the remnants of imperialism, one finger toys into the white sheet background, prizing open its folds like it is fiddling with an open wound.

The whole exhibition is aggressively female. As you walk in the sounds of Anna Gaskill’s Erasers fills your ears with the cracked voices of adolescent girls as they piece together fragmented recollections of a car crash. None of the images contain a man (except one but he is in the shadow of a woman). Through the mobile, democratic and slight frame of the camera, the exhibition forges a physical space for women on the gallery walls and a metaphorical space in the consecrated image which is crystallised by the camera pixels.

By Annie Lord

Terrains of the Body: Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 18 January – 16 April 2017