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The art of Hannah Wilke: Feminist Narcissism and the reclamation of the erotic body.

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The art of Hannah Wilke: Feminist Narcissism and the


reclamation of the erotic body.
I wrote the following essay on American visual artist Hannah Wilke for an
art history class in graduate school. I include the full text and images, excluding citations. If youre a student who discovers this via search engine,
then I have every confidence in your research abilities to track down the
scholarly sources. Wilke was a seminal Second Wave feminist artist whose
work has received renewed interest from scholars since her death in 1993.
The politics of inclusion that shaped feminist discourse in the 1960s and 1970s
spawned a legacy of body-based performance art, much of which was associated
with women artists who used their own face as a subject of continual exploration. The
self- imaging of women artists such as the provocative American artist Hannah Wilke
was frequently attacked and dismissed by art critics as being indulgent exercises in
narcissism that only served to reinforce the objectification of the female body. The
charge of narcissism leveled on Wilke and her work may have been warranted, however, this should not be considered as a pejorative. Rather, the narcissism of Wilke
can be viewed as a shrewd feminist tactic of self-objectification aimed at reclaiming
the eroticized female body from the exclusive domain of male sexual desire. The selflove of narcissism is a necessary component to this reclaiming of the body and the
assertion of a female erotic will as being distinct from that of the male artist. Wilke
wielded her narcissistic self-love as a powerful tool of critique, defiantly placing her
own image into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated art institution.
The term narcissism derives from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful
but arrogant youth who cruelly spurned the love of his admirers. For his cruelty, he
was cursed by the goddess Nemesis and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool
of water. The doomed Narcissus pined away for his unattainable lover the image of
his own self and literally died as a result of his amorous longing.
Sigmund Freud bestowed the name of this mythic Greek youth upon his psychoanalytic theory of narcissism, a theory that describes normal personality development.
According to Freud, the self-love of narcissism is a normal complement to the development of a healthy ego. Whereas a certain amount of narcissism is desirable, an excess of self-love is considered dysfunctional and indicative of pathology. This latter
definition of narcissism, the one of pathological self-absorption, has cast our current
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understanding of narcissism in a negative light and reinforced the use of the term as a
pejorative.
The psychoanalytic theories of Freud suggest that negative or pathological narcissism
is a specifically female perversion. Art critic Amelia Jones writes that [d]rawing
loosely on Freuds definitions which connect narcissism to both a stage of development and to a form of homosexual neurosis narcissism has come in everyday parlance to mean simply a kind of self-love epitomized through womans obsession
with her own appearance. Hence, the charges of narcissism leveled on Hannah
Wilke were attempts by the critics to summarily dismiss her work as mere manifestations of a womans obsessive self-love and infer, according to Jones, that Wilkes art
was not successfully feminist.
Critics such as Amelia Jones and Joanna Frueh have championed Wilke and proposed, through their respective writings, a new and positive view of narcissism as a
legitimately feminist, subversive tactic in the making of art. In her catalogue essay entitled Intra-Venus and Hannah Wilkes Feminist Narcissism, Jones contextualized
Wilkes work within the framework of her radical narcissism and argued that the
use of her own image throughout her art is far from the conventional or passively
feminine depiction of women as seen in advertising and other forms of mass media.
Joanna Frueh, in her essay that accompanied the 1989 Wilke retrospective in Missouri, equated Wilkes positive narcissism with a form of feminist self-exploration
and an assertion of a female erotic will. Both Frueh and Jones cogently argue for a
positive narcissism that expunges itself of the negative connotations of Freudian
psychoanalytic theory and, in contrast, actively and unapologetically engages in selflove. Wilke enacts an aggressive form of narcissistic self-imaging that defiantly solicits the patriarchal gaze which she then, as Jones writes, graft[s] onto and into her
body/self, taking hold of it and reflecting it back to expose and exacerbate its reciprocity.

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Fig. #1. Hannah Wilke. "S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication". Mixed media (artist's multiple). 1974-75.
Wilkes active solicitation of the male gaze as a method of feminist critique is best
exemplified in her photographic series entitled S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An
Adult Game of Mastication (figs. 1-2), a series which had been originally produced as a
box-set artists multiple for the 1975 exhibition Artists Make Toys at the Clocktower in New York. Wilke commissioned a commercial photographer to capture her
semi-nude self-portraits in which she adopts the exaggerated postures of the celebrity
and fashion industries. In one such photograph, a sunglass-wearing Wilke clutches
her Mickey Mouse toy tight to her partly naked torso as she gazes off-camera at an
imaginary paparazzi. She assumed the role of the celebrity art star suggested by
the witty wordplay of her title S.O.S. Starification Object Series. As with many of
Wilkes titles for she was fond of linguistic games and frequently engaged in puns
there is a double meaning to be found in the titular pun starification. Wilke dotted
her own skin with several tiny vaginal sculptures that she had shaped from chewing
gum. These small sculptures decorated her body in a manner recalling the practice of
ritual scarification employed by certain African cultures as a means of beautification.
Given the presence of the vaginal scars in combination with the sexy, glamourous
black and white photographs of Wilke, it is not difficult to locate the artists critical
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stance on the occasionally painful regimens Western women inflict upon themselves
in their conformity to accepted conventions of beauty. Wilke willfully submitted her
own body to this ritualized, albeit pretend, self-abuse in order to address this tyranny of Venus which, as Susan Brownmiller writes in Femininity, a woman feels
whenever she criticizes her appearance for not conforming to prevailing erotic standards. The fact that Wilke herself was, by these same erotic standards, a beautiful
and sexually desirable woman does not confuse her aim of critique but rather serves
to strengthen her commentary on womens roles and gender stereotypes. Her overstated, sultry expressions and postures of sexual display invite scrutiny. Wilke was
keenly aware of her status as a celebrity art-star as well as a beautiful, eroticized object of desire and she capitalized on both with the S.O.S. Starification Object Series. The
original dissemination of this photographic series in a packaged box set, complete
with sticks of chewing gum, preformed gum vaginas and phalluses, and the seminude artist self- portraits, simultaneously commented on both the artist-celebrity as a
commodity as well as the erotic consumption of the female body. Cleverly, Wilke underscored the erotic self-objectification of her image in the extended title for this box
set multiple: S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication. We are reminded that this is an adult game, and Wilkes use of the word mastication in reference
to chewing (gum) is likely a pun on masturbation, a suggestion that locates her eroticized self-portraits on the parameters of pornography.

Fig. #2. Hannah Wilke. "S.O.S. Starification Object Series:


An Adult Game of Mastication". Detail. Mixed media
(artist's multiple). 1974-75.

Assimilating the visual language of the objectified female body, Wilke employed her
own eroticized body as a metaphorical mirror that she then held up to reflect back the
sexual projections of male desire. This act of
reflection enabled Wilke to sever her passive (and traditionally female) receptiveness
of this male projection and assert her own
erotic will. In her collection of essays entitled Erotic Faculties, Joanna Freuh used the
phrase autoerotic autonomy in reference
to Wilkes images and suggested that her
self-exhibition may demonstrate the positive narcissism self- love that masculinist eros has all but erased. The empty vessel that is the celebrity or the fashion model

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devoid of a personal will as she functions as a receptacle for our projected desires
has been adopted and systematically absorbed by Wilkes exaggerated poses. For her
part, Wilke then engaged her narcissistic self-love as a means to fill these empty vessels with her aggressive sexuality. The sites of female erotic pleasure, namely the
mouth and the vagina, are conjured in her chewing gum sculptures while, at the
same moment, they hint at the violent aggression of the folkloric vagina dentata.
The consciously sexualized self-objectification of Wilke and the use of her own body
as a professional currency often elicited harsh criticism from the ranks of feminism,
an ideology to which she actively subscribed. Lucy Lippard, the champion of 1970s
feminist art, famously wrote that Wilkes confusion of her roles as beautiful woman
and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level.
Art critics Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman dismiss Wilkes self-portraits: In objectifying herself as she does, in assuming the conventions associated with a stripper,
Wilkedoes not make her own position clearIt seems her work ends up by reinforcing what it intends to subvert The tense political climate and rapid social
change of America during the decades of the 1960s and 70s fueled a radical activism
amongst Second Wave feminists. The urgency felt by these activists to affect social
change in relation to gender equality frequently generated a feminism that was fervent, even orthodox, in its ideology. This strict orthodoxy was shaped by anti- essentialism a philosophical stance that rejected the representation of the female body as
it was believed too imbued with a history of objectification by male artists and
therefore unable and unwilling to accommodate the sexualized body-based art of
Hannah Wilke. The negative reception of Wilke by critics like Lippard, Barry and Flitterman may have been prompted by an adherence to this strict orthodoxy. The complex and ambiguous views of the body and female sexuality that Wilke presented, at
times even contradictory to the aims of feminism, generated rancor in this inflexible
climate of anti-essentialism.
In her 1978 interview Artist Hannah Wilke Talks with Ernst the artist unapologetically spoke of the ethics of ambiguity that characterized both her work and life. She
addressed, in her honest and unmediated manner, the conflicted views of a woman
who, though conscious of feminism, still felt concerned with her appearance and desirability to men. Rather than deny this impulse, Wilke embraced her feminine narcissism and brandished it as a weapon. Such a bold act of defiance and deliberate provocation against the anti-essentialist feminism that dominated the 1960s and 70s later
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established Wilke as the spiritual parent to postfeminist artists such as Tracey


Emin and anticipated the self-imaging of Janine Antoni and Cindy Sherman.

Fig. #3. Film still from Carolee Schneemanns Fuses, 1965.


Wilke was not the only woman artist of her generation to use her own body in a consciously sexualized manner, nor was she the only artist to engage with narcissism as
a feminist tactic. Carolee Schneemans canonical 1965 Fuses (fig. 3), a film that included photographic footage of the artist having sex with her then-partner James Tenny,
was greeted with outrage from the feminist audience who, as film theorist Shana
MacDonald writes, [were] uncertain how to incorporate the sexualized, erotic and
self-produced image provided by Schneemann Similar to the harsh criticisms leveled on the photographs of Wilke, the erotic self-portraiture of Schneemanns Fuses
was frequently attacked as being obscene and narcissistic. According to MacDonald, it was her sexually graphic imagery imagery that feminist theorists found indistinguishable from the objectified female image being resisted that caused Schneemann to be misunderstood by her peers and ultimately marginalized.
As the coquettish semi-nudes of Wilkes S.O.S. Starification Object Series made reference to imagery generated for pornographic use, so too does Schneemanns Fuses address pornography in order to critique its traditional objectification of women. The
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repeated, non-linear narrative of Fuses interrupts the pornographic convention that


the film necessarily terminate in the obligatory cum shot of male ejaculation. The
sexuality communicated by Schneemanns film is highly subjective and anchored in
the banal reality of the everyday, including shots of the artists cat and the domestic
surroundings of her home. The subjectivity of Fuses was further heightened by the literal mark of the artist, evidenced in Schneemanns use of hand-processing techniques
such as collage, painting and scratching directly onto the celluloid. Her infusion of a
personal subjectivity performed as a feminist resistance against the sexual- objectification of the female body as seen in conventional pornography. By simultaneously inhabiting the roles of both the image and the image-maker, she positioned herself not
as sex object, but as willed and erotic subject, commanding her own image. Schneemanns urge to see her own sexualized image is a manifestation of self-love and the
hypothesized positive narcissism of Jones and Freuh. As Narcissus romantically
yearned for his own image, Schneemann desires to view her own erotic image, not reflected in a pool of water, but projected larger-than-life on the theatre screen. This act
is a bold assertion of her narcissism and erotic will.
At first glance Wilkes S.O.S. Starification Object Series, much like Schneemanns Fuses, appeared to reinforce the visual language of the objectified female
body. The sultry eyes, seductively parted lips and
naked breasts of Wilke read as cultural signifiers of
female sexual invitation and availability. Lippard
may have been correct in her observation that
Wilke played both the feminist and flirt but her
Fig. #4. Video still from Hannah Wilkes
Gestures, 1974.
assessment that this polarity stemmed from her
confusion over these two roles was essentially
wrong. Wilkes narcissistic self-imaging was not, as Elizabeth Hess charged, an impulse to wallow in cultural obsessions with the female body, but a pointed feminist critique of these same obsessions. In contrast to fashion models and pin-up girls,
who passively offer their flesh to be inscribed by male desire, Wilke interrupted this
erotic exchange by the presence of her chewing gum scar sculptures. Recalling the
artistic intervention of Schneemanns hand-processing techniques in Fuses, Wilkes
sculptures mark the otherwise unblemished surface of her skin and disrupt the easy
consumption of her body as an erotic object. She declared the canvas of her skin as
the terrain of her own erotic expression, and marked it accordingly. Whereas the
youth Narcissus failed to possess his own beloved self-image, Schneemann and
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Wilke are too shrewd in the deployment of their narcissism to suffer this same fate.
Women artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Schneemann and Wilke, often engaged in the feminist project of reclaiming the female body from previous male privilege. Centuries of depiction by exclusively male artists had rendered the female nude
a dehumanized, neutral object. Wilke and her feminist contemporaries sought to rectify this situation by seizing creative control over ones own body. Performative
works such as Wilkes 1974 Gestures (fig. 4) a video that featured the artist sculpting
her flesh enact this reclamation by proposing the artists own body as an artistic
medium.
The thirty-minute black-and-white video Gestures showcases Wilke, her head and
shoulders tightly framed, performing a series of repeated, often exaggerated gestures
and facial expressions. These gestures are often absurd and comical in nature, while
others verge on sexual seduction. A silent Wilke gently pulls and kneads her own
face, manipulating her youthful, elastic skin much like the soft, putty-like material of
her chewing gum sculptures. Saundra Goldman observed that Gestures signaled
[Wilkes] transition from sculpture to performance, and there is a cyclical component to this transition: the soft, pliable chewing gum that Wilke employed to approximate flesh was now being mimicked by the artists own skin.

Fig. #5. Hannah Wilke. I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, 1977-78.


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The reclamation of the female body from the privileged control by male artists was
the primary motivation behind Wilkes photographic diptych entitled I OBJECT:
Memoirs of a Sugargiver (fig. 5). Wilkes strong objection was directly aimed at the father of the avant-garde, Marcel Duchamp. While the box set of S.O.S. Starification Object Series offered a critical view of consumerism, the fashion industry and pornography, and Gestures a declaration of control over ones own body, the faux book jacket
of I OBJECT was a direct response to Duchamps static rape victim of his infamous
diorama Etant donns (fig. 6). In her 1988 conversation with Joanna Freuh, Wilke stated: I find Etant donns repulsive, which is perhaps its message. She has a distorted
vagina. The pun contained in the title I OBJECT, with the play on the word object
as both noun and verb, laid the foundation for the critical feminist dialogue Wilke
embarked upon with this heavy-weight of art history.

Fig. #6. Marcel Duchamp. Etant donns. View of installation (left) and detail (right).
1946-66.
The sculptural diorama Etant donns confronts the viewer with a rustic wooden door,
riddled with small holes. A light source shines through these holes, enticing the viewer to peek through and witness a scene hitherto concealed. A pastoral, natural landscape is suddenly revealed, in the foreground of which an alarmingly pale, naked female torso lies inert amongst a bramble of dried twigs and leaves. Her legs are
splayed open to reveal her strangely misshapen vagina. The exposed nakedness of
the woman, her corpse-like stillness and her derelict location amongst the bramble
imply violation and victimhood. As if in a final gesture of violence, Duchamp has
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chosen to frame the womans image within the peepholes of the door in such a manner as to visually decapitate her. The mechanism of display namely the peepholes
through which the scene is revealed forces the viewer to assume the role of voyeur,
further compounding the violation of the woman.
Wilkes I OBJECT functions as both homage and a critical response to Duchamp: she
believed that to honor Duchamp is to oppose him. Taken while on a family vacation in Spain, the glossy colour photographs of Wilke show the artist, fully nude, lying atop some discarded clothing on a large, craggy rock. One of the photographs
that comprise this diptych approximates the pose of Duchamps female torso, with
Wilkes body foreshortened in the camera lens so that her pubic region dominates the
picture plane. In stark contrast to the deathly paleness of the woman in Etant donns,
Wilke appears whole-limbed, healthy and tanned. The clothing upon which she lies
may have been voluntarily shed in a moment of spontaneous sexual activity, or simply in the act of sunbathing. A bottle of suntan lotion that lies nearby seems to support the latter. The second photograph of the diptych shows Wilke staring upwards
at the camera, and directly at the viewer, her face partly concealed by a rocky outcropping. A small but satisfied smile adorns her face. The superimposed text reads I
OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver across the upper left portion of the image and
then Hannah Wilke on the lower left, in close juxtaposition to her smiling face. The
presence of her written name paired with her direct, outward gaze reads like a radical declaration of personhood, as if to say I am Hannah Wilke, and here is my body. The
feminist gesture of positive narcissism comes strongly into play in this particular
context. Wilkes feminist response to the faceless victim of Etant donns is a bold affirmation of both her personhood and her female sexuality.
As previously mentioned, the close association of women to narcissism partly derives
from a loose interpretation of Freudian theory that linked a womans obsession with
her own appearance with a form of psychoanalytic pathology. This association is
highly relevant in the critical reception of a work of art; a crucial factor to consider is
the gender of the artist. Lucy Lippard, the same art critic who, ironically, dismissed
Wilke for being a feminist and flirt, denounced the gender divide that existed between the reception of body-based performance work created by male artists against
similar work produced by women. She is a narcissist, Lippard wrote of women
artists, and Vito Acconci with his less romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.
The crucial distinction between the narcissism of Vito Acconci and Hannah Wilke
for as Rosalind Krauss effectively argues in her essay Video: the Aesthetics of Narhttp://jenniferlinton.com/2010/12/31/the-art-of-hannah-wilke-feminist-narcissism-and-the-reclamation-of-the-erotic-body/

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cissism, Acconci was most assuredly a narcissist lies in the feminist agenda that fuelled the narcissism of Wilke.
Vito Acconcis performance-based work often contains ambiguous narratives that frequently wander
into the territory of the absurd and contradictory.
Much like his contemporary Hannah Wilke, Acconci primarily used his own body as an artistic
medium. In his 1972 video entitled Undertone (fig.
7), Acconci is as conspicuously aware of performing as Wilke was of posing in her multitudinous
self-images. Undertone begins with Acconci seating
Fig. #7. Video still from Vito Acconci's
Undertone, 1972.
himself at a table, the opposite end of which extends in the direction of the camera. This arrangement immediately implicates the camera/viewer into the scene. Acconci closes his
eyes, placing his hands on his thighs, and repeatedly mumbles an awkwardly confessional sexual fantasy involving an imagined woman who lurks beneath the table: I
want to believe theres a girl here under the tablewhos resting her hands on my knees
shes resting her forearms on my thighsslowly, slowly rubbing my thighs After several
repetitions of this fantasy, Acconci suddenly pauses, straightens his body and stares
directly out at the camera/viewer. His hands, now resting on the table top, are
clasped together in a pleading gesture while he repeatedly intones: I need you to be sitting therefacing mebecause I have to have someone to talk toso I know theres someone
there to address this to Acconci proceeds to again close his eyes and place his hands
beneath the table. Resuming his mumbled confession, he contradicts his original narrative by stating: I want to believe theres no one under the tableI want to believeits me
thats rubbing my thighs The video concludes with a final plea to the viewer to witness the revelation of his fantasy.
Comparable to the revealing titles of Wilke, the layered meanings behind Acconcis
title Undertone provides an important clue to its interpretation. The Concise Oxford
Dictionary defines the word undertone as an underlying quality; undercurrent of feeling. The underlying theme of Acconcis video is not found in his repeated sexual
fantasy of the imaginary woman under the table a fiction that his monologue later
negates but rather in his urgent plea directed at the viewer. Acconci compels the
viewer to witness his confessional fantasy and thus, by acting in this capacity, participate. A necessary reciprocity exists between Acconcis performance and the viewers
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reception of this fictitious fantasy. A fruitful comparison can be drawn between Acconcis Undertone and Wilkes Gestures video. The performance of Acconci is validated by an exchange with the viewer in the same manner as the poses of Wilke require
an onlooker. Equally, both artists achieve a form of sexual power through their performative actions. The crucial difference lies in gender. Even as the awkward disclosure of the fantasy ostensibly renders him vulnerable, Acconci nonetheless seizes sexual control. He punctuates the revelation of his fantasy by a vigorous and masturbatory rubbing of his own thighs, a gesture that creates an uncomfortable tension in the
viewer who has been manoeuvred into the place of the voyeur. His repeated pleas to
the viewer to witness recall the dynamic of the sexual exhibitionist who requires an
onlooker to fulfill his perversion. Acconci enacts his narcissism by forcing his passive-aggressive sexuality upon the viewer.
In the video Gestures, Wilke systematically performs the postures of female display.
She seductively rubs her finger across her upper lip. With the practiced smile of a
fashion model, she repeatedly tosses her long hair in simulation of a shampoo commercial. Isolated from their usual context of seduction or advertising, these gestures
appear absurd which is entirely Wilkes point. By repeatedly and methodically performing these gestures, she empties them of meaning. As a young, desirable woman
Wilke understands that sexual display is the currency of her power. As a feminist,
she acknowledges that these same gestures reduce her to a mere sex object. There is
an implicit solicitation of the viewer to witness Wilkes repetitive actions in much the
same manner as Acconcis Undertone requests participation with his narrative. Their
respective sexual power Wilke as the female sex object and Acconci as the male sexual exhibitionist require the gaze of the viewer to activate this power exchange.
The deliberate self-objectification of Hannah Wilke seems, in the context of contemporary art practice, very prescient indeed. A consummate agitator and provocateur, her
legacy of complex and eroticized body-based art anticipated the work of numerous
future women artists whose creative point-of-departure was their own visage. While
her work may have been devalued by feminist critics of her generation, a renewed interest from the ranks of feminist scholarship has emerged since her untimely death
from lymphoma in 1993. Wilke and her feminist colleague Carolee Schneemann, who
worked similarly with erotic self-portraiture, shrewdly engaged with the self-love of
positive narcissism to reclaim the erotic female body from the objectification of the
male gaze. Fully comfortable within her own skin and embracing all of her very human contradictions as an artist, a feminist and a woman she skillfully commanded
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her own image, both in front of and behind the camera.

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