How do you visualise a woman in the 21st century? Nina Power

Image: Renate Bertlmann, Knife-Pacifier-Hands, 1981 © Renate Bertlmann, Vienna / DACS, London, 2016/ The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Alongside our current exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s: Works From the Verbund Collection, the new issue of Loose Associations takes feminism as its subject. In this short essay – which is available along with other writing and images in the publication via our shop – Nina Power responds to the question: How do you visualise a woman in the 21st century?

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The question of ‘visualisation’ already troubles the demand. So dominated are we by the demand that everything be seen that taking a step back and asking who or what are all these images for is something of an affront. It is across women’s bodies that the dialectic of revelation is played out, always: too much flesh, too little, bikini, burka, lack and excess. It is impossible to conceive of a new or pure visualisation that is not already mediated through centuries of exposure, of flesh that is illuminated but that does not itself produce light. It is impossible to undo the latent violence of the image, and take back control of this violence: do we even know what images, and images of women do, and have done? Where nipples and breast-feeding are banned or frowned-upon because they are read as sexual, but images of dead women are ‘natural’, normal? The unblinking eye is flooded, sees nothing, but feels terrible accreted things.

If the photograph changed the way we see, the internet has changed the way we read. ‘Visualisation’ is another language game, and ‘woman’ a particularly contested term, yet subject to exactly the same kinds of fort-da promotion and erasure as women’s bodies always have been. Women are ‘non-men’, ‘non-males’, according to the Green Party. Body parts are always already dismembered – nice tits, nice arse. There is no ‘organic’ image that comes to mind when asked to visualise a woman in the 21st century, only a kind of shadow, something heavy and obscured. The battle to visualise ‘a woman’ or to give shape to the category of women in the 21st century will take place mostly virtually and linguistically but the consequences will be material, as they always are. We must go through the violence of the image in order to arrive at something else – a non-violent, non-image that can still, somehow, be understood. 

Nina Power

Nina Power is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton and Tutor in Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art. She has written widely on philosophy, politics and culture.

With thanks to Club des Femmes for providing the question, ‘How do you visualise a 21st Century Woman?’ from an ongoing project, which also formed the basis of a studio activity during the exhibition, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 70s.

2 Comments

  1. The internet has also changed the way we see I believe. When I were a lad objectifying women meant you had to go to the trouble of getting your pornography – which was no mean feat in those days. But now we are just swamped with the stuff. Meanwhile the art world – which was once the province of accessibly nudes – has been swamped out – so the important messages being portrayed in art are now just small voices in a torrent of noise.

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