Image: Birgit Jürgenssen, Nest, 1979
For the exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970sat The Photographers’ Gallery, the acclaimed writer Ali Smith was commissioned to write a short story for the gallery’s publication Loose Associations, in response to Birgit Jürgenssen’s photograph Nest (1979). From the perspective of the woman in the photograph, Smith’s protagonist experiences her genitalia metamorphosing into a nest which incubates two delicate eggs. This transformation reveals the biological power of her body to procreate, and more importantly the reproductive metaphor the nest evokes – suggesting that maternity is not just simply a beatific phenomenon in this story, but is also disturbed by various other signifiers that allude to the ways in which femininity is constructed.
Jürgenssen’s image suggests that an ideological possession is enacted when people operate in compliance with prescribed gender roles. She implies that one’s gender is performatively constituted in the same way that one’s choice of clothes is curtailed, perhaps even socially and contextually predetermined. Moreover, this woman’s femininity is compromised of the imperfections written on her body. The nest itself is redolent of a mass of unkept public hair which women often feel obliged to shave off or hide from public viewing. Jürgenssen’s feminist deconstruction of femininity is further infiltrated by the subtleness of the ladders in the tights. The rips are reminiscent of the perils of womanhood and indicate an inner battle; unveiling the constraining obligation to be and act feminine and the limits this has in articulating one’s own sense of authenticity. Jürgenssen’s clothing analogy can be applied to illustrate and simplify Judith Butler’s conception of gender performativity, discussed in the writer’s groundbreaking publication Gender Trouble (1990).
Smith might have just as easily responded to René Magritte’s painting Elective Affinities (1933). I want to suggest that this painting – as it depicts an oversized egg trapped in a constrictive cage – effectively articulates the physical and ideological alienation women experience in the ways femininity is variably constructed. Magritte’s work could have had feminist intentions akin to Helene Cixous’s, reflecting upon the idea that “ there are no [feminine] grounds for establishing a discourse”, and that some women, bound to normative social identities, lack the means to discuss and challenge their prescribed gender roles. An entrapped egg shows the painful constraints the patriarchal order has on the female psyche. Yet, Magritte has appropriated the egg symbol to represent an existential crisis: that a person lacks free will in the world due to external forces out of their control. This, however, has some alignment with gender performativity, confirming how cis-females are ‘hatched’ into a capitalist society and thusly enclosed by an ideological imperative to maintain the normative order of childbirth.
It would seem appropriate to claim that Sarah Lucas’ Chicken Knickers(1997) refers to, or is at least influenced by, the lesser known photograph Nest. The feminist significance of the eggs have hatched in Lucas’s image, proving that the egg does indeed come before the chicken. Lucas presents the female genitalia as a headless plucked chicken, replacing the innocence of delicate egg imagery with carnal meat, traditionally associated with patriarchal and familiar food consumption. Meat has connotations to masculinity, wealth, and virility; to replace the female genitalia with a plucked chicken, then, effectively draws parallels with contemporary feminist theories such the male gaze, which demotes the subjectivity of the female. Lucas illustrates a brutal reductionist return to female body parts through chicken imagery, demonstrating how the ‘masculine’ consumption of meat is related to the sexual consumption and objectification of women. Again, a symbol to represent femininity (this time more vulgar) is attached to a garment worn by women. The increased crudeness of the symbol is matched to the intimacy of the garment, this time a private pair of knickers. Moreover, the nest which previously symbolised pubic hair is now a red raw chicken. Imagine how constraining it would be to wear a pair of ‘chicken knickers’ under ‘nest tights’. These constructed garments entrap female sovereignty, illustrating how women may sacrifice comfort and authenticity for the sake of being, or acting, feminine.
Before the creation of both these artworks, the Surrealist Meret Oppenheim created an object-sculpture which she named My Nurse (1936). Over forty years prior to Nest and sixty years prior to Chicken Knickers, Oppenheim displaced the feminine connotations of a pair of stiletto heels for a meaning more provocative. In the work, shoes are tied together with string, bound to a silver platter, and decorated with paper crowns, traditionally used to embellish chicken roasts when they are served. By comparing feminine conventions to the plight of a butchered chicken, Oppenheim subverts this strong, seemingly natural connection to femininity using constraint, immobility and subordination – though this is not to discredit or dispute the sexual pleasure women may gain from bondage. Oppenheim’s critique of the feminine predicament interacts with debates instigated by Carol J. Adams in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (1990). In this fascinating study, which engages feminism, animal activism, vegetarianism and literary theory, Adams posits that meat eating, violence and oppression against women are interconnected. The killing of the animal that haunts the presence of meat on our plates becomes an absent referent, she writes, hence the language used to describe animal flesh-laden diets obscure its socio-political origins. In a similar way, she argues that a woman is routinely reduced to little more than “ a piece of meat”, and subsequently treated as such: “ The woman, animalised; the animal, sexualised. That’s the sexual politics of meat.”
In conclusion, I’ll take this analysis out of the 20th century and bring it into the contemporary moment by focusing on the less well known artist Stephanie Metz, who deserves more recognition. The above photograph, Chicken Legs (2004), shows Metz’s soft sculpture, which presents the female body as a headless plucked chicken with wings for arms, human shaped legs and painted red toe nails. This chicken-female is positioned on a chopping board, a platform that crudely mimics an eroticised model strutting on a fashion show catwalk. ‘She’ is presented as meat to be butchered and sexually devoured, articulating the disturbing effects of bodily objectification on female subjectivity. Not only engaging with the feminist debates that Lucas and Oppenheim anticipated, the mise en scène of the above photograph exhibits uncanny similarities to Chicken Knickers and My Nurse, in which symbols of femininity are centred and spotlighted in the darkness. Consider the ways in which the chopping board compares to the silver platter in My Nurse; both staging femininity as something to be served and consumed.
The artists I have discussed here all produce works which conjure a brutal reductionist return to the biological essence of the female body, by way of crude images that symbolise the vagina. They respond to, and satirise, the dominant hegemony which constructs the female body as meat to be consumed through the masculine eye, by extrapolating the male gaze to its logical extreme. These artworks are in dialogue. Through the use of clothing and other domestic objects, these artists question the female obligation to dress according to a fixed gender role (the higher the heels does not necessarily entail the more feminine the woman). With this in mind, one might consider how uncomfortable it would be to wear Chicken Knickers or Nest tights.
Rachel Ashenden is an English Literature undergraduate at the University of Exeter, hoping to further her studies in Art History after completing her BA, and break into the realm of academia and art criticism in the future. Her primary research interests include the dialogue between Surrealism and feminism, and the reclamation of female artists and their artwork from phallogocentric art movements. Alongside her studies, she is the News Editor for the University’s official newspaper,Exeposé.
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. London: Bloomsbury. 1990.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge. 1999.
Cixous, Hélène. ‘The Laugh of Medusa’. In: Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 875-893. The University of Chicago Press. 1976.
Smith, Ali. “ Nest of all”. In: Loose Associations, Vol. 2, Issue IV. London: The Photographers’ Gallery, 2016.