When art becomes a lively part of our lives

In «Modern Starts,» the Millenium exhibition mounted at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art at the end of 1999, out of the 176 artists participating, only nine were women. In Europe, Catherine David was the first woman in 50 years to curate the Kassel Documenta in 1997, one of the most established cultural events in art. These are two instances that reflect the marginal role that women still play in the field of art, and which applies to many other professional domains as well. This is the kind of reality that feminist art attacked during the 1960s and 1970s. Highlighting the accomplishments of women and placing emphasis on feminine qualities, early feminist art was, however, subsequently judged as militant, essentialist and as pushing women into exclusion. These early conflicts have now been succeeded by a post-feminist stance, supposedly less strident and more flexible in outlook. Women may still be trapped in a largely male-dominated world but the way they conceive of or negotiate their position is not based strictly on their gender, and is also more introspective. A discussion that recently took place among a group of women working in fields related to the arts reflected this new outlook. The gathering was held at the home of art critic Maria Marangou and was actually part of an artwork by Niki Kanagini. It therefore reflected not just the views of the women participating but also the stance of a contemporary artist who does not ascribe to the feminist agenda and, like many other female artists, rejects the classification – but like them works in a manner that sometimes evokes the concerns of feminist art. «Feminine Gender» by Niki Kanagini was an ephemeral work of art viewed only by its own participants, all of them women. Conceived as an act in four parts, it was essentially an installation that required audience participation and revolved around the notion of entrapment. Setting the mood was the artist’s installation of small metal traps which were placed haphazardly in the home’s pristine kitchen. Inside each trap, Kanagini had placed one of a selection of clay models that resembled parts of the human body. In some traps, Kanagini had also placed red feathers; another element of the installation was the effigies of female figurines, lit from within by a red light, that were interspersed among the traps. Carefully orchestrated, the work started to unfold upon the visitors’ arrival. They were first served wine, then guided through the kitchen, and were later offered a meal which ended up in a relaxed discussion that was conducted by anthropologist Christina Vlachopoulou. In a little less than four hours, the discussion explored the female condition today. Issues of social and professional as well as self-entrapment were explored in an earnest, even confessional, relaxed and open way. Some women expressed the view that the event which they were invited to attend could also be taken as a trap, therefore also raising the issue of the role that contemporary art plays. The event took place at the dawn of the war in Iraq. That coincidence turned this gathering into far more than just an interesting discussion or pleasant get-together of people who share common concerns. It was a comforting gathering that proved how an artwork is not removed from everyday life but is actually part of a lively process that activates emotions and thoughts on current problems but also creates situations whose outcome depends on public reaction. The process of art, site-specific projects and the notion of an artwork as something that is not fixed are, in fact, aspects that have informed Kanagini’s work since the 1970s, when alternative modes of process-based art, such as body or land art, became fashionable. Kanagini was one of the first Greek artists to engage in such practices, fashioning works that required audience participation and interaction, thus blurring the boundaries between art and life. Her work has also explored social issues and the ways in which art can challenge, explore or bring to the surface social relationships. In the early ’70s for example she used three different installations in three different social settings – a bourgeois, a working-class and an haute-bourgeoisie environment (a electronics shop, a factory and a resort area ) – to test people’s reactions. A few years later, on the occasion of a conference on «Art and Audience» which took place in Stuttgart, Kanagini made a triptych, one side of which she inscribed with political slogans inspired by the May uprising 10 years earlier. On the other two panels, she invited people to write their own emotions and «personal slogans.» The art experiment was conducted in different cities and bore comparative results on differing social conditions. Then, in the mid-1990s, Kanagini used the central fruit market of the city of Argos to mount an installation which again drew on the uniqueness of the space to invite interaction. «Feminine Gender» was designed in the same spirit. Although not intended as a feminist work, the fact that it was addressed to women alone renders it a work sensitive to the role of Greek women today. It seemed to suggest that women’s issues need to be addressed, if not in a gender-specific way, then from a broader, more encompassing approach. It also explored the idea of communication, friendship and earnestness. At a time when many people feel constricted by the pressures of professional exigencies, this sense of bonding and togetherness seems all the more important. Always sensitive to its times, Kanagini’s work helps remind us of this necessity.

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