29th March – 16th June 2019
Reviewed by Samera Thalen
(Image above video still from Hiatus by Ericka Beckman. Image courtesy the artist)
This year’s theme at Fact Liverpool is ‘Identity, Representation and Gender.’ The exhibition that is currently on display until June the 16th focusses mainly on the work of Ericka Beckman and Marianna Simnett. Fact encourages everyone to be a part of their programme this year and invites us to take part in discussions and other events that tie into much wider global conversations as they explore the shifting reality of gender and identity in the light of new developments in thinking about these issues. There is not much time left to see this exhibition, so please go and see it before it ends.
The exhibition takes place in two different gallery spaces gallery 1 on the ground floor and gallery 2 on the first. You will need at least an hour or two to see the films completely. The exhibition spaces have a cinematic feel to them, but the films are not ‘easy to read,’ it takes some effort to get into the artists personal style and their visualisation of ideas, and every person has their own reading and understanding about certain themes explored in these works. I will write about my ideas in this short essay, so be aware that this is my interpretation and could help you read the works but it’s not all based on facts.
The two works on display by Ericka Beckman are Cinderella (1986) and Hiatus (1999/2015). In these works, the artist uses the structure of a video game, where you learn skills, get to a higher level, with the expectation of eventually ‘winning’ the game. By repetition and knowing the structure of the game ‘playing’ becomes easier when you overcome the challenges in the game, and this takes time. Think for example about the game Super Mario Brothers, where you have to play the game to come to know the rules of that game, and eventually you just run through the game on high speed, because you’ve been there before and know the ways of winning. Beckman implies these game structures in her work to create a multi-layered narrative of identity construction, that is based on repetition and failure and the desire to become a winner. Beckman fuses the structure of the video game with familiar fairy-tales, like Cinderella. She deliberately connects and diffuses reality and fiction to comment on how the rules of the game (of our society) stamp their marks on us. But there is also a very playful element in her work, a sense of freedom; the idea that new technologies can be used for liberation and empowerment. We now have the ability to create our own identities in a new digital space, safely from our homes behind our computers, that enables us to structure and present ourselves in a way that could be a positive one and therefore opens up the discussion about ‘static’ identity. Beckman herself states about her work that Cinderella never succeeds in satisfying the requirements of the game. We see the protagonist trying to achieve what is expected of her, but she keeps failing, so she eventually gives up and refuses to play the game any further!
Three decades later these issues are still highly relevant. Marianna Simnett’s The Udder (2014) and Blood (2015) share many themes with Beckmann’s work, and in her way, she re-opens this dialogue in the 21st century. Blood is about identity and the mechanisms of control that shape it and keep it in place. The film is about a ‘sworn virgin,’ and portrays a woman that identifies as a man, but to be able to live this way she has to obey strict rules of that gender, which includes celibacy to be accepted by the men in her community. Simnett contrasts this notion by introducing an ‘Arian’ girl, that is a virgin, in the picture who is just entering puberty and becomes aware of her own sexuality. Simnett reflects on the category ‘virgin’ and how these ideas do not include all experiences of individuals of that abstract. The artist states in an interview that there is a problem with thinking about virgins as a mythical angelic blond Arian figure. Why do you think this is?
Simnett examines how the body it is perceived medically and socially and how these ideas are used to control and produce. Her tales bring together myths and scientific developments that reflect on the ‘infection of the system,’ and they lay bare the toxicity that constructs and holds in place our ideas about identity. She reflects about the effects of these myths and how they form our personal narratives and ideas about our bodies and lives, and this is how the work connects to Beckman’s, they both show that some conventions are actually based on myths that are irrational and dated.
In The Udder Marianna illustrates the production mechanisms in the bioindustry and especially the (mal)practice of milk production. The cows in the film are literally retained in a cage-like-box and connected to machines that regulate and produce from their bodies, this is a connection with Beckman’s film Hiatus where the protagonist Wanda is captured by Blaire with a lasso (at that same moment we here cow bells ringing) and he insists that she will grow his fruits, this all happened (in virtual reality?) after she connected herself to the computer-machine with wires, in a similar way the cows in The Udder are connected to a production-machine as a reality and every day practice.
You should really watch these films to form your own opinion, and it would be a good thing to converse about. Simnett invites us to look closer at the reality of what bioindustry entails now and that we are far away from ‘happy cows in a meadow.’ Simnett above all tries to open up the space of categories and binaries, by not overdetermining objects with fixated meanings, but instead she pleas for ‘pan-gender, across everything.’
There are references made in the films that connect the treatment of women and animals, the artists both portray their views about control and how this is connected to consumption culture. In The Udder there are references to animal rights, that the animal generates milkshakes for the market, that are used for pleasure. Is it ethical to inflict pain for unnecessary pleasure? Simnett informs us that animals are getting diseases because of this ill treatment. The cows that are infected are removed from the system by eliminating them. Simnett brings up issues of domination over a species that does not have a voice and thus no power to stop this harm from being done to them. Beckman illustrates more powerfully the joyful experience of breaking out of dominating systems by actively refusing to conform to the ‘rules of the game’ in her works. I find the work of Simnett less optimistic because I can’t see a way out of the painful maze that she sketched.
Maybe this is why Simnett’s installation Faint with Light (2016) accompanied the exhibition. In this installation the artists actively brings her body in a state of hyperventilation until she loses consciousness, the beams of light in the installation follow her breathing by recording the intensification of the process. For me, this brings up the idea that only by destroying the system from within, from a total breakdown of functions, we can start to build up our consciousness, as a community, in a new manner.
Carrigan, Margaret. ’What Can Fairy Tales Tell Us About Today? Two Video Artists Offer Modern Takes.’ The Observer, May 6, 2018. Accessed April 27, 2019. https://observer.com/2018/06/ericka-beckman-marianna-simnett-artists-make-fairy-tales-modern-zabludowicz-collection/.
Milner, Daphne. ‘Marianna Simnett’s Videos Explore Fears and Phobias Surrounding the Human Body.’ It’s Nice That, October 22, 2018. Accessed May 7, 2019. https://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/marianna-simnett-blood-in-my-milk-film-221018. www.jerwoodfvuawards.com (interview with Simnett) www.erickabeckman.com