Forget_Hier est aujourd'hui
Nadège Grebmeier Forget — Hier est aujourd’hui., screenshot, extract from the Instagram photographic logbook on 19-02-2016.
Photo: courtesy of the artist

Feminisms and Uncertainty: A Body of One’s Own and Beyond Oneself

Thérèse St-Gelais
In a preface titled “De la beauté des (mauvaises) filles” (On the beauty of (bad) girls), distinguished feminist historian Michelle Perrot notes how throughout history “fear of the female sex and body”1 1 - Michelle Perrot, preface, in Véronique Blanchard and David Niget, Mauvaises filles. Incorrigibles et rebelles (Paris: éditions Textuel, 2016), 8 (our translation). is recurrent in representations of women and — for various reasons, I would add — feminisms, which are also sometimes cause for concern.

Based on the premise that no form of feminism exists with a written, visual, or audio support or manifesto that can translate the full range of its meaning, any more than does a school of feminism that dictates the rules of adherence, it is nevertheless understood that all feminists, regardless of their approach or leanings, are concerned with identity issues centred on the body. But it is because the body has both a private and a public aspect and may, despite itself, be the focus of demands, or even of agency, that it is of interest here. In the words of Judith Butler, “The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency…. The body has its invariably public dimension; constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, bearing their imprint, formed within the crucible of social life, the body is only later, and with some uncertainty, that to which I claim as my own.”2 2 - Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 2. Critically speaking, this “uncertainty” seems significant in relation to the artists and works that I examine in this essay.

Central to this essay are the works of Nadège Grebmeier Forget and Manon Labrecque, whose political leanings and activities I am unfamiliar with, but whose works often invite feminist readings, however heterogeneous they may be. It is a heterogeneity that, in my view, promotes a broader understanding of the multiple, intersecting issues raised by feminisms. I also look at Julie Delporte’s journal drawings, since they, like Grebmeier Forget’s and Labrecque’s work, seem to adopt an auto-fictional perspective in which the representation of the “vulnerable” body challenges its “public dimension.”

Manon Labrecque
apprentissage, 2015, installation view, Expression, centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe, 2016.
Photo : courtesy of the artist & Expression, centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe

Seemingly antithetical proposals, with explosive portrayals of the body in one versus the withdrawal of the body, which “translate[s] a sense of powerlessness, an inability to communicate,”3 3 - Nicole Gingras, Manon Labrecque — Corps en chute (Montréal: éditions Nicole Gingras, 2002), 62 (our translation). in the other, Grebmeier Forget’s and Labrecque’s works converge in their sense of intimacy, in their “embodied” representations of the self. Yet, in my view, these representations express a feminist perspective that cannot hide the artists’ gender consciousness. Rather than subjugating the body to specific actions, both Grebmeier Forget and Labrecque endeavour to show the illusory domestication long rejected by numerous feminists.

In her performative exhibition — Hier est aujourd’hui.,4 4 - Vu, centre de diffusion et de production de la photographie, Quebec City, from February 11 to March 13, 2016. Grebmeier Forget made playful use of her body, its image, and the space it occupied. Inside a pink cube, whose form and colour connected the clichés of the supposedly neutral exhibition space and a shade with decidedly feminine overtones, the artist appeared in a continuous live video feed from her studio/home. To observe the artist, viewers had no choice but to enter the cube. And to be observed, the artist had to adapt to the constraints of the “panoptic” — which, we should note, she delib­erately chose and which allowed her to exist through the eye of the other, whom she forced, for the duration of the visit, to see her exactly as she chose, as she abandoned herself to an auto-fiction whose outcome she didn’t necessarily seem to know.

Nadège Grebmeier Forget
— Hier est aujourd’hui., screenshot, extract of the performance on 25-02-2016.
Photo : courtesy of the artist

Perhaps seeking to master the body — or, rather, the changing identities that shape it — the performance artist indulged in excess, using various accessories and gimmicks, as well as a multitude of bodily gestures, to transport viewers into a visual frenzy that made it impossible to see or identify everything that flashed on the screen. One can state with confidence, however, that these objects and gestures played overtly into a stereotypical vision of the feminine that responds in some way to social norms and expectations. “To challenge the notion of femininity is the consummately feminine act, a protest that can be read as evidence for that which it seeks to contest”5 5 - Butler, Undoing Gender, 177. — a challenge that Grebmeier Forget seems to imply through her staging and presentation of materials. Sequins, pearls, ribbons, lace, mirrors, seductive glances, and hair play, but also speech impeded by a camera inserted in the mouth, garish if not grotesque makeup, solid and fluid materials acting on the resistance of a body that has repeatedly been put to the test — all this and more is spread over more than a hundred hours of recordings. At times, the artist seems listless: the fatigue “of doing,” perhaps.

In conversation with Martine Delvaux,6 6 - On Sunday, October 30, at Maison des arts de Laval during Nadège Grebmeier Forget’s exhibition LIVE 11-03-16, 12 h — 17 h, August 28 — November 6, 2016. feminist author of Les filles en série. Des Barbies aux Pussy Riot, Grebmeier Forget admits to feeling a sense of solidarity with these “girls” presented as “still lifes,” “fetish girls,” or “living tableaux,” not for attempting to show their true nature, but for attempting to transgress the limits that define them. It is an act that, evidently, seems to take a great deal of time and energy, and that perhaps explains the artist’s apparent weariness. Always in motion, the image that she presents of herself is not in conflict with some unachievable ideal; instead, it underlines the fact that this ideal is perpetually under construction, and that failure is guaranteed if one’s goal is to attain a truthful identity.

Grebmeier Forget’s performances involve dizzying streams of images,7 7 - which have become somewhat of a signature for the artist. It’s as though there were never enough time or space for her to target her subject in the process of becoming, and that subject, in spite of her, merges with a representation of the “public” body.

Forget_Hier est aujourd'hui _expo
Nadège Grebmeier Forget
— Hier est aujourd’hui., exhibition view, VU, centre de diffusion et de production de la photographie, Québec, 2016.
Photo : © VU / Hubert Gaudreau

Whereas “constantly producing oneself” is no guarantee for a genuine image of the self in Grebmeier Forget’s work, with Julie Delporte, it is “producing nothing” that makes us believe we are nothing. Here, I am thinking specifically of a page in Delporte’s illustrated diary [NOTE count=8]Journal,[/NOTE][REF count=8] Julie Delporte, Journal (Toronto: Koyama Press, 2013), n.p. in which the female protagonist says, “again, this false idea that if I don’t draw anything, don’t write anything, I am a nobody (who gave me this damn disease of wanting to be a somebody?)” This thought appears in a drawing of a computer on a table, its screen showing boxes without images — a sign, among others, of this identity crisis. “If I am someone who cannot be without doing,” says Butler, “then the conditions of my doing are, in part, the conditions of my existence.”9 9 - Butler, Undoing Gender, 3. But what do these conditions permit me to be? Between “constantly producing oneself” and “I am a nobody,” don’t all representations of the self imply a level of ambiguity that deserves to be questioned?

A Body of One’s Own or Beyond Oneself

What Grebmeier Forget strives to show in the collapse of her studio/home, Labrecque endeavours to define in the video installations touchée (2015) and apprentissage (2015), presented in the exhibition L’origine d’un mouvement.10 10 - The exhibition, held at Expression, Centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe from August 27 to October 23, 2016, was curated by Nicole Gingras. Both works involve the experience of a body constrained or put to the test in its quest to represent itself, to give itself a reality.11 11 -  Judith Butler has commented extensively on what could be called “real” life by evoking, among others, women and sexual minorities in contexts in which violence arises. See her Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2004).

Manon Labrecque
touchée, 2015.
Photo : courtesy of the artist

In both touchée and apprentissage, Labrecque appears to be in search of herself, someone who seems unable to make up her mind to stay where she is. In touchée,a looped video shows a woman, the artist, advancing tentatively with eyes closed in a confined space. In fact, she’s trying to touch a drawing of her hands suspended on a transparent screen in front of her, but only fleetingly before pulling away, distancing herself from the image. It’s as though the correspondence — or, more importantly, the conformity — of the images lasts for only the space-time of a touch, rapidly dissipated and constantly reattempted. The brevity and inconsistency of this moment, repeated over and over, transforms it into a vestige of an encounter between the self and a projection of the self. Here, failure makes a stronger impact than success, something that Nicole Gingras had already observed about the ensemble of Labrecque’s work, noting that she seems to “take malicious delight in cultivating failure — a failed movement, faltering words, the missing part of an image.”12 12 -  Gingras, Manon Labrecque, 34 (our translation).  Yet this “failure” seems to echo what Jack (formerly known as Judith) Halberstam claimed:13 13 -  J. Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011). that failure can be beneficial, or even salutary, insofar as it appears here as an expression of resistance to mastery — mastery of the body, of the self; being in complete possession of one’s whole being. Hence, Halberstam insists that we “resist mastery,” specifying that “we might read failure, for example, as a refusal of mastery.”14 14 - This refusal calls for a reconsideration of the savoir-faire that directly impacts the construction of knowledge and identity, whose objectivity has long been questioned by feminist [NOTE count=15]epistemology.[/NOTE][REF count=15]See Elsa Dorlin, “Vers une épistémologie des résistances,” in Sexe, race, classe : Pour une épistémologie de la domination, ed. Elsa Dorlin (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2009), 5 — 18.

Julie Delporte
Journal, extracts, L’Agrume, Paris, 2014.
Photos : courtesy of the artist

Appropriating one’s body, inhabiting it, making it one’s “own,” embodying it: this is what appears to be happening in apprentissage, which again shows a woman trying to connect with what might be the silhouette of her alter ego. Here, the image of a woman, filmed in a relatively large, open space, is projected onto a wall on which an outline of the artist’s body is drawn. It is within this outline that the blurred figure in the video tries to fit, testing the limits of her body. She repeatedly falls back to the ground, withdrawing into herself, as though satisfaction could not be found within the fixed frame, each time leaving before her the empty silhouette. The objective of this vertical-to-horizontal movement, repeated in a loop, does not, however, seem to unfold with the expectation that the female subject will ever be contained in its totality, or as a whole, within the drawn representation. Anna Khimasia also acknowledges this notion of incompletion in Labrecque’s work: “Her exploration of the body moving in time and space seems to reiterate the way in which our sense of being is always in process and never fixed.”16 16 -  Anna Khimasia, “Manon Labrecque, L’origine d’un mouvement,” Etc Media, no. 106 (Fall-Winter 2015 — 16): 93.

“I don’t fully inhabit myself,” notes the character in Delporte’s Journal, expressing a tension between the girl and the woman. “I need to stop being this little girl trapped in a woman’s body,” reads the text next to what appears to be an abstract ink drawing of female breasts. It’s as though, here again, there is a quest for the self, without an express expectation to succeed. What falls down in Labrecque’s, does not transpire in Delporte’s, and is constantly reiterated in Grebmeier Forget’s work evinces that any representation of the self has many shortcomings, which, paradoxically, give it its power and resistance.

Following Halberstam, who suggests that feminists believe in a resistance “that does not speak in the language of action and momentum but instead articulates itself in terms of evacuation, refusal, passivity, unbecoming, unbeing,”17 17 - Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 129. and considering the “uncertainty” with which the body gauges our (my) sense of belonging, it seems timely to perceive these works as offering resistance to prescribed representations of bodies, women, and feminisms — and this, even if they bear silent testimony.

Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft

Julie Delporte, Manon Labrecque, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Thérèse St-Gelais
Julie Delporte, Manon Labrecque, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Thérèse St-Gelais
Julie Delporte, Manon Labrecque, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Thérèse St-Gelais
Julie Delporte, Manon Labrecque, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Thérèse St-Gelais
Julie Delporte, Manon Labrecque, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Thérèse St-Gelais
Julie Delporte, Manon Labrecque, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Thérèse St-Gelais
Julie Delporte, Manon Labrecque, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Thérèse St-Gelais
This article also appears in the issue 90 - Feminisms

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