On leaving the gallery after viewing this show, I had an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach about these new works from Magnus Plessen. These works unsettled me. And that was, in fact, the actual word I used on social media to describe the show – unsettling – accompanied with a couple of pictures.
But a few hours later, that uncomfortable feeling had transformed into something more definite – these works are worrying and, at points, offensive. They depict dismembered female bodies – images that outside of an art gallery would cause concern. Yet I feel the violence inherent in these works would be protected, defended, because this is art and therefore worthy of examination rather than scorn.
It was the response on social media that really helped crystallise my thoughts, for my photos on Instagram received a flurry of ‘likes’ – more than I usually get for an art photo – and these were occasionally accompanied with comments such as ‘nice!’ and ‘thumbs up emoji’. I was horrified. Why would you react to these violent images like that? One commentator put ‘Cute!’ What’s cute about a dismembered female body??
And that’s when it clicked – this kind of violent treatment of female bodies is just par for the course. We’re desensitised. And that worries me.
The bulk of the paintings in this show are inspired by Magnus’s wife’s pregnancy with their fourth child. A happy time, you’d think? Yet here, in canvas after canvas, drawing after drawing, a pregnant female form is displayed in a mutilated state, her limbs out of joint. And in some of these works, her womb has been transformed into a black void. A black hole, if you will – a rare natural phenomenon that destroys all matter within it.
Initially I was confused. The rosey warm hues of the woman’s skin and the sweet backstory made me think that there was something I perhaps was missing, that there was a conflict or a subtle contradiction in these images that was passing me by. And maybe there is. But as I reflected on them, I decided that I should trust my instincts – the emotion behind these does not seem to be of love but of hate.
But beyond this, I am already anticipating the, ‘oh, but all art is subjective’ response. Or the ‘art explores difficult emotions’ statement that is usually rolled out. And, of course, free speech, free speech, free speech!
I’ll be patronised and laughed at, no doubt.
But here’s the thing – I am a woman and this depiction of women I know makes its way into society, feeds into the sexism, misogyny and the treatment of women.
There comes a point when we have to call it out and say, you don’t get a free speech pass for art when all it masks is violence against women. Too many women know that argument. We are programmed to accept a certain level of harassment in our everyday lives, and those of us on Twitter sure as hell know about the ‘free speech’ defence when we are abused and men tweet us with their desires to commit violent acts upon us.
So that’s why I’m calling it out here.
Magnus Plessen doesn’t get a free pass from me here. He doesn’t get me tilting my head to one side saying, ‘hmmm, interesting, interesting. Difficult emotions.’ Instead this show gets me saying, ‘seriously, stop platforming male artists depicting violent acts against women. It’s feeding into a dangerous cultural balance where men get to claim art as a cover for their violent misogynistic thoughts, and women are forced to have this violence pushed more in to their faces, and forced to cower that little bit more.’
Not that I will be listened to, or maybe even heard. But I am speaking up nevertheless.
White Cube Mason’s Yard, London to January 14, 2017
All installation photos by me.