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Monika Mokre (Austria) & Joerg Vogeltanz (Austria): The Emptiness ...

The Emptiness of the Female Body
On the Projects of Tanja Ostojic
By Monika Mokre

The female body is an empty space for projections. It is not a subject but subjected, it is never herself but the necessary counterpart that the real (male) self needs in order to become himself. It is inscribed by desire or adoration, by glorification or humiliation. It is used and abused by pornography, marketing and the fine arts. It is shaped by fashions and changing ideas of beauty. It is not different from the clothes that cover it, it is another layer of them.

The female body cannot remain empty, undefined if it shall fulfil its function. To be the other of man, it has to represent someone or something – mother or whore, goddess or seducer. It has to be serene or erotic or bluntly sexual. It can be all that precisely because it does not have a self-definition, it is nothing more than a mirror for fantasies projected on it.

The female body is the woman. It does not reflect her subjectivity but the subjectivity of the observer. Therefore, a woman does not have subjectivity. She is not a subject but nothing more than this empty body that can be covered or uncovered, shaped, transformed, and mutilated, cherished or torn apart by its observer who is, at the same time, its owner. It is a doll but not one of the nowadays popular dolls that seemingly have a life of their own, who cry and laugh, want to be fed or cleaned – just simply a doll that has no abilities, no elaborated activities, not even a third dimension, nothing than its subjection.

This is one story and a true one. But things are never that clear and there are other, equally true stories that contradict this story. I, the woman, am I, and you, the man, are as much the space for my projections as I am for you. My body is myself and the living memory of the life I have had, of the wounds I have received, of the hands that have caressed me, of the children I have born. And your body is only what I see with my eyes, what I feel with my hands. You are not more a subject than I am. We are written by culture, history, society. Just like our bodies we are defined, shaped, and subjected.

Who am I when there is no subject? And why is it that precisely at the moment when women claimed their subjectivity, the concept of subjectivity disappeared from our understanding? A new clever move of patriarch society or just the logical result of this claim: When there is not only one – white, male, middle class – subject but many different ones and when there are no empty spaces for projecting them, there cannot be a subject. The subject is singular or it is not.

If there is no subject there is also no male subject. Has the gender difference thus disappeared in post-structuralism? Obviously not – but how can the obvious be understood? Perhaps, leaving the essential subject aside, one should talk of subjectifications, of different forms of understanding and representing ourselves and others. And there are more forms of subjectification for men than there are for women. Men can be business managers or proletarians, genius artists or bourgeois pigs, philosophers or rapists. Women are just women.

But does this still hold true? Women can be CEO or creative workers – and if they cannot be proletarian heroes or genius artists – well, are there any left? And men and women can be devoted parents and tender lovers and sexual objects.

What, then, is gender about? Not about the impossibility of the subject, not about the possibility of subjectification. Maybe it is about the difference between subjectification and subjection, not an absolute difference but a relative one. How many and which kinds of subjectification are possible for me and in how many and which ways am I subjected? Up to which degree can I decide on my own body, on its integrity, on the use or non-use of its abilities, not least the ability to bear children? Up to which degree am I exposed to physical violence?

This, of course, is the question for power. Power as a productive and destructive force. Power as the possibility to decide on myself and on others. Gender is thus a power relation. This is hardly an original statement. But is the power relation of gender the same one as, e.g., the power relations of race and class? Nothing is ever the same or all is the same – this is a question of perspective and generalisation. The broader the view, the more things look alike, the closer we look, the more differences we see. The power relation of gender is a very stable one as it is so deeply inscribed and has such a long history. And its seemingly natural expression in physical differences makes it difficult to deconstruct. Still: What else than empty spaces for projections are the perfectly shaped (male) black bodies that are shown to us in most contemporary video clips? And in the movie "The Full Monty", unemployed white workers sell their bodies in lack of anything else to sell.

Bodies are disposable, female bodies and male bodies. Female bodies are more disposable than male ones, but not all female bodies are disposable. My body, the body of a female academic is much less disposable than the one of an Asian sex-worker. And maybe also less disposable than the body of a male asylum-seeker.

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." This is the first sentence of the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" most of the states we know have signed. How then can human bodies be used, abused, subjected, disposed and thus bereaved of their dignity?

The answer lies in the correlation between equality and dignity. Dignity is only warranted to those that are our equals. But how can be equal what is not the same? All is the same and nothing is ever the same. It is a question of perspective, of generalisation or differentiation. We are all the same because we are all human beings. We are all different because we are all individuals.

Subjection is legitimated on a position between these two poles. You are different because you are a woman, you are black, you are poor. You are not just another, you are the other. The other that I need to find my own identity.

Subjection thus works through othering. Those who are different from us are not entitled to the same kind of dignity as we are. How to deal with that? The answer of the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" is to aim for more abstraction, more generalisation. In a fundamental sense, the other is not different, our common belonging to mankind warrants the same rights to all of us. But what are these rights? Who defines universal principles? Not a universal human being but people at a certain time, a certain place and with a certain position. Not every critique of the Declaration of Human Rights comes from dictators unwilling to give up parts of their despotism – it is also possible to think of different human rights and to defend them on the ground of their own legitimacy. And also the human rights as they are written down are very open to interpretation. What exactly is dignity? Is it the right to keep one’s property or the right to survive even if this means that other people’s properties are reduced? Is it the right to live one’s life as free as possible from state interventions or the right to be protected by the state? Is it the right of the unborn child to live or the right of the mother to decide on her body?

If human rights make sense, they are not rights of an abstract human being but of a concrete individual. But those concrete human beings most in need of protection most are not the ones the writers of this declaration thought of. They are – in the term of the Indian philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – subaltern, that is, they are first and foremost women of underprivileged countries. They cannot speak for themselves as they cannot be represented within the hegemonic system of thought. They are objects in the power struggles between men of their own countries and men of other countries. And every attempt to define these power relations in an abstract way is another form of re-enforcing it, of essentialising the differences that are the assumed basis of hegemony and subjection.

Abstraction is always the exertion of power as it defines what is important at a time, in a place, in a situation, in a woman or man. Power is always at the same time productive and destructive – the Declaration of Human Rights allows claims that could not be grounded on another reason and it reduces these claims to its own – historically caused – confinements. The Declaration of Human Rights is, thus, a hegemonic concept, legitimising and de-legitimising claims for acknowledgement. And it is not contingent but unavoidable that the Declaration of Human Rights is only respected as long as power holders want to oblige it – fundamentally, we are not talking about universal principles here but about power.

Power holders are not a clearly defined class of people. Most of us hold some power – and the Declaration of Human Rights gives more power to them that do not have that much of it; among other forms it gives them the possibility to doubt its own universal legitimacy by virtue of their right to a free opinion. But what about them who cannot speak, who are not heard, what about the subaltern? Or, else, what about those things that one cannot speak about, that are not heard? What about the Indian woman burning herself at the grave of her husband and being thereby interpreted by the men of her own society and white colonialists in quite different ways but without being able to give her own reasons? And what about rape in the matrimonial bed and low-key sexual harassment at work and all those small things that subject a woman and bereave her of her possibilities to subjectify herself?

In order to understand how hegemony works for individuals one has not to look for generalisations but - very closely and very precisely - at individuals and individual situations. One has – again in the words of Spivak – an ethical responsibility-in-singularity. Not "a woman", not "a black", not "a poor" is who I am looking at but it is you, with your individual history, individual wishes, interests, and dreams that are coined by being female, black or poor but cannot be reduced to those qualities.

In my understanding, this is what Tanja’s work is about: It is about power relations and about what they do to individuals. She deals with it using the example of the individual she knows best about – herself. Tanja Ostojic is a female artist from Beograd. In her project at the "Manifesta 2, Young European Biennial 1998" she showed the situation of a woman in the world of arts – that, obviously, reflects and symbolizes other worlds. Presenting her naked body under a layer of marble powder in the setting of a renowned exhibition of contemporary art, she showed how the female body and thus woman herself is defined by the looks of the by-passers. Her performance made clear that it is not eroticism we are talking about here, not even blunt sex, but the female body as an empty space for projections. And by standing in a space defined by a chalk circle she also represented the borderlines of this kind of use or abuse in the world of art. "Look but do not touch", is the principle of the arts world – pornography is only one step further but it is different.

Pornography, in a way, was the subject of another of Tanja’s projects. "Looking for a husband with an EU-passport" represented the situation of a woman born outside of the borders of the EU and offering her body – well, probably more than her body – for the kind of freedom and security an EU-passport promises. This is the kind of commerce of women that has been a tradition for some centuries now. Dealing one’s dignity for social security, or – if everything goes well – even for some more degrees of freedom. In the concrete form Tanja chose (fictitious marriage to get the citizenship of another state), it is forbidden nowadays – but not to protect women from indignity but to protect states from new citizens.

But, of course, Tanja is not subaltern. She decides how to represent herself, she has many possibilities of subjectifying herself. The letters potential EU-husbands wrote her do not show the emptiness of her body, the non-subject a woman is in this kind of commerce, but the clichés assumed male individuality is made of. In the project "I’ll be your Angel", stalking Harald Szeemann, the curator of the 49. Biennale in Venice, she did not only show the painful ways a woman artist has to go in order to become acknowledged – she also showed the power the stalker has over the stalked, the observer over the observed.

Tanja Ostojic’s work does not give answers to questions about subjectification and subjectedness, power and its constructive and destructive quality, political struggle and its necessary consequence of new hegemonies. Tanja Ostojic’s work poses questions and very precise ones. And in a time when analytical depth in questioning is much rarer than superficial answers to questions no one ever asked, this is a whole lot.


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By Joerg Vogeltanz

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