(Reflections on the exhibition “Keep calm and have a vagina” by Biljana Vasileva, opened in MKC in March 2013)
#4 Biljana Vasileva’s work began to kick up dust well prior to the official opening of her recent one-man exhibition, thanks to the social networks, where she posted a few photos of her paintings, probably intended to serve as a tease for the exhibition. It was obvious from the comments that nudity and sex, even when it comes to their artistic presentation, are still a benevolent provocation. Although the public has widely accepted (the) notion that we live in an extremely sexualised culture in which sex is all around us, “attacking” us by the media on regular basis to the extent that we should no longer react to it, the example of just one photo of Vasileva’s paintings showed, in a very plastic way, that its artistic representation is still a taboo and a sensitive zone. I choose not to get into vulgarity, embarrassing conversation, let alone offensive sexist jokes directed to the author, which I have read among the comments, nevertheless, I shall hypothetically ask a few questions provoked by this debate, and of course by the exhibition itself: If history of art, and even Macedonian art, is full of erotica, why does it still cause such hostile reactions? Are naked bodies and scenes of sexual acts already stretching the thin line between erotica and pornography? What is considered obscene (vulgar) today? Why is it acceptable for women to be objects of erotic art, but not authors? Is there still a double standard for women and men? Finally, where does this need for phony moralizing come from in the 21st century?
#5 Undoubtedly the exhibition is intriguing with the very title “Keep calm and have a vagina”, a title that according to Vasileva “is deliberately provocative, in order to attract attention, to pose some questions about the situation in gender spheres, as well as in political and sociological spheres in general.” (Slobodna Evropa). Given that “ Provocation and shock have been part and parcel of western art from the modern period onwards – testing, pushing and expanding the established aesthetic parameters is closely linked to intellectual, religious, ethical and legal concerns of the time.” (Mey, 2004: 12), Vasileva’s motivation for this artistic experiment is quite clear, openly and consciously raising many dilemmas and breaking many taboos. It is obvious that “Vasileva expects different reactions to her 17 canvases, acrylic and oil, 8 acrylic oils on wood, small size and 15 drawings, all mainly painted over the past year. She says fellow artists accept it as a very normal thing, art connoisseurs give her support, but negative posts can be expected by the broad public. However, as she states, the artist needs to be brave and go to the end. I simply told my story, and the reactions are irrelevant for the artist, one truly feels like an artist.” (Slobodna Evropa).
#6 Whether we expected it or not, the very courage on her part to grasp the nettle with such provocation is almost always considered to be as a male trait, so that at the opening ceremony of the exhibition Vasileva was characterized by MKC Director Mr. Zlatko Stefkovski as a “woman with balls”, which would undoubtedly indicate that these (bold, provocative, erotic) works are more suitable for men. This phrase, which I believe was intended to sound like a compliment, as well as other similar views discussed above, indeed emphasize the need for consideration of the paintings from this exhibition through the prism of gender analysis. Although I do not like the divisions of art in terms of male or, female, nor do I consider art themes and motifs to those typical of one gender, whereas improper to the other, it seems that reception of Vasileva’s painting largely has to do with the fact that this ars erotica1F comes from a woman. Probably a woman and her work are expected to stick strictly to their side of the binary oppositions shared by all general categories related to gender (on the male side we have rationality, intellectuality, culture, power, and women possess their opposites irrationality, emotionality, their nature, weaknesses). Additionally, this talented artist is young and beautiful, which is visible on the provocative photos of Janus T. placed in the catalogue of the exhibition, which certainly affects the increased intensity of both the interest and the reactions.
#7 Meanwhile, the artist felt the need to frequently make clear some of her thoughts. So, she says “Somehow I want to send a message to the members of my gender that although it is considered that we live in a man’s world, we do not have to succeed in the world using the typically male weapons – aggression and violence. No need to play by their rules. We can achieve our goals in a typically feminine, subtle, cultural way …” (Slobodna Evropa). Previously, she sent the same message through her opening speech at the exhibition, in which she lays out her views on eroticism accepted as a sign of female inferiority, under the influence of male models of power. Among other things Vasileva says “Eroticism is often abused by men against women, it has been turned into trivial sensation. It deters research and consideration of the erotic as a source of energy and information, mixing it with its opposite, the pornography. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, it is the suppression of feelings, emphasizing sensation without feeling. Such attempts to equate pornography and eroticism, two diametrically opposite meanings of sexuality, are very frequent.” (Vasileva).
#8 Understanding the erotic as the personification of love in all its aspects, Vasileva talks about the life force of women and insists that “recognition of the power of eroticism in our lives can give us the power not only to change the characters in the exhausting drama called life, but also to perform some actual and major changes in the world.” (Vasileva). In spite of the fact that I stand behind every word of Biljana’s and I share the idea that the issue of sex is about power and control, I have to admit that at times it bothers me a little that she has been “forced” to defend herself and give further explanations, and even I feel the need to use this text to stand up on her behalf, though at the same time and in my own name and on behalf of all women. Of course it raises the question why women’s art and women’s sexuality in general, need any clarifications and justifications?
#9 Even if we try to put her artistic representation in the field of obscene, the emerging question is what is in fact considered to be vulgar and obscene today? If we try to set apart erotica from pornography, it is clear that these terms constantly fluctuate and that “The line between erotic art and pornography and the underlying criteria and categories has always been brittle and historically and socially fluid… There are several key examples of what has become widely accepted as outstanding work in the twentieth-century art beyond the confining qualifier of the erotic”(Mey, 2004:14). After all, we should not forget that Susan Sontag (in “The Pornographic Imagination”) proposed to consider pornography as art, whereas there would be distinction between good and bad pornography, where good is one that has some artistic value and its own aesthetic rules.
#10 Finally, what is far more important than framing Vasileva’s opus within feminist movements and the interpretation of her achievements in terms of their reception, are the works themselves. Therefore, their valorisation must step out of this range, with a focus on the aesthetics, starting and ending with the firm argument that art can only work in the area of freedom, beyond all norms and conventions. In this sense, it is extremely important that “In these games of provocation, imagination and invention, Vasileva moves some boundaries or rely on already pushed boundaries in the world artistic expression … common denominator of all her works are firm lines, darkness or wideness of the inside. Biljana uses black and extra black colour to provoke those around her existence in every way.” (Gjorgiev, opening). Such black provocations, which especially provoked our curiosity, are primarily the motives of the cycle of drawings made with pencil or ink on paper, such as “Trinity”, “Naked pianist” and “Beauty and the old man.”
#11 On the other hand, the insistence on the use of black colour is just the first impression when someone is faced with the works of this exhibition (actually black is her private trademark also), but while one is going through the hall, we’re slowly realizing that it is more than colour, that it is a symbol of the mysterious, mystical power and strength of women, it is an expression of emotional thread woven into this cycle, it is used to further highlight the effects and direct you to the core of her work. In contrast with the white, it creates a unique artistic world where Vasileva feels comfortable and powerful, only on her own. However, despite the initial impression, the images from the exhibition are not monochromatic. There are also orangey -reddish- yellowish tones, but it seems that they are mostly just scenery, setting in which the black plays a key role once again. Even when the use of colour is more impressive and more dominant as in “Use environmentally friendly fuel” or “Female Torero”, it seems that the bright green and red only have the function to highlight the form and to make contrast between the figures and the floating backdrop. It is innovative because the composition of the images is multifaceted, with emphasis on the front position where “You can see and find inner screams, scared eyes, uncertain situations, the apparitions that weigh the soul, elements that historiographically complete the image of one period, and the time we live in, communicate and exchange views.” (Gogov).
#12 What is perhaps the only thing that matters is that the sight of these amorphous, even grotesque bodies and beings, their asymmetry, their shapes and re-shaping, their fragmentation and cleanness of all unnecessary details, their fixation at times, which sometimes becomes fluid fluctuation, deeply tickles the senses. Vasileva is right to claim that “works are reduced to mild erotica at first glance, but at second, third and so on, the eroticism is lost, what remains is only the visual and the aesthetics, which I rate to be most important, and irony and play.” (Vest: 37). It certainly is not contrary, but rather complementary to the extremely powerful message it sends at the same time, in accordance with what, for example. Picasso said of the artist as “he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.” (Picasso). It is in this sense that “the power of expression of Vasileva is going to the extremes, even vulgarity, as a way of touching some issues and social conditions, and using visuality to call an end to the superficial perception of things. Art scream that penetrates deeply into the sociological, political and gender spheres and leaves open the question of the position of women in today’s world.” (Gjorgiev, catalogue).
#13 Hoping that finally the time has come for women to be included among the names of the greatest artists in the canon of art history, we will finish this analysis of the works from the exhibition “Keep calm and have a vagina” by Biljana Vasileva with compliments for the overall, unusual experience that this exhibition offered to Skopje audience. This assessment is due to its originality, superior usage of style, mastering skills to work with quite a few techniques and substrates, all built-in into a recognizable aesthetics, but also to some completely subjective criteria for these works’ appeal, which is quite reasonable if you wonder if it is even possible to be objective in the assessment of any work of art. However for me personally, Biljana Vasileva is primarily a female Prometheus, heroine of Macedonian painting that boldly challenges our puritanical milieu and offers progressive artistic provocation, that confirms the women’s truth that to have a vagina and a personal opinion is a powerful combination.
Василева Билјана, Говор прочитан на отворањето на изложбата “Keep calm and have a vagina”, МКЦ, март 2013 г. (преземен од ФБ евентот за истата)
Гогов Митко, Keep calm и создавај!, Репер, Скопје, година VI,
број 3/2013, 06 април, http://reper.net.mk/keep-calm. Пристапено на 07.04.2013 г.
Ѓорѓиев Горјан, Говор прочитан на отворањето на изложбата “Keep calm and have a vagina”, МКЦ, март 2013 г.
Ѓорѓиев Горјан, Текст во каталогот “Keep calm and have a vagina”, Изложба на Билјана Василева, МКЦ, Скопје, Македонија, 2013
Интимна визуелна исповест на Билјана Василева во МКЦ, Интервју на Јолевки Љупчо,
http://www.slobodnaevropa.mk/content/article/24934168.html. Пристапено на 03.04. 2013 г.
Kerstin Mey, Art and Obscenity, Published in 2007 by I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd
Се хранат со порнографија, а се гнасат од еротика, Интервју направено од Нестороска Билјана, Вест, 11 април 2013, стр. 36-37
Пикасо Пабло, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6534-what-do-you-think-an-artist-is-he-is-a. Пристапено на 12.04.2013 г.
Translated by Bela Gligorova#15
1. Term given by Michel Foucault in his “History of sexuality” (1978). His term denotes the eastern perception of sex as art form contrary to western approach called scientia sexualis. In this text the term is used in its literal meaning of erotic art.