At a Lithuanian independence day rally last week at Daley Plaza one sign read, "Lithuania--Raped by Gorbachev." A regular at the gulf war demos brings a caricature of our commander in chief with a grotesque erection in the form of a gushing oil derrick. One sign maker at another protest urged, "Let Barbara Face Bush's Naked Aggression."
War brings out our worst sides, maybe our true insides. But nobody pursues the arts of propaganda and obscenity better than SisterSerpents, the anonymous militant collective of women artists. For most of February they have displayed their skill at Artemisia, a women-run gallery bearing the name of an ancient warring queen. The work in "Snakefest '91: Art Against Dickheads," an exhibit juried by SisterSerpents, protests not the war in the gulf but the group's usual target--misogyny. "Men: Stop raping us, stop beating us, stop killing us," reads a poster in the exhibition. "Stop making remarks at us on the street, stop making laws about our bodies . . . stop being so sick."
This exhibit, their fifth, has upset its share of art lovers and dickheads alike. Their first Chicago show triggered lobbying reprisals by the American Family Association and the Heritage Foundation. Since then, every SisterSerpents show--in Hamburg and New York City as well as Chicago--has elicited strong reactions. SisterSerpents has been faulted by squeamish feminists for playing into Jesse Helms's worst nightmare of feminism. ("And proud of it!" would no doubt be their rejoinder.) Painter and SisterSerpent Jeramy Turner concludes: "The fact that we got such strong responses to our art, negative as well as positive, shows us that what we are doing is absolutely necessary in 1991."
In the current show, a jumbo snake is slung from the rafters, swallowing up a businessman--illustrating what Turner cites as a "gut necessity" for arming women for psychological warfare against patriarchy. "We're very consciously not interested in educating men. We're not doing what we're doing to make men better people."
The show also includes a pair of testicles preserved in a jar--a Ball jar--of amber-hued formaldehyde. It is labeled: No. 1705366. This man yelled sexual comments at a woman. There is also a sculpture of an unnaturally tall penis with the words "Not God" painted next to where a razor blade has been embedded. It is called Get It Straight: Violence Hurts.
A series of Saturday-night events at the gallery--"Snakeouts"--has rounded out the show; it concludes this weekend with two performances and several short videos. Operation Menstrual Storm, to be performed by women artists' collective Battleax, includes member Diane Grams's research on masculine ideology as codified in the U.S. military's handbooks on venereal disease.
Images from "adult" magazines will figure in Crafty Beavers, a performance that includes two videos by Katy Maguire. One of them, Guilty, judges a man who watches a rape. Its sinister melodrama echoes Joy Poe's performance in which she staged her own rape at a crowded gallery opening at Artemisia in 1979.
Among other videos scheduled is Fuck Freud, by Christine Stergious. Confessing her penis envy, she soon moves on to the clinically uncommon phase of "penis seeking." Upending Freudian canon, she focuses on what a penis symbolizes instead of worrying about all those cigars and trains in tunnels symbolizing penises. With the pupil of her eye next to the barrel of her pistol, she faces the camera. "Come here, Freud. Come here. You made men feel like they were better than us. But you were wrong. Because you were impotent. And you wanted to blame it on somebody. So you blame it on us. But now we're on top."
While SisterSerpents are venting at Artemisia, Baltimore artist Emil Slovack is addressing sexism his way over at Ten in One Gallery. In the exhibit "Some Exploitative Photographs With a Misogynist Japanese Video," Slovack presents vintage cheesecake pinups that he has rephotographed, framed, and arrayed in series. To expose what he calls the "coercive mechanics of popular culture," he juxtaposes these seemingly benign images with an untranslated 45-minute Japanese video cartoon. The story is about a demonic snake that resides in a woman's vagina and emerges to castrate and decapitate rapists. With Medusa-like tentacles it also penetrates and enslaves legions of women, but is ultimately annihilated by a cosmic feminine being.
Both exhibits inspire debate: Can pornography, long the bane of women, be turned against men in women's hands? Does "Art Against Dickheads" risk a citation in Mayor Daley's index of hate crimes? Are bimbos in billboards handmaidens to sexual harassment?
At a recent demonstration against the pornography that parades as war news, a trio of women put their heads inside mock TV sets. One of the blank silent screens bore the slogan "Power Distorts Vision." Sometimes art like this is needed to bring power into the light.
SisterSerpents's last Snakeout, this Saturday, starts at 8 at Artemisia Gallery, 700 N. Carpenter. There's a $5 donation; call 226-7323 for info. "Snakefest '91: Art Against Dickheads" runs through February 23; the gallery is open 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. "Some Exploitative Photographs With a Misogynist Japanese Video" runs through March 2 at Ten in One Gallery, 1510 W. Ohio. Viewing hours are noon to five Thursday through Saturday; 850-4610.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.