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Living History – Bound Feet Women of China by Jo Farrell

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This week Newsnight has been featuring reports from the documentary series Return to White Horse Village about the upheaval of a rural community in China as the village is turned into a city. Last night’s episode focused on the women and how their lives are changing with urbanisation – the city bringing money and freedom from a life in the fields doing back-breaking work to support their families. One woman had never read a book or travelled outside of the village, another spoke of her frustration at being told by her elders that she has to “put up with it” [do the work] like everyone else.

China’s ‘one-child policy’ (in the cities) which started in the 1970s was eased last year, so after decades of gender bias men currently outnumber women by 33m, which creates an interesting dynamic in terms of work, sex and relationships. Economically independent women in the cities are aspirational and can cherry pick their men so will inevitably want a partner with a broader cultural outlook, and take the opportunity to work, travel and educate themselves as their mothers may not have been able to.

This theme of power dynamics and old versus new is the basis of a new book by Hong Kong-based photographer Jo Farrell. For the past nine years, she has been documenting cultural trends and changes and capturing arts and traditions that are dying out. Her book Living History: Bound Feet Women of China documents 50 women with bound feet from rural areas.

She asked them to share their stories, which are illustrated with black and white photos of their delicate ‘lotus’ feet. The close-up shots are difficult to look at yet this is a practice that continued in secret after it was outlawed by the government in 1912, and many mothers bound their daughters’ feet to improve their ‘marriageability’ into a higher social class. Bound feet limited women’s mobility making them more dependent on their husband and family.

Jo’s aim is to challenge preconceptions about the type of women who experienced foot binding – it wasn’t all upper-class concubines, and to share their stories so that people look beyond their feet.

“There is a general presumption that the bound feet women of China came from privileged backgrounds and wore exquisite silk shoes but I discovered that many of the surviving women came from peasant backgrounds and had lived extraordinary lives working in the fields, despite their bound feet. All the women I have photographed are now between 80 and 100-years-old from rural areas in Shandong and Yunnan Provinces. My work is about capturing traditions and cultures that are dying out, and therefore I chose to use black and white film and print silver gelatin prints – in tribute to these resilient, formidable women, some of whom are no longer with us.”

Resilient and formidable indeed.

As with the women in the documentary, there’s a sense of acceptance, not making a fuss and just getting on with it, which is humbling and so it’s great to see a project like this paying tribute to them. Binding women’s feet was a long-term process done with bandages and so cost nothing – we in the West may call judgement but we also pay vast amounts for cosmetic surgery and ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ to alter the way we look, so really, how is it any different?

Jo has been in London this month speaking about her project at Asia House and to launch the V&A Museum’s new exhibition: Shoes: Pleasure and Pain. She is looking for funding for further projects along similar themes: documenting the facial tattoos of tribal women of China’s Hainan Island and the ethnically exclusive Hakka women in Hong Kong, so if this is something you’d like to support check out the links below.

www.jofarrell.com
www.facebook.com/jofarrellphotography
www.twitter.com/jofarrellphoto

Shoes: Pleasure & Pain is at the V&A Museum until 31st January 2016.

Return to White Horse Village by Carrie Grace.

Photo: Thanks to Sepp Rutz on Unsplash

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Berlin Blog

You have no idea how lovely you are, Berlin – Dorothy Iannone – review

Since the 1960s, Dorothy Iannone has been seen as a pioneering spirit against censorship and for free love and powerful female sexuality, yet ‘pornographic artist’, ‘foxy lady’ and ‘orgasm woman’ are all terms I’ve encountered while researching her work. Critics have questioned whether she’s a feminist and her work has frequently been censored due to its alleged pornographic content. She has been criticised for including genitalia over clothing in her work and for the use of relationships as subject matter.

A new exhibition at Berlinische Galerie hopes to challenge preconceptions by presenting a retrospective of her life’s work – Dorothy Iannone: This Sweetness Outside of Time – Paintings, objects, songs, films and books from 1959 – 2014. Iannone is a self-taught American artist who has travelled extensively and lived in Berlin since 1976. The main themes running through her work are ecstatic love, the power of intuition and self-development, and she draws from her life experience as a travelling artist to create powerful and absorbing work.

The exhibition is divided into sections to give a flavour of her influences and experiences since 1959 and draws from Eastern religions, Buddhism, Tantrism and 17th Baroque erotic poetry. She is funny and dry and some of the paintings made me laugh out loud: “Sometimes men have to submit too.” (man bending over while woman flogs his bottom), the recipe section in A Cookbook (1969), which explains how to prepare a juicy duck (and how it will make you feel when you eat it). I also loved the quote to Danton, an idealised lover in Berlin Beauties (1977/8) – her advice is to create your own ideal lover if he/she’s not around and preferably one that doesn’t stray, “But listen, Danton, if you fell in love with another woman after having met me, I might take her for a walk in the mountains and make her disappear. Either her, anyway, or you.”

In 1966 she created a body of work called People. “I made a few hundred wooden cut-outs of everyone in the world I could think of, real people, imagined people, mythological people, invented people, and I always included their sexual organs even if they were fully dressed.” It was a productive period where she created books and prints, paintings and singing boxes themed around love and sex. The images showed visual genitalia, which was frequently censored.

The most powerful piece for me was An Icelandic Saga, a visual storyboard across one wall which explains her guilt over the breakdown of her marriage to mathematician and artist James Upham after meeting Dieter Roth on a boat trip to Iceland. Reading it took a while (it’s handwritten in felt) and it’s like going on the journey with her physically and emotionally. Certain passages made me cry, her message being that it’s okay to be vulnerable, take a risk and follow your heart. After the trip she left her husband and returned to Iceland to be with Roth, spending eight years with him and went on to create her Dialogues to express her joy during this time.

I Was Thinking of You (1975) is a hand-painted sculpture box which incorporates a video showing her face during sexual arousal and orgasm. In an interview with the curator Massimiliano Gioni she explains her motive for putting herself at the centre of it. “To say that it contributed to any sexual or artistic revolution isn’t really my line. I wanted to give a glimpse of, let’s call it the soul, which at the moment of orgasm, passes fleetingly over the face. I don’t think I ever gave more of myself in my work”.

“You have no idea how lovely you are, Berlin”. 

Dorothy Iannone: The Next Great Moment In History Is Ours, 1970 Courtesy die Künstlerin, Air de Paris, Paris, und Peres Projects, Berlin, Foto: Joachim Littkemann

Berlin Beauties is a poetic invocation of a fictional lover (what to do if your ideal lover isn’t around…) and a declaration of her love for Berlin. At the time she was angry at a country she perceived to be materialistic and patriarchal and set about to “reform Germany” through art and debate, creating her interpretation of mythical figures like the White Goddess and Cleopatra as a strong voice for the women’s movement of the time. I was also moved by the paintings of mother and daughter when she talks about the creative stuff her mother did with her as a child (a reminder that I want to spend more time doing fun stuff with my daughter rather than fretting about work and money). She was two when her father died and so was raised by her mother Sarah Nicoletti Iannone.

From the 1990s onwards the main focus of her work is the ecstatic union between a man and woman and how this transcends individuality. The Movie People depicts painted cut-outs mounted on wood showing scenes from her favourite films about unconditional love or what happens when you sacrifice your happiness for a lover’s (Brokeback Mountain, Lolita, Les Amants, The Piano…)

This is a big yet intimate exhibition that will make you think, laugh and cry and I do feel I know the artist a little bit better after spending time absorbed in her work. To pigeon-hole her as a pornographic artist or question her role as a feminist misses the point: she is a passionate woman who celebrates love, life and sex and who isn’t afraid to take a risk and follow her gut to be happy and authentic. It is a call to action and has an urgency in its expression which I’m still thinking about three weeks’ later.

A rather different subject matter to Ai Weiwei’s Evidence, which I saw in the same week, but they share similar goals in using their life experience and politics to create art.

Dorothy Iannone: This Sweetness Outside of Time: Paintings, Objects, Books 1959 – 2014 until 2.6.14.

Berlinische Galerie Alte Jakobstraße 124 – 128 10969 Berlin.

In Berlin? Tonight the actress Eva Mattes will read erotic poems of Renaissance and Baroque and modern-day prose including extracts from Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and 16th-century French odes to the female body.

Photo: Thanks to Markus Spiske on Unsplash