Curatorial Notes by Kimberly Shen for While She Quivers at Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Film, 10 February - 13 March 2022.
In quivering, she is overcome by emotion and indignance, fuelled by rage but equally captivated by possibilities and determined to have agency. The road ahead is fraught and uncertain; she resists predestined trajectories, she recognises the source of power within, she predicates her hopes and dreams, she rises with provocation. Like an arrow that springs forth from its quiver, it is this image of a woman – of whom is embodied and embraced – that manifests While She Quivers, an exhibition of Kanchana Gupta and Yanyun Chen’s emotive,
deeply intimate, personal and autonarrative works.
Before engaging with discourses on gender and feminism, we must firstly acknowledge that this is hinged on lived experiences which are heavily visceral, urgently felt, and often sensational and reactive. We ponder: why do I feel this way, why am I uncomfortable, why does this not sit right, why am I angry, who is making these demands? Yet, we are also mindful and acutely aware of the progress we have made as womxn, or as those who sit on the fringes of otherness. As Yanyun expressed in our interview for this publication, “You can still have an emotional crisis despite having agency”. It reminds us that empowerment is not experienced without hesitation or in isolation. Influential feminist and activist Audre Lorde (1984) proclaimed, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”; to forge change, we need to acknowledge that feminism is both a dismantling project and a building project (Ahmed, 2017). We must ask ourselves: how do we shift regimes of power, how do we navigate around these precarities, how do we tend to differences, how do we dismantle a world that has already been assembled?
Both artists’ works allude to patriarchy and its associated frameworks, and critically disrupt the male gaze without the necessity to be explicit nor overt. In The Production of Desire, Kanchana’s exploration of moving image, the (male) voyeur observes silently for he exists behind the camera lens; his presence is languid and lingering. In critiquing the construct of femininity within Indian cinema, which has been built for and shaped by the viewer, the artist embodies this persona of desire and arousal, of suggestive gestures and furtive glances, of
the translucency of chiffon deliberately and sensuously draped across her body. While there is an initial discomfort watching the artist perform this role within an elaborately staged and choreographed environment, she emerges triumphant through this filmic arc: the viewer is complicit in her first performance (red) where she imitates the overly-sexualised female body; her second performance (yellow) asserts a subversion of eroticism; and her final performance (blue) sees a reclamation of her personal power and narrative.
Within Yanyun’s immersive installations, she draws upon the symbolic potency of objects – red lanterns, dainty red slippers, camphor chests – unpacking their significance and the meanings that transcend generations, inherited and embraced without fully understanding nor questioning their consequences. In the epilogue of Stories of a woman and her dowry, the solitary figure of a bride on her wedding night sits awaiting. It is a silence before the rupture: an immense grieving for the loss of who she was, an obliteration of her past, present and future. Unfolding through chapters of spatial autofiction, the artist has cast corporeal bodies that want to defy the subjugation of being a traditional Chinese woman: for she will continue to resist, she will not conform to these expectations. The act of rebellion also surfaces optimism; we can exist beyond assigned roles of wife, mother, daughter, virginal bride, seductress, femme fatale, tender heroine, damsel in distress – we can reckon with multifacted extrapolations and recognitions of femininity.
To challenge the tropes of femininity and becoming womxn, to deny patriarchy and systemic power, to reject and redirect the gaze are all familiar narratives in feminist thought. It would be naive to expect the exhibition to reconcile these feelings of injustice, to bridge a resolution to this age-old discourse, or to emancipate the artists from their burden of being womxn. But what we can do is hold space for these stories; we can be vulnerable, we can prompt renewed perspectives, we can reclaim language and structures that have worked against us. For she will continue to carry her stories that will quiver with strength, courage, and potency.
Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press.
Lorde, A. (1984). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.
Download exhibition catalogue here.