Venus by Petrina Hicks is a large-scale lightbox image. Picture: courtesy of the artist and Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin
The explicit awareness of the female sexual voice in Western art was a phenomenon widely associated with the 1960s and 1970s. Building on the experience of such proto-feminists as Georgia O'Keeffe and Lee Krasner, artists, including Carolee Schneemann, Louise Bourgeois, Valie Export, Betty Tompkins, Judith Bernstein, Juanita McNeely and Joan Semmel, then blurred the boundary between art and pornography and confronted eroticism with a clear feminine voice.
For more than the past half century, art school students have grown up on a diet of feminist theory, its orthodoxies, schisms and bitter rivalries. In 2020 for a female artist who has graduated from an art school not to have a feminist voice and to comment on female sexuality is rare.
The Body Electric (an unnecessarily awkward title) is an exhibition of photographs and videos made by women artists commenting on sex and eroticism from a distinctly feminine perspective. It samples work from the past half century made mainly by Australian, American and Asian artists, with one French artist and a New Zealander added to the mix.
Some of the earlier work in the show still packs the greatest punch. Carolee Schneemann's Meat joy (1964) is a 10-minute video (transferred from a 16mm film) of an orgy performed by nine near-naked dancers with joints of meat and other objects. The abject and the sensuously erotic share the stage and completely captivate the audience. There is a dignity in this celebration of female sexuality.
Next to it in the exhibition hangs Cindy Sherman's large chromogenic photograph Untitled #255 (1997) (reprinted by the artist in 2018). She converts her own body into a puzzling erotic mannequin made of doll parts.
Sardonically, the artist observed, "The work is what it is and hopefully it's seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I'm not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff." Following on from her very early brilliant untitled film stills, this Sex pictures series remains one of the most poignant explorations into female sexuality in art.
The well-known piece by Annette Messager, Mes voeux [My vows] (1989), a collage photographic installation of parts of women's anatomy and Nan Goldin's recently seen The ballad of sexual dependency (1983-91) are some of the other highlights of the international contingent at the exhibition.
The best of the Australians at the exhibition include Pat Brassington, Tracey Moffatt and Petrina Hicks. Brassington is the master of the uncanny and her large seamless digital prints create ambiguous objects of desire, such as the brilliant Boucher (2001), where one discordant note upsets our reading of the whole composition. Moffatt and her over-the-top fast-montaged videos such as Other (1991) may not quite relate to the main thematic thrust of the exhibition, but leave you spellbound for the seven-minute duration.
Hicks has been one of the rising stars in Australian photography with a major survey show already to her credit at the National Gallery of Victoria. Her Venus (2013-19) is a large-scale lightbox image where her favourite albino model conceals her face with a pink vulva-like conch shell. The title brings to mind Botticelli's Birth of Venus with all of the connotations of eroticism served up on a seashell, but the tables here have been swapped around and we witness something beautiful, mysterious and slightly surreal.
Other artists included in The Body Electric are Lynda Benglis, Polly Borland, Sophie Calle, Jo Ann Callis, Charis (and George Schwarz), Cheryl Donegan, Christine Godden, Mayumi Hosokura, Claire Lambe, Pixy Liao, Anne McDonald, Momo Okabe, Lillian O'Neil, Fiona Pardington, Collier Schorr, Annie Sprinkle, Lyndal Walker and Franchesca Woodman.