‘Challenging’ is certainly one way to describe Lauren Barri Holstein’s work. As a lecturer and PhD student at Queen Mary University London in 2015, she screened a clip from her mixed media work ‘Splat’ for students enrolled on a module entitled ‘Theatre and its Others.’ Holstein flails and gyrates while being pulled up by a harness; she simulates masturbation with a tampon; she inserts a knife handle into her vagina and cuts some tomatoes with the blade.
This sensationalized scene could be divisive: we might ask ‘does posturing at ‘art’ through academic credentials allow Holstein’s work to transcend vulgarity?’ But this line of inquiry is — if I may — a bit daft.
Explicit portrayals of women’s bodies are okay when they are the victims, but as reactions to Sarah Kane’s work demonstrate, we are shocked when women turn the tables and wield the power of the oppressor. In Rebecca Schneider’s The Explicit Body in Performance, the theatre professor calls to attention the naive practice of labelling explicitness performed by women as ‘challenging.’ Such performances are only particularly ‘challenging’ to the extent that we admit the concept of ‘obscenity’ is gendered.
Some performances of this explicitness can be pinned to the trope of the ’monstrous woman’, the very subject of Holstein’s first postdoctoral project called ‘Notorious’. Using her alter-ego ‘The Famous’, Holstein aims to interrogate characterizations of womanhood — and the ‘monstrous woman’ in particular — in pop culture. That trope essentially dismisses female characters expressing traditionally masculine traits as unbecoming expressions of rage or mental illness. When asked about her use of nudity by The Tung, Holstein commented,
‘My relationship to my body has very little to do with ‘body-image’. This ‘confidence’ is really just the agency and power I find in my own body – in its physicality, in its multiplicity, in its leakiness, its mess, its difficulty, its weaknesses, its rhythms, its functionality, its complexity.’
Thresholds for ‘art’ aside, Holstein’s rhetoric certainly transcends tired reliance on ‘empowerment’, eschewing infinitely hopeful portrayals of post-feminist joy for explorations of the messy reality of human agency. This author is particularly keen to see if Holstein’s view of pop culture addresses gender roles in hip-hop beyond loose invocations of Nicki Minaj. In any case, Notorious is set to be her most lavish work to date and should leave much food for thought.
Notorious will be performed at 8 PM 23 November at the ACCA (Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts).
Tickets: £12 standard / £10 concessions (including students)
Image Credit: Tim Fluck