On the occasion of the International women’s day, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Ledwich, a Melbourne based visual artist. In her work she explores the uncanny, the abject and often the irrational to unmask the more complex side of human behaviour, analyzing its perversities. All our editorial staff has been impressed by her photographs, especially by her project called Monstrous Feminine, that was also featured in the New York photography publication Musée Magazine‘s WOMEN issue. We talked about feminism, gender equality and freedom.
Warning: some artworks contains elements that some people may find disturbing.
After centuries of struggle, it seems that women now have obtained a certain level of political freedom; in fact, many countries guarantee gender equality through a system of laws and other official channels. But do you think women can really claim to have that freedom in society? Do rituals like wearing make-up or heels, seeking for slimness and eternal youth restrict women’s freedom? And how you treated these themes in your project, Monstrous Feminine?
I would argue that not all women have obtained political freedom – in fact there are a number of countries where women are still considered second-class citizens. They can’t vote, don’t enjoy the same access to education and are viewed as possessions or chattels of men.
I am writing this on the eve of International Women’s Day. The fact that we still need a day in which to actively acknowledge women’s achievements is an indication that there is still gender inequality.
I think it is important to differentiate between explicit and implicit freedom. I am fortunate to be living in a first world country with strong beliefs of gender equality and democracy. In Australia women have all the freedoms that men do – in that sense we have explicit freedom. Yet we find ourselves imprisoned by cultural values that espouse a very narrow view of what being a worthwhile woman is. The prison we find ourselves in is constructed of status updates, Instagram pictures and popular culture. I don’t think that rituals such as wearing high heels or make-up restrict women’s freedom per se. These are a choice – nobody is putting out a mandate stating that all women must wear high heels. However the extent to which this narrow view of what’s considered ‘desirable’ in a woman is so ingrained in our culture it is very difficult to step outside that.
Monstrous Feminine explores the processes women engage in to pursue this idealized vision of ‘beauty’. Historically women’s sexuality has often been portrayed as something scary, uncomfortable and threatening. There is enormous cultural fear surrounding the idea of ageing and as such there is an entire generation of women whose identities are being shaped by this. This work aims to hold up a mirror to the bizarre and often extreme or grotesque rituals women participate in. I’m not interested in criticizing women for engaging in these ‘rituals’; rather I am looking at the reasons behind them. Why do women feel the need to engage in procedures that are painful or downright dangerous in order to feel better about themselves? Why can’t we celebrate our differences? Why are women devalued the older they become? These are questions I ask myself all the time.
For this project you took inspiration from Barbara Creed’s book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, in which women are painted not just as victims but also as monsters to men, because of their reproductive body and castrating tendency. Your Monstrous Feminine, though, seems to be the result of an external force upon women, that transforms them into grotesque figures. How the two components –nature and transformation- can coexist and why do you focused on the second one?
I was intrigued with how the notion of the ‘feminine’ is so laden with fear. Creed identifies how women are portrayed as castrator, monsters whose sexuality is extremely threatening. The more I delved into her work, the more I realized how women have been portrayed as monstrous in so many examples of popular culture and how there were many current day examples of mainstream behaviour which in one way or another could be viewed as monstrous. The relationship between nature and technology is a major theme in this work and the way technology is fundamental in shaping our cultural ideals.
The work explores the idea of ‘external forces’ however the figures in these images are not powerless. No woman is having anything ‘inflicted’ or ‘forced’ upon her. In every image she is complicit with her activity. The external forces are psychological which we see enacted through the images.
If Creed’s essay is your conceptual base, which are your artistic models?
I’m very interested in aesthetics and the role they play in visual language. My work is very much influenced by early surrealist photography. I find something fascinating with the way the body was explored as both subject and object.
Your works are sinister and macabre, but somehow pop and fashion, too. What reactions do you want to create in your audience? A little laugh or a deep reflection?
The work consciously employs a fashion/advertising aesthetic. I think there is an interesting tension in presenting something so confronting in a medium that is so familiar to all of us. The images are easily readable. My background was initially in fashion photography so it is a medium and visual language I know well. A number of the images are sardonic -I like art that engages me intellectually but also appeals to my perverted sense of humour. I want the audience to engage with the work, how they respond is entirely out of my hands.
How do you think modernity, with all its industrial, commercial and consumerist processes, has affected women? In your project Covetous you analyze desire through the objects that represent it, but do you think women can now be considered as one of those objects, especially through their sexualization?
In popular culture women are often portrayed as objects and their sexuality is still their main currency. This is why so many women fear getting older. If you live in a culture that only values youth what is there left once you reach a certain age? I also feel that widespread access to pornography is changing the landscape of women’s sexuality. I feel extremely sad for the current generation of women and men who are still developing their sexual identity and the effect pornography is having on that. It’s important to note that not every male views women as a sexual object at all. I actually think in fact many men don’t hold such limited views in relation to women – but the most powerful cultural reflection in media, television and film presents such a limited representation of women. The perverse irony in all of this is that we desperately want to stand out, to have our 15 minutes of fame and yet we all want to conform to standards that are unattainable for 99.95% of us.
The commercial and consumerist aspect is what drives this behaviour. We are talking about billion dollar industries that feed off women’s fear. Can you imagine if every woman said no to buying any more fashion/beauty goods, stopped having cosmetic surgery, using beauty products, waxing etc..? The world economy would collapse.
As a female artist, have you ever felt discriminated against?
I wouldn’t say that I have felt personally discriminated against. However I know for a fact there is gender inequality when it comes to the representation of women artists in the art world. The majority of artists exhibited by large institutions are men. They command larger prices at auction and hold more positions as gallery directors. This is a well-known fact. It isn’t that women don’t make good work, it just isn’t seen. But I do think that this is changing. The more women who get positions of authority in the art world, the more women artists we will see.
Why did you embraced the feminist cause and what art can do to change things?
My mother was a very strong role model to me. She is a painter and a psychologist and instilled a confidence in my own voice and sense of worth as a person. I think growing up with a psychologist in the household did a lot to pique my curiosity in the behaviour of others. Feminism to me is about choice, personal freedoms and empowering women. Monstrous Feminine is not about criticizing women’s choice but asking the question why? I think that is where the power of art lies. Art can challenge. It can shine a light on something we don’t normally look at or want to look at, all in the hope of getting a dialogue going. Because lets be honest, if we don’t talk about it, things will never change.