An erotic focusing of the female gaze in the National Gallery of Australia

She revealed that she learned a lot about how to enjoy pleasure and the coolness of a woman’s body.

Acker taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. Students were undoubtedly learning from her. Her radical willingness to create stories that explore sex and pornography as well as desire, pleasure, violence, and pain from the perspective of a woman was what they learned.

When I visit The Body Electricat, the National Gallery of Australia, I can feel Acker’s shadow. Shaune Lakin’s and Anne O’Hehir’s brilliantly curated exhibit is full of Acker’s influence.

Read more: Staff cuts will hurt the National Gallery of Australia, but it’s not spending less on art. It’s just spending it differently

Two decades have passed since Acker’s death, but the eroticism she brought to art remains central to women artists.

Women’s experiences with the erotic

The Body Electric presents groundbreaking photography and video work from the 1960s to 1980s, as well as more recent works by Australian and international artists.

Jo Ann Callis Untitled (woman holding flashlight), c. 1976, pigment-inkjet print, 40.66 (h) by 50.8 cm. Image courtesy ROSEGALLERY. (c) The artist

This is a visually daring and intelligent exploration of the erotic experiences of women, from domestic to pornographic.

Jo Ann Callis’ Untitled(nude, with towel) (1976) depicts an anonymous woman sitting on the long armrest of a sofa in a living room. She is presumably masturbating.

Nan Goldin’s photo collection The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) shows the violence of love. The most powerful photograph, Nan one month after being beaten(1984), is a self-portrait that shows the physical wounds caused by her lover.

Annie Sprinkle’s comically Pornographic Playing Cards (1996) features porn stars dressed as characters with names that are wildly imaginative: “Horny Biker Shutterbug”, and “The Mother Theresa of Female Ejaculation”.

Christine Godden, Self. Sunny day in winter 1974, gelatin silver photograph, 14.9 (h) x 22.6 (w) cm. National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Gift of the Artist, 1987. Gift of the artist 1987.

Christine Godden reveals her stomach button in a black-and-white self-portrait titled Self. Sunny Day in Winter, 1974. Collier Schorr’s Leaf and Ass, a simple yet provocative photograph, shows a backside covered in stretch marks.

These traces are rare on airbrushed images of the body.

The most powerful works challenge the way women and sexuality are historically – and still continue to be – represented through the eyes of heterosexual white men.

Pixy Liao. Some words are only between us, Experimental relationship, 2010, chromogenic photo, 40.6 (h x 50.8 w cm). Image courtesy the artist

Head by Cheryl Donegan (1993) mimics a heterosexual woman performing oral sex. Donegan uses a green plastic milk bottle to simulate the “moneyshot” (a pornographic trope that involves ejaculation into a woman’s mouth).

Head (1973) is a recording that shows the artist Lynda Lenkowsky kissing Marilyn Lenkowsky, her colleague and friend. The camera captures their excitement. Benglis uses her tongue to caress her friend’s inside mouth in great detail.

The work is more complex than two women kissing each other: Their eyes are not fixed on one another, but rather follow a moving lens.

The camera, and the viewer with it, becomes a proxy for “Male Gaze“, the positioning of females in visual media to be sexual objects for heterosexual men’s visual pleasure.

Read more: Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean, and what about a female gaze?

By being in control of the camera, in charge of her representation, and in charge of her pleasure, Benglis actively resists this male gaze.

The power of Benglis’ and Donegan’s videos when viewed simultaneously is mesmerising. Their collective force amplifies the critique of male gaze, which is at the core of the exhibition.

Nan Goldin. Nan and Brian, NYC, 1983. Dye destruction photograph. 39 (h) by 59.9 cm. National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, bought 1994. The artist (c)

Evil girls

Acker, like the other artists in the exhibition, was happy to have them in her class. She also mocked patriarchal standards which repress the sexuality of women.

The Body Electric is Acker’s legacy in visual art of “Female Gaze“, a female perspective on sex and desire beyond the patriarchal limitations of passivity and reproductivity. These artists present women as powerful creators who are acutely aware of their sexual agency both as women and artists.

Polly Borland. MORPH 9, 2018, pigment inkjet print, 200 (h) x 162.5 (w) cm. Image courtesy the artist and Murray White Room in Melbourne. (c) Polly Borland

The body can be disturbing to some people, especially if it’s a woman performing in a way that goes against social expectations for the public and private.

What about fake bodies? The exhibition’s far corner features a Cindy Sherman classic, Untitled #25 from 1992, which shows a mannequin with sexually detailed anatomical parts.

The doll has a plastic orifice ready to go. Her pose reminded of a video that I watched once on how to deliver a baby.

All of our stories begin with the female body.

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