Jemima Stehli on Art, Objectification, and the Body
I was interested in how you take very obvious, little, objectifying or sexual images, and invest them with a purpose, such as the motivation of the woman that’s in it.
London-based artist Jemima Stehli is a fearless interrogator of the relationship between the artist, spectator, and means of production. Her self-portraits (one of which, Table, is featured in Perfect Number’s campaign) explore performativity and representation in the female nude.
She explores the phenomenological aspects of the artist becoming and being an object, and the fertile ground for using herself as an identifiable presence in the image.
Perfect Number talked with Jemima about Table, Strip, (a series of photographs in which she invited an all-male cast of critics, writers, curators and art dealers to pose as she removed articles of clothing), and the blurring of what it means to create versus receive work in her oeuvre.
Perfect Number: We were really excited to use the table piece in our campaign. You’d commented on it before, about showing a woman as a sexual object, showing yourself becoming an object. I’m curious if you see this piece related to your earlier career as a sculptor, or becoming a sculpture yourself.
Jemima Stehli: Yeah. That’s exactly how it started really. With the sculptures, I was becoming more and more concerned with subjectivity, I guess, as a way of dealing with the idea of history. Then I was making these sculptures, which were sculptures of furniture. They were meant to be very moody. They were all very dark colored. I was getting kind of frustrated that they were only ever viewed in formal terms. I was about 38 at the time, and I thought, “Fuck it, I’ve just got to speed up everything, be more straight forward about what I want.” When I made those works, which were of me lying face down within the studio, it was at a point of exasperation in a way, like the end of the line in terms of making art. I just wanted to say something very straightforward and not be bothered about aesthetic terms in the same way. I thought that they would almost act like titles to lead to a different understanding of the work. Then I realized they operated on their own. They all just speeded up and photography became the way of doing something very directly, and also to bring in the performative aspect much more to the work.
PN: Even though it’s titled with the object itself, table?
JS: Well, because it is about that relationship between experience and the object. I’ve always been interested or fascinated really by the way that art can communicate a feeling. I wanted it to be about art language and making an object, but also for that to speak more clearly. Also, that work was about me figuring out how on earth you do communicate through this medium. Being frustrated by it, but frustrated by the aesthetic eliteness of it as well.
PN: So this was a way to escape from the formality of how these pieces were talked about?
JS: Yeah. Also, I think having done it, I guess at that point, I was in my late 30’s. I was entering a more interesting phase, actually, and was growing up in a sense. When I went to art school in the 80’s, it was very sensorial kind of thing about what you could be if you were an intelligent woman –you dressed down and didn’t wear makeup and all that sort of stuff. That shifted to the power dressing thing, which was equally grating and not very interesting to me. I became concerned with the idea that you couldn’t just play: play with sexual material, which is a language, regardless of whether you use terms like “patriarchy,” it’s a language that we’ve all grown up with and grown into. I was interested in how you take very obvious, little, objectifying or sexual images, and invest them with a purpose, such as the motivation of the woman that’s in it. I was particularly interested in Allen Jones’ works, because when he made those works, they were very contentious, and he was attacked for them. I think now, they don’t look so provocative. That was very brave work of his to make. He was exposing his own sexual preferences. In the early 70’s, that was pretty dodgy kind of area! And the kind of clubs that he went to were very under the radar type. So I was interested breaking down these formal languages, how you get into muddy waters with this territory.
PN: So instead of seizing the terms of your own objectification, you’re seizing the terms of your own sexualization?
JS: Maybe, yeah. Also objectification, because when I did the wearing shoes chosen by the curator, he chose shoes that were very quite romantic I guess, and a bit quirky, funky. I realized at that point that I wanted to try really proper sex-shoe-stilettos. When I got them for that Allen Jones piece, I was really taken aback at how it changed the body. I’d never seen my body like that. I was interested in the way that I became an object in my own view. Looking at myself in the mirror, I was suddenly an object that I didn’t recognize, but meant all these things quite clearly in terms of that quite formal language around sexuality and objectification, those kinds of images. I was very interested in that, in terms of how you understand art language, actually. How certain shapes and forms can communicate things so specifically. That was interesting to me, having been frustrated by the pretentiousness of art language.
PN: So you decided to be both the image and the image maker in these pieces.
JS: I think I see that as bing pretty much what most women experience — they experience their lives as themselves. In a way, the action of making the Allen Jones piece was like I was acting it out, but then what you become is an image, which is what happens when you see yourself in the mirror. I was very interested in that double take, which I think is not exclusive to women, but is traditionally in women. When men play around with it, it is a form of play, whereas I think women are doing it everyday in their lives: making themselves to an image. The works that I made after those works, after Strip, were about getting back to the idea of a working body and what that is, which is really where the work started. It was about the body, not so much as the image of the body.
PN: Do you feel this is changing or ever going to change, this relationship to the female body?
JS: I don’t think you want it to change. I came from a period in the 80s which is very sensory. I felt like it’s a bit like the idea that women couldn’t be painters or something like that — if you decide that a certain territory is a male territory, and you use the word “patriarchy” — of course, the important thing to understand is who has made the language and where the female discomfort fits in with that. I like to think about it more like history. I feel like it’s going back and not changing the language, but inhabiting it in a different way and having the choice to inhabit it.
That’s what this thing about inhabiting those positions was about: inhabiting being the object, or inhabiting being the image, et cetera. I’m in the position, being in it, to see what this is all about. That’s kind of all they’re doing, and what do you think about that? That’s all they’re doing at that stage. I feel like, having done that, it liberated me in my work actually, how I could open things up, play around with sexuality. At the same time, I see the pressure that women are under, especially all the cosmetic surgery and all those options that are there now — it just seems to be getting worse and worse. I don’t know how that’s really to do with what you might call patriarchy. I see capitalism really as being more the problem.
PN: Yeah, me too.
JS: Because it’s also now, rather than women’s situations improving, it’s more like men are getting involved in the same kind of anxieties and pressure in terms of the way they look. It’s all about selling stuff and focusing on the image, rather than what the body is, what it does, what it produces.
PN: So separate from the body!
JS: That’s the thing about being an artist: an artist is seen as a producer. That’s why the artist’s body was interesting to me. If you see images of artists from the 70’s, it’s kind of cliché, really. Male artists of the 70s, working their vigorous body in the study. Then when you have a woman in it, it’s like a conflict. That was interesting. Yeah, it’s about re-inhabiting these, and also figuring where your pleasure is. That’s where the sexual thing comes in as well, where your pleasure is in terms of engaging with that. I don’t know what it would be like to be a younger person now, but I found that all very difficult, even though I was quite Catholic throughout all of this. I was very rejecting of everything at that stage, in terms of the way I looked. It was in my late 30’s that I realized the pleasures I was actually missing.
PN: Do you think we are improving in how society speaks more open about women’s pleasure, and that women are actually equal participants of this process?
JS: I think there’s been a massive shift in terms of how women can engage in sexual discussion, and also to be acknowledged as having sex lives. It seems unbelievable really, when I grew up in that 70’s, which doesn’t seem so long ago in lots of ways, and you had people like Helmut Newton, those fantastic Helmut Newton photographs — but met on derogatory terms. I think things like that have changed in some places. It does really bother me the pressure on women’s bodies. I think that’s escalated. I think the idea of there being one type of body that’s desirable, and the connection to porn and porn industry, which even porn in the 70’s was more varied and more real.
PN: It’s funny to think of Helmut Newton as somehow diverse in the bodies he depicts, but he is compared to what we see now.
JS: If you see the pictures just in magazines, you look through them, they don’t look that different. Also, they were very influential. If you actually look at the women’s bodies, they’re normal bodies. They’ve got cellulite, and they’re bruised. He never retouched his photographs in any way. They’re not distorted. There’s no Photoshop.They’re distorting in a sense that he always uses that low angle, but that’s a very clear thing.
PN: Our campaign is dealing with this question of spectatorship quite directly: the way events are represented versus experienced, which is something that shows up in a lot of your work, especially in the series in which you undressed before critics, who chose the decisive moment at which point the event was photographed.
JS: I’ve continued to work with that aspect, in terms of where the action is happening, who is participating, and the person within the frame participating. I moved more recently to working with musicians — filming them, and being behind the camera. I wanted distinction between the experience itself and the representation of it. The representation is interesting of course, that’s stepping back, but understanding those different points of view. It goes back to the things I was saying at the very beginning about being frustrated with a kind of formal art language, which is quite specialized, like a specialist language or something.
PN: Do you intentionally leave room for a candid exchange in these practices, like when you’re asking someone else to take the photograph?
JS: Yeah, the strip one’s a choreographed version, in a sense. There was a structure, and I didn’t want it to be any surprise, so that I could see what was really happening in that set up.
PN: Did anything surprise you about the way the images turned out?
JS: Yeah, it became a series, because I was really taken aback at how powerful that moment is in terms of a woman taking off her clothes in front of a man. How despite the fact that all those men, the people I’d already worked with, they were already invested in me as an artist. You couldn’t hide their reaction to that. I felt for them, and I felt that they showed their vulnerability. In the end it was really about male vulnerability. I think that’s been a bit of a shame: that that side is rarely talked about, in terms of how vulnerable they were in that scenario, even though they all were chosen because of their position and the power structure in relation to me.
PN: That’s interesting, because I had wanted to ask about your vulnerability in taking these photos. But the vulnerability of the one exerting the gaze, exposing desire, is one we very seldom talk about.
JS: I actually feel now that’s even more important. There’s such a big media thing, with things like #MeToo and so on. I think it’s a dangerous situation in which men are demonized and ignored.
PN: So perhaps it might be more constructive to think of that desire as vulnerable, than to see at as something we have to get rid of, since it’s unlikely to go anywhere?
JS: It’s absolutely essential. It’s part of our reproductive process. It can’t go anywhere. That’s what I mean about it being, unless you’re going to be robots and be assimilated. Some people do choose that option, to get away from the complications. I think if you want to be in love in a way — and that’s what these pieces of work were about — you want that intimacy with a man of the opposite sex, that flash of the opposite. Then you have to work through all of this stuff is that we’ve all grown up with, and learned to communicate through it. I don’t like the uniform reaction to things, because I really think that people thinking about themselves and their own experience, one to one, is the only way to understand it really.
We should be enjoying difference. I think the problem is not so much that the language is the language you always have and we’re always going to have it, but the problem is that we’re tourists in terms of difference — we don’t really engage with difference. Not many people do. I think that’s where it needs to change.
PN: Since this series was specifically about undressing, have you ever thought about the opposite process, about dressing? Do you think about correlation of perception of the person and personality through the way we look?
JS: I think Cindy Sherman does that so well, actually. She was making some of the work that I feel is most interesting. She was making those kinds of works around the time that I was making these pieces. She was dealing with how you inhabit those imaginary spaces with clothes and that kind of behavior. I don’t really think my work is about that. I think I’m trying to think about … Especially in those pieces. I am trying to think about what art language is.
PN: Do you then consider your work to be in dialogue with the theory of these things, or integrated into them?
JS: For me, work is a reaction against theory, and a big reaction against the theorization of work. That’s why this whole thing is about experience. My initial thing about putting the body in was very simplistic, not quite one way really. Just saying, “This is me, this is all it is.”
PN: Are you able to talk about anything you’re working on now?
JS: Lately I’ve worked with video works and performance more and more, actually, to get away from the object. I’m actually in Lisbon at the moment, because I spent a long time living here up until when my son was born. For about six years, I was going back and forth making these works with all these musicians and just following them all the time so that they became my muse. I was really surprised by how they were a slave to their image, when in fact, they’re serious musicians. They’re a hard core band, pop music definitely. They’re really just this music, but then it’s always how good looking they are. Any image in them is always focusing on the way that they look when they’re performing, rather than the way they’re playing. I made a whole series of films where I’m just filming their hands, always with this handheld thing. One work I made, I was actually naked on the stage in a rock skin filming. That’s the only work I ever made where I did feel vulnerable.
PN: Was it just because of the sheer magnitude of the situation itself?
JS: No, because I think up until that point, and again, I think I feel like I’m always testing the limits of safety. Like I said, the work came out as a frustration with formal language. Then I moved away from that even in my own work. I think in the strip work, for instance, it was challenging, but the framework was quite clear. It was interesting that I was less in control than I thought I was. Anyway, I just moved out of the studio. When it came to be in a rock concert situation, I was playing around with being completely out of where anybody knew anything about me. I left London because I think there, I became known with that strip work, and that was very inhibiting. There, they did know my work and they had some respect for me, but they also didn’t really care about that all, because they were really into rock music. That’s playing for the audience and for the musicians. They had respect for me, but they also didn’t give a shit. We all came on, and they put their music on, and I took my clothes off…. it was just lots of fun. I’m not a young woman either. I think I was about 48.
PN: That makes it more rock and roll though, I think.
JS: Then of course, the minute the band started playing, they’re a brilliant band. They didn’t give a shit about me. I was having to go around because I was trying to film them all very close up from on the stage, in front of them, having to push through the audience, all these teenage boys, naked with my camera. It was fun. Since then, I also started on these landscape photographs, where I have my body in the frame of the landscape. They include my son — he’s my new collaborator. He’s in the work now. It’s always that thing about who’s in the frame, where the work’s coming from, who’s the work for, who’s the audience? Also, how intimate is it?