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Bodies that take to the streets

By Haizea Barcenilla

At the turn of the new century, a woman in a black skirt stood in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, facing the camera. She opened her legs and began to urinate, standing there out in the open. The artist’s name was Itziar Okariz and the work was entitled ´To Pee in Public and Private Spaces´. From 2000 to 2004 she performed in different locations, sometimes live and sometimes on video, as an independent and permanent work of art. Although the first time was on the Rhine River in Düsseldorf, most of her performances were set in New York, where she was living at the time.

The echoes of this performance in distant places did not take long to reach the Basque Country’s art scene. The artist’s work was a provocative expression of different ideas being debated in the feminist movement of the time. In 1999 a second edition of Judith Butler’s book ´Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity´ was published (translated into Spanish and published in 2001). In her book, the philosopher develops the basis and theory of the queer movement, namely that gender is performative, represented and repeated. What defines us as men and women in the eyes of others are the attitudes, behaviours and actions that we repeat over and over again. Butler argued that identity is performed, that it is reproduced all the time and that by interrupting this repetition of acts or by assuming attitudes that in principle do not correspond to us, we can break with gender identity.

That is precisely what happened when Itziar Okariz opened her legs on the Brooklyn Bridge and began to urinate. Instead of the typical squatting position that females adopt when urinating, she chose to pee standing like a man. And instead of looking for an enclosed, private place, as women usually do, she opted for a public space, which men so often use without a second thought. At that moment, Okariz was a woman displaying the body language of a man. She made it clear that there is no physical biological element that justifies the difference between the two postures, but rather a social decision laden with significance.

Okariz’s work has been a reference for many Basque artists who have fused body and feminism; but she is not the only one

Okariz’s work has been a reference for many Basque artists who have fused body and feminism; but she is not the only one. Many years ago, Esther Ferrer used her body as raw material for art. In 1977, in her performance ´Íntimo y personal´ (Intimate and Personal), she undressed, took measurements of different parts of her body and wrote them down on a chalkboard. And she invited the public to do the same. In this way, she illustrated the control to which women’s bodies are subjected and wanted to present the body as a real experience, reclaiming it as something more than an object of pleasure for the entertainment of others.

A fundamental point in Okariz’s work was already present in Ferrer’s: distinguishing the public from the private. Contrasting the intimate and personal with the public, in other words, things that happen in private spaces that have historically been considered a woman’s own; and walls that limited their ability to act.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the critique of domestic life has been present since the origins of feminist art. Some artists have made this critique by focusing on specific domestic spaces typical settings for women’s work. One example is the American artist Martha Rosler’s performance ´Semiotics of the Kitchen´; many others have focused on femininity-related issues. In the Basque Country, the most striking example is ´Penélope´ by Itziar Elejalde (1980): a bright white cloth, hanging like clean linen, is fastened to a strip of pink neon with clothes pegs. On the cloth is a sentence embroidered in pink thread: "Hasta cuándo, Penélope, abusarás de tu paciencia" (How long, Penelope, will your patience endure?).

Twenty years later, while Okariz was staging her first performances on the river Rhine, Naia del Castillo presented ´Espacio doméstico. Silla´ (Domestic Space. Chair) for the Gure Artea plastic arts award. The work consisted of two parts: an object and a photograph. The object was a wooden chair with a cushion on top and a skirt made of the same fabric tied to the cushion; the photograph was of a woman tied to the chair by the skirt she was wearing. It showed the woman fixed to the domestic space with a material linked to women’s work – fabric and sewing. Household furniture was represented as junk that defined and limited performativity, clouding the supposed warmth of the home with the darkness of prison.

The spaces and objects, habits, attitudes and movements that shape the role of women come to light in Naia del Castillo’s artwork; Itziar Okariz’s work creates situations that break away only to take on other spaces and attitudes. Okariz invites us to construct the complexity of identity by acting – and not in just any place, but in the public space that shapes the public subject.

Along these same lines, the group Pripublikarrak decided to take over the public space and in 2006 launched the ´Koktelazioak´ initiative to promote the idea constructing identity. In public squares in Bilbao, passers-by were given the chance to shape the map of their identity by choosing features from a menu. Instead of names, the menu offered actions, i.e., instead of “I am a sportsperson” they could choose “I practice sport”. To challenge the static identity, they wanted to show the participants how an identity is constructed and transformed every day through our actions. And to show how original all the identities were, they linked the actions on the menu to an ingredient. A cocktail with the different ingredients from their identity map was then made for each person.

Their early video works often depicted women enclosed within four walls, in a relationship with the domestic space that was not always comfortable

In the work created by the group Señora Polaroiska we can also see the journey of the woman’s body into the public space. Their early video works often depicted women enclosed within four walls, in a relationship with the domestic space that was not always comfortable. Lady Jibia, however, made the same year as ´´Koktelazioak´, contrasted domestic space and nature: in the former women’s bodies were confined and standardised through clothing, work and gestures; in the latter, the body moves naked and free. From that point on, Señora Polaroiska’s work on how women take over the public space became increasingly evident.

A perfect example is their 2012 work ´Pilota Girls´. The fronton is one of the central public spaces in the Basque Country. In addition to being a ball court, the fronton has often served as the village square. Like many other environments, it is totally masculine since only men played ‘pilota’ and the audience and the people who placed wagers on the game were also largely men. For this video, Señora Polaroiska followed the ‘pelotari’ (Basque ball player) Patri Espinar through the streets of Bilbao, while she used the walls of buildings as makeshift ball courts. The pelotari took to the streets of the city, once again showing attitudes and movements not associated with her gender and showing the spaces coupled with their defining gender markers.

The power of women’s actions and bodies to influence the public space, and the possibilities they offer for reflecting on the separation of gender are recurring themes in contemporary Basque art. Taking to the streets a means of protest is not alien to modern Basque society, and it continues to be necessary.

Haizea Barcenilla (Lezo, 1981) is a university professor, researcher and art critic. Her research topic is the visibility of art, giving importance to the gender and post-colonial perspective.


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