Anne Marsh. 2023. “Body Of Opportunity: Tania Ferrier.” Art and Australia 58, no.2
Tania Ferrier became famous for her designer range Angry Underwear in the late 1980s; shark bras and pant sets displaying teeth like an emblazoned vagina dentata ready to strike any intruder. The garments were originally made for a group of striptease artists that Ferrier was associated with in New York after one of the performers, in a club with a ‘no touch’ client regulation, was sexually assaulted.1 It started as a soft activist project, a range of undergarments that could be worn to empower women. The range took off and Madonna was photographed wearing one of the ‘shark bras’ circa 1991. The picture was later circulated on Instagram.
Fast forward to 2023 and Ferrier creates her Pop Porn Calendar consisting of pages of cut up female nudes. They are reminiscent of the monthly ‘playmates’ featured by Playboy magazine in the 1960s and 70s but Ferrier’s models have been collaged together to enhance the grotesque and surreal in the soft porn images. They come across as semi-violent critiques of the sort of patriarchal pleasure that Playboy institutionalised. Ferrier’s calendar reminds me of the controversy that surrounded the exhibition catalogue for WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution in 2007.2 A detail of Martha Rosler’s famous Body Beautiful, or Body Knows No Pain: Hot House or Harem (1966-72) showed a collage of Playboy mates from the 60s and 70s—all thrown together like a female harem. The feminist outrage that the image inspired was astonishing given that many feminists during the 1980s and 90s had reconsidered pornography and how women might represent their own desires.3
Ferriers’ work in the late 80s and 90s was a result of a wider discourse within art, representation and feminism. The bodies of women were clearly under the spotlight philosophically and women started to present more powerful representations of themselves after a previous generation of feminists had declared the female body come off the agenda because of the ‘male gaze’.4 The pornography debates that started to play out within feminist studies in the 1990s were enlightening for a generation of feminists and younger women who wanted to embrace their physical identities in different ways.5 As a result, Madonna, whilst strutting her sexual self and saturating popular culture, became the cover girl for postmodern feminism.6
The rise of ‘wicked’ and ‘angry' women’ in performance art, and the SM club scene for women and non-binaries, all contributed to a public discourse around the female body and sexuality more broadly. Annie Sprinkle, former prostitute, porno-film star, photographer and editor of porn magazines, presented burlesque porn shows at art venues in New York in 1984/5 and achieved international artworld recognition.7 The old feminist positions had shifted: the female body was back on the agenda and female artists across all walks of life were reclaiming their power to represent themselves.
Tania Ferrier is an artist who may well have been at the right place and time to feed on some of this renewed energy around the female nude/naked body. Working at a bar in a striptease club in New York in 1988 she was at the coal face and was able to nurture relationships with the performers. Years later when she gave a lecture about the Angry Underwear range and the Pop Porn Calendar at the Fremantle Art Centre in 2022, she was approached by Gabriela, a sexologist and adult entertainment performer working locally, and she suggested Ferrier work with women in her striptease club; from this engagement Body of Opportunity was born.
The relationship between Ferrier and the striptease artists is collaborative and has generated performances, photographs and videos where the performers engage with their own desire and also attempt to return the gaze, to speak back to power. It is a difficult project, one that has intrigued and stymied many artists. Is it possible for the female body, so thoroughly commodified by patriarchal markets, to claim its own agency? Is there some sovereign female body? In today’s world it seems unlikely that any variant of the male/female binary is going to survive but the critical thinking and the theoretical positions are complex. What is certain is that the binary positions are in question.
Body of Opportunity is an example of a delegated performance in many respects. Although there is ample evidence of participation from the women, they are costumed and set within painted backdrops designed by the artist who also directs the camera and the other photographers. The sets are variously informed by art history. Picasso features as Ferrier riffs off his controversial painting of women in a whorehouse Les Demoiselles D’Avigon (1907). It is a predictable choice for Ferrier who is trying to explicate the Madonna/Whore concept entrenched in patriarchal desire and commodity culture. The neurosis was first explicated by Sigmund Freud but recast by feminists in the 1970s in bestsellers such as Anne Summers Damned Whores and God’s Police first published in 1975 and now in its sixth edition. The male neurosis, described by Freud and interpreted by Summers, explains why men don’t like fucking the mother of their children preferring to fantasise about the bad temptress who they can seduce and abandon. Ferrier titles a photograph where this backdrop is visible V.J. Demoiselles referencing the contemporary urban slang VJ for vagina. The surrealist spin on the eye motif repurposed from an old Ophthalmology sign in Taiwan by Chinese photographer Wang Shuangquan in 1962 is also dynamic. Ferrier duplicates the eyes throughout the installations on both costumes and backdrops, sometimes they appear as cunts: the ‘evil eye’ myth and motif that many artists have exploited, at other times they are just decoration. These eyes lead the viewer quite literally to consider the gaze. Whether Ferrier and her troupe of performers manage to talk back to power is questionable. They try but it is a project fraught with complexity. The camera itself has been interpreted as a predatory device. Ferrier plays with this by trying to empower the subject but the seductive nature of the medium – to mirror and reproduce – entrenches the gaze in many ways.
1. See Tui Raven, “The Desired and Desiring Body”’ in Tania Ferrier, Pop Porn 2023 (City of Freemantle Art Collection, 2023), no pagination.
2. ‘WACK!’: Art and the Feminist Revolution (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007) also Richard Meyer, “The ‘WACK!’ Catalogue”, Artforum, 45:5, Summer 2007. https://www.artforum.com/columns/the-wack-catalogue-180359/ accessed 24 October, 2023.
3. For the Australian context see Catherine Lumby, Bad Girls: The Media Sex and Feminism in the 90s (St Leonards NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997).
4. Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16:3, Autumn 1975: 6-18.
5. Lynne Segal and Mary McIntosh (eds.), Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (London: Virago, 1992).
6. Cathy Schwichtenberg (ed), The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory (St Leonards NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1993).
7. Linda Montano, “Summer Saint Camp 1987 with Annie Sprinkle and Veronica Vera”, The Drama Review, 33: 1, Spring 1989: 94-119.