Visionary for its time and increasingly relevant today, Whitman made the case for the inclusion of women in the democratic body by deconstructing the idea that the figure is always gendered- so he reduced the idea of the social constructioins that the body is eithermale or female to the notion of the “naked meat of the body”. Whitman’s thoughts about bodily communion as a metaphor for unifying America’s demos, and his inability to openly write about the male body as he was unable to address his unconfirmed homosexuality at the time, effectively created a universal love-poem that can be applied to all bodies and the identity politics of today that has moved beyond these binaries to create a fluid, fragmented and dynamic collectivity of possible sexualities that can vary at different points during one’s life.
To do this, part of the strategy was to focus on one part of the body at a time, essentially fragmenting the human body into separate parts, removing the traditionally scopophilic qualities of observing naked female bodies: “lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean”. This challenges the idea of the active male gaze put forward by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, where men get pleasure and power from looking upon a passive female subject, dismantling and“decentralising” the male gaze, thereby removing the male position of authority and exposing the system of oppression.
We are witnessing the regrouping of feminism as a social movement across every area of society – from the “Time’s Up” movement in Hollywood to the International Women’s Strike – and the art industry is no exception. The increased efforts of art institutions and exhibitions pushing female only shows, like this one, has been met with some criticism, discrediting the merit of the work, instead placing priority on gender and nationalities. The diversity of the practices in We Sing The Body Electric highlight new ways that artists are dealing with the bodywith a focus on it’s materiality which recalibrates the traditional female nude from the objectified into a confrontational subject, conveying an idea or universal reality, like Whitman’s poem.
Juliette Mahieux Bartoli