Conversations in Contemporary Feminism and Art



L. Mylott Manning, Artist

On Friday, February 19th, I spoke with New York-based artist, Laura Mylott Manning about her work and her relationship to feminism.  In her home near the United Nations in Manhattan, we discussed her transition from sculptures into performance, gender neutralization, and the equality of humans.

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Anna Ogier-Bloomer: Laura, I came to you because your work involves a lot of domestic artifacts; the clothesline and clothespins, dresses and aprons, and it got me thinking of the relationship between your work and the women’s art movement of the 1970s.  Why don’t you tell me how you got started in artmaking and how you got to where you are now?

Laura Mylott Manning: I was a sculpture major at Rhode Island School of Design where I’d started to do a lot of street installations. I’d make sculptures, mostly animals, and place them around the street and take photographs of them walking around or moving from one place to another. And that’s where I did my first road kill stuffed animals project, that’s where that came about. After school, I did different projects—painting, collage—and then during my grad program, I meshed them all together, these different avenues of my art practice.

I did a second road kill stuffed animals project, which was the beginning of pushing myself into performance work. The first time I did it, I just took pictures of the animals on the street after they’d been manipulated. The second time, in 2008, I photographed and filmed myself displacing the animals to the curb on 14th Street in New York City. People were filming and photographing me and as I was doing it, I was photographing the animals. So more perspectives were added to the project the second time around, more of a performative aspect, using my body as tool. That was kind of a breakthrough piece for me. From there, I started to think more of my body in art and what my body was doing and how its actions were performative and how it was art.  It pushed me into more performance pieces often using domestic objects, bringing domestic objects outside of the interior, into the public realm. So I did have an interest in feminist art of the past, and I found myself coming up with similar ideas that had already been executed in the 1960s and 70s coming forward, and wondering what the significance of it was in contemporary context and how its different if I do a similar project or use a similar domestic object—what it means to do it in today’s world. So I started to really research feminist art.

I knew it!  What’s an example of something you saw that influenced one of your pieces later?

The project Womanhouse was a foundation of feminist art. It’s amazing and I found it really interesting to study.  And I think my interest in that stemmed from an installation piece I did with a knocked over table and a bucket, and it was in a domestic setting.  It had a lot of domestic objects in it. So studying Womanhouse helped me in figuring out what I was going for and what the artists had done back then. Studying that piece, I really liked how they exaggerated and showed an emotional and psychological exaggeration of the domestic space, and that’s something that I strive for in my work, to show an emotional state through exaggeration, humor, and irony. So I found Womanhouse to be really beneficial to study. The performances that were included in that piece, like ironing, you know, simple, daily tasks and rituals, to have them taken seriously as a piece of art. You know, the time it takes to iron—all these tasks to be thought of on a higher level.

So what have you found by reinventing or reexamining these works today, 30-40 years later, to be different from what they were doing then?

Well, I think that no matter what, I’m going to be referencing these works but it will always be different because it’s me making the work, and it’s a whole new time, each day is a new day, so each day will be different, each project will always be different. But I’m definitely building on those works as references and then presenting it in present day.

I’m very curious about people’s self-identification. There are so many shows for women artists, etc. I wonder how you fit yourself into that, or if you don’t. Do you identify as a feminist artist?

Well, that’s a good question. I wouldn’t call it NOT feminist. It’s not in my artist statement that it’s feminist work. I try to redefine or expand the term “woman” through the use of domestic objects and by bringing them into the public realm.

I think it’s really interesting that you’re trying to redefine the term woman.  It’s a word that’s been played with a lot through the feminist movement, and I wonder about what we are? Are we women artists? Are we just artists?  I think of myself as a feminist and an artist, so I guess I’m a feminist artist because I think it informs everything I do all day long, even if I’m not thinking about it.  Is that something you identify with in your daily life?

Yeah, I would call myself a feminist… and an artist. It’s funny; you know the work, it is what it is. I don’t know, it’s a really good question.

It’s a spectrum, you know? There’s a show up at David Nolan Gallery called “The Visible Vagina” and its fifty different works of just that—visible vaginas.  There’s work like that that is so clearly labeled as feminist work, and then there’s work like yours which I think is much more subtle and influenced by these movements but not screaming at you. Have people observed this about your work?

Yes, it’s always been an area of interest and a study of mine.  It definitely has a feminist voice.  But I think the term feminist is hard to define and always changing, so I would say my work has a feminist voice.

I like that. You know, the term feminist has been on my mind lately. I went to a panel discussion last fall at P.P.O.W. Gallery about “post-feminism”, which most of us there thought was a really detrimental term. But a lot of the discussion that came up was about what is feminism and how it’s so different for so many people. People discussed how feminism needs to be humanism, it needs to encompass everyone in the world, which I think it does, but it seems like it needs to become something bigger than it is. What does the term mean to you?

I would say a feminist is someone who doesn’t play into conventional gender roles necessarily. Who believes in women, wants to empower females, believes that women don’t belong in the kitchen, that women can do the same things as men, that people should be equal. I think the term changes with the times. Feminism has been more accepted into popular culture and that’s why I think it does change because as more young women grow up, its sort of this assumed thing. You know, the younger generations don’t see the struggles [that women came from] as much. And there are men, too, who call themselves feminists. Before I’d heard any men call themselves that, I thought it was a strong woman who is equal, can do what she wants. Men who call themselves feminists, maybe they value the equality of humans.

Equality of humans—I like that, I think it’s a good way to think about it. So as a woman making art in this art world that is, like other industries, male-dominated, do you feel like marketing yourself as a woman artist is important to you?

I look for art venues that seem appropriate for my work. If they exhibit artists, female or male, that have similar qualities to my work or my work would fit in well, that’s who I approach. Or I just go look at the work there because I’m interested in it. I don’t look for women-only exhibitions.

In a couple of your pieces, like What Is DUMBO?, you’re tearing pieces off of this dress you’re wearing that you’ve constructed, that’s amazing. What does that signify for you?

Well, in that performance, I walked around the DUMBO neighborhood and observed it, took pictures, read a lot about it. So the performance was my subjective interpretation. The dress was constructed out of the papers and blogs that I’d read about the area, and when I ripped the pieces, I drew a picture of something I’d seen in the neighborhood. Taking a piece from the dress was to make it personal with my personal observations of the DUMBO neighborhood.

So you’ve talked about the importance of the body in your work. Do you see a significance to tearing apart something that is part of you? What is that about?

I think of the body as a vehicle, so it’s the action of ripping. The body is a tool. I’m ripping these pieces off, and using the body to create the work.

What do you see happening in the art world today in terms of feminist issues?  Do you see anything shifting?

You know who’s getting a big retrospective at MOMA? Marina Abramovic, which I think is so great. I haven’t been observing so much what’s going on in the art world right now in terms of feminist shows. I follow the artists that I’m influenced by. But I’m trying to get out there myself right now, and the more I do that, the more I’ll recognize patterns.

And this is the first year that the Whitney Biennial has included more women than men. It’s 55% women.

I have noticed that in the art schools, the majority is women, but then when you hear about new young artists, most of them art men. It’s there; I just don’t focus on it too much. When I display my art, I display it as L. Mylott Manning, and that’s to avoid a gender identification. So people don’t bring their associations or assumptions with them when they see my name, but then when they see my work, then it’s obvious.

It’s a masking of your gender altogether. It’s sort of a neutralizer. Is that something you chose to do based on past experiences?

I just felt like I needed to do it. It just felt right.

It’d be interesting if we all did that, if we never knew what gender any artist was.

It’s just good to keep thinking about these topics, and feminism, and being a woman in the art world. This is good practice, to keep asking questions about who’s showing and why, and whose out there, and what trends there are.

Absolutely. So what’s next for you?

Well, I have a piece in the 2010 Wearable Art Exhibition in Vancouver. It’s made from a 24-foot bright orange soccer net. The garment is beautiful but it’s very difficult to walk around in. It’s spears about entrapment and beauty, and I’m photographed in the piece, so it deals with being a woman. I’m also designing another sculptural garment for a different wearable art exhibition in New Zealand. Lately I’ve been looking at a lot of architectural work and artists who deal with architecture. I’m going to be designing garments that incorporate architecture into the pieces where they will be able to turn into a temporary structure, and then I can invite people to come to the structure and interact. I’m moving towards more community-oriented interactions, sculptural garments that open up dialogue across fashion, art, architecture, and design.

When those pieces are exhibited, how are they displayed?

The piece in Vancouver is a static exhibition–the piece is just displayed; the performance was more the making of the piece. The piece in New Zealand will be a fashion show. The life of the piece will live on through a fashion show, and that’s something new for me, but it’s a fun way to make and exhibit my work.

Well, thanks so much Laura.

Thank you.

See more work at www.mylottmanning.com.

All images Copyright Laura Mylott Manning.

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