The Machine

What title is suitable for this piece of “readymade” with which the spectator is confronted, a torso of an acephalous feminine mannequin, with no limbs, whose genitals and vagina are replaced by an unidentified solid mass covered with a golden leaf? This question arises in the light of the paradoxes presented in Anat Propper Goldenberg’s work, as they seem to go beyond the question of sexuality and motherhood, and examine a new form of feminine subjectivity.

This object refers to three artworks that represent a woman lying on her back as well:

Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” (1866), that focuses the gaze on the naked woman’s genitals, where the game of impulses is being played; Marcel Duchamp’s posthumous work “Given” (1946-66), where the spectator has to look through little peepholes to find a headless female mannequin with her legs widely spread to expose her genitalia–or rather the lack of genitalia where we would expect them to be; and lastly, a work of a female artist, Niki de Saint Phalle’s[1] “Hon” (“she” in Swedish), a 28 meters long and 9 meters tall sculpture presented at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. Lying on her back with her hips wide open and folded in a gynecological position, one could literally visit this woman-shaped sculpture.

The male artists represent the woman for her mysteries and her fears, while the female artist celebrates her erotism with irony, denouncing the functional uses and roles that imprison her.[2] Women are no longer the “Venus” of men and the displacement of the woman-subject to a woman-artist made it possible for the latter to radically change the spectator’s view on female nudity and motherhood. Women artists are engaged to conceive the feminine identity as inseparable from corporality, both from the biological sex and their own sexual experiences.

Anat Propper Goldenberg also confronts us with a headless mannequin, deprived of its limbs, and in a gynecological posture. The genitalia and the vagina, hidden by a stiff, undefined body, have become the place of absent objects. This arrangement creates a unique place, where the representation of the woman-object as a subject of gaze poses a new challenge to the viewer.

Propper Goldenberg exhibits the fragility, the vulnerability, and the violence of this body overturned on its back, like the insect of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Deprived of its wholeness and its stability, this fragmented body faces the material impact of the mineral substance hanging over it. Its precariousness, its destitution, and its impotence are revealed under the weight of the mass, and by the symbolic power of the gold which covers it.

The two heterogeneous elements that make up this structure–one is open like a receptacle, the other might be closing in on itself, but its shape perfectly fits the abdominal cavity–could have been naturally amalgamated in one another to form a harmonious assembly. But the “exterior” object, by its abstract shape and by its color, creates a clear delimitation between the two. It could be noted that Anat Propper Goldenberg had already addressed the question of the modalities of the demarcation of forms in a series of portraits on her exhibition “Perversion of the Scar” (Tel Aviv, 2010). There, she made the signs of differentiation between the characters dissolve, instituting a pictorial order where the principle of unity or common essence between beings governs. Today, on the contrary, the intervention on the two objects accentuates their separateness and their failure to fulfill unity.

This mannequin is not just any model and a priori, it serves as a birth simulation for midwives. In the object created by Propper Goldenberg, the gold-plated bronze replaces the uterus and the vagina. The erasure of the genitalia raises the subject of mixtures and deconstructions in respect to sex differences. The organ that is part of the reproductive system comprises the possibility of pleasure and procreation. This gesture of displacement and intervention submits the tension between life drive and death drive to the power of a conscious will–that of the artist.

However, anticipating the questions and anxieties of its time, Propper Goldernberg’s readymade can be understood as an experience of suicide, and especially collective suicide. In the founding text of sociology, “The Suicide” (1897), Émile Durkheim mentions four different types of suicide. First is the egoistic suicide, caused by insufficient integration of the individual into social groups. A united and cohesive community of individuals, on the contrary, connects its members and makes them protect one another from committing this irreversible act. Paradoxically, there is also an altruistic form of suicide. This phenomenon is explained by an excess of integration; the individual is so integrated into the group that he or she can sacrifice their life in the name of collective values. This situation is frequent when the pressure of the collective conscience is particularly strong, for example in those societies which Durkheim called “primitive” or among soldiers. In a country that is constantly at war, is it not preferable not to give birth to children who, when they become adults, might have to fight to death?

The third type of suicide is characterized by a state of societal anomy. It occurs during periods of structural upheavals of a political or economic nature, such as war, regime change, economic crisis, etc. It is explained by the inability of the community to moderate the individual’s aspirations, which leads to extreme states of frustration.[3] From this perspective, Propper Goldenberg’s readymade can be understood as emergence of awareness of the dangers that the future holds. Looking at the world around us makes feminists, GINKs,[4] say: “If you love your children, don’t bring them into the world, this world is trash”. This is the slogan of the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement” (VHEMT) whose goal is “Phasing out the human species by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health.” Lisa Hymas, an American environmental journalist and a pioneer of the movement, writes on her website that “The future holds unprecedented disasters. These thoughts are not paranoid. It is predicted that any child born now could, halfway through their life, see New York drowned by hurricanes, wheat fields turned to dust, California hit by decades of drought. In 2050, he or she could witness world wars over food, water, space…” The question arises again: why give birth to children who, when they become adults, will lack the minimal resources to subsist?

Furthermore, and in regard to the art as a product and a reflection of its time, we can consider the aesthetic, conceptual, and operative reception of the representation of the female body as a construction of a new form of subjectivity. We are still in the register of the body, but this time in a setting where the quest for new shapes of freedom does not mean a refusal of femininity, as indicates the presence of breasts. Despite the disturbing aspect of this body’s absent genitals and its apparent inability to experience sexual pleasure, it offers a new form of wholeness equivalent to that of man, without having to go through the obvious Freudian phallic illusion.

The biological determination of motherhood is rejected, but the experience of the body as differentiation, as a model of recognition and of value, becomes a site of constructing oneself as a subject. The modern woman loses her femininity as a result of the transformation of her family and social position,[5] and finds it increasingly difficult to bear the weight of the double role. The installation created by Propper Goldenberg recalls, in a metaphorical way, the demand of women to freely dispose of their bodies, a demand which had preceded Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking reflections on the place of women in art (1970). If sterility collides violently with the values ​​of society–except in countries where demography is a necessity for its development, as was the case in China–it will become a socially accepted personal choice.[6] Even though this stance opposes the fundamental survival instinct of the human species, the call for sterility becomes conscious and an active force in our world. This time, women are imposing new norms and values ​​on society and refusing the norms that regulate them. The conceptualization of feminine subjectivity can then be realized outside the phallic thought, outside of language and symbolism. It is a world of sensations, discoveries, and violence that is offered to us through the work of the artist.

From this perspective, the woman becomes her own starting point: no longer outside of herself but within herself. She does not seek to passively exist, to be seen as a painting or a sculpture, as a sign of beauty. Anat Propper Goldenberg’s object suspends the interpretation of seduction. It is a model of hybridization and transformation which operates between several phenomena within the social and artistic systems and disturbing the existing order. The experience of production, manipulation, and modification does not seek to bring the viewer into the field of instinctual satisfaction; it does quite the contrary. The sight of the object violates it, provokes a bodily experience that is not articulated in language but contributes to the definition of a context that constantly redefines itself. Here, Propper Goldenberg invigorates the question of the representation of female subjectivity and frees it from the ideological and mythological machine.

[1] Inside were mechanisms by Jean Tinguely and assemblages by Per Olof Ultvedt.

[2] Niki de Saint Phalle had translated Duchamps’ “readymade” into “ready-maids”.

[3] The fourth type of suicide is fatalistic, and is committed by a subject whose future appears hopeless.

[4] Green Inclinations, No Kids.

[5] Ferdinand Landberg and Marynia F. Farnham (1947), Modern Women, the Lost Sex, N.Y. and London, Harper and Brothers.

[6] “But parents miss out on a lot too (as some will be the first to tell you): Time and emotional energy to invest in friendships and a romantic partnership. Space to focus on a career or education or avocation…” Posts by Lisa Hymason, March 31, 2010.