In the child lives the animal lives the human
The music is captivating, perhaps a little monotonous, but it has a good beat. A girl dances in front of horses standing in their stalls in a stable. They follow her movements, almost hypnotically, back and forth across the floor. If I could read their thoughts I would have said that they were surprised, not to mention entirely uncomprehending regarding the events unfolding in front of them. That is what it looks like, and the effect is both strange and comical. But the inability to comprehend is just as much mine as it is the horses. In other videos, goats or monkeys are unexpectedly subjected to the slightly provocative dance.
Joanna Rytel is the one performing. She is like an actor, which she strongly emphasises – she never plays herself in her films or performances, even though she is always the one participating. This is a performance that took place in 2002/03 where she danced for animals: Animal Performance. She says herself that she is not afraid of animals in the way she can be of people. She therefore felt safe dancing for them.
The endowing of animals with human traits is commonplace in art and literature. Our fascination for the animal world seems inexhaustible, but Johanna Rytel neither gives them magical qualities, human thought or even speech. They are there as a form of consolation, a mute army of friends who wish no harm, among whom she can seek refuge. And we understand her when we are drawn into her world, inhabited by human beings. No mitigating circumstances exist here – the viewer is confronted full on with harrowing precision. With total abandon and violent intensity, the women in her videos expose themselves on the subway, spreading their legs at shocked passengers, unabashedly lusting for black men, travelling throughout Europe, wantonly sleeping around, the more the merrier, expressing forbidden thoughts on racism, and masturbating with her cat. And all the while constantly observed – by us.
In the new video, Me Baby Seal (2012), the same method is applied, with the animals once again playing a vital role. We hear a woman tell a story of how she is obsessed by the thought of having kids with her boyfriend, whom she refers to as Someone. She speaks about aging, and an unbearable, devastating sense of impatience. Will it work? When? How? And with whom..? Concern and tabooed thoughts of male infertility, young men with worthless sperm, test tube insemination, sex, pregnancy and lust are combined in a constant flow and accompany images of a woman (played by Rytel) wearing enormous sperm earrings and seals swimming about and mating. A dog is also on the list of characters, protective and consoling, as are the small, sculpted, aborted foetuses from Joanna Rytel’s earlier production. The tone is at times pensive, at times disconsolate and full of anxiety: what do you mean, we who can’t, you’re the one with the faulty sperm… How does one keep the anxiety at bay? Transforming and becoming a seal is our only hope once the egg is fertilized. Seals do not give birth to dead babies.
The exhibition Me Baby Seal also includes several photographs. At first glance they appear to be colourful kaleidoscopic images, but at closer study one can see that they are made up of various baby paraphernalia such as pacifiers or a distorted pregnant female body. They result in endless loops of all the emotions that take over when things go wrong – nothing happens, it doesn’t look like it should, taken away or miscarried.
The video ends with a sequence where “Joanna” licks her baby’s head, as though she were a cat or a large human seal. She protects it, just as the animals have protected her. The baby becomes a seal pup that gives life to the mother who always gives birth to live children. The video work and the images are thus joined together in an endless cycle of obsession and fantasy.
Existence is depicted in a more poetic manner than previously, but it is nevertheless the political activism that characterises Joanna Rytel’s work as an artist since her studies at University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in the early 2000s. This is Feminism at its apex, with no one left unfazed. As viewers, we are both shocked and disgusted, but we also involuntarily take on the role of the repulsive voyeur who sees, hears and wants more. Historically, women artists have often used their (naked) bodies as a means of illuminating roles in society, of pointing to objectification and the mechanisms that dictate the gaze. It is all about power and identity, not least for Joanna Rytel herself. Legendary role models such as Valie Export, Judy Chicago, Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann (who with her photo suite Infinity Kisses from 1986, where she kisses her cat, has undoubtedly had an influence on Rytel) broke new ground in the 1960s and 70s. But just as with these forerunners, Joanna Rytel’s art is not a collective form of political activism. That form of activism that is increasingly a part of contemporary art today, and that resides in or is invited to “occupy” the large biennales or exhibitions of the art world. It is far from the various occupy movements, or the Russian activist groups such as Voina or Pussy Riot. Joanna Rytel is out on a lone crusade. She refers to banned notions and brings forbidden thoughts to life, battles not only the all-powerful patriarchy, but also all of our stupid, frightened and narrow-minded ideas and notions. Her aim is to foster change with her art, a truly grand ambition, and with the courage and consistency she displays, I am more than ready to join her on the barricades.
Curator and writer
To expose oneself to the gaze of others, and yet to look back, and shift the position of the seer and the seen – ever since Manet's painting Olympia (1863), this drama of the gaze has belonged to modern art. Olympia shows us a prostitute, indolently stretched out on a couch together with a cat and a black servant. The traditional object of our gaze now looks back at us. The "to-be-looked-at-ness" that Laura Mulvey once declared to be the position of the woman in classical Hollywood cinema, has profound roots in art history. But here, in the middle of the 19th century, one of the first modernist painters seems to reverse the roles. The response of Manet's contemporary au- dience was indeed violent. What upset many of them, aside from the obvious indecency of the motif (a dignified motif borrowed from Ti- zian transposed to a brothel) and the painterly quality ("she is glued to the canvas," Cournet complained, "flat as a playing-card"), was pre- cisely the shameless way in which she looks back and challenges the position of the viewer. She claims her own right to the visual field. But the gaze is not only about combat, not only about two egos confronting each otherthe one seeing and endowed with power, the other seen and allegedly subjected – but also, on another level, it's about something that no one masters or possesses. Visibility always belongs to someone else. We attempt to appro- priate it, tame it in different ways, yet always with the feeling that it deludes us. Manet's second great masterpiece, A Bar In The Folie-Bergères (1882) seems to deal with this. With all its mirrors and reflec- tions, where the location of the persons por- trayed seems almost impossible to determine, it's no longer a combat, but a maze where the gaze is lost. Perhaps it's coincidence that we in Joanna Rytel's films find several of the elements from Manet's first painting. If so, it is a coincidence that that we can use so- mewhat playfully, staged in a cinematic space that already from the outset places us inside the bar at the Folie-Bergères with its shifting perspectives. The woman looking back, the cat, the erotic fascination with black skin. The films constitute elements in a drama that in various forms has to do with seeing and being seen. Reversing positions, to invite and repel the viewer, treating the gaze as something that will always escape us. Animal Performance (2002) shows us the artist performing a striptease in front of different animals. At first sight this is acurious and mute one-way communication: the reactions of the animals extend from the sublime sheepishness of the sheep and the absolute indolence of the cows to the more notable interest on the part of the monkeys. There we appear to come closest to the presu- med reactions of the average male striptease audience. But in none of these cases, can we safely assume that the sexual signals are be- ing understood with the same sense they are emitted. What does it mean to make oneself visible to others, and not even a human other, but someone who is fundamentally indifferent? Is this an act of violence or power, and if so, who possesses this power? The woman expo- sing herself, or the animal, whose gaze re- mains averted, or directed towards some other dimension to which we are denied access? As the philosopher Heidegger once remarked, the animal is in a certain way an abyss for the human. The way of being of a stone, deprived of what we call a "world," is easier to un- derstand, quite simply because it understands nothing, than the way of being of the animal, with a world and an understanding different from ours, and who is a once closest to usand the most remote. All our projections, of man onto an animal (anthropomorphisms that make us believe that animals are like us) and of animal onto man (humans are nothing butanimals) have their root in this strange trans- ference. Maybe they are nothing but different attempts to cover the abyss. If desire lies in the gaze, what is then to be seen in the animal gaze? Can we even meet it, or do we always look somewhere on the side; can we see anything other than our own fantasy? Then I'll Take Your Cat (2002) picks up a similar theme, this time in a more inti- mate situation with a domestic animal, a cat. The scene has a more private character. It's a fantasy revolving around itself, while still appearing to the animal gaze – the cat as the intimate friend to whom one always speaks, but who perhaps never really listens. Or at least understands everything one has said in some different fashion. But the cat is also a symbol for the female sex (as in the French and English words, whereas the Swedish language within this sexual bestiary prefers the cat's victim, the mouse). French-kissing the cat is without doubt to cross a line, but only humans understand this. To masturbate in front of a cat is something similar, a show without an audience, or at least an audience whose responses we cannot grasp. To Think Things You Don't Want To (2005) is also a drama of the gaze. This time revolving around human relations, and what we really see in the one we love. The blackman's skin becomes a surface of projection for the female character, where she can enact all of her fantasies of power and subjection. At the same time we are lead into an uncensored stream of consciousness (where you "think things you don't want to," for instance the word "negro," which triggers an almost endless chain of associations), providing us with a plethora of stereotypes and fetishist tropes that constantly shift between placing the other as a thing tobe controlled and a world to explore. The film is just as much about how we want to be seen as about how we wish to see; in love the other becomes part of a drama that we want to stage and direct, and yet it always eludes us. Flasher Girl On Tour (2010) gives us a portrait of the artist as an exhibitionist, on tour in Paris. Her task is to expose herself, in a cab, on a hotel balcony, in a fountain, in the subway, on a park bench, in order to establish the realm of female exhibitionists. Here too the issue is to take control of the unruly gaze, to be able to decide for yourself what should be seen and what should not be seen. Not with respect to another individual, but to an "audience." Maybe every artist is something of a "flasher" in the sense of showing his or her private parts, exposing his or her inner life, and yet striving to master the situation. To "tame the gaze," says Lacan, is one of the aims of art: to extract a strange surplus pleasure from playing with the "screen" that we place between ourselves and the threate- ning gaze that exists out there. The gaze does not belong to anyone, but precisely in this also acquires such a power over us. In the final scene the artist exposes herself to the City of Paris from a balcony, and on the soundtrack we hear Scream Club performing You Belong To Me. The flasher wants to incorporate the world, wants to say you belong to me, since I show myself to you. At the same time the flas- her just as much belongs to the world, just as the gaze is passed around between us, without fully belonging to anyone.
Sven-Olov Wallenstein teaches philosophy and aesthetics at Södertörn University in Stockholm, and is editor-in-chief of Site, a journal for contemporary art, architecture, cinema, and philosophy.
When she talks, I hear the revolutions
In her hips, there's revolutions
Whenshewalks, the revolution's coming
Rebel Girl - Bikini Kill
The first time I met Joanna Rytel was in 2005. I was writing an essay for Art History and decided to write a postmodern analysis of her work. I don't remember how this text came out, I do remember, though, that I got good feedback on it. But now this paper is lost in the archives at Stockholm University. Joanna often asks about it, and I always linger myself out of it. Here I am, writing a new text on her. When I met her, prior to starting this, I wanted to find out how her work has evolved since the last time I talked with her about her artistic practice, 6 years ago. After speaking for a little while, we realized that we share a few specific and rather odd interests. For one, we bothhave a love for the strange and bizarre. This, to me, says a lot about her work, where shemanages to combine this love with heavy issues like gender, rights to sexuality and abortion. Similar to this first meeting in her studio, within the tiger-painted walls of TenstaKonsthall in 2005, I still get impressed of how she thinks around the issues that she deals with. She finds her inspiration from everyday problems of people, her own experiences, and the weirdness of normality. When I wrote my first essay on her artistic practice I remember I saw her as a typical example of postmodernity, now I don't recall why. Her work is so intertwined with human nature that a theoretical base feels almost insufficient as a tool to describe it. Joanna Rytel is a bad feminist and a good one too, a rebel in any situation. While attending University College of Art and Design in Stockholm (1999-2004), Joanna Rytel profiled herself as a radical feminist, or rather people interpreted her work as radical and therefore also her. With this, she got both praise and smut, and often misunderstanding occurred. In her video To Think Thoughts That You Don't Want to Think (2005) Rytel wanted to examine a relationship between a white woman and a black man. The main character is the woman and she struggles with obsessive thoughts around race, gender and sex. She can't stop obsessing over his skin, his cock, his being. He becomes an object, almost a victim for her gaze and touch. She is aware of these thoughts and she knows that she loves him, but has many conflicted feelings. She wants him to be in a certain way, to dress in certain ways, that doesn't indorse her thoughts. She consciously objectifies her boyfriend. In the film she talks not only about him, she talks about them in social settings. Sometimes her accounts are well thought through and sometimes they are almost naive. This work has different layers. Rytel not only puts light on issues of race, but also comments on how society inflicts thoughts on race upon you. This was one critique that was lifted, when the video was shown at a gallery in Stockholm, that the power dynamic in interracial relationships becomes a question of white power. On the other hand, one could say that there is always a power struggle in every relationship. It is a question of being free to make one's own choices; Rytel answered the critique by saying that this is the same way that any person has preferences, so why would it be different if someone says they prefer blondes, or brunettes to anything else. This is something that is recurring in the way Joanna Rytel works around issues. She focuses on a specific subject and makes up a character that embodies the fears around it. Sometimes she plays the character and sometimes someone else plays it. In the performance Want to play doctor with your dick?,Joanna Rytel is dressed as a sexy nurse. The character that she plays sells her body for money. Joanna Rytel uses this act as a metaphor for an artist that has to market, or sell her or himself, to make any kind of living. It may be seen as a controversial metaphor, but this is the way Rytel works. She is not afraid of using controversy to bring light on different subjects. She has always done this with a sense of humor and an open mind to what will come out of her acts. In Animal Performance (2002), Joanna Rytel dances for different animals. The base for this performance was a genuine wish to entertain animals in captivity. From the beginning she wanted to do her disco dance for test animals, but because of the disease risk she had to find other animals in captivity. She just wanted to see the reaction of the animals, which was anything but homogeneous. Some of them show interest, some make noises, some get overly thrilled and some of them don't even give her the time or date. Rytel often deals with the subject of objectification in a subtle way. In this case the animals are the passive viewers and the dancing woman is the active character. This is an important issue for Joanna Rytel's artistic practice. In her film Then I'll Take your Cat (2002), she uses the same chain of thought. The film is at the beginning shot in night-vision. During this scene she kisses a cat. The cat is in focus, while she masturbates. The animals don't have much to say in both of these films. Both of these two works were interpreted as takes on the "male gaze", where the animals represent men, but this was never the thought behind the pieces. I would rather say that this was a way of handling the dualism of subject and object, but not in the sense of male and female. Joanna Rytel has always had a relationship towards animals and they are very dear to her. For her they represent a security and a comfort; they make her feel comfortable. She plays with limits of comfort, but does she ever cross these limits or does she just change where the line goes? This is also expressed in the film Unplay (2009). The storyline for this short- film is aménage a trois where a woman fucks two friends on different occasions. On one hand it is about a woman's right to sleep with whomever she wants to sleep with and on the other hand it is a film about confronting thoughts around honor. She tells one of them about it and this opens up a power struggle. He tries to uphold his honor by trying to convince her and his friend that it was his idea. She confronts him and in this way she tries to get a balance in the power division. Balancing out power splits comes back in other works. When Rytel works with themes she always tries to even out the divergences that occur due to the conflict that is dealt with. In a work that is presented in the compilation of feminist porn called Dirty Diaries (2010), the brainchild of filmmaker Mia Engberg, Joanna Rytel contributed with the video Flasher Girl on Tour (2010). As the name reveals, the character Flasher Girl is a female flasher. She shows her pussy in public and she masturbates anywhere she wants for the world to see. In this case she goes to the capital of romance, Paris, and expresses a bit of self-affection. As in the other films stated above, the woman body in Flasher Girl is the active agent and the viewer has the passive role. Often in the scenes the flashed aren't even aware of what is happening. Joanna Rytel sees occurrences in society, which she then translates into her art. It can be something that catches her curiosity and from that a character is born. In her latest video piece, Me Seal Baby (2012), the woman tries to come to terms with her boyfriend's infertility. In this relationship there is also an imbalance in the interaction between the woman and the man. The couple is trying to have a baby. The female character ventilates her thoughts about her boyfriend's infertility and shows herdesperation to have children. She is turning 38 and is feeling the biological clock ticking away. The film is built up by both moving and still images, which are accompanied by the woman's voice. A lot of the imagery in Me Seal Baby is compiled like kaleidoscopes, which mirrors the monologue; it is a kaleidoscope of thoughts. She reads blogs of other women in the same situation and tries to come up with strategies to get pregnant. She makes a list of her options. When she finally is with child, other thoughts take over; thoughts like 'how did this happen?' or 'will people think that I have been unfaithful?'. The film becomes a window into her mind through this particular monologue where she speaks as if though she was talking to herself. The build up is similar to the film To Think Thoughts That You Don't Want to Think,which also has the same compulsive undertone. This compulsiveness runs through most of Joanna Rytel's works, like there is no way for Flasher Girl to stop flashing herself. And why should she stop? It is about accepting one's compulsive and obsessive thoughts and behavior. One of the other works that appear in Me Seal Baby is The Seal, but these two pieces differ in content and theme. In the first scene of The Seal the character, played by Joanna Rytel, is made-up as a seal and holding her daughter licking her head like any mammal mother would do. Here Joanna Rytel touches on the issue of compulsive thoughts during pregnancy, when women imagine themselves hurting the child in their belly. She tries to give a comforting suggestion to imagine themselves as seals, because seals never give birth to a dead or damaged pup. This is probably the only work where Rytel tries explicitly to calm the compulsiveness of someone else, except for the interactive Abortion Graveyard, where she lets would-be parents to write messages to their unborn children, fetuses or lumps (which ever way one would like to define it). She felt that there was no place or time for them to take farewell. Rytel set up a website where these people could write their words of goodbye. As a continuation of the Abortion Graveyard, Joanna Rytel made an installation Happy Aborted Children Have Their Birthday to the memory of not only her own two aborted children, but to all the happy aborted children of the world. With fetus cakes, candles, balloons and lemonade, the party became a performance itself. In its bizarreness, there was warmth. Besides making videos and performances, Joanna Rytel expands her body of work with photography. In addition to the film Flasher Girl on Tour there is a photo series with the same name, Flasher Girl, where the character is shown from behind, presumably touching herself in public. To the work To Think Thoughts That You Don't Want to Think, not only has she added photos but she also had embroideries with slogans like "Once you go black you don't go back". There is a variety of media in her work. The year 2000 was the first time I heard of Joanna Rytel; I was 15. It was when she, together withFiaSandlund, stormed the Miss Sweden pageant under the name Unfucked Pussy. After that she became a household name and also coined the word "gubbslem", which bluntly translated to "Manslime" became imprinted in minds of a generation of young women, myself included. "Man slime" is described as a man who lacks empathy and is a basic symbol for patriarchy. But to look at Joanna Rytel's art and just call it feminist would be too much of an understatement and a simplification. It is as if she is dealing with the struggle of being different kinds of feminists, just as artists before her dealt with the notion of being different kinds of women: she is the good feminist, the bad, the slut, the whore; she is all of the contradictory clichés of feminists wrapped up into one person. I would definitely call her a rebel.
Alida Ivanov Curator