Pearls on the Ocean Floor. Directed by Robert Adanto. Boston: Movie Magic Media, 2010. 79 minutes.
The F Word. Directed by Robert Adanto. 2015. 95 minutes.1
Robert Adanto’s documentaries Pearls on the Ocean Floor and The F Word present contemporary women artists in their own words and offer opportunities for reflection and discussion in women’s studies and contemporary art history classes. The films comprise interviews with artists and a handful of art professionals, which are edited to develop themes. Brief clips and pans of the artists’ works illustrate their comments.
In Pearls on the Ocean Floor eighteen artists of Iranian heritage narrate their relation to that country. Their backgrounds vary: some were born in Iran and became expatriates after the Islamic Revolution or the Iran-Iraq war; some live and work in Iran; some were born abroad. The interviews were conducted in 2009, in the aftermath of the contested presidential elections in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory. Protests followed as the Iranian Green Movement coalesced, and the nascent democratic movement for civil rights energized the artists.
Comments by expatriate mixed media artist Afsoon frame the film. The first voice we hear, she says that while she feels guilty for the free expression she enjoys living abroad, that freedom allows her to illuminate “what other people can’t do in Iran.” The film ends with her statement, “I just want to be happy.” The tension between a perceived responsibility to make political art and the appeal of personal expression that these statements mark is echoed by the other artists who wrestle with expectations, selfimposed and externally-sourced, about what their art ought to represent.
Adanto’s structure allows for complexity and contradiction. New York–based mixed-media artist Sara Rahbar states that political work about Iran comes naturally to her, the daughter of revolutionaries, but that most Iranian artists she knows would prefer to be identified simply as artists without the national qualifier. Haleh Anvari, a photographer who lives in Iran, finds that position “extremely annoying,” because “everything that we do is informed by our Iranian-ness.” Others speak of feeling dislocated. Altogether these perspectives demonstrate that even if national identity is always present, its relevance to an artist’s life and work is contingent.
While the artists are diverse in their media and themes, identity is a recurrent concern. All challenge the Western stereotype of the black chador–clad, silent Iranian woman. Anvari, for example, photographs women in brightly colored and patterned chadors, which re-present her grandmother and aunt’s memories of wearing black only on solemn occasions as well as her sense of Iranian women as “peacocks…beautiful and incredibly sexy.” Photographer Malekeh Nayinyi superimposes photographs of Iranian women from before the 1979 Revolution onto images of ravaged buildings to evoke an earlier time when more options for self-expression were available to women. The artists find a usable past to project into the future, to negotiate the “existential anguish” they feel, in the words of Tate curator Maryam Homayoun-Eisler. As Afsoon describes it, she was forced to leave Iran and afterward Iran changed—she has memories of a place that no longer exists, and her art attempts to recreate it, to assuage her nostalgia.
The F Word also uses interviews but instead documents young feminist performance artists (encompassing video and online presentations), most based in Brooklyn, whose work participates in several key, overlapping concerns of “fourth wave feminism”: sex positivity, feminist pornography, and online self-invention. Feminism is an ongoing concern in the art world. Dr. Kathy Battista, a faculty member at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, points to the fact that “26-year old” male painters command hype and high prices, while young women artists are overlooked. Women performance artists are furthermore often dismissed as doing what has already been done by 1970s feminist artists who used their bodies to explore feminine subjectivity and sexuality. Artist Ann Hirsch notes that you never hear “terrible abstract painting” being dismissed for repeating prior efforts in abstraction, and concludes that the real problem is not a failure of originality but that women are using their own bodies in their art and thereby controlling how they are represented.
Feminist performance art emerged as part of the women’s art movement of the 1970s, and The F Word subjects see themselves carrying this work further, filling in where their foremothers cleared the way. As a student at UCLA, multimedia artist Rachel Mason worked with Mary Kelly whose Post-Partum Document (1979) explored motherhood as something other than a natural, static state. Thanks to Kelly, Mason observes, she and her generation can move beyond challenging such “foundational ideas of womanhood.” The F Word opens with a scene of video artist and online presence Leah Schrager photographing herself pouting seductively at her camera. After the title flashes on screen, a quotation from Carolee Schneemann declares “I am both image maker and image” and explicitly links her body to her “creative female will.” Schneemann and Hannah Wilke both used their nude bodies as their medium in the 1970s and were criticized for narcissistically playing on their beauty. “Male artists,” says artist Narcissister in her interview, “seem to have plenty of room to be narcissistic without being called as such and that that seems to be an easy term to apply to women artists.”
As with Pearls on the Ocean Floor, Adanto’s decision to let the artists speak for themselves allows a range of feminist positions to be explored. There is disagreement, for example, over when sex positivity shades into exploitation, when control of the spectator’s gaze reifies existing erotic stereotypes. Schrager and Hirsch occupy opposing stances regarding pornography. Schrager created a website where she features a range of more and less sexually explicit images of herself, not all of which overtly critique pornographic tropes. Hirsch describes a performance where she screened a porn film and provided the vocal effects: it ended in a gang bang during which Hirsch vocalized the female subject’s discomfort and arousal at once. The performance left the audience in stunned silence, she reports with some satisfaction.
If assigned to watch these films, students would benefit from familiarity with the foundational literature on representations of women, such as John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”2 Anthologies such as Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality will provide context for the sex-positivity claimed by the artists of The F Word.3 And Mehri Honarbin-Holliday’s Becoming Visible in Iran: Women in Contemporary Iranian Society is useful in countering stereotypes of Muslim women.4 In both films, the artists as talking heads predominate, and it will be useful for more extended analysis in the classroom to locate examples of the artists’ works which flash by quickly on screen.
1 Adanto distributes The F Word himself.
2 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972) (this book was created from a television series of the same name aired by the BBC in 1972); Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures (New York: Palgrave, 1989), 14-26.
3 Carole S. Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, rev. ed. (London: Pandora, 1992).
4 Mehri Honarbin-Holliday, Becoming Visible in Iran: Women in Contemporary Iranian Society (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008).