exploring 50 years of feminist video art

For decades, Australian women have explored identity and society through film. Now meet the artists keeping the heritage alive in a new century.

by Xiaoran Shi
10 January 2017, 1:35am

Image courtesy of Megan Cope, Dianne Tanzer Gallery and THIS IS NO FANTASY.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Portapak's release; a portable analogue videotape recorder that democratised production of the moving image, and gave female artists the impetus and means to redirect the future of modern art. Although small and unassuming, this handheld device was crucial in paving the way for women to publicly contest their misrepresentation and objectification at the hands of Hollywood and the art establishment. The new technology allowed female artists to narrate their own ideas and experiences; to create new works by women about women that would serve as an archive of the feminist history of modern art.

As an emerging format in the late 60s, video art provided an exhilarating avenue of experimentation and expression for women whose works had been long sidelined in the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture. Artists such as Martha Rosler and Joan Jonas were shaped by the political landscape of their time. They capitalised on new technologies to pioneer an art form that disrupted the male gaze and defied a patriarchal canon which for centuries had eschewed female creativity and told women their only hope for participation was to shut up and pose.

'BLAKTISM' trailer, by Megan Cope 2014.

Megan Cope

Melbourne-based artist Megan Cope's work is informed by the search for authentic identity in the putative multiculturalism of contemporary Australia. Working predominantly within painting and sculpture, she employs moving image in her practice to "discuss issues symptomatic of colonisation".

This was done most notably in her 2014 video work, The Blaktism, which satirised the indignity and absurdity of white Australia's demands on Indigenous peoples to prove their identity. The work was inspired by her own experiences in acquiring a certificate of Aboriginality as a fair-skinned Quandamooka woman. It's title refers to the sacred ceremony the artist's alter ego undergoes in the film to have her blackness recognised by the colonial apparatus. With long, lingering shots and claustrophobic close-ups, we're drawn into an understanding of how the Aboriginal subject is made in the colonialist's image; and how authenticity is not self-determined, but a product of racial categorisation. 

Giselle speaking about her recent work, 'Lozein: Find The lover You Deserve'

Giselle Stanborough

Giselle Stanborough is averse to claims her art is "about the internet," preferring instead to conceptualise her work as a means of "trying to get through it all." By "it" she is referring to the emotional side effects of life under neoliberalism, particularly as they relate to romance, interpersonal relationships and constructions of the self.

Despite developing a strong body of work in the mediums of video and installation, the Sydney artist has moved into a more interactive multimedia practice, with her most recent work seeking to create a new relational context rather than an actual piece of art. Titled Giselle Dates, it sees the artist meeting people from various dating apps in a curated installation space and is an attempt not only to break down barriers between 'art makers' and 'art consumers' but also to rehabilitate the ways these two groups communicate with each other outside of the art economy. Not one to get bogged down in pretentious abstraction though, Giselle also admitted she was open to "finding an actual boyfriend" in the course of performing her latest work.

'The Jess Trap' by Jessica McElhinney, 2013 

Jessica McElhinney

Known for her intertextual and self-reflexive sensibilities, Jessica McElhinney's practice centres on the familiar made strange. She introduces tropes and pop cultural phenomena into foreign contexts to wrest new meanings and sensations from the mundane.

Her 2013 work The Jess Trap reimagines several scenes from the 1998 film The Parent Trap to tell a tale of two long-lost twins, or perhaps, two halves of one persona, coming to realise their common origin. This insertion of the artist's self into beloved childhood characters is reassuring and discomforting; the familiar script and narrative arc is fortified and corrupted. Who is really playing who?

Although she does not view her videos as "overtly feminist," her commitment to reclaiming the "feminine and frivolous" as being worthy of art's attention is nothing short of political.

'Antz in the Legs' by Danielle Zorbas, 2016

Danielle Zorbas

One of the co-curators of the 2015 Island Salon, a wildly successful all-female cinematic showcase on Cockatoo Island, Sydney artist and cinephile Danielle Zorbas has been inspired by the moving image from a young age. Her work is embedded with memories movies her grandmother loved when she was a child and her years spent working in independent cinemas. Despite being such a constant part of her life, but it wasn't until this year that Danielle made her first film.

Antz In The Legs began as a loose adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella The Double, but ended up becoming a "decentred fiction-science...abstracting the mimetic data economy spectacle." In other words, the film is a deliriously funny rollercoaster ride through the fever dream that is late capitalism.

As confronting as the relentless, oversaturated mania of Antz may be, it feels undeniably true to the cultural moment we're in right now. Truth is precisely what Danielle seeks to "queer" with her practice and in a media landscape scarred by fake news and anxious to define itself as "post-truth," there is nothing we need more.


Text Xiaoran Shi

video art
Joan Jonas
Martha Rosler
giselle stanborough
danielle zorbas
jessica mcelhinney
megan cope