The female body for too long has pivoted between the mysterious, sublime and the repulsive. Our bodies are expected to hold these entities in perfect harmony whilst existing in the patriarchal cis-gendered view that is daily forced upon us. Happily, the trend of female artists taking on the establishment, and viewing the female form through their own experienced eyes is growing and Brittany Markert is one of the most exciting.
“From a young age,” says Markert, “I quickly learned that my body was a place to keep hidden. It was an object that might provoke others, a place that warrants disgust, a center of societal mystery. Every day I walked between this weight of repulsion and desire.
“As I grew older and started creating art and looking to other artists, I kept finding series by men that showcased my own body from a very voyeuristic lens, not from a place of experience. I also found empowering illustration and life cast series by vulva bearing humans but they lacked the complexity of emotion I carried with me.”
DG: I am always interested to know why people pick up a camera to create the work and stories they do – what drew you to this format?
The camera as a tool for documentation has been familiar to me since childhood. My mother frequently took pictures of me and my sister and life around us. In my twenties I started to have very graphic visions of scenes, almost as if my imagination was imprinting itself on the world around me. I remember driving in a car and seeing a large haunting tree out the car window. I then saw a woman with long black hair holding a group of black balloons laughing. These visions happened all the time and eventually I picked up the camera and started constructing them with my camera.
DG: Obviously the female body is prominent in the majority of your work – I would like to start with one of your earlier shots, “The Female Form”, harking back to seeing the body as the sum of anatomical parts, but with the vulva clearly pointed out…can you talk me through this?
I think assuming the gender of a body is problematic. I would say the body, not just ‘female’ is important to my work. Bodies that are historically female in my work, are not necessarily female, some are non-binary or male. Some bodies that are historically male, are also female in my work.
In early 2014, when this image was made, I was just beginning to take pictures and print in the darkroom. There wasn’t an intention to why I was creating the work, I was just playing and enjoying the moment. That day I was exploring in a 1950s house in California and noticed this sign. Out of impulse I grabbed a big pencil near by and took this picture spontaneously in the moment. Only afterwards I thought that growing up identifying as a woman I felt that my womanhood, as perceived by cis-men and society, was simply the sum of my parts, specifically my sexuality and my cunt.
In your series “Repulsion and Desire : A Cunt Story” you have said that ‘From a very early age ..I walked the weight between repulsion and desire’ I think many women feel like that. We are on one hand taught that our bodies are made for motherhood, but anything other then that is considered repulsive or unnecessary. We are never taught for instance that the clitoris is the only organ created for pleasure alone, or that the fluids created by our body/vulvas are for a reason….they are not excretions of waste and revulsion. How does your work move within these realms?
Not all people that identify as women have the bodily autonomy to give birth as mothers, but certainly my experience as a cis-woman did involve a heavy amount of psychological weight on being a mother and the idea of my cunt as a gateway for children. The idea of repulsion and desire is something I noted early on from watching The Shining in the epic scene of Room 237, of being completely aroused and horrified by your own desires. George Bataille wrote, “Only death and desire have the force that oppresses, that takes one’s breath away. Only the extremism of desire and death enable one to attain the truth.” In the current juncture of my artistic practice the cunt itself is a vehicle to obtain truth, to confront a very deep societal shadow
I particularly appreciate the way vulvas are represented as natural, hairy. Although this trend is growing in the media – it is still lacking in many parts of culture. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
For this project I didn’t ask what a person’s pubic hair situation is, I just photograph the person as they come to the shoot. I think however a person chooses to have their hair is empowering and I work around that but I do greatly appreciate natural hair. I think a lot of people feel a pressure to have their hair a certain way due to societal and media standards and there is not enough representation of hair in the media. A woman once wrote to me and said they were so happy to see ‘a bush’ in my work. This was a surprise for me because most people I know choose to have pubic hair one way or another but it gave me a perspective that many people are not comfortable and pressured by standards of beauty.
“The Story of The Eye” piece – I take it is influenced by the book by Georges Bataille? It is one of my favourites – can you explain a little bit of the story around this image?
This title is creating a conversation with ‘Story of the Eye’ by George Bataille. If you have read the book, the use of eggs will take on a different meaning, but the image itself is representative of things outside of the book and the title becomes irrelevant. I think the intention of this series is to comfort those with vulvas in their experiences and discomfort those that have idealistic perceptions of vulvas.
Your piece entitled ‘Invasive’ again goes against the idea of the vulva as only an image of sexual arousal, or outside the use of it during child birth. I think many women will understand the discomfort around this image, but what where you as the artist, trying to evoke?
‘Invasive’ is probably the most nightmarish image of the sequence. In order to accomplish this I hired two professional sex workers that are familiar with knife play. Ultimately the meaning is within the viewer but I hope many experiencing life with a vulva can relate to the horror and discomfort this image brings. As with much of my work, it plays on the idea that it could be a fantasy or a nightmare depending on the person and while grappling with many emotions these prints in the series also provide people an intimate experience to discover the complexity and differences with this part of the body. Ultimately I hope people find a sense of belonging, release shame and find beauty or poetry in pain and discomfort.
Self portrait is a theme in your work also. Do you do this to confront something within yourself…or just as a practice of self observation?
My work is a confrontation of the mind and our inner dialogue. I am able to feel and see things as my own subject to my work that are difficult to explain. The initial use of self portraiture was out of convenience , but over time I became a character for my work. I confront things within myself in the hopes that it communicates a universal truth for others to grapple with. In the last few years I am shot other people more than myself because I’ve developed better ways to communicate my ideas.
You can find more of Brittany’s thought-provoking work at https://www.inroomsgallery.com/
And find her on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/in_rooms/?hl=en
Interview by Lisa Jenkins, Twitter @lisaannejenkins
All Images Copyright Brittany Markert