Dreamers Awake @ White Cube

I become my art, my art becomes me. My art is becoming my heart in my art. My heart is hard to handle, my art is too. I want to overwhelm you. I want to touch your feelings I want to give you tender strength. Feel! Feel the folds; one fold, two folds, expressive precise gestural symbols. Multi-layered metaphysics below gut level, like laughter, making love, or shaking hands.

– Hannah Wilke

Hannah Wilke’s words are printed high up on one of the walls of White Cube’s Dreamers Awake exhibition. The display of solely female artists examines the female body from the Surrealist’s point of view. Mixing the work of living artists with the creations made by women associated with the Surrealist movement, the exhibition that has been curated by Susanna Greeves, is several layers deep. As each layer is removed from gallery to gallery, the viewer becomes engulfed in the next layer, amongst a fascinating collection of artworks that pushes the viewer into wanting to discover what is at the base level.

Within Surrealism, the woman has always been the ‘other’, an object of desire that appears deformed, manipulated or as someone or something to be lusted over. The Surreal female character may be described as ‘asleep’, unaware of how she has been molded and portrayed. At White Cube she has been woken up by a mysterious alarm clock comprised of feminine hands that doesn’t play an alarm but paints, sculpts and photographs their sleeping beauty, who has just risen from her slumber.

The exhibition reflects the contemporary artistic sphere, where women have reclaimed their bodies from the male voyeur. Fifty female artists make up the exhibition, which comprises collage, drawing, painting and photography. Feminine practitioners present the feminine form, perhaps with the male ideal in mind, but often with the aim of subverting that. On one wall a quote from Leonora Carrington reads: ‘I warn you, I refuse to be an object.’ The honest sculptures of Sarah Lucas appear faceless, as real bodies in the gallery space. It is interesting that many of the female depictions have removed the visage. In Jo Ann Callis’ photographs, all of her women’s faces are turned away from the camera, where Linder’s collages often have flowers covering the visage.

One hundred years since Apollinaire coined the term ‘Surrealisme’ in twentieth-century Paris, it is now applied in London to work from all over the world. While the inclusion of familiar Western artists help to contextualize the exhibition, it is the work of less familiar women, who steal the show. The paintings of Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman display the heads and upper torsos of women gesturing to each other. The linen on top of which her dismembered figures have been painted on has been cut and weaved together, separating and then joining each body together again. Also of note are Mona Hatoum’s sculptures made from pubic hair, which somewhat resembles the Surrealist objects of Meret Oppenheim. In Jardin Pubic, 1993, a cushion of hair rests where a woman might be sat on a garden chair, forcing the viewer to question what lies beneath her clothing. Alina Szapocznikow’s Lampe-Bouche, 1966, too is extremely beguiling. The lamp consists of a pair of floating, illuminated lips, very similar to the mouthy creations of Salvador Dali.

A whole gallery has been devoted to the collaborative work of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin. The series of paintings on cloth display deformed, headless male bodies with tiny female figures latching on to the masculine entities. Scrawled across the works are emotive messages that read ‘dark black lonely space’ and ‘there is no space in my heart it died…you killed it with your lack of desire.’ The heartbreaking drawings show shrunken women clinging onto the phallus in desperation, and in one work, the rejected woman hangs herself from the sexual organ of the lover who has discarded her. Where historically Surreal imagery has removed any aspect of female emotions, Bourgeois and Emin have made up for it in their illustrations of anguish and suffering.

Much of the most memorable work on display is sculptural. Rachel Kneebone’s porcelain pieces display fleshy female limbs closely intertwined amongst each other. It looks as though they have been smashed together violently, trying to escape their cold, white prison. Meanwhile Kelly Akashi and Elizabeth Jaeger’s offerings play on the Surrealist obsession with dreams. Akashi’s Well(-)Hung, 2017, consists of a rope hung from the ceiling, in which delicate, female hands cast of bronze move downwards, at some points the hands touch, and at other instances, they appear to be holding soft white silicon objects like flower petals or sea shells that contrast with the harsh bronze. Similarly, Jaeger’s Cloak and Sleeve appear as floating ceramic torsos, gently stationed in the gallery. They appear as though they could easily be sailing across an ocean, yet somehow, they have ended up inside a gallery at White Cube in Bermondsey.

Dreamers Awake completely subverts our ideas about the definitions of Surrealism and the woman’s place within that classification. This multilayered display asks more questions than it answers. With so much to take in, it is an exhibition that should be discovered on more than one occasion.

Dreamers Awake is on display at White Cube, Bermondsey until 17th September

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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