GAK Bremen


A Room of One's Own – or a House for the Many? Queer-feministische Revisionen des Künstler*innenhauses

Summary of a lecture by Petra Lange-Berndt

The European atelier evokes numerous representational strategies and myths. Since 1800, for example, studios have often been defined in the tradition of the so-called Romantic cell as special places, i.e., spaces that are situated outside of everyday social processes. Moreover, these sites of production are closely associated with a male artist subject: ateliers can be interpreted as spatialised biographies, self-portraits, or auratic stages for social performance. Based on this history, feminist and queer artists have been analysing, commenting on, and mobilising the working space of the artist.

In December 1963, for example, Carolee Schneemann opened a private exhibition in her New York studio: for the performance Eye Body, she displayed her naked body among new works. The artist presents her studio in the European tradition as a magical as well as sexually charged and intimate space outside of social conventions. She granted access to Eye Body to only one visitor – the Icelandic Pop artist Erró, who took a total of thirty-six black-and-white photographs of the event under her direction. At the centre of this action is a series of transformations; Schneemann appears simultaneously as artist, nude model, and material support. She demonstrates how the gendered constellation of male artist and female nude model, expressed in representations of the studio for centuries, has had a lasting impact on the concept of the atelier. Although she claims the traditional poses of heroes of European and American painting for herself, she uses Erró’s photographic staging and the imprint of the images in the imaginary museum of the exhibition catalogue to promote a changed understanding of art and a rejection of the cult of genius. This way, Eye Body presents a working process and the performative sequence of a number of metamorphoses. In addition to her body, the artist explicitly includes her studio into these ongoing changes. Through the absence of a traditional portrait, through the withdrawal of a bourgeois-feudal artist subject, the materials used and the working space come to the fore as generators of meaning. Work spaces are no longer presented as neutral containers or shells that submit to respective artists; rather, their history is made visible and determines the work executed and the according spatiality.

Annette Messager also engaged in a critique of the studio in Paris around 1970 but took a different approach. As part of the installation Les pensionnaires (The boarders, 1971–1972), she created a hand drawing that visualises the spatial design of her flat from a bird’s-eye view. The upper part of the image shows the bedroom, a room to which three works that deal with ‘arranging and storing the collections’ are assigned; the kitchen and bathroom form the transition to the room below, the actual studio, a living room that houses five other works. Messenger evokes the tradition of the dilettante, whose domestic art production was not seen as professionally ambitious but, rather, as unprofitable idleness, and which, in the absence of a studio of one’s own, took place at home. Messager is explicitly interested in this space and the social history of the housewife associated with it, and by these means, demystifies the aura of the studio. Moreover, she does not map a physical space; rather, the place of production is to be understood as a mental space, which serves to mark a social context as well as to open up a narrative. Messager, following Virginia Woolf’s famous essay of 1929, is not content with ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and dispels the romantic myth of the isolated creator in the studio – she declares herself to be a multiple personality and executes a diverse number of works, for example, as a ‘collector’, ‘practical housewife’, or ‘artist’. Feathers play a decisive role here. Messager connects her practice with historically female connotations of the household: she sourced her feathers from pillow stuffing and feather dusters. Additionally, the studio drawing is integrated into a story that tells of a boarding house where the artist looks after numerous birds. Therefore, in her flat, one finds actual sparrows; the works refer to taxidermied animal bodies but at the same time is a comment on traditional conservation techniques. This way, she created her own natural history museum in the living room: a revised as well as self-determined nature.      

Instead of purporting to leave the production site of the studio, both Messager and Schneemann define it not as an architectural space with documentary pretensions, but rather, as a conceptual as well as spatial expression of an artistic method. Both define ‘studio’ in terms of Daniel Buren’s institutional critique as ‘frame, enclosure, pedestal, castle, church, gallery, museum’, as well, explicitly, as ‘power, art history, economy, market’ – that is, as a workspace, narrative space and also a social context. While traditional ateliers continue to exist, a variety of production contexts and sites can currently be described. From the perspective of a New Institutionalism, it is the spaces of workshops as well as of institutions (places in which art is exhibited and communicated to the public) that are at stake. In addition to the gender dualism that characterises the historical constellation and its critique, other hierarchies associated with the studio – such as Eurocentrism and whiteness – are also addressed.

In a complex body of work, Sonia Boyce explored what this might mean for a contemporary artistic practice. Six Acts took place at Manchester Art Gallery in March 2018 and was part of a ‘gallery takeover’ series, which launched a solo exhibition by the artist. The institution became Boyce’s workplace for a few months; her starting point was the history of the museum. On 4 April 1913, three suffragettes – Lilian Forrester, Annie Briggs, and Evelyn Manesta – had smashed the protective glass of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian paintings in protest; the action took place in solidarity with Emily Pankhurst and demands for voting rights. Six Acts is also to be understood as institutional critique. Boyce’s work began with extensive conversations with all of the museum’s staff and visitors. As part of the project, paintings were identified and further questioned by drag performers from Manchester: Lasana Shabazz, for example, interacted with James Northcote’s 1826 Othello, the Moor of Venice, a portrait from the institution’s founding period depicting Black theatre actor Ira Aldridge. Finally, John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs was taken down in Act Six and relegated to the archives for a week: the work depicts underage girls in a lake and is replete with references to sexual availability and so-called nymphomania and hysteria. At the end of the performance, Boyce transposed Six Acts into an installation. This work dissolves the studio – the institution – as a space for a solitary artist into a collective one, proceedings that aim at a public discussion and make public the framework and modes of reception of art. It is not a single body that opens up a space or a subject that transforms into a multiple personality but a group of like-minded people that creates a critical public sphere. In this context, queer – in addition to including drag performers and disrupting the historically established conventions in a museum – also means emphasising the processuality and performativity of identity as well as the studio and formulating the hope that these categories are not fixed but, rather, unstable and complex, plural and multi-layered. Accordingly, for Boyce, multiple versions of what functions as a studio exist in parallel: offices, exhibition spaces, hotel rooms, her regular atelier, the workspaces of all her collaborators, the internet. These multi-dimensional spaces are not about the production of objects but about working on and with historical matters in social spaces, about a reorganisation and discourse of production – and, above all, a post-production. Six Acts suggests that only an assemblage of materials, things, practices, institutions, discourses and identities that spans historically localisable spaces of knowledge – only spatially constituted practices and processes that take all these factors into account – have a chance of effectively undoing the traditional order of the studio topos.

In this sense, a contemporary artist studio might be understood as an active and living archive of all these possibilities, a place where alternatives and possibilities are collected, maintained and made accessible but also challenged, further processed, turned and flipped. Perhaps one possible goal would be an ever-renewed questioning of the art system, an ongoing collective discussion of the respective ensemble in their own languages. These ongoing debates have no authentic locus but are constantly re-locating themselves. It is about the changeability of the function of things, of stories, of production contexts and of institutions. What exactly this means, we can only find out collectively.


Further reading:

Petra Lange-Berndt, ‘Besetzen, abwandern, auflösen ... Die Aufkündigung des Ateliers bei Carolee Schneemann und Annette Messager’, in Michael Diers and Monika Wagner (eds.), Topos Atelier. Werkstatt und Wissensform, Berlin: Akademie Verlag 2009, pp. 75–92.

Petra Lange-Berndt, Animal Art. Präparierte Tierkörper in der Kunst, 18502000, Munich: Silke Schreiber Verlag 2009.

Petra Lange-Berndt, ‘Occupy, Migrate, Disintegrate ... Carolee Schneemann and Annette Messager’s Studio Abandonment’ (2010), in Friederike Sigler (ed.): Work: Documents of Contemporary Art, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2017, pp. 221–222.

Daniel Buren, ‘The Function of the Studio’ (1970–71), in October 10 (Autumn 1979), pp. 51–58.

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