I first came across artist Rosie Gibbens during the last day of my latest curatorial adventure, ‘Darlings of the Underground’ co-curated with Martin Mayorga, in collaboration with Anna Souter. I had arranged to show her around the exhibition, as I was expecting a few visitors, however, due to an avalanche of last-minute appointments, she spent most of the afternoon in the waiting area. Whilst sitting in the living room of the project space, I could hear her voice in the background speaking about porn for three hours with some stranger. Power play and sexual politics are indeed one of the artist’s on-going investigations, and in this singular moment, she managed to break down all of the divisions between the erotic and the mundane. Words by Vanessa Murrell.
Gibbens’ practice delves into issues around desire and power in relation to gender performativity and consumerist identity, often appropriating gestures and poses from sources that present bodies as consumable spectacles, whether from advertisements, pornography, art history, product demonstrations, etiquette classes or stock photos.
Concerned with exploring her own identity as a woman and as a consumer alongside the sexualisation of typically female roles, gibbens’ recent performance ‘Dirty Pillows’, in which the artist interacted with soft sculptures made using enlarged photos of her lips and body, confronted viewers with the artist licking these objects using an apron resembling a tongue. The artist’s work centralises around investigating consumerist desires and sees her use of objects in performances and films as “perverse product demonstrations or advertisements.”
Whether you're involved in marketing or not, we are all familiar with the term, ‘sex sells’. How many times have you come across an advertisement where the main focus is a semi-naked, stereotypically attractive person, promoting a mundane item? In fact, when asking Gibbens about her audience’s reaction towards her social media activity (where she is often seen taking selfies surrounded by cushions shaped as bodily parts, slut dropping or trying to seduce ducks in a pond), she recalls getting more likes when revealing her body. She further explores this idea through her seductive colour palette, formed of clinical greys, medical blues and surgical nudes, trying to bring people in with those well-known tropes of visual language. It is never less than pleasurable to encounter the work of Rosie Gibbens.
When asked whether she adopts a consumerist lifestyle outside her work, she mentions that she is a hypocrite like everyone else, and admits to having a weird relationship with objects. “Despite awareness that advertising is manipulating us, I am still often seduced by products I’m told will make me more beautiful, efficient or intelligent” she continues. For her part, desiring something even though she knows she doesn’t need it is a symptom of capitalist life, which she finds difficult to step out of. The artist is currently fascinated by perfume ads in particular, because they sell something that can’t be experienced (smelled) via photographs. “I’m interested by these internal psychological contradictions and hope the work goes some way in addressing it” she explains.
The objects that Gibbens uses in her performances and video works are often domestic, alluding to the ridiculous things that are meant to tidy our lives up, but end up cluttering them even more. Bottle openers, cheese grinders, tooth brushes, drills, gloves, or even fans are just some examples of the objects that the artist ‘liberates’ from their original design through her work. In this respect, the artist often implies sexual relationships between the chosen objects and herself, highlighting the fact that bodies are frequently the landscape through which desires for commodities are constructed. Through her work, one can encounter switches that never go on or off; bottle openers that bang against one’s face; bras that strap things together; toothbrushes that apply make-up; fans that accentuate the softness of the air; aprons that lick cushions; Vaseline that glues things together; a bunch of hair that mops the dirty floor... but who really needs cutlery when you can just use a drill anyway?
Soft and hard, impersonal and mechanical, her objects are treated as collaborators. Out of her collection of items, the artist often comes back to the bottle opener as a signature tool that she believes has the most personality, mainly due to its humanoid features that encourage anthropomorphism. “I’ve always wanted to remove a tampon with a bottle opener... but it’s too difficult!” she reveals. Ultimately, the items used in her work are there for reasons stronger than pure decoration. Regarding her interaction with these gadgets, she catalogues their possibilities through performing actions in her studio, where she messes around with them in front of a mirror. As I speak with her on the phone about her favourite items to use in her works, Gibbens hangs up unintentionally, to which she calls me back and excuses herself with “I think I hung up with my face”.
Indeed, all devices that Gibbens touches seem to rebel against their original purpose, and in the process, the artist playfully attempts to question learnt behaviours and insert individual agency over the intentions of manufacturers. “Using complicated methods of doing simple things pleases me; partly because wasting time upsets the ethos of our efficiency driven society but also because it can make people laugh”, the artist clarifies. Absurdity is therefore used to destabilise societally constructed rules on how to behave as a woman, worker and consumer, reclaiming the female body but also ridiculing it to some extent.
Propelling something funny and odd into potentially pornographic situations, these often being accentuated from the male gaze, is a recurring topic of interest for Gibbens. “I am a firm believer that something can simultaneously be silly and serious and have found humour an excellent way to encourage debate”, she tells me. As someone whose work is engaged with issues around objectification, she is constantly testing the successes of her performances by upsetting the lens through which young female bodies are often viewed. This is reinforced by her utilisation of gendered uniforms from the service economy, such as those worn by nurses, air hostesses, waitresses or female office workers, and whose jobs involve that of pleasing others (also, these costumes are often weird and futuristic!). “The fetishisation of these outfits amplify the importance of sexual attractiveness over the actual work performed and therefore contribute to patriarchal structures.” She describes, "I don’t want to make judgements about individuals but to question broader power structures”.
However, there is a certain danger of contributing to images of fetishized females when playing with stereotypes in the way she does, particularly in today’s times. Rosie herself is a blonde, white, blue-eyed female, and truth is, a lot of the ways that products are sold to us are often through people that look like her... There is an interesting tension to where the line falls between critiquing and reinforcing a stereotype, and this is something the artist is very aware of. “My able, cis, young, relatively thin body conforms in many ways to toxic societal expectations of ‘desirability’. I aim to consciously play with this stereotype in an attempt to highlight its prominence and problems.” She says “It is a weird feeling because I have to approach my body in the work from an objective critical position as well as from my subjective experience.”
Gibbens further explains that her approach to performing might seem submissive through her fleshly actions and explicit interactions with objects and fetish-based costumes, but her movements are always highlighted through a position of power. “In BDSM, the submissive is in charge of the power play. They define the parameters and limits of what happens.” She feels similarly about her performances, as she is the ‘orchestrator’ of her work and therefore has complete agency over the use of her body. However, this has not always been the case and she recalls having taken it too far in one of her early performances, where she invited visitors to ‘cream’ her. In hindsight, the power dynamics within this set-up felt too similar to misogynist ones, as she did not face the audience during this performance, and in recent years, the artist has been able to reflect more in-depth on the dynamics between performer and spectator through a place of trust and control.
courtesy ROSIE GIBBENS
interview VANESSA MURRELL
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