For nearly a decade Barbara Kruger has produced provocative, enticing and alluring works that have provoked many political conversations amongst viewers. Her main source of medium is something that we, as a society, are bombarded with everyday, photographs from the media that are juxtaposed with accusatory verbal statements and phrases.
Kruger being from a publishing background uses processes in her practice that are not typically known in art (i.e. cropping and enlarging) historically these works belong in the area of montage; however the aggressiveness in her pieces make her work an art of interference, playing with the ideology of semiotics. Her practice is concerned with the positioning of the social body and how our thoughts, desires and attitudes are influenced by what society dictates. Outside of the feminist movement and the complex social issues of the 1970s Kruger’s work could be deemed inconceivable, as it was during this period that many female artists’ turned toward photography, taking on its simple mechanical means of picture taking, compared to the complexity of sculpture and paint. As well as Kruger other female artists such as; Sherrie Levine, Laurie Simmons and Mary Kelly all were heavily influenced by European theory; in particular the writings of Foucault, Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan.
In this essay I will explore the work of Barbara Kruger; in which my main focus will be on her piece “Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face” 1981, exploring the idea of the male gaze referencing the writings of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (and of course touching upon Freud) and feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. Referencing these theorists helps to provide a context for Kruger’s work; naturally Freud sets the groundwork for Lacan’s later theories whilst Mulvey uses Lacan’s ideas within her writings of film and feminism, a medium which encourages the gazing male and reinforces the idea of woman as a threat and object of man.
“Images and symbols for the woman cannot be isolated from images and symbols of the woman....It is representation, the representation of feminine sexualilty....which conditions how it comes into play” – Jacques Lacan (Kruger,1990:59)
In 1982 Kruger began to write her own criticisms in dealing with the sexual ideology of mainstream film. Feminist film theory like other psychoanalytical film theory draws greatly from Freud’s reading of sexuality as a hierarchy, with man being at the top, a system that is managed purely through the mediation of signs. He also explains that the “look” during the five psychosexual stages of development is the key to sexual identity; he wrote in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) that a child’s observation of its mother and her lack of the phallus makes her less than the male. However this concept should not be interpreted due to our determined sex, whether we are male or female, but rather on the play of this absence of the phallus.
Many of Kruger’s works address the theme of absence; “I am your almost nothing” a statement from a piece in 1983 and in one particular piece 1983 of an image of a woman with the words “We construct the chorus of missing persons” plastered across her face. Lacan extended Freud’s concept, describing this presence of the phallus as a privileged signifier in society, which prevented problems for us as girls and women in the social order.
‘She enters language negatively, as one who lacks the sign of essential, full subjectivity, however much she feels it in herself. She has to enter a culture which is driven by a form of Desire which is not her own as the ‘other’, a defective version of a human subject...For Lacan the only way woman can obtain a phallus is by ‘being’ the phallus for her lovers in the realm of demand where the satisfaction of need is the best thing available; that is, by being what the phallus needs and signifies.’ (Minsky,1990:159)
We as women were denied access to the sophisticated structure of language, so we therefore cannot represent ourselves but instead have to be represented, which explains the occurrence of images of woman in our society. In Lacanian theory he writes of the sexual drive, an aim. The aim of the drive is always both the attainment of its object and ultimately a gain in satisfaction. However although sometimes the aim is not always gained the drive is still able to gain satisfaction.
‘In other words – for the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well, I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That’s what it means. Indeed, it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment’ – Jacque Lacan (Grosz,1990:75)
For Lacan the drive is located somewhere between the eye and the gaze, meaning the drive must be located and distinguished from vision. The aim of the drive is to seek not the phallus, but its absence. Feminist theory has extended this critique of the gaze, making it known only as behaviour of the male. Society and representations have reinforced this drive, from the typical female nude, advertisements, fashion photography and obviously the most successful representation through the medium of popular film, where the passive woman versus the active male; “silent stereotypical figure that settles the male gaze.” (Kruger,1990:62) It is in Kruger’s piece where she collages another of her famous phrases “Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face” with an image of the stone female portrait that portrays this idea of the “gaze”.
The stone female portrait could possibly refer to the power of the gaze to petrify its object, a tactic that Craig Owens has described as the “medusa effect” (Kruger: 1990:62), where the female or medusa turns anyone who looks at her to stone. In a way I think Kruger’s work has a sense of irony, as her use of photography a medium that is used to reinforce representations of the female, is further reinforcing and encouraging the gazing male.
Laura Mulvey a British feminist and film theorist also refers to psychoanalysis and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre existing patterns and social formations. It is in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) that Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory as “a political weapon” to demonstrate the way patriarchal society has structured film form, thus ruining the beauty of cinema. As Mulvey writes, ‘It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. This is the intention of this article.’ (Mulvey:1975:16) Mulvey’s essay is divided into two sections, Pleasure in looking/fascination with the human form and Woman as Image, Man as bearer of look, with each section attacking film through the theories of Freud and Lacan.
In the introduction Mulvey writes of the function of the woman, ‘she firstly symbolises the castration threat by her real lack of a penis and secondly thereby raises her child into the symbolic...Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound; she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis (the condition, she imagines, of entry into the symbolic.)’ (Mulvey:14:1975) As well as Kruger, other 70’s feminist artists began to challenge this notion of the ‘lack’. Artist Mary Kelly, mostly known for her piece “Post-Partum Document” (1973-79), addresses the mother child relationship through psychoanalysis and documentation. It is Kelly’s portrait of herself and her son that addresses the male as a representation of the phallus.
In the section Pleasure in looking/fascination with the human form, Mulvey writes of cinema and its number of pleasures it has to offer, one of them being scopophilia (the pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object) which Freud mentions in his Three Essays on Sexuality where he later develops this in Instincts and Vicissitudes. There are three different types of “look” associated in cinema, as Mulvey tell us, ‘that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion’ (Mulvey:1975:25).
In the second section Mulvey begins to talk more of the gazing male, with the male being the active viewer gazing on the passive female; referring back to Kruger’s piece “Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face”, of a female stone sculpture, her body captured in stone, her stillness, her passiveness, where the gazing male can project his fantasy onto the female figure. The role of woman originally was to be looked at, to be displayed as a sexual object as an erotic spectacle, a pin-up girl, or a strip tease, she holds the look and signifies the male’s desire. Mulvey notes that in film the presence of the female is indispensible, meaning that she is needed for the male, however has the least importance to the narrative. She quotes Budd Boetticher:
“What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear that inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.” (Mulvey:1975:19)
Through the use of psychoanalysis and film theory I have explored the male gaze through the work of Barbara Kruger. Each of the theorists I have mentioned have all been relevant to the work of Kruger, they have each set the background for her work and have enabled me to further my knowledge of why woman have been portrayed or rather represented as objects of the male. Kruger’s art has many elements of psychoanalysis especially in her pieces representing the absence of the phallus which is what Lacan would say is a privileged signifier of society. Another 70’s artist Mary Kelly also demonstrated this idea of the lack, which demonstrates how other female artists dealt with psychoanalysis in their own practice. In another of Kruger’s pieces, “Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face”, Kruger portrays the passive woman as a statue, which is something that Mulvey says is fundamental to the “look” of the male. The “look” objectifies the woman, the “look” is what the male is searching for, not himself but the opposite, he is always searching, continuing his aim to feed his sexual drive, which can only be found in the “look”.
Grosz, E.(1990) Jacques Lacan, A feminist introduction, London, Routledge.
Kruger, B. (1994) Remote Control, Power, Cultures and the World Appearances, United States of America, MIT Press.
Kruger, B. Linker, K. (1990) Love for sale, New York, Harry N, Abrams incorporated.
Minsky, R.(1996) Psychoanalysis and Gender, London, Routledge.
Mulvey, L. (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, London, Oxford University Press.