Hannah Wilke was born Arlene Hannah Butter in 1940 in New York. She expressed an interest in becoming an artist when she was in sixth grade. Later, Wilke studied fine art at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. The artist is known for her contributions to feminist art. Her video and performance work often revolves around the artist’s own body, for which Wilke received some criticism from other feminists. Wilke continued to use her body in her art by documenting her battle with cancer. Here are 5 important examples of Hannah Wilke’s video and performance art.
1. Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. – Starification Object Series (1974-82)
Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. – Starification Object Series was first performed publicly in 1975 at Galerie Gerald Piltzer in Paris. Pieces of colored gum were handed out to the audience members who were asked to give the chewed gum back to the artist. Wilke then molded the chewed gum into tiny vulva-shaped sculptures which she placed on her naked skin after removing her shirt. According to Wilke, the chewing gum served as a metaphor for the exploitation of people, especially women who are often viewed as easily replaceable by society.
Another part of her work S.O.S. – Starification Object Series consists of photographs that show Wilke in different poses covered with the pieces of gum that the artist titled cunts. Wilke called the photos performalist self-portraits. She hired the photographer Les Wollam to create the images in her loft. With props like cowboy hats, sunglasses, and toy guns, Hannah Wilke imitated the depiction of women in fashion magazines or desirable movie stars. Alluding to scars, the gum disrupted the alluring and attractive photos Wilke made. While recreating the sexualized imagery that is used to depict female film stars or fashion models, the starification is also often interpreted as a scarification. The scar-like gum highlights the negative effects of the objectification of women.
2. Gestures (1974)
In her video work titled Gestures, Hannah Wilke performs various gestures and expressions with her hands and her face. The video lasts about half an hour, during which Wilke pulls at her skin, kneads it, and strokes her face in repetitive motions. The kneading of the skin has been compared to the kneading of material while making a sculpture. Just like Hannah Wilke pulled and pinched the chewed gum into small vulvas, she performed similar motions on her skin in Gestures. Wilke’s performance also included the display of various emotional states, silly facial expressions, and seemingly violent behavior. During other parts of the video, the artist’s facial expressions are similar to stereotypical depictions of women in advertisements.
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3. Super-t-art (1974)
Hannah Wilke’s Super-t-art was performed at the Kitchen, a nonprofit space in New York showing the works of different artists. Wilke’s performance was part of Jean Dupuy’s event called Soup & Tart. In a review of the event by the New York Times, it was described as an avant-garde dinner party during which people were served an affordable dinner including soup, bread, wine, and apple tarts. The entertainment part of the event consisted of several performances by different artists that were about three to four minutes long.
Over thirty artists contributed performances including Joan Jonas, Richard Serra, and Nam June Paik. Some of the performances deemed as especially noteworthy were mentioned in the New York Times review. One of them was Hannah Wilke’s Super-t-art which was described as a classically statuesque and not entirely parodistic re‐creation of seminude Victorian erotic tableaux vivants.
During the performance, Wilke was only dressed in white cloth which at first, she wore like a toga and four-inch heels. Standing on a spot-lit pedestal, she then changed how she wore the white cloth as well as her gestures. The draped fabric changed from a toga into a loincloth, exposing her naked upper body. Through the changing of the poses, Wilke progressed from mimicking depictions of Mary Magdalene to Christ and the crucifixion showing her in just a loincloth with her arms extended to both sides.
The part leading up to Wilke’s performed crucifixion was characterized by a series of sensual and erotic-looking poses. The performance was supposed to showcase the metaphorical crucifixion of women who were publicly displaying their sexuality and body. The name of the performance Super-t-art was not only a pun on the name of the event Soup & Tart, but it also referred to the notion of a super tart, with tart referring to sex workers or promiscuous women. In addition to the performance’s more universal political and social message, it also had a personal meaning for Wilke. The artist was criticized by other feminists for flaunting her conventionally attractive body in her art. Wilke said in an interview that she didn’t fit in and was being crucified for her appearance. That’s why she made Hannah Wilke Super-t-Art, which she called a female crucifixion.
The performance criticizes the problematic views of female sexuality by engaging with the Madonna/whore dichotomy. During the first few poses, Wilke’s body was modestly covered with a white toga reminiscent of the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. As the performance progressed, however, the artist’s poses became more and more sexual, ultimately resulting in her crucifixion. Another feminist aspect of the work refers to the comparison of women’s bodies to food available to be consumed. Performed at an event where food played a significant role, the piece’s title also alludes to the comparison of female bodies to food.
4. Through the Large Glass (1976)
For her video titled Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass, the artist integrated a famous work that was made by Marcel Duchamp. In the video, Wilke is seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art performing a striptease wearing a hat and a white suit in front of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923) which is also known under the name The Large Glass. Like the bride in the title of Duchamp’s work, Wilke strips bare. As in many of her other works, Wilke seems to imitate poses of fashion photography.
Duchamp’s work consists of two glass panels. The bride is situated in the upper panel and therefore separated from the nine bachelors in the lower panel. The cracks in the glass, visible in Wilke’s performance, were caused by an accident, but Duchamp decided to leave them in. Like the bride from her bachelor’s, Wilke is separated from the audience, not only through the video but also through the glass. We are able to see Wilke through the glass and her body is made accessible to the viewer but the cracks in the glass disrupt this accessibility and our gaze. The broken glass seems to form a barrier, questioning the sexualization of women in art, media, film, and fashion photography.
5. Hannah Wilke’s Intra-Venus-Tapes (1990-1993)
Hannah Wilke died of lymphoma in 1993, at the age of only 52. She documented the effects of the illness and chemotherapy through photographs in her series Intra-Venus, the title being a wordplay on intravenous treatment. The artist gave an unadorned view of her illness. She showed the deterioration of her body, her bald head, the treatment in the hospital, and the moments of lying in bed, often exhausted.
Wilke also made another series while undergoing chemotherapy titled Brushstrokes. She attached her own hair to pieces of paper after it fell out. The title refers to how the hair was caught in her brushes while it was falling out.
Wilke has been criticized for what some people saw as a narcissistic display of her attractive body in her earlier art. Her Intra-Venus series, however, showed the harrowing effects the illness had on her body. Wilke responded to critics by saying: People often give me this bullshit of, ‘What would you have done if you weren’t so gorgeous?’ What difference does it make? . . . Gorgeous people die as do the stereotypical ‘ugly.’ Everybody dies.
Wilke’s Intra-Venus-Tapes contains over 30 hours of video material. The tapes document the final years of the artist’s life. Her husband Donald Goddard, Wilke herself, and others shot the footage. Wilke knew early on that she wanted the tapes to be displayed as a video installation and created plans for its realization. The work was finished in 2007, which was 14 years after Wilke died. The playing tapes depicting personal moments of the artist’s life were shown in a video installation consisting of 16 monitors. They were accompanied by three soundtracks so viewers could only hear parts of the conversations.
The footage shows Wilke and her husband Goddard on trips to the eastern end of Long Island and visiting Goddard’s parents in the Southwest. It also shows Wilke working on her art, sleeping in the hospital, brushing her hair, singing I Feel Pretty in front of a mirror, and getting married to Goddard. The work does not only depict the effects of her illness and receiving treatment, but also her family and the everyday mundane moments like eating, swimming, and talking. Wilke even said that because of their truthfulness, ordinary things sometimes indeed are the most extraordinary ones.