It’s 3am outside Star Bar, with the familiar stench of vomit wafting along George Street, and the commonplace sight of a drunk man with his back turned, urinating onto his R.M. Williams. It’s 3am and the familiar urge of ‘breaking the golden seal’ presses on my bladder. For an hour I seek an unlocked public bathroom. My pain is overpowered by my fear of people staring and friends laughing if I decided to relieve myself outside Star Bar on George Street.
It is this double standard between men and women that galvanised Sydney-based artist EJ Son to create This is not a self portrait (2017), a ceramic sculpture of the lower half of a squatting figure with a vagina/urethra emitting a steady stream of water. Confronted by such an explicit yonic depiction, many visitors’ first reaction is to laugh, whilst others are curious, and others are are uncomfortable, exposing the continuous stigma that persists around the female body despite its objectification in art. This double bind is reflective of the binary depiction of women, as they are reduced to caricatures of saint or sinner, vice or virtue. Whilst the female body has been the subject of the male gaze for centuries, it is still considered immodest, indecorous and inappropriate.
Son eludes this male gaze by portraying the female body in a candid and refreshingly playful l way. The squatting figure wears a pair of red slides, evoking the banal and everyday, thereby normalising its actions. Meanwhile, the trickle of water humorously references urinating cupids found on a number of Western sculptures and fountains, provoking the question of why images of nude males are so ubiquitous, but the exposed female form has been omitted from such public view. It is possible to see the work as a challenge to historical discrimination through sexual difference that has been based purely on biology. When installed, the work is perched on two slim slants on wood, perhaps referencing the female experience itself of existing on a hazardous precipice. For many women, we are suspended in the tension between the precarious balance of expectations, impossibilities and biases.
Similarly, her ceramic bust of a half-naked female figure with a balaclava subverts the traditional history of ceramic busts. Within the Western canon, ceramic busts have been symbols of status, commissioned by and depicting the elite, or the divine. But here we see someone anonymous, specifically, someone who is nude in a non-idealised way: the protruding breasts and stocky arms are far from the serpentine, sinuous lines we are used to seeing in images of lounging goddesses and nymphs. Furthermore the balaclava serves as a sophisticated symbol of irony. Whilst it is used to obscure, to hide, and often to silence, here it is a form of power, agency and autonomy. One need think only of the Guerrilla Girls or Pussy Riot in their use of anonymity to amplify their voices.
The masked figure is accompanied by a carton of strawberry milk. Son recalls that as a young teenager, she and her women friends believed drinking strawberry milk would enhance breast growth. As such, the carton may be a symbol of bodily expectations placed upon young girls. However, the delight of Son’s work lies in its inherent ambiguity: to say that the aim of these young girls to have augmented breasts are frivolous or insipid would be to disenfranchise the very young women Son’s work aims to empower. Instead, the installation of the strawberry milk brings the narratives of young women, their personal fables and myths, into the gallery, to the fore, and grants them the legitimacy that an inherently male, hierarchical society aims to erode. By combining the highbrow with the lowbrow, the ‘objective’ with the subjective, Son’s work opposes the elitism that continues to disparage, belittle and patronise young women.
But Son does not only mould the female body, but also the male body as she continues to emphasise the double standards of objectification in a patriarchal society. Part of Son’s installation includes a ceramic sculpture of the top half of a male torso and his phallus which has been fashioned into a peacock, a double entendre that needs no explanation. Son’s oeuvre relies on humour as a mode of expression and a form of resistance against serious gendered bias. Despite its ostensible levity, her use of humour allows us to engage deeper with the discussion regarding issues of social and cultural discrimination. Son’s work also ruminates on the possibility and power of women’s laughter when their voice has too-oft been silenced.
Many more components constitute Son’s installation as she brings in a number of everyday, personal objects (such as wooden screens, vases, lamps, candles) to create a ‘spatial collage’ that expands into the space. Many of these elements are traditional Korean decorations or ‘cute’ items, as she states that she wishes to make the space as “‘Asian as possible.” The bright colours of these items contrast with the usual white gallery environments, representing a challenge to the hegemony of these sterilised, sanitised spaces. Placing her objects straight into the viewer’s space, we must walk around and amongst these domestic and everyday materials, subsequently conflating the boundaries between the parochial and the ‘sanctity’ of ‘fine art’. We are confronted by familiar materials and we are faced by the corporeal and the explicit, forcing us to ask why we are so repelled by our own human body.
It is significant to note that Son’s practice is diverse as she has recently been making vessels, exemplifying that her artworks ranges beyond that informed by her Korean heritage and gender. Her work, through the medium of clay, provokes greater epistemological enquiries into the nature of creation itself and the role of the artist. With her vessels lined up, one admires the different tones and hues of the clay, reminiscent of the shades of human skin. Son’s anthropomorphised vessels is reminiscent of the ‘creation of man from clay’, genesis tales that recur throughout religions and mythologies of god creating man from clay. What then is the role of the artist who also creates from clay? What then, becomes of the products of this labour? It is clear that Son embodies a number of roles: the artist as comedian, the artist as social instigator, the artist as ceramicist. However, first and foremost, she is the artist as creator.