the Data Vision Lab
the Data Vision Lab
Reflections on the artwork 'You too' by Serge Hagemeier and Sander Mercx,
currently on display at Plan-B in Eindhoven
Dear Serge and Sander,
Your artwork 'You too' is on display in the staircase of Plan-B, where I walk past it frequently on my way up to my office. It is a very large art piece showcasing a young woman who is mostly undressed aside of a pair of shoes and a black leather jacket. Her naked body is covered with what looks like bodypaint. Next to the piece is a note with your names and a QR code, inviting people to leave any reactions. I see art as an invitation to connect us as humans and therefore deeply appreciate this gesture of welcoming feedback.
And it is because of that gesture that I have written down my personal thoughts and feelings below.
My first encounter with the work
When I passed by 'You too' for the first time, I noticed the young, good looking woman, her slim ('perfect') figure, and the nudity.
The look on her face is noticeable too. It is a look that I would describe as 'cute-angry'. There is a definite frown, but it looks more like the 'angry' look you give a child when they are misbehaving in a mischievous, not too serious, way.
I did not immediately understand that the bodypaint (albeit digitally applied) held a message. I don't think I even realised it was text. Only much later (I believe because of a message on the Plan-B community website?) did I see that the bodypaint showcases the word 'No' in many different languages.
I am not sure when I learned the title of the piece is 'You too', but I do remember that that title confused me (it still does). This title holds a clear reference to the #metoo movement. It therefore immediately relates this art piece to sexual violence. But who exactly is the 'you' in this 'You too'? That's not super clear to me. Is it the 'viewer'? Could it be the woman herself? No, right? Is it trying to point to sexual predators? The invisible 'attacker' of this portrayed woman?
'You too' as in: 'You are a potential sexual predator too?' Is that why she has 'No' written on her body in so many languages?
Why is it so confusing to me?
A bit of context before I dive in
My views are -naturally- related to my lived experiences. It may therefore be helpful to shed a bit of light on that before I speak in more detail about what this piece evokes in me.
I am a Dutch woman whose life has been privileged far above average. It has been completely shielded from physical sexual violence (not including groping and verbal sexual violence). This does not mean, however, that I was shielded from the realisation and fear that sexual violence is a realistic life scenario for me. I don't think any woman can grow up without this realisation. It is imprinted in us from a very young age, from the warnings of our mothers to the heartbreaking stories of our female friends. Imprinted by the series of self defence classes in high school, for girls only, while the boys played soccer outside. Classes that showed us how to kick somebody in the nuts, but mostly taught us that we need to realise there are strong men out there who are capable and willing of hurting us very, very badly.
In all of these narratives, the responsibility for the sexual violence always seemed to be put on our plate: "Don't wear a short dress or you'll get groped!", "Don't drink too much or you'll get raped!", "Don't run in the woods by yourself or you'll be killed!". It's why women text each other after having biked home alone after a night out. It's why I still don't go for a run in the park early morning when it's dark.
These cultural narratives and norms don't just fall out of a clear blue sky. These stories and misbalances are designed and inherited, over many generations.
Less than 10 years before I was born, the Dutch law still stated that in marriage, men were the 'head of the marital union' and that women 'owed them obedience'.
When my mother was born, married women were, by law, considered 'handelingsonbekwaam' (incapacitated, not full of legal capacity). They were not allowed to open bankaccounts, they could not get mortgages, and they could not sign labor contracts. They were fired from their jobs when they got married.
When my mother's mother was born, women were not allowed to vote nor could they run for public office. It meant they had zero influence on who held positions of power, zero control over who created laws that directly affected them and their bodies.
In other words: women are born into a society designed by men and for men's needs. To this day, this means that women need to speak up/work/put energy into changing that society, whereas men can go and 'live their life undisturbed'. This is awfully apparent in my high school self defence classes experience, which, in my opinion, should have been a How to treat women and how to deal with anger and sexual frustration-class just for boys (while the girls played outside).
This deliberate design of our society around men's needs has also created and maintained power structures centred around men. To this day, men hold more power than women, in many aspects of life: in politics, in finance, in the justice department (rape in marriage is still legal in a number of countries, and only very recently made illegal in other places), in the arts/entertainment industry (male artists dominate musea collections, the vast majority of movie directors are men), and ultimately, there is physical power - which is the power balance that I believe your artwork aims to address specifically.
These power imbalances communicate to women, both consciously and unconsciously, that their voices do not matter, that they are weak, their power is non-existent, and that their anger about this situation must at all times be repressed or -at least- carefully/nicely communicated, as to not risk the consequences of being repressed even further.
Another tragic consequence of having been in this situation for many, many generations is that these very obvious and omnipresent power imbalances are actually often invisible. It sometimes takes the simple act of seeing a different or opposing image to show that something's actually completely 'off' in what we consider to be our 'normal' life. These 'different' images can be truly eye-opening, as the example below shows:
Diving in, with some confusion and some assumptions
Now I'd like to focus specifically on 'You too'.
To me, the work contains many of these 'invisible' power imbalances.
To begin, there is a very clear 'male gaze' in this work. A male gaze is one of those invisible, but omnipresent things in our everyday culture. The male gaze refers to the objectification and sexualization of the female body: reducing the woman to a passive, beautiful presence, observed from a male, heterosexual point of view. Male gazes are frequently seen in movies. The massive male dominance amongst movie directors has had an enormous impact on how women are portrayed in film, which has made male gazes so ubiquitous you almost don't think of them anymore. (If you do need this illustrated, here's a classic example).
In 'You too', the male gaze is apparent to me in the following ways:
- The woman is very pretty. Her hair looks nice. She has a perfect body (by current beauty standards). There are no scars, no cellulite, she has perfect skin, perfect breasts, a slim figure, and is of young age.
- She is almost completely naked. The little clothing she wears is very sexy (high heals, leather jacket, shiny belly button piercing).
- Her naked body is used as a canvas. She does not hold a banner above her head, no, her body itself displays the text. To me, that adds to the sexualisation and objectification of her.
- She looks angry in a non-threatening way. The facial expression in 'You too' is the anger that men are comfortable dealing with. True anger looks nothing like that. Not even close.
- Lastly, and most importantly: she does not exist. She is a passive presence. Her contribution to the work is quite literally reduced to her body and beauty. Because -and this strikes me the most and the deepest- her name is not mentioned anywhere.
In addition to these observations, I am also assuming the following things (which may not be true at all):
- the model has not been involved in the art direction, setting, clothing, lighting, facial expression, or what body parts were to be (un)covered
- the model has not been (fully) involved in the origin, creation, or messaging of this work
In other words: she had very limited to no creative or communicative power.
Considering all of the above, you may see why I feel that 'You too' is a creation coming from a male dominated power imbalance.
And I guess that also answers the question why, to me, the messaging has been so confusing:
In such a clearly male-directed and male-dominated piece of art, how can the message be about female power?
What would it have looked like if women had produced this image?
It is always interesting to me to try to imagine the 'different', the 'eye-opening' image, an image that could illustrate and counterbalance the invisible and ubiquitous social power imbalances. I wrote down some first thoughts on the messaging and creation of an art piece that does just that (very much work in progress):
- My body is sacred
- Violence of any kind, and therefore sexual violence as well, is unacceptable and inhumane
- The opposite of Violence is Nurturing and Care
- Men have a job to do in repairing their relation to women, and need to believe women
- Men have a job to do in healing and connecting to themselves
This 'different' piece would not communicate a message towards men using a women's body, but would have a male main character who is in support/in service to women as well as other men struggling with the shame/trauma/pain of not being able to set/hold/protect clear boundaries.
This piece became much longer than I expected at the start. It is time to stop writing. But I hope it is not the end of the conversation!
An art piece becomes powerful only when it has enabled people to connect to each other and share their life experiences.
With that, I look forward to hearing from you.
References and further reading
Sara Maria Sprinkhuizen - the Data Vision Lab - © 2023