Men not allowed beyond this point
The first opportunity I had to reflect on the concept of embodiment of my research findings and my own research journey was the Work-In-Progress Exhibition at the Royal College of Art in January 2018.
In this installation, I wanted to re-activate the notions of closeness and exclusiveness that exists within a wider public space. Indeed, the Ladies Pond is a tightly closed space within a public park, which should allow everyone to enjoy its ground. I recreated the ‘Women-only’ green sign that welcomes every swimmer at both entrance gates. Those two words are so powerful that they are enough to exclude many individuals from entering the ‘sacred space’, the ‘sanctuary’. It increases this sense of exclusivity, being part of the ‘chosen’ ones that can enjoy the beauty and peacefulness of the Pond. The nature of the sign is even more exclusive because of its binary aspect. Women only, it doesn’t leave much space for non- binary individuals. What is the alternative then? ‘No-Men allowed’? But are they even thinking about an alternative? I was curious of people’s reaction to that, especially in a College/Art context. I had many interesting feedbacks during the exhibition opening hours. Many males were wandering around, tempted to go in. “It is not a castration machine” I said, jokily. However, mainly females entered the space and got to interact with the work. I asked people to leave a note, a sentence, a remark. I had an interesting feedback saying: ‘Gender is a construct’, where another person then wrote ‘Oh come on’. It is quite representative of the current debate about gender.
Folding screens, or ‘paravents’, were first used in China centuries ago. Then, the concept got imported in Europe by British colonists. Folding screens were used in households: women could get undressed without being seen, even by their partner. Also, they were useful to retain the warmness of a room. In the upper classes of the 18th century, folding screens were richly decorated by artisans: gold, ivory, porcelain, velvet… ‘Paravents’ are gendered object that carry a ‘feminine’ and even erotic connotation. It is easy to see in popular and visual culture: one can think of Cinderella getting changed with her birdy friends, or Brigitte Bardot sensually getting undressed. At the beginning of the 20th century, folding screens loose most of their utilitarian aspect to become a symbol of taste and wealth, a luxury. After 1940, it was more of an antiquities collector object, seen as ‘kitsch’ and ‘outdated’ even if certain folding screens were in display in some museums30. For the last two decades, it seems like folding screens have completely lost their utilitarian aspect, at least in visual arts, to become an object reinvented by contemporary artists, such as David Hockney or Helen Frankenthaler.
In the Kenwood Ladies Space, there are some individual changing cabins, but most women use the open-air area to get changed. Others even get undressed on the meadows. Same for the showers: one can close the curtains of the shower in the corner, but most women shower without hiding, naked. Therefore, the ‘paravents’ in my display can be moved around: closed or open, they capture the ambivalent aspect of the Pond space and the relationship between women and nudity. One is given the choice to ‘protect’ their nakedness, their ‘sacred body’.
The photographs displayed within the folding screens stand as visual documentation of my ethnographic journey. Each wall gives a certain thematic narrative: there are three different elements that are essential, which are Bodies, Nature and Borders/Structures. None of them were really taken inside the Pond area, to emphasise the rigidity of the institutional rules within the space.
Given the ban on taking photographs in the Pond area, I had to find a way to represent what cannot be explicitly represented. Visualising the absence in a way. This is where the green bathing suit intervenes. It is quite an old one, with my name sewed on it by my mum for when I used to go to swimming training camps. This is also the key autobiographical aspect of this installation. Synchronised swimming was a big part of my teenage years and the critics my team and I got from our team trainer regarding our teenagers’ female bodies are probably the reason why so many of us still have body- related issues. As a result of those body-related critics, I started to develop strong bulimia around the age of twelve. Our bodies were constantly on show, we had to be careful about not being too fat, being perfectly shaved, wearing a lot of makeup that can be enjoyed by the audience seating above the swimming pool. Apart from that, I have many incredible memories, especially the feeling of belonging to a community, sharing our teenage years, learning from the older girls. But I guess my body is still recovering from those years.