THE BODY IN QUESTION. Victoria Combalía

Female artists have gradually grown in importance since the Sixties and Seventies, not only in number, but also in terms of the intensity of their work. It is interesting to see that, running parallel with the emergence of feminism over these decades, a form of art which quite often and above all dealt with an identity, feminine identity, also grew. In 1965, Shigeko Kubota did her so-called Vagina Painting with a brush attached to her miniskirt to simulate painting with her sex organ, criticising the “virility” always attributed to Action Painting, while in 1975, Carolee Schneemann presented her Interior Scroll, extracting a rolled-up poem from her vagina. All these artists highlighted the sexual difference and creative power of women.

Now, forty years on, female artists have shifted their issues to broader, more complex fields. They have become more subtle and more open, extending their repertoire to new subject matters.

Txaro Fontalba’s more personal work started in the Nineties with a series dedicated to Duchamp’s urinal. She turned this banal and supremely masculine object into something feminine by adding neosurrealist accessories: a wimple turned it into a nun, mesh into a female face, a cap into the face of a female aviator. By doing so, she subverted the traditional “masculinity” of avant-garde art and emphasised the creative capacity of women.

The exhibition that we can now enjoy deals with several themes, but one has become a modern-day curse for young women: anorexia, an illness of fundamentally psychological origin in which the patient refuses to eat in order to live up to the ideals of a beauty not so much human as imposed by a rage for extreme thinness. This is the reason behind an entire series called Comer aire (Eating air) and why those painted teeth have become balloons which close like a stomach closes. These teeth will not chew food, but rather nothing at all. And just as the artist depicts “eating air”, it would also seem that she depicts “Thinking air” in those works that represent brains drawn with fine grilles.

Those with anorexia (which is far more common among women than it is among men) lie to their families so as not to confess that they do not eat. Many of them force themselves to be sick to expel the food they have eaten; others do physical exercise out of all proportion to burn off calories that they think their bodies do not need. Despite being highly intelligent people, they have a totally false perception of their physical state. They are generally great perfectionists, but their self-destructive urge might also lead us to say that they are masochists. So Txaro Fontalba asks: “Is there a strictly female form of denial? Does this reflect the difficulty of the female (gender-based) position? ”

A psychoanalytical explanation claims that anorexia is a disorder arising from the loss of the idealised body of infancy and that one of the causes could be related to high dependency on parent figures. Is that why, we wonder, Txaro Fontalba describes the body as a piece of raw meat associated with a baby’s dummy? Or is it rather a criticism of the male view which at times sees women as child-like creatures or purely as objects to be tasted or devoured? These works bring to mind subtle aspect of emotional abuse in which the abuser treats the woman like a little girl, incapable of reasoning or acting like an adult, and who he can both scold and pamper.

The artist herself speaks of the interests that underlie these works: “It is clear” she states, “that orality is present in my work: eating, speaking, keeping silent, choking, biting, swallowing, devouring, consuming, consummating. The mouth as a hole, the site of demand. I’m assailed by and generate metaphors and images of orality, of the oral urge. By opening mouths in meat and objects, am I not opening up holes of demand all over the place? And by covering them, denying them with baby’s dummies? As a metaphor, anorexia involves desire and its denial, drive, love, emotional bonds, dependency, exposure to the other… Emotional meat. ”

For someone with anorexia, the table must be an instrument of torture because it is associated with the act of eating; the table assails you, chides you, it devours you, not you it or what it contains. That is what lies behind this table/mouth, which associates the container with the instrument of the act of eating, in a shift which becomes metaphor.

The act of shopping for food must also be a struggle for the sufferer or her family. Txaro Fontalba returns it as a Bullfight, as a fight to the death, not as a conflict or mere disorder.

Particularly powerful amongst this set of works are the minced meat beds, with one or more photos of minced meat fitted onto the place for love in the form of collage. “That is all we are, no more”, it would seem that Txaro Fontalba is saying, not without a biting touch of humour, if not to say bitterness. Of course, she could change sex and think: “that is all you are, referring to the partner between the sheets: meat, no more”. Or even, continuing with the theme of anorexia, when the female body does not normally react to sex in a natural way; perhaps they see themselves as lumps of mince.

From this crisis of the body, Fontalba turns to emotional relationships, always hard between the two sexes, if not to say impossible. In her Lechos de Medea (Beds of Medea: the female character who seeks revenge), her sentences engraved on beds are common thoughts amongst women wounded by love: “love is a catastrophe”; “I don’t want to be all your women for you”; “another woman other than me rules your house”. On other occasions, the sentences refer to sexual identity or emotional demands: “I cannot love just anything”; “in the void of the centre, neither man nor woman”. Let us not forget that when Medea learnt that her husband Jason had left her for Glauce, she not only killed her rival, but also the two sons that she herself had by him. Txaro Fontalba comments: “Medea is also a (female) figure of denial, of another type of denial, and in a way, she is more ambivalent, broader, more complex and difficult to define and accept. The story of Medea intrigues me. Her story revolts me. I can feel no empathy here. But it encapsulates a very interesting part of what is feminine: the failure to coincide of two female positions: being a wife, being a mother and when the two do not mutually sustain each other, or one does not sustain the other, then it wrecks her. And it also speaks of the fact that there is no female desire that is not particular. It would seem that female wrecks appeal to me.”

But I would add that although part of story of the vengeful and inflamed Medea is that of jealousy, another part of her personality is that of her potential as witch and enchantress, gifted with superior powers.

There is one very visually powerful work: Cama carnívora (Carnivorous bed). The bed devours its prey as a carnivorous plant might, and we wonder whether this is an allusion to the snares of desire, which trap humans of both sexes. Be that as it may, the surprising nature of the image means that numerous conclusions can be drawn, a feature of any work of great quality. So the themes that stem from this exhibition are many and varied, all centring on female archetypes and behaviour, giving rise to more questions than answers.

Victoria Combalía.

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