London-based performer Martha Mosse breaks down negative female stereotypes by trapping herself in a spandex-lidded box
“People are less inclined to label themselves a feminist as they see the term as redundant,” Martha Mosse tells me as we chat about her artwork. The world has seemingly done a U-turn with feminist representation and politics – we’re now at saturation point and the concept has in many ways lost its sense of coherence. A widespread rejection of categorisation, alongside the contradictory demand for a unified voice or ethical standpoint, has largely paralysed a movement built upon radicalism, revolution and action. And yet, while some pen open letters about female empowerment and others post naked selfies on Tumblr, there are artists out there protesting the discursive barriers built upon labelling – and their restrictions – as they try to reclaim language itself. Enter Mosse, the London-based performance and visual artist whose work centres around three female archetypes: the slut, the spinster, and the perfect woman.
“I think radicalism has gone out of feminism, from fear of being trolled” – Martha Mosse
Her latest photo series is the still-life product of an emotive and challenging performance piece that saw its creator ‘dance’ within a small wooden box lidded with spandex. Designed to restrict movement and liberty, Mosse became human-like but not entirely – a comment on the objectification of women under masculinist paradigms. “From the moment that you are born you’re told you are not good enough,” she explains. “I chose the spinster, slut and perfect woman as I felt these were the most limiting of labels. The disparity between what they mean for men and women is striking.” For two hours at a time, the artist would writhe beneath the fabric in semi-choreographed gestures as a theoretical analysis of robust negative female stereotypes. Pictured by photographer and videographer Sam Bailey, the collection was taken from a performance at Pallant House Gallery, Sussex in 2012. The routine was site-specific, and Mosse changed it as she moved from space to space, eventually being granted a residency at Debut Contemporary Gallery in Notting Hill.
Growing up in a gender-fluid household with her mother as the breadwinner informs this artist’s story from its inception: an absence of prescribed gender roles left her confused when she left home to study in Brighton and became well-acquainted with everyday sexism. Realising that women are insidiously given a subset of unwritten conventions, as well as being encouraged to ‘decorate’ themselves accordingly, Mosse delved into feminist prose and arrived at her project aimed at deconstructing the female subject through movement. “I left home and really started to understand societal pressures,” she says. “I felt really dissatisfied with my own life.” Reading through core texts from feminist pioneers such as Judith Butler, Andrea Dworkin and Simone de Beauvoir enabled Mosse to explore the heady world of poststructuralist, gender-redefining literature. “It was so nice to feel like someone actually understood you,” she beams. “I knew I wanted the world to adapt to be more equal, but it’s really hard to articulate it. But once I did some extensive feminist research I started to find my answers.”
“Feminism is so many different things now that it’s hard to contain it. How do you know where to be?” – Martha Mosse
In a climate where mobilisation is increasingly difficult, particularly in a fragmented post-capitalist era where freedom of opportunity is sold to us rather than given, it’s refreshing to see an artist using her physicality as a canvas for reactionary protest. “I started with art and it was so tangible as I built these things,” says Mosse. “Then I danced within them, and then destroyed them, so it was a really nice cycle. It was such an emotive experience, and it’s something people can relate to.”
Too often the propensity to over-theorise radical movements kills any kind of material action, and the more abstract feminism – and a politics of equality more generally – becomes, the less inclined we are to actually fight against the systems that contain us. Perhaps that’s why creatives like Mosse are so refreshing – they breathe life back into a stunted dialogue. By picking apart jaded tropes of womanhood through the body, as the artist does, feminist thought is given a much-needed reboot. “I think radicalism has gone out of feminism, from fear of being trolled,” she says. “Nobody is allowed to have an opinion without upsetting someone. And it’s within the movement, as well. Feminism is so many different things now that it’s hard to contain it. How do you know where to be?”
When questioned as to what feminism means to her, Mosse has a remarkably grounded response. “To me, it’s equality of opportunity more than anything,” she asserts. “It’s never being held back because you’re a woman. Feminism is broad enough to encompass everything, it doesn’t need to be as segregated as it’s becoming.” Feminist art, in and of itself, is a hugely contentious area, as the label is often wrongly placed upon work which is simply created by a female or females. And this speaks to a wider issue within identity politics of any kind: how do we unite without a shared sense of subjectivity? To do away with labels, as much as we may like to, surely stifles the redemptive power of a collective conscience? Can we be feminists if we reject the term itself? Mosse argues that labelling can be both reductive and liberating – it depends on its place of origin. “Why are people so angry when they hear the word feminist?” she asks. “The bottom line is if you choose to label yourself something then you are in control, but if someone is labelling you then you don’t have control. For women, we don’t control our bodies, and we are told how to decorate ourselves.”
“The bottom line is if you choose to label yourself something then you are in control, but if someone is labelling you then you don’t have control” – Martha Mosse
A year after touring the UK with her performance piece, Mosse was invited to give a talk at the Ted x Covent Garden Women convention. The video, which is available on YouTube, has racked up an impressive 500,000 views, and although she admits that she was “nervous”, being offered such an influential platform is a testament to her vision. “My observations of the world are linked to real-life fact, and you can’t argue with that,” she declares. Following this, the artist was asked to contribute to a book titled I Call Myself A Feminist: The View From Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty, and responded with an editorial titled “What’s in a word?” about the stigma associated with the label feminist. Concluding that “it matters as much as it ever did to define (myself) as a feminist,” Mosse has a complex and at times conflicting view on the subject. But this isn’t a hurdle reserved for her only, in fact quite the contrary – all young female activists are struggling to determine their position within the label-non-label dichotomy. However, what appears to be paramount for Mosse is that language is still crucial for paving the way towards gender equality. She summarises: “Yes, there are so many contradictions, and putting such a concrete label on yourself may make you fall short, but for me the word embodies strength and courage.”