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Performance: a place of visibility for female artists?

Suffering Bodies and Transgressive Femininity in the Performative Works of Yvonne Rainer, Jo Spence and Hannah Wilke

Johanna Renard


Suffering bodies, vulnerable bodies, dying bodies: body impairments and alterations related to illness were an important field of exploration for female performance artists in the 1980s and 1990s. Contrary to the standard representations of femininity that combined beauty, seduction, vigour and youth, their works revealed the body in socially unacceptable states, usually hidden or censored. Suffering from different types of cancer, Yvonne Rainer, Jo Spence and Hannah Wilke developed performative and documentary explorations which made the pathologized body a place for questioning representation and resistance. How can one perform their sexual identity when they have lost their basic features (breasts, hair, beauty)? How can the sick body help to foil the masquerade of femininity? From body-objects to bodysubjects, this article reveals how the exhibition and experimentation of the suffering corporeality participates in a process of feminist subjectivisation.


Johanna Renard holds a doctorate in art history and criticism from the Université Rennes 2. She is the author of the dissertation entitled Poétique et politique de l’ennui dans la danse et le cinema d’Yvonne Rainer, to be published in 2020 by éditions De l’incidence. A regular contributor to the magazine Critique d’art, she has also published articles in other journals such as the Cahiers du genre, Cahiers de narratologie, and Agôn. She is co-editor of the publication of the proceedings of the international conference Constellations subjectives : pour une histoire féministe de l’art, published in 2020 by éditions iXe. Covering performance, dance, experimental cinema and video art, her research is part of a historical and social approach to contemporary art since the 1960s with a specific interest in feminist and queer artistic practices.

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