SARA HOLWERDA is a performance and video artist who uses movement and dance to explore the limitations of the represenations of the female body in western culture. Her references are varied and include painting, burlesque, vaudeville, movies, contemporary pop music videos, and YouTube tutorials to name a few. Sara recently received her MFA from Cranbrook and now lives and works in Chicago, IL.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your performances and videos involve movement and dance. Do you have a formal background in these fields?
Sara Holwerda: Yes. I figure skated competitively for over ten years, and, as part of my training, I did ballet and yoga. In college I took modern dance at the YMCA and fell into some barefoot dance performances with middle aged hippies in the woods. (I went to college in Ann Arbor!)
The experience of being active in a completely self-conscious way for all my teen years has followed me into my late twenties. Even though I'm only moderately active, I notice that much of my self-concept is still tied up in how my body looks and how it performs. There is something about being female that requires you to perform at some level all the time, and as an artist responding to this cultural condition, I feel the need to do performance work.
OPP: In many performances such as One and Three Women (2012) or The Fall (2012), you perform with others. Are you always the choreographer of these performances or are they collaborators in creating the work?
For The Fall, I had a much larger cast—five dancers, a singer, a Tree of Knowledge, and three paparazzi—so I had to be more prepared with my choreography. I drew diagrams and sent PDFs to everyone to make rehearsals go faster. The scale of the project made it difficult for me to both direct and perform effectively. I performed as a Marilyn Monroe imitator, because I felt I needed to return to that role—when I was seventeen, I performed Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds" solo in an ice show. That solo became an unintentional drag performance failure! My wig came off during a layback spin, and my middle-aged male partners were so nervous that they could barely velcro the "Cartier" on my wrists or lift me up. My inability to fit into this hyper-feminine role, which has been so iconic for so long, was part of my inspiration for the piece. Before I did this performance, I created the Marilyn fuchsia dress from that number as a burlesque costume, and I worked tearing off the costume bit by bit in The Fall. In retrospect, after going through the whole process of staging that work, I realized that I didn't need to perform this role. I learned an important lesson: with a large cast, I can direct more freely if I remove myself as a performer. I'm planning a re-staging of this performance, and I will not perform in it.
SH: That film was definitely in my mind, as well as the "Mein Herr" number from Cabaret. Also, when I was researching burlesque performances for The Fall, I noticed the chair reoccurring as a prop. It's definitely a sexualized prop, and you expect the female performer to behave a certain way with it. The dance is metaphorical, with the chair as a stand-in for the male viewer's body. In the dancer's interactions with the chair, there's a metaphor for an idealized sexual relationship or encounter. The woman is performing for the pleasure of the man, moving in ways that are objectifying her and making her physically vulnerable. Certainly, it's fun and possible to do these dances for one's own pleasure, but I'm not sure everyone doing or watching a chair dance is cognizant of the implications of it.
I also researched chair dances via YouTube tutorials and found the whole thing a bit absurd. In one video a woman is counting off seductive gestures in eight counts, like "and rub his thigh, six seven eight." It seemed so crazy, this choreographed sexuality. I wondered what was being left out. In working with the chair, I realized how limited the motion is for the performer, and thus, how limited the metaphorical relationship is. I was also researching other more violent dance forms, like the turn-of-the century Parisian apache (AH-PAHSH), where a woman is dragged, thrown, and strangled in a dramatized street fight between her and two or more men—usually, she's playing a prostitute, and the men are her pimp and her client. I wanted to explore the kind of danger a woman can experience if she presents herself in such a practiced, sexualized manner, and how far from ideal the relationships she gets into could be.
OPP: What was it like to make this video? Did your personal experience mirror the metaphor?
SH: Making this video required a great deal of training and rest. For about three weeks, I practiced prop falls and stage fighting moves with a mat every other day. On the days in between, I would go to the gym and focus on my core and flexibility. The shooting of the video took two days. The first day, I didn't get the framing right, yet I performed my whole routine several times full out anyway, foolishly exhausting myself. I got caught up in the performance, and forgot that it had to read on video and that I may need to save some energy to shoot it again. On the second day of shooting, I got the framing right, choosing a tighter shot that showed the camera in the mirrors. I performed several times. Finally on the last few takes, I had the right amount of abandon in the falls and had a good sense of improvisation—even though, by then, I had my routine down. Somewhere toward the end, my right shoulder began to hurt, probably from falling on it for two days. It got really tight and I lost some feeling in my hand. I had to sleep sitting up for two weeks, taking nightly Epsom salt baths to relax enough to sleep.
Chair Dance II was also an emotionally challenging piece to make. I'm a survivor of domestic violence; nine years ago I was attacked by an ex-boyfriend. The situations I was putting myself into with the chair definitely paralleled my attack. I never intended it to be a re-enactment or strictly autobiographical—until I saw the footage, I didn't realize how powerful the connections were. Even though I am no longer at the mercy of that experience—I've had time, therapy, and a wonderful husband to help me heal—I need to acknowledge my history when it appears in my work, and I need to be kind to myself in my process. In this piece, I did everything I could to make sure I was always in control, even when it looks like I'm not, and that allowed me to wholeheartedly explore the chair as a prop and a violent metaphor without being overcome by my own personal history.
OPP: Your stop motion animations Put a Ring on It (2010) and Candyman (2011) explore the representation of women's bodies in contemporary music videos and are set to the pop songs by Beyonce and Christina Aguilera which give them their titles. Why did you choose stop motion instead of live performance for these pieces?
SH: This is a great question. In these works, I was very interested in the way that stop-action animation in particular depicts an illusion of motion and how each frame is mediated by an outside force. In other words, the paper legs I use in Put a Ring On It cannot move themselves, and must be arranged very carefully in every frame. I see this level of mediation in all our pop culture images, from stylists, makeup artists, editors, Photoshop, and social norms—every image we see is carefully composed, every movement is carefully choreographed. It's an unnatural, artificial presentation, and I felt animation as a process expressed these conceptual concerns. In Candyman, animation allows me to create the illusion that I am a blond, a redhead and a brunette in a trio, dancing with a sailor's outfit on, none of which are true outside Photoshop and sequential imagery. I liked how false the image is, and how weird and jerky the animated movements are.
I could also dismember the body in Put a Ring On It, which would be harder to do in performance! I also like the flatness of cut paper and the composite digital image. It reminds me of paper dolls and makes the animations feel a bit playful and childlike, which emphasizes the fact that young girls model behavior from these videos. There are hundreds of videos posted to YouTube with girls mimicking Beyonce. Making my own frame by frame imitation of that video felt like the most absurdly devoted way to re-create it, using the most simple and helpless materials.
OPP: Post-feminism is a term I hear as often as post-racial, and I'm shocked that anyone thinks we are post-anything. Why is it still important to be making work about the representation of women's bodies, roles, and movements in art and pop culture?
SH: I'm so glad you asked this! I was lucky to work with the wonderfully feminist-friendly Mark Newport in graduate school. He is a great supporter of my work, and since he responds to cultural gender norms directly in his own work (re-imagining hyper-masculine superheros and football players), he is engaged with the issues I'm dealing with and gave me a lot of thoughtful feedback. Unfortunately, I've also experienced quite the opposite male perspective as well. Recently, a few male artists and academics have reacted to my mimetic performances as simply seductive acts, adding to all the other images of women being seductive. They refused to engage with the feminist discussion that is the content of my work, could not acknowledge that I was challenging the male gaze by photographing and video taping myself, and didn't seem to understand the decades of female self-portraiture, body art and performance art that I am in dialog with. They acted as if there was no need for this. One even said to me, "There have already been like, four or five waves of Feminism." This floored me! He displayed his devastating lack of knowledge and dismissed my work in one fell swoop. This kind of ignorance of Feminism at the highest levels of artistic production and discourse proved to me that it is important to continue making this work, and that it is important for all women to continue to cast a critical eye toward the culture they consume and the messages they are receiving.
Certainly, Feminism has evolved. After all, I can call myself a feminist and still wear bras and shave my legs. But I agree with you that terms like post-feminism are premature, and worse could be part of a movement toward what author Susan Douglas calls "enlightened sexism." We're in a strong backlash, and there are daily reminders of this that reassure me that I need to keep making work. It's 2012, and being a woman is still fraught with demands on our bodies and roles. I walk down the street, and a stranger demands I smile. I see an ad with a close up of a woman's wet lips putting something in her mouth. I hear of another state threatening to take reproductive rights away from women. I see another Judd Apatow comedy using pussy, having a vagina, or being gay as the worst-possible, "hilarious" insult one man can hurl at another man. I hear about the struggles of women to give birth on their own terms: without lying down, without an unnecessary C-section, without being rushed to labor by an impatient doctor.
It's dangerous to be a woman in this culture, and if we're not careful, we will all believe our greatest value is how we look, how we move, and how well we can please others. Through my work, I aim to expose these dangers, to reveal the absurdities of what culture expects of us, and to imagine new possibilities for expression.
As long as Kelly Ripa is on TV in her skinny jeans, breezing through 1950s housewife duties without a man in sight and telling me how I can be "even more amazing" with a new kitchen appliance, I have more work to do.