Gender and Transgression in Visual Cultures (Book Review)

Gender i transgressiya v vizualnykh iskusstvakh [Gender and Transgression in VisualCultures]. Almira Ustanova, Editor. Vilnius: European Humanities University, 2007. 217 pp.

This collection of essays, the second in a series entitled Visual and Cultural Explorations (Vizualnye i kulturnye issledovanie), is the product of a conference held at the European Humanities University in Vilnius during April 2003. The forum gathered scholars from Belarus, Lithuania, and England to theorize the terra incognita left uncovered in Russian language scholarly publications on gender representations in visual culture. In particular these authors, according to the introduction by Almira Ousmanova, set out to analyze how gender negotiates borders in visual culture and what this means in the age of a post-modern, post-feminist, post-Soviet world.

The thinkers featured in this edited volume come from a variety of disciplinary fields including art theory, philosophy, gender studies, and film studies. Their task was to probe interdisciplinary discourses of gender, transgression, and visual culture “in a few of its borderlands, to denote the most interesting or actual problems in a comparative perspective.”(Almira Ousmanova, “Introduction,” in Gender and Transgression in Visual Cultures,  ed. Almira Ousmanova (Vilnius: European Humanities University, 2007), 7.)  Overall, the most successful articles in this collection are the ones that speak to the theme of gender transgression as being commonplace slippages and subversions of artistic and cultural norms. Additionally, many of the articles use films, literature, activism, and philosophy selected from a wide spectrum of genres and mediums to demonstrate how through the concept of transgression one can invariably see how unjust and inane are the norms.

Anastasya Denishchik’s piece, entitled “‘A Universal Taboo’ or Why the Limits of the Law on Pornography Aim Towards the Absolute,” challenges definitions of the nature of pornography, and those who are given the power to make determinations of what is pornography and what is erotica. She argues that the differentiation between legitimate and illegitimate forms of sexuality is one of the main controls that the hegemony of hetero-normativity–or to borrow Adrienne Rich’s term “compulsory heterosexuality”–possesses. Denishchek states that “the unchangeable underlines the excessive subjectivity of moral-ethical and aesthetic categories, that serve in the formation of judgment about sexuality and partly about its representations as erotica and pornography.”(Anastasya Denishchik, “’A Universal Taboo’ or Why the Limits of the Law on Pornography Aim Towards the Absolute,” in Gender and Transgression in Visual Cultures, ed. Almira Ousmanova (Vilnius: European Humanities University, 2007), 41.)  This, she suggests, is partly the result of the absence of a precise vocabulary to distinguish between aesthetic and political discourses leading to black and white definitions of sexuality, where an overly subjective criterion determines what is perverse or permissible.

This notion implies that there is an anxiety of circulation surrounding images, as only some are determined to be worthy of transmission while others are not. In his piece “Transgression, Regression and Permanent Auto-Perestroika: Dorothea Olkowski on Gilles Deleuze and Feminism,” Benjamin Cope similarly argues that it is movement and plurality that define the world, and therefore transgression should be viewed as a component of the mainstream circulations of everyday life. Together these two chapters suggest that there will always be competing forms in motion. Correspondingly, Olga Pirozhenko and Aleksandr Pershai’s pieces focus on the fluidity of movement across gender borders.

Audrone Zukauskaite’s chapter “Transgression in a Sentimental Style” examines sexual transgressions through the films of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. Citing Foucault’s idea that there is nothing negative in transgression, Zukauskaite argues that through the extreme examples of the impossibility of sexual relationships shown in Almodóvar’s films we can understand how “transgression can be understood as the only possibility to reconstruct the sacral experience.”(Audrone Zukauskaite, “Transgression in a Sentimental Style,” in Gender and Transgression in Visual Cultures,  ed. Almira Ousmanova (Vilnius: European Humanities University, 2007), 35.)  Zukauskaite suggests that the characters in his films often cannot achieve ordinary outcomes, whereas transgression from what could be predicted occurs more frequently. In such a way transgression in the films of Almodóvar is normalized.

Alla Pigalskaya’s chapter “Revolt as a Symptom: The Guerilla Girls and Iconoclasm” argues that rebellion is “a discontinuity of the symbolic fabrics of culture.”(Alla Pigalskaya, “Revolt as a Symptom: The Guerilla Girls and Iconoclasm,” in Gender and Transgression in Visual Cultures,  ed. Almira Ousmanova (Vilnius: European Humanities University, 2007), 54.)  The Guerilla Girls were an anonymous group of feminist artists that began launching demonstrations protesting the paucity of female participation in exhibitions throughout prominent art galleries. Pigalskaya shows that under the guise of anonymous guerilla masks the group has been able to dispute the invisibility experienced by women in the art world by calling for solidarity with their project and not with any individual. From a different angle, Laima Kreyvite links women’s increased visibility in the post-Soviet Lithuania art world to their rejection of feminist interpretations of their works. Kreyvite argues this is a result of post-feminist ideology and the post-Soviet experience that informed these artists’ works.(Laima Kreyvite, “’Post-Feminist’ Pleasures in Contemporary Lithuanian Art,” in Gender and Transgression in Visual Cultures,  ed. Almira Ousmanova (Vilnius: European Humanities University, 2007), 103.)

While all chapters discuss the common theme of transgression, the volume occasionally suffers from a lack of focus. I do not think that it has anything to do with a lack of a disciplinary focus, as in my opinion the transdisciplinarity of the various sections is one of this collection’s strengths. However, I would argue that focusing on a region or on a specific medium would have enabled the separate chapters in the book to be more in sync with each other. In particular, I was disappointed that so few of the authors addressed the topic of gender and transgression in the visual culture of the post-Soviet space. Of the twelve contributions, only Jankauskaite, Kreyvite, Gussakovskaya, and Pirozhenko address artists and art works from the region with any depth. While the goal of the collection was to introduce primarily western discourses on gender and transgression into Russian language publications, I was especially curious to learn how such discourses are taking shape in the visual culture of a post-Soviet world. Although it is apparent that the region is rife with rich material and contestation, I still remain dissatisfied on that point.

In conclusion, it is not surprising that the extraordinarily varied art forms and traditions in this book, in addition to the methods of analysis, feel occasionally disconnected from each other. Almira Ousanova’s overly general introduction does not tie the disparate parts together, and the absence of any conclusion seems to damage the cohesiveness of the book. While a number of the individual chapters are engaging and provocative as a whole the work is sprawling.That said, however, the volume ultimately serves as a welcome addition to the limited-but growing-Russian language literature on gender, sexuality and visual culture.