The 1980s witnessed the emergence of a current of feminist thought visibly tired of previous debates on sexual difference between men and women: according to analysis, these debates only served to further accentuate sexual discrimination and the distribution of roles attributed to each sex. Further, there was a mistrust of the category of “gender” associated with biological traits and an understanding of identity as a social and performative construction. Theorists Donna Haraway and Judith Butler would thus shape the artistic practices of a generation looking to develop subversive feminist politics in their work.
Liliana Maresca and Marcia Schvartz were part of the same context: Argentina at the end of the civic-military dictatorship (1976–1983) and the era that followed. More specifically, Maresca’s sculptures refer not only to the violence of the recent past, but also the vital call to form a new society willing to change the present, to replace the tortured body with a body that is erotic and critical, placing a strong emphasis on women’s sexual liberation. Her assemblages are not closed works and were not conceived as static objects. Rather, they are activated, manipulated and modified with the physical and emotional relationship of those using them, akin to a ritual of transformation.
This performative aspect also appears in Schvartz’s work in the form of puppets, stage designs and urban interventions — for instance, Doña Concha (1981), a piece made in Barcelona during her years of exile. The grotesque as a mirror disfiguring reality is a constant running through Argentinean theatre, a poetic strategy taken up by Schvartz from a feminist and ironic gaze.
According to Butler, femininity is an imaginary and regulatory fiction. In A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s, Haraway regards illness as a language; the body, a representation, medicine, a political practice. Ideas that influence the work of Victoria Gil. Her mouths, orifices of the female body and iconic machines of desire are transformed into flesh and wound. By the same token, Jo Spence uses theatrical photography as a language of self-representation and to confront, with humour, the spectator with issues such as illness and trauma.
Ulrike Ottinger, in her idiosyncratic Orlando (1981) — a free adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel — articulates, via her transgender protagonist, freak and theatre imagery, with the mise en scène evincing the idea of “difference”. Ottinger represents the prejudices, cruelty, and even madness, marking the history of humanity with an aesthetics of resistance to the regulation of socially accepted bodies.
Thus, these artists embody multiple and blurred identities, cyborg identities, defined by Haraway as half-human, half-machine and half-animal: the simians of Guerrilla Girls, the astral bodies of Maruja Mallo, etc. The cyborg looks to dissolve gender, distort the biological, and back technology, prostheses, masquerade, the grotesque and humour, constituting at that moment in time poetic strategies for feminist emancipation.