Majestic beauty, undeniable power, and deep sorrow are the motivating factors in this large scale installation by Chinese-born American artist Zhen Guo. Using an array of soft and hard materials, Guo uses the image of a severed breast as an abstract and spiritual depiction of women to announce a societal need to come to terms with widespread disembodiment of women from humanity. FEMIN is a pronouncement from a long silenced artist, that her lived experience as a woman in both China and the United States is a source of power and prestige.
The assemblage of punching bags, the training tool of the heavyweight boxer, and tapestries, the traditional purview of the community of women and homemakers, are an overture to the legacy of craft in feminist art. Whereas many women artists reject the assumption of gender in their art, Guo accentuates her femaleness by incorporating the folk and community art that is usually relegated to crafts. Using a combination of accessible brightly woven fabrics, yarn, and silks, Guo elevates the art of the household to a feminist platform, projecting her message beyond class, race, national origin, and history to defend her understanding of the current state of women transnationally.
Soft breasts, like mollusks, are tacked onto leather and canvas punching bags, to juxtapose texture and manufacturing process. Exposed to the hard fists of a heavyweight boxer, the breasts reclaim the surface area of the brutish column, absorbing the impact and channeling it into growth along the impacted area. The coarse canvas, designed to absorb the bare-handed violence of the fighter, tearing at their knuckles and beating their hands raw, is supplanted by the multicolored breasts. Latching onto this new habitat that rejects the very existence of the breast is no simple task, and the resilience of women to survive in a hostile world is here memorialized. These breasts have become attached to the phallic symbol of violent masculinity. They cannot be dislodged and are slowly choking the bag and rendering it useless and impotent.
This slow process of natural destruction is a very optimistic understanding of the progression of women’s rights and feminist reality in the United States and, especially, in China. One in which the most natural ambassador of women, the breast - severed from the body and thus its role as a symbol of age, vitality, of its ability to support life, and thus left in its material role as sexual object - is replicated in different colors and materials across the space. Confronting the warm yet morbidly dismembered objects as an enveloping pattern along the wall, leads the viewer to confront their position against and along the symbol.
It would seem that in 2016, and in the next emerging year, fundamental women’s rights should have been a past conversation. However, globally, women are murdered and abused for daring to speak their minds, exercise their rights to choose who they love, travel on their own, and engage in other activities accorded to men of all ages, but not to women. In the United States right now, young women are barred from seeking justice for the violence perpetrated against their bodies, and the right to make decisions about their own health. A fundamental denial of women as full and independent human beings with abilities to make decisions for themselves pervades our society
An elemental reminder of the historical violence against women and their resilience and the continued movement toward repudiating that violence is needed now more than ever. The punching bag reminds us of how female empowerment can be read as a threat to male supremacy. The mass of femininity in the form of breasts renders the violent male utility of the punching bag useless, and corrupts the phallus. The polar charges of the bag as a virtualized phallus are muted and literally softened through the addition of perpendicular charges and the contextual masculinity of the punching bag is negated by the pillow-like silks that collapse, envelop, and absorb its power.
Coming to terms with the breast as a symbol of sexuality, motherhood, livelihood, and vulnerability is the slowly replicating mollusk that eventually renders the phallus useless, provoking the castration anxiety theorized by Freud and psychoanalytical surrealists, and leaving a multicolored object that documents the radical notion of being recognized as human. Zhen Guo’s art confronts our outdated image of the maternal breast in this new way and creates a powerful reaction, especially in a context of international feminist struggle
Tian SG Weinberg, 2016