Take four contemporary female artists, each from a different country and each with a compelling and traumatic life story. Ask them to comment on their personal history and show some of their works, past and present. Ideas for a film are rarely more simple, but sometimes it’s the simple ideas that work.
The most famous of the four, at least as far as I’m concerned, is the Serbian Marina Abramović (born 1946). We are shown a film of Abramović’s notorious show when she let her audience do what they wanted to her. Abramović specializes in confrontative performance art, often at great physical pain to herself.
Abramović’s parents were both partisans – her father a dashing Montenegran soldier and her mother a nurse. They met and fell in love while fighting fascism. They were both committed Communists, as Abramović says – unconvincingly – “we all were”. Her relationship with Communism became more ambiguous, and a show includes her cutting a bloody Soviet-style pentangle from her forearm.
Shirin Neshat was born in 1957 in Iran, but after the revolution she was sent by her father to study in the USA. Much of her works attacks the sexism of the Iranian régime, but unlike some of her contemporaries, she doesn’t eulogise what came before. The Shah’s ban on women wearing headscarves, she says, was just as much an attempt to control women’s bodies as their later enforcement under Ayatollah Khomeini.
The artistic development of Katharina Sieverding (born 1944) was also indirectly affected by the Shah. On 2 June 1967, Benno Ohnesorg was killed by German police while protesting the Shah’s visit. The day after, Sieverding decided to study art under Joseph Beuys. She was born in Nazi-occupied Prague and much of her personal and artistic history involves fighting the far right.
Sigalit Landau (born 1957) is from the next generation. Her parents were also born in Nazi Germany, and spent the first few years of their life in Concentration Camps. After the war, they escaped to Israel. Landau is worried that walls and barbed wire are becoming more prevalent in her homeland. It’s not that she obviously knows any Palestinians, but she does want them to live side-by-side in their separate cultures.
Each of the artists engages with more recent developments in her home country. Sieverding created a work “Deutschland wird deutscher” (Germany becomes more German) as a response to reunification in 1990. Abramović was traumatized by the subsequent war in the Balkans. Landau did military service in Gaza and was shocked by the sadness of both Palestinian children and Israeli soldiers (although she is clearly anti-violence, Landau does have a tendency to miss the asymmetric nature of the conflict).
All of the artists appear a lot in their own work, often nude. While this is not gratuitous in the leery way in which some male artists seem to need to get their models to get their kit off, I wasn’t sure that it was always really worth it. Especially as the nudity is often coupled with violence – Abramović takes her top off and whips herself, Landau uses a piece of wire as a hula hoop. As she is naked, the process scars her midriff.
Of course this is supposed to be provocative and shocking, and I am provoked and shocked. But I do wonder what sort of person takes pleasure out of watching this sort of thing. Abramović’s self-flagellation takes place in front of a live audience and seems to take forever. Now, I know there are important symbolic points being made, but I can’t imagine actually enjoying the experience.
Body of Truth raises all sorts of questions about the different artists’ work, but doesn’t suggest any answers. And this is perfectly fine. It shows us enough for us to make up our own minds, and then sits back. Which means that, although some of the works do appeal to me more than others, it is a disservice to the film to dwell on this. It’s not about me.
In this sense: go out and see the film for yourself. You could do much worse.