24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Hannah Wilke - S.O.S. Starification Object Series: A narcissist or a feminist?

The feminist art movement emerged in the 1960s contributing to the legacy of seminal names in body-based performance art, in particular with female artists who utilize their bodies as a subject of exploration. Feminist artists reclaimed commonly associated stereotypical photos of women as a crucial element in their works. The female body could be a dangerous weapon against gender binary social structures when deployed by women artists, with success from Judy Chicago to Cindy Sherman. In contrast, art critics were inclined to criticize and dismissed the self-imaging of Hannah Wilke as indulgent narcissism that only served to enhance the objectification of the female body. The reputation of this American female  artist has largely rested on S.O.S. Starification Object Series, one of her most striking works  and one which even has been seen as an abomination in the feminist community. In other words, Wilke took her impeccable appearance as a mean to challenge the visual code of  labelling  and raise the concern about how should a feminist look.

In 1974, Wilke began to approach performance art with an intriguing piece called “S.O.S. Starification Object Series”. It was first introduced to the public as An Adult Game of Mastication in the Artists Make Toys exhibition at the Clocktower in New York, 1975.[1] The title of Wilke's work, "S.O.S. Starification Object Series" indicates the relationship between "starification" - the glamorous picture of women in the media industry and the ritual objective viewpoint on female "scarification" It comprises photos of Wilke's torso resembling fashion advertising campaign: twenty-eight portraits of Wilke's upper body in diverse postures with accessories such as a cowboy hat, a Mickey mouse toy, a tie, a gun, a sunglasses, hair rollers and an apron. 

By experimenting with various mediums including performing art, photography and sculpture, Wilke portrays herself as an enticing woman alluring the voyeuristic viewers to focus on her appearance. As a crucial part of S.O.S performance, Wilke allotted chewing gum to the audience, which eventually turned into "small, visually shaped sculptures." [2] While her attitude conveys the stereotypical image of a sexual female, she counteracts and disturbs the observer's consumption of the female torso with a multitude of chewing gum in sculptural form. With these sculptures stuck on her torso, she imitated the platitudes of cliché femininity in society, including the sensual housewife, the noble fashion model, and the naive, exotic girlfriend. Thanks to expressing diverse nuance of women in each photo, the observers can conceive different states of emotions from shy, naive, joyful, sensitive to even superior and seductive.

The advent of the tiny colourful sculpture creates a dissimilarity between a feminist artwork and a naked photo. Each sculpture is a meticulous tiny female genitalia made out of chewing gum.  By attaching the 'gum' scar in front of her body, she communicates the sensation of unease to the audiences. The gum also implies the male gaze, which is a practice of representing women in art and life as a sexual object. As Debra Wacks interpreted "glamour gives way to playful, yet critical, images as the vaginal scars work to disrupt the pleasure of the scopophilic gaze."[3]

With the North American scenario in the 1970s, the alluring attachment of the gum on Wilke's cliché image creates "the stigma of women as "other" in a patriarchal society" [4]. As Wilkes revealed in a talk with Ernst, a German sculptor, her photos are the effort to turn "yourself into a work of art instead of other people making you something you might not approve of."[5] The artist asserted that her concern is "with the word translated into forms, with creating a positive image to wipe out prejudice, aggression, and fear associated with the negative connotations of pussy, cunt, box."[6] The act of scarring a star serves to display the female body with intrinsic wounds, illustrating the "internal wounds that we carry within us, that really hurt us" while women consider their visual identity as trivial.[7]

Besides visually describing the "internality of her feminine body", Wilke also externalized the chewing gum as adnrogynous sculptures. The marks serve to identify women but unexpected shift into blindsiding androgyny. Wilke asserted: "they can be seen as female and male, just the head of the cock looks very much like a vagina. So they are really male-female gestural sculptures."[8]  Although it is attached to a women, its content does not only express the aspect of female. The gum ‘scar’ has converted from a vaginal form into an androgynous one to expose all the hidden layers of meaning: that androgynous pieces affixed on her torso strive to highlight the "unreliability of signifiers that mark sexual and ethnic difference."[9]
In particular, Wilke was aware that "as a Jew, during the war, I would have been branded and buried had I not been born in America. Starification- Scarification… Jew, Black, Christian, Muslim. Labelling people instead of listening to them."[10] Consequently, Tembeck proposed the artist raised the tension between "starification" - commodity culture's glorification of popular media heroines - and "scarification" the invisible wounds that invariably emerge from belonging to rigidly defined social groups, as well as the physical markers that situate individuals politically within society.[11]

 Meanwhile, O'Bryan claims Wilke’s performance existing outside the marketing world is an illustration for the pleasure of her beauty, and criticized the beauty standard in the advertisement.[12] Writing about Hannah Wilke, Frueh, a feminist scholar, emphasized the scarification in Wilke's work referring to ritual scarring in African cultures was taken as a stigma associated with its devaluation and yet mocked the fashion industry where "society still wants a woman perform its desire and excitement, not her own."[13] Additionally, Berressem explained that the fact the viewers chewed the gum highlights the intimate relationship between the scarification object which was also a creative work of display. It counteracts the voyeuristic dilemma and impels the viewers into "an interpersonal exchange of materials and body fluids within the boundaries of the artist's self-determined performances." [14]

In the beginning, Wilke was motivated to reclaim the human form of a woman as a resource of value. She slowly turned her art into "the motif of scar" in the gum sculpture to show women's experience, and how beauty can be obnoxious, antagonizing, and devastating. [15] The gum scar in S.O.S resembles the ritual scarification, a beautification method in Polynesian and African cultures to evoke the physical gender distinction. Regarding the artist's identity and experience as a Jewish woman, Wilke raised her concern about the negative influence of the label system of gender, races, class and religion. The act of labelling any individual before acknowledging their stories also appeared in the media industry which viewed women as an object, a marketing tool and designed a beauty standard for the female to accommodate.

Nonetheless, New York critics tended to concentrate on her gorgeous body and overlooked her symbolic vaginal sculpture when the work was first exposed to the public as they could not accept Wilke's nudity as "an integral ingredient to the process of rewriting (and challenging) visual codes." [16] . One of the artists named Hess suggested among the hideous reactions of other feminists that she should : "strip her figures of their identity, not their clothes."[17] The denial of Wilke's work as merely narcissistic “veils a resistance within art critical systems toward acknowledging the artist’s body means within the circuits of art production and reception (no to mention the ways in which ideals of  “beauty” are developed and sustained).”[18] Furthermore, Wilke’s narcissistic body not only reveals her soul but “also confuses in fascinating ways her identities as a feminist.” [19]

The sculpture gum decoration strived to challenge the shaming of women and the sexual gaze at females in a patriarchal society as Wilke explained in 1980 : "I choose gum because it's the perfect metaphor for the American women- chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece."[20] In other words, the life span of chewing gum starts with being a juicy sweet candy but then gradually looses its essence after the use of human and become a futile object in life. It completely captures the scenario about the position of the women at that time. The beauty of the women is only the foundation that highlights the superficial concept of her sexual activities.

Nonetheless, Wilke was underrated in the United States and only appreciated by the foreign art system. Likewise, news and articles about Hannah Wilke tended to focus on the seductive side of her appearance and criticize the feminist perspective on her work, suggesting that she was excessively dazzling and narcissistic. It was suggested that her work was not "definitively or didactically deconstructive of the objectification of women".[21] As Lucy Lippard revealed, men are allowed to use woman body as neutral objects, but the society cannot tolerate a woman conveying her own body into art.[22] Consequently, Wilke's image was often misunderstood as narcissism as "her performance of excoriation was so complete."[23] Even other feminists condemn her series because of her being beautiful, which creates confusion between a beautiful woman and a feminist artist. It questioned the exact role of a feminist  and also proked the concern whether the feminism excluding the beautiful women. This issue of beauty dignity for feminism in the 1970s pervades every component of Wilke’s self-imaging tactic. 

In contrast, another feminist artist, Cindy Sherman, who adopted Wilke's idea of parodying the women image, has become significantly famous since her works visually convey the 'ugliness' of female stereotypes. This dilemma indicates the issue of the society with her being toobeautiful for a feminist. This uncertainty about Wilke's glamour look is her tool to challenge the signifier of sexuality and prejudice on women. . Wilke's narcissism can be considered an astute feminist self-objective approach to retrieve the erotic female body from the realm of male sexual desire.[24] Wilke exerts her narcissistic 'self-love' as a compelling weapon of condemnation, setting her own appearance in the male domination culture for second-wave feminism. Therefore, S.O.S Starification is evidence of Wilke's further enlightened concept of feminist than many in the 1970s.

Her primary complaint against the Women's Movement in the 1970s was that it struggled to define boundaries and categorize itself as feminist or not feminist. Rather, Wilke was not obsessed with herself, but instead was consumed by her role, which she realized most women shared. Before feminist movements, women were forced to remove their gender out of their work to be taken seriously as artists.[25] There are enormous contrasts in the display of females by male artists' in comparison with contemporary self-representation by women artists. The advent of photography allowed female artists to depict women outside of the context they were traditionally represented. Instead of visually worsening the image of women in society, Wilke uses her symbolic sculpture on the same material of the male gaze to force the audience converted into another perspective. Consequently, Wilke responded to such outrage with “Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism” (1977) as a tool to challenge "self-righteous and censoring attitude of feminist discourse" by her dauntless photos.[26]

Although she advocated the empowerment of women, she rejected notions that a feminist could be described by physical attributes or a particular act. Wilke's statement remained in Jones's writing, Wilke aware that "unburdening herself, first and foremost" was the efficient mean to defend her purpose without constraining others.[27] By sticking the gum on an image of a fashion magazine cover, Wilke awakened the equivocal issue of the society. The gum scar is the shield to prevent the judgment and also the pressure forced on the human in contemporary society. S.O.S. Starification Object Series strives to advocate not solely for female but also for the victims of stereotypes, sexism and discrimination and for the sake of embracing true identity rather than following the prejudice of society.

Wilke was conscious that her own beauty can only serve as a factor, not as the value of the work. Although there is now an attempt to recognize more neglected facets of Wilke, this most frequently comes in revisionist retrospectives following her death. Portraying her own body and having the courage to undertake this sensitive theme, she became one of the earliest precedents of feminism for other women. From the criticism Wilke received, she represents the challenges of struggling for a label-less society. Not only was the feminist art movement questioning the way women were seen as artists and subjects of artworks, but it was also a matter of women confronting their inferior roles. Many categorize feminist art only as women's art, while others interpret it as art created with a noticeable anti-male attitude. But Wilke's response remained: “What would you have done if you weren't so gorgeous?' What difference does it make? ... Gorgeous people die as do the stereotypical 'ugly.' Everybody dies."[28]

[1] Mary Simpson. Woman's Art Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2012, pp. 48–50. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24395270
[2] Debra Wacks . “Naked Truths: Hannah Wilke in Copenhagen.” Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 2 (1999): 104–106. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/777953.
[3] Wacks, “Naked Truths: Hannah Wilke.”, 105
[4] Tamar Tembeck, “Exposed Wounds: The Photographic Autopathographies of Hannah Wilke and Jo Spence.” RACAR: Revue D'art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review, vol. 33, no. 1 (2008): 87–101.
[5]  Hanjo Berressem, “Venus as Muse: from Lucretius to Michel Serres.” Venus as Muse: from Lucretius to Michel Serres, (2015), 94–115
[6]  Berressem, “Venus as Muse”, 97.
[7]  Ibid,. 97
[8] Amelia Jones, Body Art - Performing the Subject. (University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 6-195, 
[9]  Jill O'Bryan, “Looking inside the Human Body.” Carnal Art: Orlan's Refacing, by, University of Minnesota Press, 2005, 73–75
[10] Jones, Body Art, 195
[11] Tembeck, Exposed Wound, 89.
[12]  O'Bryan, “Looking inside the Human Body. 73.
[13] [Ibid,. 74.
[14] Berressem, “Venus as Muse”, 98.
[15] Tembeck, Exposed Wound, 89.
[16] Wacks, “Naked Truths: Hannah Wilke.”, 105
[17] Jones, Body Art, 172
[18] Jones, Body Art, 176
[19] [Ibids., 176
[20] [Ibids., 184
[21] [Ibids., 174
[22]  Lucy Lippard, “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art” in From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, 127.
[23]   O'Bryan, “Looking inside the Human Body. 75.
[24] Jones, Body Art, 6
[25] Semmel, Joan and April Kingsley. “Sexual Imagery in Women’s Art”. Woman’s Art
Journal 1.1 (Spring-Summer 1980): 1-6.
[26] Wacks, “Naked Truths: Hannah Wilke.”, 105
[27]  Nancy Princenthal and Hannah Wilke. Hannah Wilke, 7.
[28] Berressem, “Venus as Muse”, 103


Berressem, Hanjo. “Venus as Muse: from Lucretius to Michel Serres.” Venus as Muse: from Lucretius to Michel Serres,Hotei Publishing , 2015, 97-115.

Lippard, Lucy. “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art” in From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, 127.

O'Bryan, C. Jill. “Looking inside the Human Body.” Carnal Art: Orlan's Refacing, by, (University of Minnesota Press), 2005, 73–75.

Jones, Amelia. Body Art - Performing the Subject. (University of Minnesota Press), 2007, 6-195, www.books.google.com/books/about/Body_Art_performing_the_Subject

Princenthal, Nancy, and Hannah Wilke. Hannah Wilke. Munich: Prestel, 2010. 

Semmel, Joan and April Kingsley. “Sexual Imagery in Women’s Art”. Woman’s Art Journal 1.1 (Spring-Summer 1980): 1-6. JSTOR. Web 9 Nov. 2009.

Simpson, Mary Caroline. Woman's Art Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2012, pp. 48–50. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24395270.

Tembeck, Tamar. “Exposed Wounds: The Photographic Autopathographies of Hannah Wilke and Jo Spence.” RACAR: Revue D'art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review, vol. 33, no. 1 (2008): 87–101. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42630769.

Wacks, Debra. “Naked Truths: Hannah Wilke in Copenhagen.” Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 2 (1999): 104–106. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/777953.

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