Example of art

August 22, 2023 - January 7, 2024
Exhibit Hours: 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Monday - Friday, 10:00am-6:00pm | Saturday and Sunday, 11:00am-5:00pm
Thompson Library
Thompson Gallery (Room 125)
1858 Neil Avenue Mall
Columbus, OH 43210-1286

Abject Object: A Missed Opportunity

It is difficult to find feminist art exhibits, and even more so outside of major coastal cities like Los Angeles or New York. So when I saw that the Ohio State University was putting on an exhibit juxtaposing feminist art from the 1980s with contemporary works, I was looking forward to visiting.

Abject Object: Feminism, Art & Academy opened on August 22nd at the university’s flagship library, asking viewers to “consider visual material through the lens of objectification - and the process of making a defiant act in the face of oppression”. 

Viewers are greeted with a neon sign flashing “WHOLE” and then, just “HOLE”. Nearby is a  photograph of an ear that “when centered, may be seen as vaginal”. A large carpet in the shape of breasts, titled “My Eyes Are Up Here” is draped on the adjacent wall. Another photograph features a woman gagged, with a spade held menacingly over her head, accompanied by a caption describing “an egg emerging from an orifice”. An artist celebrates breastfeeding as an act of sexual expression in her collage of annotated newspaper clippings. 

Drawing from the most prominently displayed pieces, one gets the impression that the most interesting thing about women is their disembodied sexual organs. These pieces are not inventive or subversive in their portrayal of the female body. Rather, they frequently depict women in a reductive light. Failing to invoke inventive commentary, these works become uninspired, even degrading portraits of the feminine experience that seem primarily for the purpose of titillation. This is disappointingly uninspiring for an exhibit that has the stated aim of resisting objectification.

In a poem that accompanies the neon sign W-HOLE, the artist writes: “The hole of the whole becomes the object… The whole can only be whole with the glory from the hole”. One cannot help but wonder: in our quest to free women from objectification, have we again reduced ourselves to our body parts? 

Much of the contemporary collection focuses on a vapid form of sexual liberation as the most important vehicle for women’s liberation. But the vintage collection is primarily focused on tangible achievements of the feminist movements of the 1970s and 1980s: rape prevention, awareness of campus sexual assault, and the desexualization of childbearing. Many such second-wave feminists would have understood the objectification of women to be anything but empowering. The contemporary collection, displayed with the retrospective collection, seems almost anathema to the legacy of the previous women’s movement. This exhibit would seem to many a celebration of the same mechanism that has kept women in chains and hindered their accomplishments: patriarchal sexualization.

The most poignant piece in this collection is tucked away in one of the glass cases of vintage ephemera. A small, blue pamphlet stamped with a collage of women’s faces arranged in a vaginal shape is titled “I am Woman Giving Birth to Myself: University & Community Resources, a Handbook for Women”. As the accompanying placard states, this manual, published in 1976, was the first time that the university administration referred to female students as “women” rather than “co-eds”. Think about this. The first time that women were specifically acknowledged by one of the largest universities in the world was done in a bizarrely sexualized context. 

A placard near the exit asks visitors to “consider what it means to be a feminist today and the varied ways in which art allows us to explore that.” Abject Object had the opportunity to compile an exhibit that truly challenged notions of objectification. But displaying women in a sexualized, disembodied light is not revolutionary - it is the oldest anti-feminist trick in the book, seeking to dehumanize women rather than celebrate their agency and personhood. A feminist movement should seek to expand the purview of women’s lives, advocate for their rights, and elevate their many contributions to our society. As one of the top universities in the world, Ohio State University has an incredible opportunity to advance the status of women through art - but this exhibit missed the mark