ON FAITH WILDING

Maria Positano, January 2017

Wilding is perhaps best known for co-founding the California Institute of the Arts and for her involvement in The Feminist Art Program. These initiatives were originally located in Womanhouse, an old mansion in Hollywood. Her life and art practice developed simultaneously alongside her colleagues and close friends: Judy Chicago, Sherry Brody, Miriam Schapiro and Paula Harper. A multi-disciplinary artist, Wilding’s work is both conceptually and visually abundant with historical and contemporary references. Constantly changing media and visual language, she explores textile, sculpture, performance and new media. Her work centres around the role of women in society, from the 70s until the present day.  The female body is addressed, from both physical and psychological perspectives, exploring the how the body inherits socio-political ideals.

 

Wilding’s work can be seen as a tool for the artist to reveal themselves and as a means to disguise important realities about the world. Her practice is a kind of personal therapy, yet also resonates universally, communicating wide-reaching political and social issues.

 

Scripted and performed for the first time at Womanhouse, Waiting, 1972, is a 15-minute performance piece in which Wilding explores the life cycle of a woman, and how it is linked to the action of ‘waiting’. For the artist, women are constrained by social constructions, which restrict them having an active role in their existence; they wait for their lives to begin whilst they are maintaining the lives of others (father, husband, child).

 

Faith Wilding, Waiting, 1972, performance by Faith Wilding at Womanhouse, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Lloyd Hamrol

Faith Wilding is a contemporary artist, writer, and feminist activist who has been active since the 1960s. She was born in 1943 in Paraguay and emigrated to the US in 1961, where she began her art career.

During the late 60s and early 70s a new political movement gained momentum: ‘second wave’ feminism. This cultural drive was the successor to proto-feminist figures, such as Simone de Beauvoir, and the ‘first wave’ of feminism, the nineteenth century women's suffrage movements. In the 70s, feminists were fighting for political and social equality, queer rights, social sustainability and support for women; they were campaigning to redefine the identity of ‘woman’, in both an intimate and public context. In this historical context, the young artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro founded The Feminist Art Program, in 1971 which included Wilding. The artists wanted to use the arts to renegotiate identity for women, by focusing on the ordinary woman’s life and suffering. Reacting against the patriarchal society, these artists wanted to reclaim a place in the History of Art, in galleries and in the contemporary art world. Feminist artists chose to use alternative media and techniques, such as sewing, knitting, video, performance and textiles. The artists were using non-traditional art mediums, associated with femininity and domesticity, to redefine the terms of art-making, away from the previously male-associated art forms, such as painting and sculpture. They created a new form of art, radical, rebellious and female-dominated. 

 

Waiting brings up the issues that Wilding experienced as a woman in the 70s, and in doing so also addresses broader social issues. In fact, her practice responds to a deep political need, for gender equality and social change.

 

A testimony of her own intimate perception of being a woman, Waiting prompts the viewer to reflect upon and acknowledge a strong social discomfort. Art, when operated in this form, becomes a fundamental part of our society, allowing us to assess our own realities and contemplate social paradigms.


In the original performance, Faith Wilding sat in a chair, rocking back and forth, reciting a monotone lullaby.

The audience sat on the floor and stood all around her, as if they were all participating in group therapy session, listening to her life story. Wilding presented her personal take on a woman’s life, a reflection upon a constant status of ‘waiting for something’, waiting for her womanhood to become. Waiting to fulfil all the stages that a woman is supposed to fulfil. Through a monotonous list of the things a woman is waiting to become, she declared all the ways in which her life, in the 20th century, was intended to serve others. She chanted all the precious and unique moments that a woman dreamt of (or that she was expected to dream of). The full version of the speech, used in the performance piece, was published by Ms. Magazine in 1972, and in the Appendix of "Through the Flower" by Judy Chicago.  

Wilding used precise formulas from the psychological therapy practice to engage with the public. For example, the artist constructed the room as if it were a group therapy session. She created an environment in which the viewer was engaged, and which triggered emotional reactions from people. This immersion offered the viewer an opportunity to reflect upon their own lives. In this artwork, Faith Wilding re-enacted the role of a therapist, by triggering a two-way dialogue between herself and the public.

In that moment, she was self-healing, like a patient, but she also created the dynamic of cathartic group sharing. However, what brings this work a step further than simply being group therapy is the ability of the artist to acknowledge and deal with the link between personal experiences and universally meaningful social issues. Wilding is using the power of self-awareness, to invite the viewer to reflect on a situation that is of a broader interest.

 

A powerful dynamic was created by the coexistence between the artist’s intimate life story, the engaged reflection of the viewer and the overall resonance of the thematic issue of the work. The interaction and the balance between these three elements create the identity of this artwork, and determine its success. It is vital not to forget about these different variables when making an artwork, to avoid the risk of working in a limited and partially conscious way. When exploring Waiting today, it is astoundingly clear how artists, such as Wilding, as well as activists, influenced the shift in the way in which women are perceived in society. The force of Faith Wilding’s performance can still be felt today and it is a true expression of the huge potential that art might have in society.

© 2019 by Assemblage Magazine.

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