Visual Art

How to Say No and What Art Has to Do with It

You Have a Week Left to Figure Out What Makes You Uncomfortable in Elles at SAM

How to Say No and What Art Has to Do with It

The Stranger

THE DAY OF THE PRESS PREVIEW Men, women, and “women”—that’s a photo 
of a mannequin.

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It's getting dark out, and I'm the last reporter left at Seattle Art Museum. I've been on my feet for hours, because this is the day when the throng of the press first marches through Elles, the big special exhibition of art made by women going back to the start of the 20th century: photographs, paintings, videos, sculptures, and installations that are basically you-name-it—light, dark, soft, hard, crowded together. There are attractions and repulsions in Elles. It's scattered and impossible to follow; there's nothing to follow. Quiet rooms of colored rectangles that would seem to have nothing to do with existing inside the body of a woman are overwhelmed by displays of women angrily or cunningly shoving their vulvas and breasts at audiences or pictures of women already on horrifying display. One skinny naked woman on a beach in a video hulas with a barbed-wire hoop. Two simply drawn acrobats crossing in mid-flight are a graceful study for a Russian theater production that may or may not have been realized a hundred years ago. Raising the unhelpful and even uninteresting question: Is being a woman about being inside the body of a woman, or "about" anything at all?

As it's getting dark, two things happen. One is that I notice I'm now in the galleries with an entirely new group of people. They're older, and they wear smart suits and controlled hair. This must be the donors' preview, scheduled to follow the press preview. I've overstayed and ended up overlapping. At the time when I glimpse my new company, I happen to be standing inside a sculpture, a room in the shape of a cylinder, like a silo with shiny white outer walls. Inside, it's dark, and a video is projected onto the floor. The video footage is wet flesh, glistening. It's being burrowed into by the camera.

It was with the help of a surgeon that the Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum made this piece in 1994. It's a self-portrait. I suddenly think, ha, the entire inner body is vaginal: Everyone is all vagina on the inside. It's a ridiculous thought. Or maybe it's a nice idea, that we're all in these bodies together—hey, even the donors and me—and that all of us are never only one fixed, expected thing. I wonder what they think. Why did they pay for this? Do they like it? And then maybe I would take my interviews in another direction: "So, do you think we are all vagina on the inside?"

When you're inside the sculpture, you either stand awkwardly against the walls looking down at the video, or step on top of her slippery lungs or cervix or intestines. I walk out so the donors can take my place. The next thing that happens is that I hear chanting, and I immediately feel pre-embarrassed.

Even after years of watching performance art, I apparently still find the prospect of it nerve-racking, particularly when the performers are women in the first women-only exhibition ever mounted at the largest art museum in the city where I live. I feel protective of my people. But I also fear they will represent me badly, that they won't do what I'd do. (Should I even take the art personally? It's a question brought on by an identity-based exhibition.) What they are doing is saying "No," over and over. While the donors up above are considering straddling vaginal flesh, two dozen women down below in the lobby are chanting "no." No to what? To Elles? To the whole museum? They're clumped near the pathway to an opening-night lecture. No to the lecture? I'm reminded of Canadian artist Kelly Mark's enigmatic protest—"What do we want? Nothing! When do we want it? Whenever!"—but this is earnest, not comic; warm, not cool. I am uncomfortable for personal reasons, and I kind of know why.

The "nos" go on for 45 minutes. They're not saying "no" to anything, or maybe they're each saying "no" to their own thing—each of them exercising some private right of refusal. The next day, I get an e-mail from artist Mylinda Sneed, who was part of the chorus—a group formed for the occasion by Seattle artist Mimi Allin and called the No-No Girls. I want to know what it felt like. Sneed writes back:

For days I practiced "no" happy sad funny loud quite mean scolding singing cuckooing... "no" would strike me on the bus, in the car, in the shower, at the grocery store, when watching my 4-yr-old-niece acting badly... "no" is everywhere and at the same time, I rarely hear people utter it out loud. I mostly wasn't uttering out loud unless it was very appropriate or I wasn't within earshot of someone.
None of that prepared me for 45 minutes of it, surrounded by 21 other women.
I sang: like a Laurie Anderson song
Cuckoo-ed it
Yelled it: this was the most cathartic, not a scream, but a deep from my belly head leaned back yell
Held the N – shorted the O
Shortened the N – held the O
Repeated: loudly, quietly, emphatically, sloooooowwwwlllly
I held myself while I said it
I held others while I said it
I had whole conversations where we ended up laughing our "no" at each other
& once a tear came to my eye from the look on a No-No Girl's face as I told it to her more sternly than felt necessary
And I felt a sense of release, & fear all at the same time

She recommends I go to the No-No Girls blog, where I find a piece of writing about different types of no. I especially like this part and agree with it:

I don't like obsessive, neurotic noes; they belong to the Goethe sprits who "steadily negate," who play devils in run-of-the-mill Faust performances. I prefer the little, calm, nondevilish no in a concrete situation, provided one is reasonably sure about its unacceptability. With such a small, concrete no, one gets out of the collective of all-yes or all-no, one gets off alone. This is an important aspect of dignity, of sanity and maturity and freedom. ...The small no is self-defense of the human mind.

"Self-defense of the human mind" takes me back, to a karate studio in Texas where I once took my first and only self-defense class. We had to shout "no" as part of our response to an attacker. The "no" was going to be as important as stomping on the correct bone (when he's behind you, stomp on the top of his foot at the ankle and you'll break things, they said).

I did not find it hard to stomp on the bones. I gave my instructor a nosebleed when I punched him in the face. Every time I had the chance to fight, I went full-force. My mother used to repeat news stories to me about girls abducted and raped and left in ditches by the side of the road, because she thought it would make me act safer. She still reminds me that I am "a single female," and regularly asks me where I am walking—she raised me to respond with rage. But I found it really, really hard to yell "no." It was the hardest part for me. I felt horribly vulnerable all over again. I'm a writer, and I choke on the most important word? Is that some weird personal version of believing I'm asking for it?

In telling a story about feminist dance, Seattle dancer (and Velocity director) Tonya Lockyer wrote that "women dance artists... embodied the feminist project to emancipate women by subverting... ideals of 'appropriate' behavior for both sexes." Back in the years when my mother and I rode in the car together down highways next to ditches just waiting for our bodies, I'd tell anyone who would listen that the word I most hated my mother using was "appropriate." It was a standard: I should be "appropriate" in how I acted and looked. The reason I hated it was I figured I could do better. When she said it to me, I felt like she was saying it to herself. I knew she was just reading the script.

Art, on the other hand, seems to be on a search in the other direction from how to be appropriate. Not that there's any particular way, or thing, or answer to be provided, or that any artist sets out to do anything as prosaic as that. Still the search is there, to figure out what to say no to, and what kind of no to say. I still struggle with this every day. This is something to love about art. recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.


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Elles was one of the best shows I have seen SAM put on. It was amazing.
Posted by ritzidean on January 9, 2013 at 11:42 AM · Report this
alpha unicorn 2
Posted by alpha unicorn on January 9, 2013 at 12:14 PM · Report this
I hated the Elles exhibit and am glad to see it go. It was embarrassing that this is what we women could cobble together as "art."
Posted by huskygrrl on January 9, 2013 at 1:09 PM · Report this
The fact that it inspired such a strong feeling in you like "hate" proves it's success.
Posted by ritzidean on January 9, 2013 at 3:45 PM · Report this
I loved the wandering of this article. Good reflection of how the show felt.
Posted by wseacat on January 10, 2013 at 12:31 PM · Report this
Didn't like it. The art was all about women and not art made by women. (And it wasn't all that good or interesting.) I didn't hate it; I was mostly bored.
Posted by westello on January 10, 2013 at 5:20 PM · Report this
Canadian Nurse 7
This was a lovely & insightful article, Jen. Thanks for it.
Posted by Canadian Nurse on January 11, 2013 at 5:30 AM · Report this
this made me great to hear the thoughts on no, maybe, no, embarrassment, no, (in)appropriateness...all things I struggled with while saying yelling moving no during the performance...things I struggled with while giving a tour of the Elles:SAM section of the exhibit later as the genderfucked being I am, wanting to say yes to the work of some personal heroes, but ?!?! feeling a terror a nausea, that these huge forces were all lumped together and the context was a fragile controlling shrinking energy...Wondering how my grandparents felt seeing signs up everywhere not so long ago that said NO you can't come in, NO use the back door, always thinking about people saying NO to the museum a place art may go to die or belong to anyone but the artist...and the dangerous territory of segregating anything based on an identity marker. Thanks for this, mentioning, including the thoughts of people I want to have their own solo shows/performances in giant spaces, maybe all over that museum (and everywhere) Mylinda Sneed, Mimi Allin, Tonya Lockyer loved the writing Jen Graves thank you
Posted by syniva whitney on January 11, 2013 at 5:03 PM · Report this
my mother too retold the news in the car on the way to dance & violin lessons, all during junior high & high school, all the gruesome stuff, people getting cut out of their tents & dragged away, rapes and killings. i lived in boston in my late 20's & walked everywhere, along the charles under the dark trees, across the bridge at 2am. i used to imagine monkeys in the trees with knives ready to jump down on me. it's red flag thinking. it protects me. i'm aware of the threats & know how to test a situation. but are they real threats? how does my ever-ready attitude constrain me? don't i also need to cultivate comfort & strength to see & face the world as it is? last year, when i asked my friend what he thought about when he was alone in the woods, he said, "why didn't i bring a chick with me?" i told him i think of foul men with sores up their legs coming out of the woods to get me. is that a personal or a gender difference? it makes me realize what different experiences we have out in nature & in the world, about what is & what isn't dangerous & how we respond & feel we fit in. no doubt our culture creates this fear & our parents & then we ourselves enforce these differences. i came across peace pilgrim last year in my research & found in her a woman ready to see the good in everything & everyone, unafraid even of the things we're taught to fear (truck drivers, prisoners, ex-cons). what did this do for her? it have her the ability to shape her world & it gave her a sort of continual peace & ultimately made her a safe person in a safe world. i wonder could the woods become vaginal & do all women have little penises like someone once told me? i'd like to think they do. i like having the option of no. i've seen so many women for whom no is not an option. i have often felt i didn't have access to no. perhaps that's because i didn't know how to see myself or wasn't comfortable in the world. hmm, for no to be an option, it will have to be practiced, like an instrument. art seems a good place to begin.
Posted by mimi on January 11, 2013 at 8:28 PM · Report this
I almost missed this exhibit. Went the last day and loved every piece of it, feeling so at home there among these great women and their work. I was really knocked out by how much of the show was photo-based work and deeply sad to see that so many women only had a stage because they had been married to male artists or had been their lovers. I laughed when I saw the show card about the video wedged into the floor of the many orifices of one artist's body. Watching people discover the Guerrilla Girls for the first time touched me. I stopped to chat with one woman visitor who was so overcome she could barely speak, she looked like she was having an episode and kept muttering "it's all here." Great great great exhibit. Still so much to do in the world for women, for art. "One is not born a woman, one becomes one," Simone de Beauvoir. Thanks for the great curators and organizers of the rarest of moments in the art timeline - a place devoted to women.
Posted by Ann-Marie Stillion on January 14, 2013 at 10:17 PM · Report this
My band played the donor party Jen writes about. We were two songs into our set when a man in the audience walked up to our singer and stopped her with some cryptic comment that she didn't understand. When she asked him what he meant, he responded, "I think you should unplug and go home, little girl. You sound horrible. This is bullshit."

When this is the level of criticism that creative women continue to receive from their audience, belittling, condescending, gender-based put downs, is it any wonder that "being a woman" becomes the subject of so many female artists' work?
Posted by virginia mason on January 15, 2013 at 8:12 AM · Report this
This all brings to mind the Le Tigre song "Gone B4 Yr Home." The male part goes:

"Now baby, I know I make about twice the money you make

and I'm never called a stupid whore or a fake,

and I don't structure my life around the fear of murder, dismemberment, or rape

but I hardly see what that has to do with OUR relationship."

Posted by susannabluhm on January 16, 2013 at 4:44 PM · Report this

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