'Cliteracy' Artist Sophia Wallace on What It's Like When Your Work Goes Viral
Like the clitoris, the works in the queer conceptual artist's new show, "OVER and OVER and OVER," are small but powerful.
Photo by Max Yawney
Brooklyn-based conceptual artist Sophia Wallace continues to make the case for the clit: that power-packed little organ whose complete anatomy was only "discovered" by a female urologist in 1998, almost 30 years after we put a man on the moon. Wallace's new show, OVER AND OVER AND OVER at the Catinca Tabacaru Gallery, builds on the demands of her viral mixed-media project CLITERACY: 100 Natural Laws, insisting on repetition as a gesture of necessity. Wallace is adamant that as long as the experiences of female bodies aren't represented, they must be repeated again and again until they are naturalized. The small neon text sculptures in OVER AND OVER AND OVER shed light on the taboo, censorship, and shame that continue to afflict female sexuality. Like the clit, her new works are small but powerful.
Wallace originally trained as a photographer, but increasingly the artist has turned to words, not images, to make her point. While documenting her community of queer women and trans men, Wallace was horrified to find that photo industry professionals couldn't tell her subjects—many of whom were of color or low income—apart; "all they saw was brown and butch." Critics told her she could "improve" her work by photographing her subjects naked or as they were being gay bashed. Wallace is adamant that we need the language to substantiate the experience of having a gendered, sexualized, racialized body, or it will continue to be objectified. It was this realization that led the artist to CLITERACY, and on to OVER AND OVER AND OVER, where Wallace draws on pop culture and spirituality, remixing hip-hop lyrics and ancient Gnostic manuscripts, to speak power to the female divine.
BROADLY: You trained originally as a photographer, but there are notably no images in your new show, just illuminated text sculptures. Why?
Sophia Wallace: The exposed female body saturates the history of art and visual culture. Despite the ubiquity of this form, the lived experience of this body is still largely unrepresented. This is particularly so for the parts of that life that have been rendered taboo—genitals and their experience, from violence to pleasure. Menstruation, abortion, and miscarriage are some examples. All of these topics are part of the lived experience of a huge percentage of women, and yet they are not considered appropriate in public speech. The speaker that breaks the cultural code of silence is often tainted and quickly censored. My work addresses unknown, fundamental realities of female and trans male experiences regarding the clitoris. I intentionally don't offer another exposed female object to be gazed at, oversimplified, and dismissed. The nude female form gives the comfort that, because it is seen, it is known, but nothing could be further from the truth. Everywhere it is seen, and everywhere its experiences are unknown.
Talk to me about the relationship between form and content in these works. Why neon? Why small-scale?
Like the clitoris, the neon works are small yet powerful, illuminating themselves and the space—physical and metaphysical—around them. Ideas long kept in the shadows of ignorance, taboo, and active censorship are made visible. Like dangerous truths scrawled on a bathroom wall, the texts are not permitted public legitimacy and so bend, shrink, and appear only in constricted space.
The title of your new show—OVER AND OVER AND OVER—can be read in two ways, as a kind of mantra, an injunction to repeat a demand for equality, but also as a reference to the perpetuation of a status quo. How are you using repetition as a strategy?
James Rozoff observed, "Truth told once is no match for a lie oft repeated."
I believe the title can actually be read in many ways, but yes, in this exhibition I committed to repetition as a gesture of necessity. As long as the clitoris remains absent in representation, it must be repeated in form and speech, again and again, until it is naturalized. Nothing less will create paradigmatic change. Every day new images are created that reify a disproven binary, with female genitals as a receptive site of lack and male genitals as naturally dominant, always penetrating, never receptive. I mean, right now there is an exhibition of floor-to-ceiling climbable dicks at the New Museum.
The clitoris, which is the sexual organ of cis women and trans men, is not eroticized. Breasts, buttocks, and entering a vagina are all eroticized, but this ignores the organ with 8000 nerves in the glans alone and more internally. Imagine discussing male sexuality, male embodied experience, and ignoring the penis. It's laughable. With its direct blood supply and more than double the nerves of the penis, the clitoris can reach climax more intensely and in repeated succession far beyond its counterpart. The most recorded orgasms a woman has had in an hour is 134, a man 16. [Source: Center for Marital and Sexual Studies in California.]
Your CLITERACY project in 2012 went viral—generating both acclaim and criticism. Did the reaction surprise you?
It was affirming to see the instant, viral response to CLITERACY. I received emails from Cairo to Sao Paulo asking me to bring my project to their city, or offers to post my art in streets where it was needed most. This was galvanizing for me. It was also challenging because I'm just one person, working alone. I'm not a foundation, so how do I do justice at the scale that is needed?
I was totally unprepared for the reading by some art critics that CLITERACY's populist legibility was grounds to dismiss its significance as contemporary art. My intention was for the project to invite engagement from a wide range of people; I didn't anticipate that my ethics would be used to diminish the value of the work.
Another challenge of the viral reception has been having my work increasingly appropriated by others, from artists to journalists, and then not acknowledged. It's scary as an artist at my level to see my works stolen, appropriated, and/or used without acknowledgement and have little recourse. If you do a search on Instagram now with #cliteracy, you will find a large number of works there using my lexicon, especially the word "cliteracy" but also "solidgoldclit" or clit puns like "cliterati"—projects building on the force of these words but not crediting their source whatsoever. Women artists have only recently begun to be recognized in the canon and still only in minor ways. Queer artists, artists of color, artists from former colonies—all of us are struggling to exist in the discourse of art history. It's wonderful to have an article on your work go viral. I realize, however, that to have a lasting impact it will need to be collected in meaningful ways and be embraced by public art institutions.
How did CLITERACY become a broader framework for investigation? It seems like this show very much came out of it.
There is so much work to do in pioneering the representation of the clitoris in visual history and speech—and to establish its inalienable right to self-determination. It's not an exaggeration to say that I could work on this and nothing else for the rest of my life and it still wouldn't be nearly enough. For these reasons it's felt impossible until now to work on anything else.
That said, I have more ideas that I want to explore. I decided it was time to let myself go further. Some works in the show continue to establish the clitoris in the world, while others chart new territory. HERSELF A UNIVERSE explores the brilliance and unknowable complexity of half the world, so absent in recorded history, so undervalued to this day. The work counters the two tropes of representation for women—beautiful object of desire or self-sacrificing mother/wife/daughter/grandmother. There are precious few representations of female-gendered bodies as powerful outside of what they offer relationally. This work imagines a feminine subject who is vast, powerful, and beyond comprehension—one whose mysteries we are only beginning to understand.
I intentionally don't offer another exposed female object to be gazed at, oversimplified, and dismissed.
Your work points to a link between silence and violence. How do you conceive of this relationship, and what is your strategy for approaching it?
The epidemic of sexualized violence against women has become naturalized to the point that it's met with a collective shrug. We accept that everywhere girls are aborted, raped, and murdered. We care that one man, John Bobbitt, had his penis cut off but not that hundreds of thousands of women have had their external clitoris cut off. Worldwide, women's bodies are used in consensual relationships with their spouses as living fleshlights with no regard for [the woman's] right to pleasure. This has to do with pervasive sexual incompetence on the basics of female sexual anatomy, the lie that women enjoy sex less than men and the fact that women have been so effectively colonized that they believe a false body of knowledge more than their own bodies. They blame themselves for the incompetence of their lovers. Any rational person who repeatedly has bad sex will eventually decide they don't like sex. It's convenient that all of these experiences are still taboo to discuss, so women can't talk about them with each other, organize, and effectively resist.
Your work has moved from exploring how the visual affects gender and sexuality to how language does that. Talk to me about that movement—from implicating visual language to language itself.
I began as an artist doing traditional documentary photography, looking at my community of queer and masculine-of-center women and trans men. Most of my subjects were of color or low income. In meetings with photo industry professionals at the New Yorker, Time magazine, Newsweek, I was sick to my stomach listening to their reactions. They couldn't tell subjects apart; all they saw was brown and butch. Or they would say, "Wouldn't it be interesting if you could show these people getting gay bashed?" Or, "Why don't you get some naked images to make the series work?" These subjects were not deemed worthy of appearing in the news unless they were sexually exposed or experiencing violence.
I realized—painfully—the limitations of "the photograph as evidence," and that pictures imposed a false burden to prove one's worth. In later projects I began using fashion production as a Trojan horse to disrupt scopic regimes for viewing the other. I kept shooting butch women and trans men, only this time they were styled and lit and therefore treated as important.
Watch: Who's Afraid of Vagina Art?
You've been an active critic of institutional art practices that support a kind of token diversity but really maintain the status quo. How do you try to position yourself outside of that?
This is an ongoing challenge. I've been working in the art world and rogue with street art and interventions since 2012, and in my early activism [since] my teens and college years. In May 2014 I invited the public to join me to help the Whitney Museum of American Art recover from its addiction to dick art. The exhibition that year was less diverse in terms of race and gender than it had been in the early 90s. It was also saturated with the phallus. Penises proliferated across paintings and sculptures. One room was nothing but dicks. In the entire museum, there wasn't a single representation of the clit. I invited the public to join me in helping the Whitney Museum of American Art with its illCLITERACY problem.
My intervention included a new technology called CLITglass, which could be worn by anyone interested in neutral vision. When viewers gazed through the perspective of the clit, phallocentric hubris in museum exhibitions was filtered out, allowing the viewer to see clearly. CLITglass could also be worn at work, while watching television, or even at the gym. The second part of my intervention was creating CLITforms in primary colors. (I excluded the color white, as the Whitney Museum had whiteness more than covered.) Participants were invited to "Put A Clit On It," placing the CLITforms wherever they saw fit in the museum. For one night, we CLITdazzled the Whitney.
See OVER AND OVER AND OVER at the Catinca Tabacaru Gallery May 20–June 24.