A visit to a gallery for a frank chat about feminism isn’t everyone’s dream first date. I’m five minutes late for my blind one with Giselle Stanborough. We’re meeting at ACCA’s new exhibition Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism. It’s a provocative and timely collection of work celebrating the breadth of Australia’s feminist art history and exploring some of the ways it has influenced contemporary art.
Stanborough is the creator of Giselle dates, the most interactive part of the ACCA exhibition. It’s a project designed as a bespoke dating service for Giselle alone (she’s also using the usual channels of Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, Happn, Fortu, Skout and sundry others to cast the net far and wide) – and it’s the real deal.
This is not some performance, or an attempt to call out men’s ignorance. She’s not collecting data. “I'm not out to enlighten or exploit internet daters,” her website says. “I am one. I really am looking to meet new people. I really am bored and lonely.”
ACCA is the perfect place for a discussion. Six curators have pulled together more than 80 artists from across five decades. The title Unfinished Business alludes to the ever-evolving nature of feminism. It’s never finished, and the curators are interested in how they can facilitate conversation around the work. Stanborough’s project is a way to discuss the show with people who aren’t already conversant with feminist ideals.
“I want to break outside of our little art-world bubble,” she says during our date. “This is an important, timely show. But unless we engage with people who might disagree with it, I don’t think it maximises the efficacy of this. How do we expose ourselves to opinions that aren’t our own?
“The first thing I ask my dates is whether they identify as feminist. It’s been interesting to hear the qualifiers that come with that. People say, ‘Yeah, I agree with equal rights, but feminists go too far sometimes’. I get to challenge that.”
The first thing you see as you enter the gallery is a wall of slogans rendered on bright posters as part of Kelly Doley’s Things Learnt About Feminism. “Feminism is for everybody!” “Capitalism – it’s a patriarchal thing!” “Boys as girls as girls as boys!” Also, in a huge film-poster-like billboard: “MARIA KOZIC IS BITCH”. That one’s a reshowing of painter and sculptor Kozic’s 1992 work, which originally appeared on public billboards across Australia.
Stanborough and I spend some time exploring the handpainted slogans on a rack of dresses (Ruth O’Leary’s Fuck dresses): “Fuck beauty”, they say. “Fuck young professionals, fuck your gaze, fuck god.”
Stanborough hasn’t had anyone turn up and dismiss the work, or feminism, as a whole. But there have been interesting conversations, and a number of overt contradictions. For instance, there’s the guy who said: “I identify as a feminist, yeah, women are equal. By the way, you should lose the glasses, you’re prettier without them.”
Someone who doesn’t agree with the central tenets of feminism will be challenged. And then there are pieces that will be confronting for just about anyone, such as Shevaun Wright’s The Rape Contract, which is a legal document annotated with harrowing details of an assault. The annotations are only visible with an ultraviolet torch, pitting the inherently patriarchal language of the legal system against the lived experience: hidden but not erased.
This has no doubt been confronting for a number of Stanborough’s dates.
“Absolutely,” she says. “Not everyone wants to talk about rape on a first date. And that’s fine. I can’t dictate how the conversation goes down.”
Stanborough isn’t lecturing people. She’s chatting openly and honestly. There have even been second dates. And she’s confident that the men with whom she’s had discussions have walked out having learned something.
But there isn’t a single lesson to learn from this show. It’s an ever-expanding ripple of ideas that talk back to, and react against, each other, and that’s the way Stanborough likes it.
Unfinished Business is at ACCA until March 25.
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