Zoë Griffin: Body Imaging
Artist profile 10
We walk single-file into a classroom and take our seats at individual desks. The glow of an interactive whiteboard lights the room. The screen shows a google search, typed in but not actioned: real vagina. A clothes rail to the side sports a costume made of felt. Every desk has a diagram of a vagina on it, the labels blanked out. There is no teacher, no lesson plan. After a bit of giggling, someone gets up and hits the enter key. Real vagina, as indexed by google, turns up a daily mail article, a buzzfeed listicle or two, and an alibaba link to a wholesale real silicone vagina male masturbator. We regress to our teenage years, and a few people laugh. Some people start sharing memories of their sex education. At least one person in possession of a real vagina holds up the unlabelled diagram, and confidently announces that she doesn’t know how to fill it in. She says she just knows the “other” words. As a class, we work it out, but it takes some time.
In 2013, Ofsted found PSHE and SRE education to be inadequate in 40% of all schools. The last official government advice on SRE was issued in 2007. The latest national curriculum paper on teaching SRE dates from 2000.
In this constructed classroom, frozen in a moment of a fantasy sex education lesson, we start to talk about what we were told at school. The general consensus seems to be too little, too late. This is reflected in a 2015 survey conducted by Girlguiding UK, which revealed that only 25% of girls surveyed had been taught about internet pornography in their SRE lessons, despite 68% of them wanting it to be addressed, and 71% believing it normalises violence against women — and 60% of young people first viewing it at the age of 14 or younger. Similarly, only 49% had discussed the meaning of consent in their lessons, where 82% thought it was something they should be taught about.
I will acknowledge author bias here. My (admittedly brilliant) all-girls’ grammar school waited until most of us were 18 until we got the NHS nurse in to tell us about contraception. Consent was never discussed. Body image and the influence of pornography was only ever touched on by an enterprising art teacher. A shame of my own body and an acceptance of sexual harassment stayed with me until I was legally an adult, when I began to question what I’d known as truth for so long. Sex education is something I take an interest in; nobody should have to be taught as poorly as I was.
Works by Zoë Griffin identify this inadequacy in education, in society, and the insidious way it affects us — and gives us a way to talk about it.
Who’s the teacher now?, the classroom installation, turned an art space into a platform for discussing the quality and delivery of sex education in schools. A few props hint at the educational setting; the whiteboard, the diagrams, the costumes. But enough is missing to make clear that it is faked, almost like a theatrical set, a stage from which a dialogue can spring.
Much of Zoë’s other work explores the relationship of women to their bodies. Her drawings reveal a meticulous enquiry into body image, with small sketchbooks full of simple line drawings of breasts and labia. Some are captioned: is there an ideal breast? Describe. Even the drawings without text invite the viewer to question their perceptions, presenting a gallery of imagined flesh. Her collages group together photographs of bodies, fertility statues, and nursing children, to suggest a different way of imaging the female body.
Whilst most of her work can be interpreted as celebratory, free from the fetishising eye, there’s a touch of the bittersweet to it too. This is made most explicit in her collage work from 2014, where limbs are disembodied, strewn about, or embracing inanimate objects. There is a sense of futility in these, in the weary placement of arms and legs and crudely-cut flesh that is heaped on fragments of land and furniture, or even a Lindt chocolate. It is telling that these images are all taken from glossy magazines. A world of difference lies between the body captured by the fashion photographer’s lens, and the body imagined in a PSHE lesson.
These collages jump off the page in Zoë’s installation work with the collective Fold. Here, dislocated locks of hair and lumps of skin are blown up to gargantuan size, made to furnish a room alongside pools of fleshy fabric and rolls of fake marble and wood. The marble — actually a roll of sticky-back plastic — becomes soft and pliable, whilst the hair becomes rigid, lifeless, backed with card and pinned to the wall. It was lifeless all along, but here it’s uncanny. The fabric’s placement suggests skin that has been shucked and left to be cleaned up. The body is elusive, already escaped from the viewer’s gaze.
In researching Zoë’s work, I came across something that I felt — personal experience aside — justified it. Strangely enough for an artist profile, it’s a sub-page of the internet content aggregator Reddit: r/badwomensanatomy. Here, anyone can share examples they find of people grossly misunderstanding the female body — anything from ‘Women are biologically suited to cooking dinner’ to ‘After 7 years of no sex, the hymen grows back and a woman is a physical virgin again.’ It reads like the minutes of a Republican party conference, or an especially depressing stream-of-consciousness piece crafted by someone who’s never actually met a woman in their life (these two are potentially linked). And it reminded me of those first ever sex education lessons I ever received in primary school, where us girls were shut into a classroom to learn about periods and how often we needed to wash, while the boys were sent out to play football.
Ofsted reported in 2013 that PSHE provision in schools was “not yet good enough”. We evidently still have some way to go, but artistic enquiries like this can highlight and attempt to address the shortcomings of the education system.
Zoë Griffin will be presenting at Open Up Your Lips, a day-long feminist conference on the 26th January 2016. You can see more of her work here: