Twink Revolution

Marxism with Twink Characteristics

Petit Bourgeois Feminist Art: On Emily Hartley-Skudder

43 min read
Emily Hartley-Skudder, Petting Aggression (detail) at The Dowse, 2020.

Last Saturday, I went to see New Zealand feminist artist Emily Hartley-Skudder’s Petting Aggression. Petting Aggression is a window installation, on until the 11th of October, in The Dowse, an art institution in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. While now based back in her home country, Hartley-Skudder got a kickstart to her career while living in Brooklyn during the hipster archetype’s heyday. 

Hartley-Skudder has been living rent-free in my mind since the publication of her essay, The Power of the Pussy Bow: Fighting Back Against Rape-Art in The Pantograph Punch, one of New Zealand’s most prominent arts writing platforms. The essay is a retelling of her experience during the 2018 edition of the Wellington Asia Exchange Residency (WARE), on which the works showing in Petting Aggression were created.

Since the essay is fundamental to the creation of the work, I will be discussing Petting Aggression through a critical lens upon The Power of the Pussy Bow. This will be difficult for me because even reading the phrase “power of the pussy bow” makes me feel physically ill. Hartley-Skudder has peak Jacindamania1A term coined to describe the torrential liberal gushing of uncritical praise for New Zealand’s girl boss Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern  Liberal vibes, although I’m confident she votes for the New Zealand Green Party in solidarity with the Neoliberal Swarbrick grift. For international readers, I’m sure you are well-aware by now of #Girlboss Jacinda Ardern (a.k.a “Aunty Cindy” to the locals) due to her government’s relatively effective Coronavirus response. Yet, urban progressives like Hartley-Skudder, often prefer to vote for our Green Party. Once radical under the co-leadership of Metiria Turei & Russel Norman, they’ve now drifted—becoming more like the Irish Greens—under the influence of millennial café owner Chlöe Swarbrick (who went viral for cloyingly clapping back with “Ok Boomer” to an older politician). All this in mind, I’m sure Hartley-Skudder objects to my critique on the basis of my standpoint not being that of a white woman—but nonetheless I feel compelled to say it. 

On the day of, I woke up late and missed the bus. I couldn’t find a café open that wasn’t a McCafé—which made me question reality; how could I live in Wellington (which reputedly has more cafés per capita than NYC) if I was being subjected to this sudden torturous absence of caffeine. 

According to the ASPCA: “Petting-induced aggression occurs when a cat suddenly feels irritated by being petted, nips or lightly bites the person petting him, and then jumps up and runs off.” Hartley-Skudder’s title is infantilizing; the connection between womanhood and the feline is obtuse. Yet, I wonder what ASPCA’s definition of caffeine deprivation-induced aggression is? When I finally make it to The Dowse, Petting Aggression is completely underwhelming; I don’t find anything of substance within The Dowse itself either. 

In mentioning I was planning on writing about Hartley-Skudder’s work, I was often met with people asking, “Why are you wasting your time?” Seeing the work in person, I found these dissenters were right. There is little to latch on to. Sadly, it also lacks anything that actually looks like a pussy bow, which could’ve been wry and, therefore, somewhat charming. Hartley-Skudder employs millennial-pink visuals in a vain attempt to elevate their usage by contextualizing it within fine art—and it’s a total flop. That visual style should be restrained to her home décor, so any visitors know to leave immediately or risk being lectured about how “Hillary Clinton was actually robbed of the presidency.”

The installation is made up of a classic gynecology chair reupholstered in pink satin, behind which are a series of pink sinks, reminiscent of a public toilet—leaving the work open for cursed discussion around trans individuals’ use of public toilets—something which I’m sure is completely lost upon Hartley-Skudder. Regardless, I doubt she has a coherent thought on the matter as “Pussy Power” feminists’ politics are often in opposition to—and condescending of—trans people. Alongside the sinks is a detached shower hose and nozzle, attached to a framed pink faux-leather cushion. Behind all of this are decorative ornaments resembling a salon, including some garish pink marble lining—something a fourteen-year-old would have as a phone case. The installation not only looks foul, but it also looks cheap. It’s a shallow feminist reimagining in the vein of Shannon Novak’s queer art—at whom I would volley the same aesthetic critiques. Both of these artists regard sexuality in the manner to which Marxists regard labour—but the mere concepts of femininity or queerness objectively do not function within the same matrix of exploitation and oppression as class does. The identitarian agenda is one which serves the politics of the ruling class by way of its fundamental disinterest and active sidelining of power relations, in order for it to be the right of women, queer people, etc., to also participate in the subjugation of the proletariat. Which is ironic when the beginning of those political movements was often in direct retaliation to these power structures. 

On the note of class, Petting Aggression’s existence in the “public sphere” is not as intriguing a premise as The Dowse curatorial team posits in the window text:

 “Emily Hartley-Skudder’s Petting Aggression presents the Wellington-based artist’s strange version of reality with an unsettling mix of clinical and childlike aesthetics. This site-specific installation accentuates the gendered nature of public and private spaces and the strangeness inherent in everyday objects, questioning what they divulge about us and the expectations we place on our bodies.”

For one, the mere placement of work in civic space does not inherently make it “accessible” (inaccessibility being a claim frequently lobbed at contemporary art spaces) as the same barriers to entry exist in the psychological space of art as they do in the physical gallery space. What this placement “accentuates” I am unsure of, proving art can be obtuse, whether it is in a dealer gallery or a public park. For another, the monumentalization of this gendered “pain” in the public space of the Hutt—an area of the Wellington region which has been materially harmed by government after government—is deeply patronizing. There is no real substantive meaning created by placing the work in this context. Civic space acts as a panopticon, these areas function as methods of state surveillance. Any treasons within the space are treated brutally, particularly in regards to areas that are deemed as lower socio-economic. This fairy-like installation seems to be poorly thought out when “gendered” bodies like Hartley-Skudder’s are not policed in the public space in the same way that others’ are.

Moreover, as Power of the Pussy Bow makes explicit, the works are even not site-specific, they were created on a residency in reaction to specific circumstances. Petting Aggression is site-generated—not site-specific—that’s undeniably a more accurate way to frame the exhibition. To go further The Dowse should really be handing out copies of Power of the Pussy Bow alongside Petting Aggression, so the audience is able to see the full dubious context of the work.

Now, I’m the furthest from a Jerry Saltz fanboy as you can get—but he was on the money when he said critiquing art is a way of showing it respect. As such, I feel like it’s a disservice to any artist to even critique Hartley-Skudder. The premise of her essay is that Hartley-Skudder personally witnessed “sexism” and “abuse of power” from another resident artist, Dutch native Pedro Bakker, while on her WARE residency at the Chinese European Arts Center (CEAC). Of course, I think Bakker should be critiqued, as you’ll see his art is cringe in all senses of the word. I even think that Hartley-Skudder should feel empowered to do so. I don’t view objectivism as a valid idea within journalism let alone arts writing. We all know each other; it’s a grift to pretend otherwise. I’m just not convinced that the basis of the criticism—that Bakker’s art is abusive and Hartley-Skudder felt victimized by it—is the most astute lens to make a critique. If Hartley-Skudder felt she must write that article, she could’ve at least written it well, as Power of the Pussy Bow borders on illiteracy. Every other paragraph ends with some dramatic italicized statement. “You cannot make this stuff up. . . Was I going crazy? . . . Please, I wanted to beg, don’t do this with art. . . The struggle is real. . .  It was something. . .” Some may mock me for constantly jumping to describe anything I don’t like as “neoliberal,” but at least my writing isn’t as one-note as Hartley-Skudder’s. 

And look, I don’t really care if this means I never get published by The Pantograph Punch but I have to say it—because as much as I despise Hartley-Skudder, the blame for this writing also lies at the editorship of The Pantograph. See also: Tayi Tibble’s stereotyping within On Girls and Gays; Vanessa Crofskey’s intellectually vapid There’s Something Wrong with Art Writing; the afore-linked piece on Shannon Novak. The majority of what Pantograph publishes is shallow liberal propaganda. Go look at whatever is on the home page right now, there is zero capital put into substantive critique—yet, I don’t want to entirely disregard The Pantograph Punch because they’ve published lots of pieces that have been incredibly influential on me: Giovanni Tiso on Metiria Turei’s Political Assassination, this fabulous piece on the PACE scheme (an old welfare scheme that existed in New Zealand for arts practitioners), Hana Pera Aoake and Megan Dunn’s always A+ work—but it’s undeniable their editorship leans in a certain trite and unimaginative direction—which doesn’t bode well for the state of arts writing in New Zealand.

For being the most relevant arts writing platform in New Zealand (you can’t really deny that, though some may try) it’s a shame their publishing lacks any real criticality. Take this piece on Queer Algorithms at the Gus Fisher Gallery (which also featured an aesthetically grotesque mural from Novak)—the critique essentially boils down to “there’s too much in the show!”—which is the most lukewarm “critical” take I’ve ever read. Aliyah Winter is the only artist whose work is discussed in any depth. If there was so much in the show then why is Winter the only person to get any real engagement? I’ll admit I admire Winter’s work but the sole focus on her seems counterintuitive. 

This is all to say that Pantograph is reflective of the art mediascape in general, which is only interested in a critique that furthers their liberal identitarian agenda. Hartley-Skudder’s writing on Pedro Bakker is far more deifying, far more of a personal attack than my essay, yet I’m sure I’ll be perceived far differently to her because my writing is in opposition to the liberal order.

So why is the bad faith nature of her “attack” deemed appropriate? Of course, because it fits within the dominant ideology. It is okay to ravish Bakker because he is moralized as inherently bad. Hartley-Skudder gets to be seen as a hero for “calling out a creep” who makes “rape-art.” I would never get the same response from doing such to Hartley-Skudder. I certainly won’t get an exhibition out of writing this, as Hartley-Skudder was ostensibly rewarded with Petting Aggression from writing her essay.

For starters, the way Hartley-Skudder positions Bakker:

“[H]e explained that on a previous residency in China, he developed an infatuation with the young woman whom he was paying as his Chinese translator. He said he was obsessed with her, had sexual fantasies about her, and became her stalker.”

––is in no way different from Sophie Calle’s practice of stalking. I have no idea what Hartley-Skudder’s thoughts on Calle are, so I won’t comment, but I think the assumption of a double standard can be easily inferred. 

Bakker’s art interrogates the idea of the “China Girl”—a concept of pre-Said orientalism. Hartley-Skudder mocks this as being “obsessive” and “unnervingly recurring,” and—if I’m being honest—I agree. I also think Hartley-Skudder is right to call his CEAC performance “amateurish”—but to critique it in such a petty way in a personal essay is disingenuous framing. It makes the task of critiquing her personal essay very difficult as anything I write is immediately positioned as a personal attack, in a way it wouldn’t be had she put her concerns into something more typically called art criticism. As such, it’s interesting to watch Hartley-Skudder make herself out to be this arbitrator of moral justice, admonishing Bakker for fetishizing East Asian women, while she begins her essay by fetishizing Xiamen, the seaside town on which she completed her WARE residency in conjunction with CEAC:

“I was elated to discover pastel colours were everywhere and our apartment complex was covered in small, pink tiles. This was the place I had dreamed about. Everywhere you looked there was chrome, stainless steel, marble, and granite. The entranceways were glorious. Nothing was restrained; patterns were everywhere. Bright colours seemed to be celebrated rather than dismissed as childish or girly.” 

Hartley-Skudder goes on and on like this, even pontificating on how “the power boxes were clad in fake green vines so they were in harmony with their environment.” That’s not particularly good, it’s rather dystopian actually? Very 1984; reminiscent of dystopian visions across the culture, for instance, Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees:

“A green plastic watering can / For a fake Chinese rubber plant / In the fake plastic earth / That she bought from a rubber man / In a town full of rubber plans / To get rid of itself”

But of course, Hartley-Skudder is not aware of this cognitive dissonance—to be aware of that would require her brain not to be rotted over by liberalism. I’m disappointed to report this continues throughout her essay when Hartley-Skudder begins an ill-fated dissection of white privilege:

“Our white privilege in Xiamen was uncomfortably acute. It became another reality where everything was exaggerated – the heat, the colours, the noise. . . and the Western imperialist arrogance of some foreigners.”

Though Hartley-Skudder is on residency, she is ostensibly a tourist—this denotes a class status above that of the local residents. The problem is not that she is “white” per se, as whiteness is a construct of racialization—which by its nature is completely contextual. The framework of white privilege that Hartley-Skudder understands in an Australasian context (or in the context of the United States due to her time spent in New York) cannot be applied in the same way to China. From a neo-colonial western perspective, East Asia is completely homogenized to be one large racialized group—which is obviously not true. Within “China,” the Chinese Government’s nationalist policies act to completely deny ethnic minorities any agency. Their existence is often not even formally recognized and political dissent is met with extreme violence, as we’ve seen in Tibet. Yet the ability to travel overseas is not connotative of racialization, because that changes from territory to territory. What it is actually reflective of, is class status. The behavior of fellow tourists Hartley-Skudder witnessed on her trip, which she described as “Western imperialist arrogance” is not actually such. It’s an utterly false equivalence. It’s just bourgeoisie arrogance because that’s who gets to travel—the people with means; that type of arrogance exists across lines of liberal racialization. The sinocentrism of Chinese society means that of course, a “white” person will stand out on the street, but that’s not “white privilege”—that’s just called traveling to China. Unfortunately, in her sermon against Bakker’s usage of the “China Girl” stereotype Hartley-Skudder also becomes complicit in the oversimplification of racialization.

Hartley-Skudder takes many pot-shots at Bakker, which seems counterproductive to her attempt to get the reader to eat up her morally superior bent. For instance, Hartley-Skudder writes:

“he fancies himself a performance artist. . . He is forceful, loud, tall, and self-important. He is the type of person who leans over you and gets just that little bit too close. We cannot separate this artist, his personality, and his intentions from the work he produces.” 

I think actually you can—as this is just Hartley-Skudder’s sole opinion. In my sole opinion Hartley-Skudder looks like some Grindr twink I would bareback on some indecent, regrettable ketamine-induced Saturday night, but that opinion of mine—to no one’s surprise—can be separated from her work. 

So let’s talk about Bakker’s work. For his residency exhibition at CEAC, Bakker showed some works on paper and performed a choreographed performance with a Chinese dancer reenacting stories of sexual abuse. Hartley-Skudder derides Bakker for citing the #MeToo movement in that performance, finding it to be shallow and ill-conceived. Now, for one, a “hashtag” isn’t a “movement.” For another, it’s Bakker’s own prerogative to reference whatever he likes. He’s interested in exploring the tensions of love, power, and powerlessness through art. That doesn’t seem like an abuse of power to me. Just rather dull and uninspired—but nevertheless it is actually a more nuanced discussion of “abuse” than what Hartley-Skudder writes in her essay—and “attempts” to explore in her art. This is all irrelevant though, as the real question she poses is about the nature of art. What can be art? Ambrose Bierce writes in The Devil’s Dictionary, “art, n. This word has no definition.” That’s as close to a definition as one can really get. So for Hartley-Skudder to deride Bakker for not meeting her definition of art, as she cries: 

“Bakker had disrupted my romantic belief that art should be used for good: as an intelligent and powerful tool to subvert oppressive power structures. Please, I wanted to beg, don’t do this with art

––is just rather narcissistic, as art is inherently undefinable. Christopher Lasch theorizes on narcissism in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations

“Our growing dependence on technologies no one seems to understand or control has given rise to feelings of powerlessness and victimization. We find it more and more difficult to achieve a sense of continuity, permanence, or connection with the world around us. Relationships with others are notably fragile; goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.” 

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations

Bakker is allowed to make his sorry abuse commentary art, as Novak or Hartley-Skudder have the prerogative to tastelessly commodify their identities into vacuous “artworks.” The true misstep Bakker makes is to unknowingly confront Hartley-Skudder with her own narcissism. Hartley-Skudder’s feelings of powerlessness and victimization are not the fault of Bakker in any way, shape, or form—they are the fault of much broader interconnected global structures of capital. To reference my favorite word, it’s neoliberalism—that’s the unseen force that is guiding Hartley-Skudder to think in such an individualist way, to come up with these escapist theories of guilt, that let her point the finger at anything other than the horror of her own indoctrination.  

Furthermore, to chastise Bakker for something Hartley-Skudder thinks is unethical is untenable in the practice of art—and regardless of that, it’s not even a particularly pertinent critique. Hartley-Skudder mocks Bakker for being “‘inspired’ by Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1963) [sic].” The 1997 adaptation of Lolita and Vladimir Nabokov’s classic is distinct from Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation. Despite Nabokov writing the script, it’s an over-the-top goof, a mockery of Lolita—not this dark sultry romanticization of pedophilia (rather an indictment of it) that Hartley-Skudder is attempting to play off to strengthen the narrative she presents. Maybe she should watch it. 

Hartley-Skudder describes the finale of Bakker’s Lolita”-esque performance, CHESS QIZI 棋子, as such:

“To conclude, Bakker then appropriated and performed the true story of a high-school student who was assaulted by her teacher. Bakker, playing the ‘teacher’, followed the dancer around the gallery attempting to grab her, before offering to help with her studies in exchange for sexual favours. The performance ended with the two characters on the ground, Bakker arching over the dancer, forcibly clutching her as she pulled away. This strongly alluded to the female character being raped.”

Yet again Hartley-Skudder is assuming what gets to be art. Apparently, one can no longer appropriate true stories in art. What she regrets to mention is that this story was from one of Bakker’s ex-girlfriends. The context for the work can be found online in Bakker’s writing and in the description of the video documentation, available here. Hartley-Skudder doesn’t mention this because it muddies the narrative she presents. If she linked the video in her essay (which is not an incredibly difficult thing to do) her whole thesis would be proven moot. It’s a rather unimpressive “amateurish” performance—that Bakker himself barely takes part in—arguably it doesn’t even need a content warning—it is truly that innocuous. Hartley-Skudder is also making the assumption that Bakker’s ex was not consulted—that both she and the dancer in the performance had no agency in the creation of the artwork. Hartley-Skudder leaves this information out because the vagueness lets the reader assume that Bakker ripped this story from the headlines, implying he has no connection to the victim and must be acting in a disrespectful way. She is inserting her own paternalizing mindset where it has not been asked for. Yet, even if this was the case—who cares! Marc Quinn was going to use the blood of refugees in a sculpture, for fuck’s sake. Surely we are past moralizing exactly how art is made.

In writing her essay, Hartley-Skudder narcissistically assumes that everyone must agree with her. We must see this situation the same way as her but I—at the very least—certainly don’t. Her many italicized exasperations, i.e. “Was I going crazy?” is meant to make the reader believe some other anodyne, offhand comments were far more devious, without any empirical evidence of such. Hartley-Skudder can not possibly conceptualize that rather than the world being actively against her, it is indifferent. For hashtag feminists, the role of the victim is always available as a retaliatory tool. Which goes to prove that these liberal beliefs are not progressive. They are regressive. This is an incredibly spurious article that The Pantograph Punch should never have published—but unfortunately, this is exemplary of the culture industry writ-large.

To me, the most disgusting line that Hartley-Skudder crosses in Power of the Pussy Bow is her twisted discussion of the Mondriaan Fund, which is The Netherland’s national arts fund. She writes, “Dutch taxpayers have effectively paid for [Bakker’s] harmful work to be made.” This sort of rhetoric is used constantly around the world against any artist who has been funded by a national arts grant. In New Zealand, the most notable example of this was The Beneficiary’s Office by Tao Wells. Wells’ work was a performative installation wherein he established a PR company, The Wells Group in a vacant office space in the Wellington CBD. The Wells Group ‘took on’ the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) as a ‘client’ with the intention of improving the image of New Zealand’s welfare system to the public. The project attracted much scrutiny from media and politicians. The previous minister of finance Roger Douglas commented on the project saying, “you actually have to ask the question frankly should Creative New Zealand [New Zealand’s state-backed arts fund] actually exist if this is what they do,’ which is deeply ironic considering the project unequivocally would not exist without Rogernomics–-the snide nickname was given to Douglas’ implementation of neoliberal reforms on New Zealand’s economy in the 1980s. The publicity had far-reaching consequences across Wells’ life, resulting in his welfare payments being illegally cut off, alongside several lengthy, expensive court cases. Considering this, for Hartley-Skudder to employ such awful right-wing talking points in order to undermine another artist’s legitimate accessing of state funds is such a braindead—no thoughts, head completely empty—statement to make. It’s literal propagandizing for neoliberal economic policy—and even worse—is blatantly untrue. It’s not even how tax works! No country procures the majority of its funds from income tax. It’s not like you pay tax and that money is cycled directly back into those funds. “The economy” is complete artifice. Despite what we’re persuaded to believe—we all live in command economies, they’re just commanded by elites. Governments are lobbied against by wealth-hoarders and corporations to continue the current system of capital so they can continue to hold their power. Individual income tax is a strategy used to disincentivize worker solidarity (therefore preventing revolt) by putting a societal-wide focus on the responsibility of the individual. We must all pay tax because every single one of us—including the sixteen-year-old working after school at a McDonald’s—in some airy-fairy way has a “part to play” in keeping the country, the economy, afloat. Personal income tax exists purely to uphold this individualist neoliberal social and economic thinking that Hartley-Skudder proselytizes with stomach-churning effects:

“It is symbolic that this (problematic) older, white, male artist continues to be handed public money by a national organisation that largely determines which artists are worthy of a voice. We are not innocent of this in Aotearoa, either.”

When working in such a precarious industry—in a small country, where many of its artists rely on state grants for their livelihood—to diminish the value of these funds is abhorrent. Furthermore, this phrasing is idiosyncratic. Hartley-Skudder is the person deeming Bakker problematic—he is only problematic when defined against her own subjectivity. “Problematic” is a problematized word. Art cannot exist within binaristic thought. You can’t possibly engage in an idea or a concept without entertaining the grey areas. Regardless, The Netherlands is a rather homogenous place (like say, China is), even within a Europe that is rapidly becoming far more multi-discursive. To chide The Netherlands for awarding their state-funded arts grants to a Dutchman is completely hackneyed. Additionally, I’ll note that the specific fund that resourced Bakker during the CEAC residency was for established artists—which adequately describes the point he is at in his career. This was one grant awarded to one artist within a much wider state-backed arts funding scheme. To derisively objectify this much larger system just because Hartley-Skudder doesn’t like Bakker is intellectually dishonest of her. There are plenty of artists I don’t like but I would never write a hit-piece on them, based purely on their personal conduct.

Besides, national organizations do not deem whether or not people have a “voice”. National organizations deem whether a voice is commodifiable. There is a distinction to be made here, as these funds back horses who they think have a shot at winning, at gaining success on a larger scale. To position an artist’s voice in this framework is exemplary of free-market logic and it is likely to be Hartley-Skudder’s own insecurity speaking for her. You are an artist whether or not the state funds your project—and the state is not the most useful bellwether anyway. We all know this, look at who gets those types of grants, the conversation around what work is materially harmful or even just dogshit is far more nuanced and unconnected to the aesthetic tokenizing diversity of the successful applicants. The infantilization of “race” and “femininity” that Hartley-Skudder engages in serves to completely demolish her argument. 

Hartley-Skudder then goes on to complain about how she didn’t want to exhibit her work anymore in the gallery space after Bakker. Wah wah. Cry me a river. That’s so pathetic. To get such an opportunity and throw a hissy-fit about it is embarrassing. Not only that but it’s completely morally bankrupt, which usually I wouldn’t care for, or think is a fair criticism to make—but Hartley-Skudder moralizes everything to such an extent—I have to meet her at her level. I’ll point out that everywhere else she’s shown has their own horrible histories as well, she only cares in this instance because it has emotionally affected her. New Zealand is a settler-colonial state, every gallery here is a gallery that exists by violence. “Art” is not a safe space—in the world we live in—there is no such thing. Under capital, art is a career, it’s business, it’s a job. It’s not always going to be this glamorous happy thing. Nothing is, in fact, most things aren’t. As Lana Del Rey croons, “Happiness is a butterfly.” If you value art so much—if you use art as therapy—you need to take a good look at yourself and start making boundaries between your person and your art. It is unsustainable to not have a distinction between the two.

Hartley-Skudder has agency in this situation, she is not a toddler but she denies this fact. In response to queries as to why she never confronted Bakker, she plays the juvenile card yet again:

 “anytime I came close to encountering him, I fell apart. I became scared of leaving the studio/apartment in case I saw him around the complex. I could not escape the awful feelings he had triggered and their physical symptoms.” 

Note that Hartley-Skudder writes of physical symptoms but does not define them. This is a tactic of abstraction to take the heat off her own actions or lack thereof. It’s absolutely pathetic and infantile. There is no detail here, only vagueness, so much as to abscond the fact of the matter—to hide her true nature as a grifter. Now, I don’t care for confrontation. I don’t even necessarily think it matters in regards to Bakker. It’s just that Hartley-Skudder positions herself to care about confrontation, so it becomes a lackluster excuse to not have done it. Her mythical victimization knows no bounds. In reality, Bakker is not responsible in any material way for Hartley-Skudder’s feelings. If Hartley-Skudder had confronted Bakker he may very well have responded kindly and taken whatever she said to heart and apologized —but she never did. Hartley-Skudder never gave him the chance—then went and wrote a takedown of him, which is rather ungenerous when you think about it. According to the liberal status quo, her “physical symptoms” of fear give her plausible deniability and protect her against any criticism. Really, Hartley-Skudder is the one appropriating #MeToo, using it to give herself credibility so the reader can never question her motives.  

Bakker held no duty of care, he did his job as an artist, he exhibited art and then left—but the crux of Hartley-Skudder’s argument here is that he did nothing. So he cannot possibly be able to engage with her in good faith:

“There is a large space in between being an entitled misogynist and being a rapist, but this grey area is terrifying.”

What Hartley-Skudder writes here is so histrionic it’s hard to believe that an adult wrote it and not a 13-year-old child. It’s up for debate whether Bakker is even a misogynist. Hartley-Skudder is anti-nuance, anti-complexity. Her language is TERF-adjacent and as such it’s unsurprising that she needs a binary of good and bad to understand the world, otherwise her brain just might explode—and hopefully it does as it would be lovely to have one less dullard taking up space. This essay is something purely to fuel Hartley-Skudder’s ego. The fact of the matter is, there are grey areas. What is truly terrifying is to try and position “grey areas” as terrifying. Nothing is ever so clear-cut, we must live with ambiguity. There is no such thing as good or evil. There must be space to breathe, space to live, and make mistakes. No one person exists in singular modes of morality—it’s so childish to believe otherwise; then to inflict these constraints upon people who pass by your life in such unimportant ways as Bakker did in hers.

Hartley-Skudder takes such issue with Bakker’s reference to #MeToo in his performance “due to the specific challenges faced in Mainland China by internet activists trying to share their stories.” Dear reader, you already know my polemic but I must say it once again—‘Internet activists’ are not real activists. To claim they are trivializes actual activism. I’m sure it’s a great mode of communication but ultimately it takes bodies on the ground to even attempt so-called change. As critic Anna Khachiyan writes for SFMOMA in Art Won’t Save Us

“The rise of Trump has birthed a brave new vanguard of protest art that, all hype aside, mostly amounts to corny wordplay and vapid sloganeering: Marilyn Minter’s “PUSSY GRABS BACK” protest banner at the Kushner-owned Puck Building; Barbara Kruger’s “PRUMP/TUTIN” cover art for New York Magazine; Martha Rosler, another highly regarded feminist artist and veteran of the Vietnam Era’s heyday of radical transparency, posting a “PRESIDEBT TRUMPF” campaign sign to her Facebook page. . . Together these efforts occasionally took a more tactical approach, adopting wholesale the language and imagery of actual sixties’ protest movements and work stoppages. Think here of the “Dear Ivanka” campaign, which invited artists to appeal directly to the First Daughter, an avid collector of contemporary art, whose politics are seen as being nominally more moderate than her father’s. Some among them even went so far as to publicly disown artworks acquired by Trump and her husband Jared Kushner in the hopes that they would plummet in value. It’s a funny way of resisting, when many of the same institutional interests also happen to be in bed with the scions of oligarchs and arms dealers. Or consider the J20 Artists’ Strike, billed as a call for arts institutions to take a stand against President Trump by closing shop on Inauguration Day. As anyone who’s ever worked in a factory will tell you, a strike is only as useful as the cost it inflicts through the labor it withholds. But why should we care about the labor withheld by gallerists, curators, and social media managers in an industry that routinely comes under fire for its exploitative labor practices?

Frame from CHESS QIZI 棋子 documentation.

Khachiyan savages the vapid “resistance” of feminist protest art, a category which Hartley-Skudder undeniably sits within. So it’s ironic that Hartley-Skudder condemns Bakker for “appropriating” #MeToo when the Chinese government acts so quickly to censor it—because the way I see it, to reference #MeToo at all in China—is protest. The only way for Bakker to discuss #MeToo was through the oblique metaphor of rice. In Mandarin “rice bunny” (米兔) is pronounced similarly to me too—as mi tu—which is why in his performance Bakker pours rice over the dancer as she holds a plush bunny, which, for all intents and purposes, is a relatively artful reference to this discourse. You can hear about #ricebunny in this episode of Endless Thread from WBUR. Suffice to say, this is not a metaphor your average Westerner would understand, so it doesn’t seem to me to be explicitly harmful in the Western-dominated space of the Chinese European Art Center. Hartley-Skudder ends her paragraph on #ricebunny (which she never mentions by name) with the phrase “the struggle is real”—an inarticulate millennial-speak oversimplification that is objectively offensive. I can’t help but find it darkly humorous that Hartley-Skudder has such a severe lack of self-awareness, even when confronted with the reality of the tyrannical regime of China’s government. This narcissism is why Hartley-Skudder was so shocked when CEAC did not conform to her expectations after she complained about Bakker. Ostensibly he did nothing wrong, so for CEAC to take action against Bakker would’ve opened them up to a lawsuit. 

Hartley-Skudder writes a great deal more about how infantile any efforts of protest would be. This is one of her only astute observations in the entire article. The conclusion Hartley-Skudder comes to is to do a form of institutional critique from within, very Andrea Fraser of her. Unfortunately, this backfires. Hartley-Skudder’s conceitedness is on full display in an editorial note at the bottom of the essay, adding that the essay was amended to add acknowledgment for the artist taking inspiration for her “institutional critique” from the collective Fresh and Fruity (a project run predominately by Hana Pera Aoake and Mya Morrison-Middleton, now defunct since 2019). The text on her exhibition poster was a clone of the phrasing and conceptual framing of Fresh and Fruity’s contribution to The Tomorrow People at the Adam Art Gallery in 2017. Manifesto vol 1: Fresh and Fruity is a sexy new look (2014/2017) was made up of series of posters—the titular manifesto—and a vinyl cut message stuck to the gallery wall in the faux-irony re-sincerity of comic sans, which read: 

“As a condition of our engagement with The Tomorrow People, Fresh and Fruity has proposed that the Adam Art Gallery create its own safe space policy and procedures in consultation with other galleries and relevant organisations.” 

Fresh and Fruity, Manifesto vol 1: Fresh and Fruity is a sexy new look, 2014/2017, printed poster, vinyl text. Courtesy of the artists. On view in the exhibition The Tomorrow People, Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, 22 July–1 October 2017, photo: Shaun Matthews. Via Adam Art Gallery website.

Hartley-Skudder’s reads:

 “As a condition of this exhibition taking place, CEAC apologizes to those hurt by the previous artist’s promotion of sexist ideology.” 

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“Inspired by an artwork by the New Zealand based artist collective ‘Fresh and Fruity’, Hartley-Skudder developed an agreement with CEAC requiring the organization to apologize to those hurt by the previous artist’s promotion of sexist ideology.” 受到新西兰女性艺术家团体Fresh and Fruity艺术作品的启发,哈特利-斯库德与中国欧洲艺术中心达成协议,向遭到前一位艺术家推广性别歧视意识形态所伤害的人道歉。 Thank you @freshandfruity._ and all the others who have paved the way and given me strength to speak out when things are not OK. It was hard. I did not receive a direct apology and they did not agree to all of my conditions, but I managed to get the gallery to agree to this wording for a public apology for the previous exhibition. I have to believe little things like this can make a difference. (This apology and my zine were shocking and offensive to some, but apparently an old white dude coming to China and making gratuitous rape art and saying he loves ‘China girls’ is all g…) #CEACapologizes #metoo #ricebunny #notyourlolita #PUSSYBOW #timesup

A post shared by Emily Hartley-Skudder (@emilyhartleyskudder) on

Look, I’m sure plenty of artists have worked in similar modes before Fresh and Fruity—but as New Zealand is the context in which Hartley-Skudder predominantly works, it is undeniable she was influenced by Fresh and Fruity. To have not originally attributed inspiration to them is—at least—disingenuous, plagiarism at worst. This is another failure of Pantograph’s editorship as Fresh and Fruity’s work is well-known within the New Zealand art industry (contributors to the collective have written many notable articles for Pantograph), so it’s reasonable to have expected them to catch that incongruence before the article went live. There’s also an important distinction to be made between how Fresh and Fruity framed their critique and how Hartley-Skudder framed hers. Fresh and Fruity were talking about an institution implementing policy, whereas Hartley-Skudder purported blame on an individual. Hartley-Skudder is attributing guilt while Fresh and Fruity take a more productive approach. 

Recently, one of Fresh and Fruity’s most prominent members, Hana Pera Aoake, did a residency on Artspace Aotearoa’s Instagram during lockdown with fellow artist Mya Cole (this was separate from the Fresh and Fruity project), where they conducted interviews in the form of a podcast, Kiss Me Thru the Phone and read texts from figures such as Amber A’Lee Frost of the podcast Chapo Trap House. Frost is notoriously skeptical of notions such as safe spaces. Take this excerpt from her article, I’m Not Wearing a Mask—that Cole read during their residency:

“The past few years in “left” political circles have been marked by the tyranny of hysterics and histrionics; emotional terrorists who take us all hostage with their “feelings.” Not only have these indulgent manipulations eroded productivity and all sense of trust; a preoccupation with trauma and pain has had the equivocal effect of poking a wound so that it cannot heal.”

I think this neatly describes Hartley-Skudder’s situation. I’m positive that she was upset by Bakker’s performance, but for her own emotional wellbeing I don’t think the path that she took was the most “fruitful.” The framing of her critique was misguided and better suited to other avenues. Hanging your pain out to dry in the public forum is not always the most productive way of healing. To quote Khachiyan again:

“Artists, of course, have always liked to think of themselves as rebels but, the truth is, as long as art remains a prestige economy of the free market — a glitzy barnacle on the side of global finance — it cannot be an effective tool for political change. The best it can hope to do is comment on the political situation after the fact, “thematize” it as it unfolds, or in rare, purely serendipitous cases, anticipate it.”

In her CEAC exhibition, alongside the works which have later featured in Petting Aggression, Hartley-Skudder included a publication featuring anonymous quotes from various Chinese women who were also upset by Bakker’s performance. None of the quotes are about Bakker’s performance, just vague epithets about feminism branded as a substantial response to Bakker’s work. If Hartley-Skudder felt this strongly about including the voice of people who she felt were denied agency by Bakker, then why not more meaningfully include them in her exhibition? Why not bring these women in as fellow artists, instead of just taking their words for her own agenda? The process could also have been easily anonymized (as it was in the publication) since that is a reasonable concern.

Hartley-Skudder claims by making everything pink, her exhibition was a “feminist reclamation” somehow “a regaining of the women’s voices that were destructively silenced by the previous exhibiting artist” but that thought lacks proper interrogation. I’m also not compelled by the combination of “the clinical, sexual and the childlike; the hospital and the beauty salon.” Hartley-Skudder is claiming oppression that does not exist for her as her own while centering her own “voice.” Hartley-Skudder reminds me of today’s young queer artists who make work about AIDS as if it has really affected them in any material tangible way. Like Hartley-Skudder’s work, it comes off as self-centered and oblivious. Hartley-Skudder is not an East Asian woman and her “reclamation” of such millennial pink aesthetics is rather cloying and condescending in the context of China where, as Hartley-Skudder put it best—the struggle is real.

Both Hartley-Skudder and Bakker are inserting themselves in discourses where they don’t need to—and even worse they have nothing cogent to say. As far as I’m concerned each one of them lacks dignity; I’m confident there would have been plenty of people disgusted by both of their exhibitions. Hartley-Skudder’s self-involved pettiness knows no bounds as she writes that some of the audience saw her exhibition:

 “. . . as an attack and an attempt to dishonour Bakker. While I have to admit that I did want to do that I was also using his behaviour as an example of a much larger problem.” 

Putting aside her outright confession of purposefully making a vitriolic attack on Bakker, she doesn’t define this “much larger problem” because she can’t. At the end of the day, Hartley-Skudder has no clue what she is talking about, she has no idea what her own standpoint actually is. If she did perhaps she wouldn’t have acted so ego-maniacally in another country, that has very different societal structures to that of the Global West. She then goes on to chastise the critiques of the women whose own voices she included in her publication—for daring to suggest that the shallowness of her Hello Kitty aestheticizing eroded her point, writing, “hearing this also made me want to scream.” Drowning her art in pink, links back to her fetishization of Xiamen. She appropriated the aesthetics of this town, to center her own neoliberal feminist critique above that of the women who live there, in the same way that Bakker centered his own sexual fascination of the “China Girl” above that of those women’s own autonomy. At the end of the day, Hartley-Skudder is no better than Bakker. Not only does Hartley-Skudder not realize that—but neither does the editorial team of The Pantograph Punch or any person who praised her for writing that inept article. I would be truly embarrassed to be a gallery representing Hartley-Skudder after the publication of The Power of the Pussy Bow.

As she comes to the end of her screed, Hartley-Skudder questions WARE’s guidance for artists traveling to Asia. Which suggests: 

“Direct criticism should be avoided … attempting to assert opinions or ideas will not be appreciated and are highly unlikely to achieve what you want. You are more likely to lose respect and may have difficulty with any future requests for help.” 

I think that’s quite good advice, don’t step out of your place, especially somewhere that is not your home—though artists are infamously bad at taking social cues. Unsurprisingly Hartley-Skudder complains about this:

“Re-reading Asia New Zealand’s ‘briefing notes’ after my experience, I feel frustrated. What options does it give you if you do have a serious problem during your residency? This issue isn’t unique to Asia.” 

If you want to kick up a fuss, as Ai Wei-Wei might tell you, China isn’t the safest place to do it—which for someone like Ai Wei-Wei makes it the best place—but Hartley-Skudder is not Ai Wei Wei. Hartley-Skudder is so afraid of being called racist she has to qualify her complaint with a classic liberal dog whistle, “It’s not just China, though!” Which is true, it’s not just China. The briefing notes don’t even apply to most areas of Asia—the issue is rather unique to authoritarian states. I don’t think going on a residency in Russia, or Belarus would be particularly safe either if one were intent on performing transgressive or critical art. There is a potential to have far more serious issues arise in these places than being upset by another artist’s work. Perhaps the solution here is to not go if you’re going to be as much of a vapid dickhead as Hartley-Skudder?

As her essay closes out, there’s a little moment here where Hartley-Skudder and I come so close to seeing eye-to-eye: 

“Due to lack of regulations, it seems many residencies such as CEAC simply operate as businesses and aren’t equipped to make artistic or ethical calls about whom they accept and what their gallery exhibits.” 

She comes so close to making a substantive critique of financialization from which the art world has benefited immensely. It’s a futile endeavor to evaluate anything on the basis of ethics or artistry—we’re far beyond that. In this, I feel a slight moment of sympathy for Hartley-Skudder because it’s a soul-destroying conclusion to come to and it seems as though it’s the first time she’s really been confronted with the failure of the neoliberal project. To take a page out of her own playbook, the reason for this is her privilege. It is her status as a petit-bourgeois white woman born in New Zealand that means such a relatively unremarkable event has struck her so hard. If Hartley-Skudder is reading this, what I have to say to her is: I’m so sorry this has happened to you.

Hartley-Skudder’s attitude in Power of the Pussy Bow is why I find Petting Aggression to be so crass and imperceptive. The insights to be gleaned on the creation of Petting Aggression from her essay, leave much to be admired. As I’m skeptical of PMC feminism, I think these types of artists, who enjoy mining their self-perceived oppressions oh so much, need to be a little more critical of themselves in order to advance their art practice. A more wry, self-aware sardonicism is required from these Neoliberal White Feminist Artists—which is part of why Lena Dunham is so reviled in these spheres. Unlike her mother, Dunham was more interested in gray areas—so gray, her sarcasm was often imperceptible as such, which made her a liability to the cause of liberal moralization. This brings me back, yet again to Khachiyan’s writing, which criticizes the promises of the Neoliberal White Feminist Art movement as “more of the same… a reverie of liberal pearl-clutching and self-flagellation repackaged as an updated version of institutional critique.” I don’t think there can be a more truthful description of Emily Hartley-Skudder’s art, so all I can hope is that I never encounter any of her “art” again.

1 A term coined to describe the torrential liberal gushing of uncritical praise for New Zealand’s girl boss Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern

Tags: aesthetics, art criticism, feminism, liberals

JJ Harper JJ Harper (See all)
JJ is a writer and artist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, New Zealand. Instagram. Twitter

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