Can Smoking Be A Feminist Act?
It’s 2016, and America is simultaneously less healthy and more health conscious than ever. In cities like New York, LA, Portland, Austin, and other enclaves of hipsterdom, we chug our green juices and get colonics and eat our kale and put ourselves through all sorts of torturous exercises, all in the name of living longer and better, of cleaning out “toxins.” People may make fun of Gwyneth Paltrow, but GOOP is actually doing well—everyone wants to be better, or really, to look better. But there is one thing that people still partake in, something you can catch any number of fools doing outside of Brooklyn bars or, hell, even outside Milk Studios: smoking.
Cigarettes are obviously bad news. They turn your teeth yellow and your breath sour, and oh yeah: they kill you. But they remain a sort of status symbol, a marker of rebellion and coolness, a DGAF tool that still holds up in fashion and the arts and entertainment, no matter how little you may see them in the movies. Which is why we were immediately drawn to a new exhibition at the Lower East Side gallery Invisible Exports, titled Frida Smoked. And the artists in the show seem to agree about cigarettes’ essential, deadly power. In the gallery’s statement about the exhibition, they write that cigs “[signal] a different kind of naughty female independence, one made up of disdain for do-gooder nanny-state-ism and self-help mantras peddled in the age of corporate yoga; and driven embrace of youthful indiscretion, downtown depravity, even a sort of sexual nihilism.”
The show’s roster of artists are all women—Genesis Belanger, Anne Doran, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Ilse Getz, Irini Miga, and Amanda Nedham—who make work that deals with cigarettes themselves. The works range from sculpture to painting to even adorable dioramas, all incorporating smokes (we’re not sure, but if we had to guess, most of the works closely resemble the most classic of cigarettes: the Marlboro Red).
The origins of Frida Smoked are fascinating. Invisible Exports delved deep into the history of women’s liberation in accordance with cancer sticks. Originally marketed to men during WWI, when women joined the workforce, cigarette companies began reaching out to them. And so The American Tobacco Company began advertising cigarettes for women as “Torches of Freedom,” essentially branding smoking a feminist act. “[The Torches of Freedom campaign] was related to woman’s suffrage, but it was constructed by men…which is complicated,” said Belanger. “And so I feel totally fine being a non-smoker.”
It was kind of genius, in a sickening way; telling women to break free and be independent while essentially killing themselves. And even from a modern perspective, smoking can seem liberating, kind of rough and brash in a world that expects gentle, soft femininity. But not really, because unlike speaking up and being bold or not conforming to beauty standards, smoking kills you.
The two artists I spoke to whose work is featured in Frida Smoked agreed that smoking was in no way feminist. “It’s just stupid ad companies,” said Anne Doran, a famed critic and artist who creates dreamy photosculptures. “I think anything that is actually self-destructive is really not feminist. It’s our job to perfect our lives and our bodies.” Doran is a former smoker; at the time that she was creating her piece featured in Frida Smoked, titled “Tomato Surprise,” she was addicted to nicotine replacements. “My dirty secret was it took me another 15 years to get off nicotine,” she said. “Do not try to quit smoking using the nicotine replacements, because they are way more addictive.”
“Tomato Surprise” is classic Doran, appropriating photos into a three-dimensional metal sculpture that’s almost redolent of a knife block. She transforms an image’s original meaning by cutting them up, and she makes them almost interactive; her work is somewhat personal yet not overtly so, and she sees herself as occupying a space between the colder artists of the Pictures Generation and the more self-absorbed Gen Xers.
“There was a shift [in the ‘80s] between just appropriating media imagery and kind of commenting on it, to more narrative work,” Doran told me. “People were making more narrative, personal work in the ‘90s so I was kind of slotted in between those two trends. I would collect found imagery and I would fool around with it until it made sense to me in some ways, but I also didn’t know until many years later—I don’t know even now exactly—what the narrative is in them.”
Belanger, on the other hand—whose irreverent, slightly phallic sculptures of cigarettes are a bright highlight of the show—is firmly anti-smoking. But she has other reasons for incorporating cigarettes into her work. “I think it’s really interesting when you can make something and have it talk about something entirely different,” she said. “This may sound ridiculous, but someone said to me that they didn’t have a single conversation about smoking, but they had seven conversations about flaccid penises. And that’s not necessarily what I’m going for, but I do want it to be sort of phallic and talk a little bit about gender in a funny or irreverent way.”
“It really pisses me off, but there are still women right now that I know that are smart and successful and talented and they’re like, ‘Tools are not for me!'”
Belanger’s sculptures are made of cast concrete and welded steel; she learned to weld from YouTube videos, practicing in her brother’s backyard in Vermont. “I love that they’re sort of masculine processes,” said Belanger. “It really pisses me off, but there are still women right now that I know that are smart and successful and talented and they’re like, ‘Tools are not for me!’ Dammit, I hate that people think that. So I try to use all the tools well, and be like, ‘You can too!’ I think of that as a feminist act.”
In her work, cigarettes are used as a tool for exploring gender politics. “I think that, as women in our contemporary society, there are so many [industries] that we didn’t really have much of a say in how they came to be,” she told me. “Like the advertising industry, or even art. [These are] things we’ve been excluded from in the past, that we’re still put upon. And we have to deal with that history, so I like to make things that are speaking to that subtly.”
In an art world that still caters to men, it’s a treat to see a group show that focuses on such witty and bold ladies; all of the works could stand up anywhere, but it’s particularly delightful in this context. Art F City put it best, stating that “even in our micro-era of badass all-women group shows, Frida Smoked stands out as the most badass of all-women group shows.” Belanger was certainly pleased to be part of an all-female show. When I asked her about art’s gender gap, she said, “I used to be so angry about it, but that didn’t get me anywhere. So I started to think about working as hard as you can to be as successful as possible, and how that is an act of [rebellion].”
On top of Doran and Belanger, the featured artists all created compelling, indispensable work, especially considering the funny, feather-light theme of the exhibition. We loved Amanda Nedham’s delicate, whispery illustrations; her tiny sculptures of almost melted cigarettes sticking through tongue-like forms are charming and alien-like. Celeste Dupoy’s painting of a man lying on the ground, melancholically smoking, titled “Mark the Floor,” made me laugh at loud; it’s so sweet and sad and silly.
Irina Miga’s sculpture “A Scratch on the Wall, A Moment Embedded In,” utilizes an actual cigarette butt, invoking the smallness and mortality—if that can be applied here—of cigarettes. And the work of legendary German artist Ilse Getz is also on display, including her cigarette collages—one from 1965, and one from 1981—that have the unintended effect of providing a glimpse into how cigarettes have evolved through the ages. They may still be death traps, but the ones from the ‘80s are sleeker than 1965’s.
In the end, Frida Smoked is a playful idea taken to an analytical and well-reasoned conclusion. The show is dizzy and charming while still holding itself to a higher ideal. And we love cigarette phalluses.
Check out Frida Smoked, on display at INVISIBLE-EXPORTS through June 19th.
All images courtesy of the artists and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS.
Stay tuned to Milk for more smoking and art.