In an era when women are still seeking equality and freedom, the online exhibition ‘Hide-and-Seek’ looks to two female artists – Françoise JANICOT and Annegret SOLTAU – whose performance-based practices are characterised by their efforts to conceal and reveal.
Working in similar yet separate contexts in the early 1970s – Janicot emerging from the volatile period of civil unrest in France punctuated by major public demonstrations and economically crippling strikes, and Soltau from a Germany still feeling the reverberations of World War II – both artists, despite training in other mediums early in their careers, embraced the then-nascent medium of performance. The artists cocooned their bodies, with rope in Janicot’s case and black thread for Soltau, either cutting or twisting themselves free. The asphyxiating effects of enclosure, and freedom from it, played on the artist’s desire for greater emancipation. For Janicot, this was liberation in relation to the oppression of women on a societal, structural level, but for Soltau, the search was more personal, seeking liberation from her past and coming to terms with her own personal history.
Françoise Janicot (1929–2017) began her career as a painter before moving into the field of action art in the early 1970s and later into the experimental realm of video art in the 1980s.Following the May 1968 events in France, a new feminist movement was mobilised around women’s rights, the legalisation of abortion, contraception and family planning. Janicot, along with fellow artists Lea Lublin and Nil Yalter, joined Le Collectif Femmes/Art à Paris, a collective founded by the psychoanalyst and painter Françoise Eliet that regularly protested the under-representation of women artists and the activation of feminist issues vis-à-vis the visual arts. Janicot first took to the streets, covering a large public clock next to a set of traffic lights with tape in a form of a cross. Obfuscating signs and symbols, protesting the utility of such objects whilst also pointing to the presence of concealment in everyday life, merged with the artist’s early interest in abstraction, represented here inDessins caches (1966) as well as Floor of the artist’s studio (1976). Squares of thin, tissue-like paper are collaged and layered, deliberately fixed to points on the material support. The resulting bandage-like objects evoke layers of medical gauze and cover what’s hidden beneath the surface.
Later in the 1970s, Janicot moved entirely to performance art. Feeling trapped as she juggled her life as an artist, mother and wife, Janicot wanted to create a strong image that could symbolise both entrapment and escape. Out of this emerged Encoconnage, perhaps her best-known work, in 1972. The title of work does not actually exist in French, rather it was coined by Janicot as an implicit allusion to the idea of enclosure by containing and encircling the word cocon(cocoon). As part of the action, the artist wrapped herself in thin rope from head to toe, covering her face at the risk of suffocation, before finally cutting herself free. The resulting photographs of the performance, particularly that of the head which is presented as though cut off, emerged as a protest of the gagging of women, both literally and figuratively, with respect to not only their cultural invisibility but their denigration to the domestic sphere.