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Get Naked Every Day: ‘About Looking’ Explores Female Nudity In Art

Get Naked Every Day: ‘About Looking’ Explores Female Nudity In Art

Photos by
Various / Courtesy of the Artists

Published March 14, 2018

In 2017, three friends and artistic collaborators—Eva Ísleifs, Katrín Inga Jónsdóttir Hjördísardóttir and Rakel McMahon—met up at an apartment in Athens during a particularly hot summer. They were recipients of that year’s “artist’s salary”—a grant of public money awarded annually to Icelandic creatives, in various fields, to experiment, develop, and expand their practise.

The three entered into an exploratory discussion and negotiation of what they would produce together. “When we met, we were all coming from different angles—different collaborations, and different exhibitions of our solo work,” says Katrín. “We had to first decide what we wanted to do, and why we wanted to work together.”

Realising that this collaborative environment could act as a release from their solo practises, the idea they arrived at, on the surface, could not be simpler. They would draw each other. “We were all craving a pure creativity—a pencil, or working with our hands,” says Katrín. “So much of art is meetings, emails, budget plans and proposals. We wanted to free ourselves from all that. So we settled on drawing, and ended up creating this self-made workshop.”

Freeing process

As they started to draw, they discussed what they wanted from the collaboration and how they wanted to spend their time together. The idea developed, and soon the three had disrobed in the apartment; they started to produce life drawings, with each acting as both life model and artist in an act of private performance.

“Sometimes when you’re working in collaboration, you go further than you’d be able to alone, and let yourself go,” says Katrín. “We allowed ourselves to use clichés. Using the naked body is a cliché in performance, but we allowed ourselves to use it, and that gave us a lot of freedom.”

“When you’re naked and free yourself of negative thoughts towards yourself, some gates open up.”

As the artists sank into the process, they also started to realise it was freeing them up in other more personal ways. “Being naked isn’t easy,” continues Katrín. “Even when you know and trust each other, it’s challenging. Even with your lover, there are elements of your body that you’re perhaps not comfortable with. But when you’re naked like this and free yourself of negative thoughts towards yourself, some gates open up. You reach a more pure creativity, without the complexity of acting. Maybe you’re sleeping naked, cooking naked, writing emails naked. Maybe it’s good for us to be naked as often as we can.”

The female nude

The three artists talked together constantly about the wide range of issues that the work opened up. “From one line to another, we found the purpose of what we were doing,” says Katrín. “We talked all the time. It started out with us thinking about working in the studio, but it became a performance, and then we thought about how to turn this performance back into objects. It was a way for us to spend time together, and combine our forces to make something bigger, stronger, and more effective.”

Their discussions were far-reaching. They talked about the Ancient Greek philosophers, who “thought better naked,” while all-but excluding women from their academic clique. This discussion led on to the role of the female nude in art practise, art history, and in society at large.

“In the past, women who used their bodies in performance art were dismissed as exhibitionists,” says Rakel. “But now, when they’re eighty years old, their work is glorified. So is it ‘more okay’ because they’re old now, and no longer threatening? This process brought up many questions.”

Sex sells

Of course, issues surrounding female nudity are very much present in contemporary society. “Today, the female nude is both a cheap commodity, and very much in demand,” says Rakel. “Nudity is also still a taboo—sometimes it’s sexual, and sometimes it isn’t. For example, when I teach figure drawing I have naked people in my classroom. We have a complex relationship to nudity, when it’s okay to show nudity, and what it means.”

“When is something sexual, or not? And who decides what is sexual?”

These ideas were played out in reality as ‘About Looking’ started to garner media attention. When a promo picture for ‘About Looking’ appeared on the RUV website, it became the most read story on the website that day. “I teach gender studies, and this opened up questions about why sex sells,” says Rakel. “When is something sexual, or not? And who decides what is sexual?”

Purpose, Ego & Obsession 

‘About Looking’ is the continuation of an already fruitful collaboration. The three artists first met during their studies, graduating together from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts in 2008. Their first collaborative performance took place in 2015 in St. John’s, Canada. The piece, entitled “Rec.”, is represented in ‘About Looking’ by three square, red light boxes bearing the words Purpose, Ego & Obsession.

“I think for most artists it’s a painful experience to perform.”

“Purpose, Ego and Obsession were characters we created,” says Rakel. “Katrín was Purpose, I was Obsession, and Eva was Ego. The characters were based on art and artists. It was like stand-up—taking the piss out of art, artists, and ourselves. But when we placed the lights in this context, with the pictures, they became different. Red lights are associated with eroticism, and that affects how the pieces interact.”

Art pop

Eva, Katrín and Rakel’s performance collaboration looks set to continue. On one wall of the gallery are three distinctive red prints, made straight onto the wall: the artists’ asses. “This is the beginning of a new project,” says Katrín. “It’s going to be a music band. If I could choose to be anything I wanted, I’d want to be a dancer. And Rakel is a wannabe singer. So we decided to allow ourselves to be those things, and see what happens.”

If the results are anywhere near as complex, engaging and thought-provoking as ‘About Looking,’ it’ll be a spectacle worth looking out for.

‘About Looking’ runs at GAMMA Gallery until May 11th, open on weekdays from 11am-6pm.


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