How do you interrogate gendered roles in the workplace using film? Our reviewer encounters some layered, occasionally surreal, narratives in this new exhibition.
The question of whether stereotypical gendered behaviours are inherent or learnt is a problematic one, dangerous even – but it is this loaded dilemma that Lucy Beech approaches with in Me and Mine. The exhibition, currently on show at The Harris in Preston (2 May – 4 July) then touring to The Tetley in Leeds (16 July – 27 Sept), is made up of films that display the slickness of skilful techniques, but are shot through with purposeful unintelligibility. The themes explored in these works are rich and timely; they examine how ‘feminine virtues’ can be professionalised, and how, potentially, this can fundamentally alter traditionally male dominated industries.
The film that gives this exhibition its title is projected large in a dark, cinema-like gallery at the Harris. At forty minutes long, it demands a longer spell of attention than the average viewer might be expecting – however, the film has a compelling narrative arc, following in detail the protagonist’s journey over a single day at an award ceremony for women funeral directors and celebrants. The other two works on show, Cannibals and Buried Alive, also depict a clear narrative, but are much shorter and looped – in each, elements of genuine feeling and closeness are combined with manipulation and marketing tactics.
In two channel video installation Buried Alive, for instance, we see the training for and implementation of a slightly ambiguous leadership workshop. The film, which is the only work in the exhibition not shown in its own seated screening area, confuses the boundaries between domesticity, friendship, and professionalism, as well as creating a claustrophobic focus on particular actions and imagery. Beech is concerned with this kind of every-day theatricality, and the ways that actions and perceptions can mutate through repetition; ideas which these films reinforce when viewed one after another.
The films raise wry questions around the authenticity of women’s social interactions
Shifting interpretations and seemingly incompatible ideas are evident throughout the exhibition, while an accompanying essay by Naomi Pierce describes how various female archetypes are simultaneously evoked and negated in these films. This points to the ways in which a reliance on supposedly natural, gendered tendencies or skills denies people the possibility of a complex inner life, with deviations deemed unnatural and punishable.
In this way, the films also wryly raise questions around the authenticity of women’s social interactions, invoking stereotypical notions of the clique by depicting various group situations where a participant is singled out and either ignored, or acted upon by the others. The central relationship between the characters Viv and Helen, who are initially set up as nemeses in Me and Mine, is one way the exhibition explores this in detail.
It is also important to note, as Pierce does, that the majority of the women featured in Beech’s films fit within a limited class of womanhood; mostly white and middle aged, dressed nicely if with slight eccentricities. This casting choice by Beech adds another layer of tension to the viewing, in demanding attention for women who are often made to feel invisible by a culture obsessed with seeing women in very narrow ways. In all of the works on show, empowerment is problematised by the exclusion of those who don’t fit in with the message.
A troubled relationship between reality and fiction is at the core of this exhibition, and is particularly evident in the way that Beech’s films draw on the artist’s lived experiences and include naturalistic scripts that could be – and perhaps are – transcribed from actual conversations. Through Beech’s intensive and protracted research methods, whereby the artist spends significant time with her subjects, attempting to live through what she aims to research, the themes discussed appear substantial. The end work points convincingly to the challenges present in industries where emotion and care are commodified.