You'll have to forgive the puns. “Cliteracy,” for one: a knowledge of women's bodies and female sexuality. “Phallusy,” for another: patriarchal misinformation. At Baang + Burne's booth at Scope NYC (one of the many fairs in New York for Armory Week), artist Sophia Wallace rewrites the language of women's bodies, of female pleasure, of (you guessed it) the clit.
Her immersive installation, Cliteracy, features a wall of “Natural Laws” that dominates the space and its viewers, suspended neon text, and a series of posters that read like dictionary definitions, eye sight tests, or political slogans. Wallace's medium here is all text, whether it illuminates, acts as reference, or forces viewers to squint.
Though Wallace has a background in photography (her portrait series On Beauty was featured in Bitch a few years ago), she said, “I didn't want to work with pictures, nothing representational.” She acknowledged the irony of this choice—her subject is pointedly anatomical—but said she wanted to work against “the over-exposure of the female form.” Cliteracy is meant to emphasize that this matter is not simple. The complexity of female sexuality, of female pleasure, is made manifest by the fact that the work cannot be taken in at a glance.
Charlie Grosso, co-founder and executive director of Baang + Burne Gallery, described Cliteracy as “a perfect storm.” The three-year-old gallery frames itself as force for social good, with agenda similar to Tom's or Warby Parkers, and one with a concerted interest in art with political subtext. When Grosso first saw Cliteracy, “I got it immediately and was excited by it.” Most important for her is that, “The work is about something. It's more than just pretty.”
Taking a page from advertising, particularly in the aphorisms that litter the “Natural Laws,” Wallace employs pithy phrases, various type sizes, and color to make her words pop. Laws like #81, “YES clitoris,” wouldn't be out of place in a (very particular kind of) jingle. Similarly #4: “The clitoris is not a BUTTON IT IS AN ICEBERG.” The “Natural Laws” also encompass facts, statements, questions, arguments. “There are 8,000 nerves in the tip of the clitoris alone,” explains #13. “SEX is when you engage YOUR CLIT and have an orgasm,” says #85. Number 93 asks, “Who is the Saint of the Clitoris?” The laws' through line, the thematic center, can summed up by #34: “Our demands are SIMPLE real orgasms FOR ALL.” Reminiscent of the text-based art of Jenny Holzer and Bruce Nauman, Cliteracy plays with both scale and content to both physically dwarf its viewers and overwhelm them with information.
Going beyond the often flowery, fertility-based feminist art of the 1970s, and some of the more decorative, domestic trends in feminist art today—Wallace mentioned needlepoint and “tiny vulvas you can hold in your hands”—Cliteracy asks “What about pleasure?” So much of the work deals with misinformation: in particular, the ignorance or apathy patriarchy medicine treats female anatomy, pleasure, and sexuality. Wallace takes issue with the use of the word “vagina” over the more anatomically correct “vulva,” with the original meaning of “vagina”—a sheath or scabbard, with how long it took for basic information about the clitoris to be discovered, and with how old the myths about it are. Cliteracy argues that both men and women are illiterate in this basic anatomical understanding of how women experience pleasure.
“Female bodies are still taboo, flawed, disgusting, shameful,” Wallace said. “I wanted to attack the fetishization of reproductive sex.” The problem of pleasure stems from these twin problems of offensive femininity (ranging from bare arms to nipples to the clit itself) and of sex as a penis-centric act, where women's bodies are nothing but receptacles for men or for children. The former results in a concerted ignorance, the latter in active misinformation. Wallace's cure is education: linguistic precision, realistic expectations, and the confidence to ask for what everyone deserves out of sex—pleasure.
This is an agenda that's easy to get behind, but one that is more easily parsed through conversation that mere observation. Though the quantity is overwhelming, the information itself is rather uncomplicated: many of the “Natural Laws” seem like they could have been found on a bumper sticker or a t-shirt. Still, the giant spread of “Natural Laws” alongside a correspondingly large and ethereal yellow neon sign that reads “CLITERACY” is appealing (if not particularly surprising). The posters don't quite make sense alongside this visually striking pairing, but it doesn't quite matter. I left wishing I owned something that had Law #60 on it: “SOLID GOLD CLIT.”