Phoebe Collings-James solo exhibition opened last Friday at The Cobb gallery. We sent Olivia Singer down to find out more about it.
Phoebe Collings-James grew up in London, and her first solo show in her home city since 2011 debuts today at the Cobb Gallery in Camden. An artist who has recently started the website ‘Cunt Today’, a collection of different feminist voices amalgamated onto a Tumblr platform, her multi-disciplinary exhibition incorporates a nuanced understanding of the intricacies and interpolations of societal discord. The feature installation of the exhibition is oKoKoK, a room filled with white, conical plaster casts that distinctly evoke the imagery of a phallocentric Klu Klux Klan. Toppling and collapsing forms littered with cracks and holes, some appearing to almost burst at the seams, are arranged in groups through the room. Whilst the scene itself is eerily frozen, it quietly provokes awareness of issues around inequality, a theme that weaves throughout her Phoebe’s work. We spoke to Phoebe to ask about her inspirations behind her provocative exhibition and setting up Cunt Today.
What was it that inspired you to set up Cunt Today?
I wanted to set it up because the feminist sites out there usually seem to have a singular agenda, a singular voice. I thought it could be interesting to have somewhere where people can be saying contradictory things – so many women feel like they don’t necessarily identify with feminism because they can see it as a regimented thing that doesn’t represent them, their life or their families. I wanted it to be on Tumblr because, for all of the lengthier pieces that there are on site, sometimes it’s the little three line re-blogs that will really get you thinking. Any blogger can put up a little thought, and it’s great to be able to include those comments as well as articles from The Guardian, so that everyone can contribute. This conversation can’t just stay in academia because it doesn’t matter if someone hasn’t read The Second Sex: if you’re a woman and you’re living in the world today, you’re going to relate to the issues that feminism covers.
It’s nice to see somewhere that’s angry about that stuff, too – the name is unapologetically feminist.
Cunt is a word that I really love and use all the time. It’s funny that people are happy flinging it around all day and yet as soon as it’s used in actual context relating to a vagina in any empowered way, it frightens people. Also, it was important to have a name that was going to grab people and I don’t want to shy away from what the site is about: it’s not about lifestyle, it’s not trying to be Vogue, it’s supposed to be a resource.
Why the song title for the show?
I quite often like using song titles for titles because they almost create a theme-tune to tie it all together. The opening lines of that song are about people walking around looking at the ground and that resonated with me… I guess the whole point of the show (apart from the aesthetic enjoyment) is to get people to wake up a little bit from the issues that we normalise. Life is tough, and busy, and it can be easier to just look the other way and get on with your day but actually it’s really important for us to take notice, to think about what we’re doing, what we’re saying.
I love the title oKoKoK – there’s a wit and humour present throughout your work that prevents it from being aggressive or repellent.
It’s hard because when you say you want to do something that’s forthright but not too aggressive, it can sound like you’re pussyfooting around. Actually, it’s so that people engage – you want to draw them in before they realize what’s going on, and then it’s too late, they’re already looking. Thinking about the symbols of extremism and the power that they hold is so upsetting but also so ridiculous! There are so many failures in the sculptures themselves, some are a bit battered and the plaster itself is so delicate that loads of the tops have been lobbed off… those failures within the actual work are quite important, to resonate with the failures and ridiculousness of the acts themselves.
You do a lot with sex and food – what is it that inspires that connection?
I don’t know if it consciously has anything to do with the sense of domestic womanliness, I think maybe it’s more about our relation to ourselves, how closely related the body is to food, our excesses. What’s interesting working with the meat is the suggestion of cannibalism within it: the cannibalism of language, and metaphorically of our selves.
The kitschy porno narratives playing over the videos of butchery are amazing; they fit so perfectly!
I made another film, Primates, a couple of years ago. It was a David Attenborough clip talking about primates played over big black girl booty porno and it fitted so well with ideas of glutinous consumption of meat and porn and everything that I almost didn’t have to do anything: suddenly the language just worked with the visuals. It was doing it for itself, which was almost more disturbing. When I showed Primates in London, nobody left but when I showed it in Germany, people left. But I didn’t do anything: I just put two things together and if people started to think about black women being equated to monkeys or something then that’s their stuff, not mine. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the fact that I’m mixed and I was present at the London showing and wasn’t in Berlin, whether if people had known who had made it that it would have been different. But essentially I didn’t do anything: it’s the viewer who contextualizes the work and anything they feel, anger or violation, it’s their shit. That’s what I’m interested in.
Words by Olivia Singer