Lived Experience

A short story about an exhibition and its making

By Sophie Berrebi

Simone de Beauvoir, 1959. Photo courtesy Album / Alamy

  • 18 March 2022

There’s a particular moment, when you are making an exhibition, in which everything is suspended. Much has already been done: lists of works drawn up and altered several times, loan forms completed. Plinths measured and ordered; walls painted fresh. Press release sent. You feel you have puzzled long enough over the scale model on your office floor.

Crouching over the foamboard gallery, you have moved the tiny replicas around and around, feeling, in turn, like a storyteller and a chess master. Only a few days left until you pack your bags and get on the train, until the installation begins. And it is in those days between planning and making that the exhibition really exists for me.

It’s before things roar into action, before the team comes together and begins its choreography: extracting photographs, paintings, sculptures and drawings from snug-fitting crates, like chestnuts in burrs; making crime-scene-like condition reports. The works will be placed on the floor. Things will be measured and levelled and checked again. Holes will be drilled.

All this will happen and I will remember, from other times, the joy and awkwardness of being the only one in the room with empty hands, the one whose job is now is to be a pair of eyes and a body continuously gyrating around the gallery space, while others wield hammers and laptops. Gradually the reality of the gallery overlays the image in the mind and the scale model in the room. Three versions of the exhibition repeatedly come together and fall apart. It’s the reality-check moment, the brutal awakening when you realize that a pillar divides the room 15 centimeters further to the right than you expected, than you imagined.

But it’s not that moment that I want to tell you about. It’s what comes before. That’s when I think of you, when I imagine you walking around the gallery and taking in the works, when I imagine you puzzling over a drawing, moved by a photograph, entranced by a video work.

That moment, suspended in time and space, between thinking and making, is when exhibition curating and fiction writing are most closely aligned. It’s when a narrative must be established, characters conjured, a scene visualized. It is about imagining, with feeling, and to do that, I must transpose my entire body. It is the moment when I must think like you.

Geta Brătescu, Autoportret în oglindă (Selbstbildnis im Spiegel), 2001 © The Estate of Geta Brătescu. Photo: Ștefan Altenburger

First British edition of de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956). Courtesy Orlando Booksellers

At times I imagine you in a very precise way: a face from my past, or one I just saw in the street. At others times you are generic, of indeterminate sex, age, skin or hair color, and I follow you discreetly.

I see you walk into the gallery; I notice the bounce in your step. I can picture the way you hold yourself, the way you flip your coat over your shoulders. It’s to be expected. In the Löwenbräu, the old brewery complex that hosts the Kunsthalle and a group of galleries on the Limmatstrasse, you feel as if you are both indoors and outdoors. And so, like most visitors, you toyed with your coat for a while: on and off, off and on, then settled midway. You step into the gallery space and immediately stiffen when a woman politely greets you and hands you a sheaf of papers. You bite your lip. You much prefer to visit an exhibition unnoticed, unburdened and hands free—or perhaps that’s just what I prefer. But I like to imagine you a little like me. You stiffen, but you are too polite to refuse. Someone else, a man, you immediately think, would just say, ‘No thank you,’ but you smile and graciously accept the papers—‘ladylike,’ as your mother would say.

You read the exhibition’s title on the first sheet of paper: ‘Seventy Years of the Second Sex.’ Seventy years! And yet even now you automatically react in a way expected of your sex: polite, ladylike. At least you recognize the decorousness of your manners, like that of your appearance. You readjust your coat on your shoulders. Your mind begins to race with the thought, as you stare blankly at the exhibition text on the wall nearby the desk.

I did write the wall text specifically for you. But when you turn away from it after a few minutes, I feel sure that you haven’t registered a single word of it. I imagine you are still examining your own behavior.

I would like to tell you that this is exactly why ‘The Second Sex’ should continue to be read. But I can hear you already telling your students this in the undergraduate art history class that you teach every year. Yes, I have narrowed you down: you are a university professor, though I don’t know your age or where you have come from. But I know you are there in the gallery and also in the lecture hall, telling your students about art and feminism. And maybe you use this encounter with the gallery woman and the papers to explain how such politeness, such dedication to appearances, along with the studied effort to take up less space and speak quietly, are not natural but constructed as appropriate behavior for a woman.

You explain this to your students, and then quote Simone de Beauvoir for good measure. Although most of them have not read Beauvoir (not yet, you quickly rectify), you feel that they have an intuitive sense of her thought, even so. This was not the case, say, ten years ago. But these days, you notice an ease, a savviness, in the way these twenty-year-olds adopt and deconstruct behavior codes, in the way they knowingly perform who they are. For all their selfie-posting and daily change of clothing styles, they actually know it is all a construction. So much so that when pictures of Cindy Sherman, masquerading in a variety of outfits and poses, beam up on your PowerPoint in the lecture hall, you can almost hear them cry, paraphrasing Flaubert, ‘Sherman c’est moi!’

Sherman is on the list of artists in the exhibition, but you have not come to her yet. You are still in the first room and you decided to stand in the middle, between the two columns. You look around to get an idea of what the room contains, to capture something of its atmosphere. The words ‘tactile’ and ‘mechanical’ come almost instantly to mind, and you repeat them as you take in the row of drawings to your right: small, a dozen or so, black crayon on ivory paper. By Lee Lozano, you read, a familiar name, though as a serious academic you feel compelled to note that you really know little. There’s no need. There’s nobody around. I am not here to quiz you. The drawings each depict a couple of hand tools: claw hammer, screwdriver, pliers, clamps and others you cannot name. They are traced in quick, strong, repeated strokes that somehow anthropomorphize them into undefined organs that press and push and squeeze against one another. Tactile and mechanical. The drawings prepare you to take in the painting to the left, a large, almost abstract surface in shimmering grays and ochers in which you discern a nail squeezing out of a claw hammer, blown up to heroic proportions. The picture teases you with a lush painterliness that makes the tools appear warm and tactile, more suggestive even than in the drawings. You look at the painting for a while. You think you get it, its mix of absurdity, violence and sensuousness. Still absorbing the image, you step back and your eyes fall on a strange, pink, rubbery sculpture that hangs from the wall. Louise Bourgeois, ‘Mamelles,’ 1991, it says on the list, which surprises you. You thought you recognized the kind of work in latex that she made in the late 1960s, when she began to exhibit again and her work spoke to a younger generation, bathed by the second wave of feminism in New York. The title is powerful: ‘mamelles’, an outdated French word for breasts, it translates more accurately today as udders, functional organs of female mammals. And yet what the sculpture represents is female breasts, an accumulation of them, with sizeable nipples pointing in all directions, breasts that, in their garish color, soft material and multiplicity, look factory-made. In their disquieting life-likeness you find that they move along a trajectory, between skin and machine, that is the opposite of the trajectory traced by Lozano’s tools. Tactile to mechanical, mechanical to tactile. There’s a lot going on here, and something unresolved, whether it’s about irrepressible sexual proclivity or repressed sexuality. You are not sure, and as you ponder, turning, you discover a black-and-white photograph of strange metal contraption. You know what it is before you say the word in your head, though you have never actually seen one in person: a chastity belt. It looks like it’s been photographed in a museum and you wonder what kind of museum would display such a horrible device. Its violence throws you a bit, and you wonder why I felt the need to hammer home the point that I made by bringing together the Bourgeois and the Lozanos.

I can sense you would like to unsee the chastity belt and you know that you can’t. You know that sometimes only photography can give you the proof that such things exist, even if you would prefer that they didn’t.

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1994 © The Easton Foundation / 2022, ProLitteris, Zurich

Lee Lozano, No title, 1963–64 © The Estate of Lee Lozano. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

You are still thinking about photography as evidence, about shock value, as you walk down a narrower space that leads to the gallery’s vast main room. You take in the light coming from each end and the tiled columns that play hide and seek with the works on the walls. You find yourself gyrating from one work to the next, walking up to a tiny marble sculpture of a woman reclining, head eerily replaced by a house (Louise Bourgeois, you know it, don’t you?), and then you step back to take in three pairs of photographs by Roni Horn—Horn as a child, a teenager, and a young adult, poses replicated, ages performed. You admire the small, fractured self-portrait by Geta Brătescu encased in a wooden frame and then walk over to the Zoe Leonard photograph on the wall opposite, but you don’t really look at it; you are still in restless crisscrossing mode.

Suddenly you stop between two pillars that frame a Lorna Simpson diptych from the 1990s. I should tell you about the awe I felt when I discovered, in an exhibition in Paris, these persuasive, quietly monumental photo and text pieces that critique race and gender stereotypes. I had never quite seen anything like them. You look at this portrait of a Black woman, seen from the back, and next to it, spend a while gazing into the picture of a concave wood vessel, something that evokes an African mask, seen from the inside. What you like, you realize after a moment—as did I—is the juxtaposition in the work between pedagogy and poetry. The set-up is didactic: two photos, shot head on, captions below each that read ‘inside’ under the mask, and ‘outside’ under the portrait. Those words can make you think endlessly about intimate identity and outward appearance, about who we are and who we want to be. You might start to think about Beauvoir’s relation to autobiography here, about her finally looking, head on, into the mask of womanhood that she had avoided until she decided to write what would become ‘The Second Sex.’ But Simpson’s work also conjures some of the critiques of the book, namely, its lack of intersectional thinking about feminism. Your students have asked you about this: Isn’t it the work of a privileged white woman? Does it speak beyond that? You’ve pointed out that intersectionality was not part of Beauvoir’s vocabulary at the time, but that she began writing ‘The Second Sex’ after her first trip to the United States and that she often compares, in her writing, the situation of African Americans with that of women. No matter, it is true that conditions of gender race and social class are rarely if ever envisaged together in the book. It is a historical text, you tell your students. I make this point, as well, in the wall text at the show’s entrance, emphasizing my desire to bring together works by artists of different generations, spanning, in fact the seventy years or so between the publication of the book and now, so that those works might speak to one another beyond and in spite of their respective places and times.

Lorna Simpson, Vantage Point, 1991 © Lorna Simpson

I hope you find yourself in the gallery on a day when the sun shines and turns the cool gray floor into a lake, emphasizing the circulation of gazes between the Leonard and the Brătescu, the Horns and the Sherman. The columns will alternatingly reveal and conceal the different works, which was part of my idea: that in moving, you will see that there is nowhere the possibility of a stable, fixed ‘I,’ no central, panoptical view. Only partial ones, so that each encounter with a work makes you pause for a moment, like the two models on a catwalk that Zoe Leonard captured in the 1990s, exchanging knowing gazes before our eyes.

You hear a squeak on the concrete floor and turn. No, it isn’t me. It’s a slight young man with glasses, clutching an iPad. He looks in your direction but you know he has barely seen you. He strides on and disappears, like the White Rabbit, through an invisible door in the wall.

Until now you have kept your distance from the Sherman photograph and I think I know why, but now you come closer. Her pictures always propel you into an unnervingly unplaceable memory, and so you first let your eyes linger on the landscape in the background, a terrace overlooking a bay. Now you move to the details of the clothing. Something about the shiny damask fabric looks odd, too precious for the classic men’s shirt cut. The material, you suddenly realize, takes you back to your father’s old ties that you discovered in the attic when you were a teenager and took to wearing to school. You paired them with a thrift store Armani blazer, slacks and boxer shorts. You dressed like a boy, and as far as you can remember, you did not feel that being a woman defined you in any way. You read mostly Proust and Gide, and were obsessed with James Ivory’s ‘Maurice.’ Your first boyfriends were soft spoken and wore their hair long. You ran into one of them a few years ago. He was out of the closet, now, and that past life was gone for him, he told you the moment he set eyes on you in that Berlin gallery. The memories come hurtling, in flashes, and you are not exactly sure why, but you start to wonder what that queer bubble you lived in back then was all about. You think about your students again, and you wonder how those early tastes would play out if you were twenty today and were given that Google doc they circulated at the start of the semester, in which they asked everyone to state their preferred gender pronouns, to avoid blunders. What would you have filled in? She? They? Sometimes you are not quite sure, but you think that this uncertainty about your gender—if that is what it is or was—explains why you did not read ‘The Second Sex’ until much later. As a teen, you gulped down Beauvoir’s memoirs, and the image of her hiking alone in the Calanques near Marseilles, wearing espadrilles, stayed with you. It was an image of a solitary, adventurous and independent being whom you identified with, an ungendered identity, wouldn’t you agree?

You came to ‘The Second Sex’ in a roundabout way, much later, after reading Judith Butler and Paul Preciado, and it took a boyfriend to put it in your hands because he was fascinated by the section about amoeba at the beginning. Not your thing, the amoeba. But the second volume was something else, its analysis of education, procreation, family life. You thought about your mother when you read it.

Eva Hesse, No title, ca. 1960 © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 2019 © Cindy Sherman

You look at the pink, spiky sculpture at the far end and realize you need to make a right turn, into the oddly shaped space at the back of the gallery, dominated by two large picture windows that briefly bring you back to today, to a street in Zürich’s old industrial district.

This was the most difficult space in the gallery for me, and I would like you to walk straight towards the back wall and look at the painting by Eva Hesse. It is a very early work, made around 1960, that shows a simplified female figure in a fragmented studio-like space, surrounded by stick figures sketched in little frames. You smile when you understand that the woman in the painting is throwing a huge phallus-shaped thing across her studio! There is humor in the other works in this section, I would like to add, although I think you will see it for yourself. It’s in the keys on a metal rod by Annaïk Lou Pitteloud, a work titled ‘All the places I have no longer access to (suite),’ and in a series of five glass plates, collectively entitled ‘Event,’ accompanied by lengthy subtitles. Reading them and looking at the cleaning cloth and spilled black paint in ‘Event,’ you understand that these works, like the key piece, are about gestures, about trying things out, making mistakes and forging ahead. You will soon start looking at the video, a silent film by Geta Brătescu from 1978, which I discovered at the Venice Biennale a few years ago and which shows the artist walking around her studio, reclining on a couch, and manipulating studio materials. It’s a portrait of the artist at work, just like the Hesse painting and the Pitteloud pieces.

My combination of these pieces alludes to the last section of ‘The Second Sex,’ the one about independent women, in which Beauvoir takes as examples artists and writers. It is perhaps one of the book’s most dated passages. Although she praises creative women, she finds excuses for what she sees as their failure to rise to the same artistic level as their male counterparts. You know what I am talking about so well that you continue to speak for me. Beauvoir contends that women must first work so hard to overcome the behavioral indoctrination that has relegated them to the field of immanence—you would tell me this if I was your student—never allowing them to think about transcendence, as men can. This is where the real problem lies. You look me in the eyes and explain the issue that Linda Nochlin so eloquently pointed out, the issue some of your colleagues at university still have difficulty understanding: the need to radically upend taste, categories, and values, as well as canons and lists of names. Beauvoir’s vision was, despite everything, undeniably phallocratic in her understanding of art and proverbial greatness.

We agree, and you know it because I have written it, and your eyes fall again on the last sheet of paper handed to you by Nora at the entrance—you know her name now. You look at the words and read more about why I enjoy the moment in exhibition making between the planning and the executing, the moment when I must make the show exist in my head, as precisely as possible, with all the works placed at their exact spot, the moment just before you step into the gallery with your coat on your shoulders, drifting through the space, looking at the works, thinking about art, politics, feminism, gender and about yourself, inquisitively, pensively.

Sophie Berrebi

Dr. Sophie Berrebi is an author, exhibitions curator and art historian. She is an associate professor in the History of Art at the University of Amsterdam where she teaches and researches photography, fashion, and contemporary art. She has curated exhibitions for museums and galleries including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and Hauser & Wirth Zürich, where she organized ‘Jean Dubuffet and the City’ (2018). Along with numerous articles and essays, she is the author of ‘The Shape of Evidence. Contemporary Art and the Document’ (Valiz, 2015), and ‘Dubuffet and the City. People, Place and Urban Space’ (Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2018), which received the 2019 Richard Schlagman award for best book of art history. Her first novel, ‘The Sharing Economy’ will be published by Scribner (Simon & Schuster) in 2023.

Seventy Years of The Second Sex. A Conversation between Works and Words,’ curated by Dr. Sophie Berrebi, is on view at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, Limmatstrasse, 24 March – 21 May 2022.