Sophy Rickett: ‘Pissing Women’, 1995
Published Summer 2017
Pissing Women, by British visual artist Sophy Rickett, is one that not only remains the black sheep of an otherwise conventional lineage of works, but one that to this day still stands tall as an unmatched feat of raw, orchestrated and somewhat contemplative performance art.
The series, created in 1995 and completely with black and white film at night, opened a dialogue on phallic fetishisation, its historically assumed power and its place within societal order. With Ricketts dressed formally in a range of suits, and actively selecting locations synonymous with order (i.e. Vauxhall Bridge, with MI-5 headquarters in the background, or the marble facade of what can be assumed to be an office in Central London), it becomes easy at face value to see the images as rebellious, or at least created to challenge a patriarchal elements of society. However, when the images themselves are deconstructed, and things such as the deliberate harsh flash used from the camera, the inviting and consistent side angle positioning of the camera and more interestingly the unseen effort gone through to make the urination as masculine as possible (one can only assume that it must have taken a few tries with it being public), the images seem to be more of a bold parody of masculinity than a mere, rebellious angsty disdain for it. With urination (especially public urination) being seen so typically as an act whose core radiates rebellion, we may excuse ourselves for falling into the trap of seeing it no more than a physical act of frustration.
Another point of interest with the series albeit a subtle one, is the fact that each scene depicts a different ‘character’, caught within the same act. A range of different suits, shoes and hairstyles feature in with the series. With one sporting sporting lengthy hair, alongside another with short blonde hair and a third, with black roots, there’s no real way of actual scale of planning or time dedicated to the series but its clear it was not minimal. Indeed it is this apparent effort that implies to audiences that there was a real conscious desire here to communicate (even if artificial) a panoramic, collective presence through the series and the act. It does make one wonder; were these characters created to mirror an ongoing series of observations that on separate occasions, Rickett had encountered on her way home? Were they a collective, albeit artificial sneer at acceptability and gender norms on the topic of decency and decorum? Many questions begin to arise.
All of these questions however, must not distract audiences from the power she has sought simply from urinating whilst standing. We know that female urination is (in most cases) not possible from such a stance and yet, this is challenged head on in a way that, all things taken into consideration, earns a rightful amount of artistic wonder. To crouch, stoop or bend in order to urinate, is to submit to the biological need to do so. Here, this is waived; the birth-given halo of the phallus is removed, reducing the power of the male member to little more than a myth. There is little doubt that the phallus can be replicated, imitated and made a caricature of, as many other patriarchal aspects that remain within contemporary society and sexuality. Ricketts can brazenly urinate, in public, without stooping or exposing her genitals and yet, challenges this all without actively disguising herself as a man, or going through any effort to conceal or distort her gender as part of the performance. She is a woman, dissecting an act of men, in male dominated surroundings and she wants to be seen; she wants to be observed for what she is, backed up by the stylistic characteristics of the images themselves.
Although Pissing Women served as a firm landmark in both social and societal gender-orientated commentary as well as the fine art world, it is still bittersweet that few of Ricketts work since its completion, explored such themes and approaches. It is clear that this tangent still had some life in it yet. Still, over twenty years on this infamous, somewhat enigmatic series remains relevant and will remain so, for as long as men, and to some extent, patriarchal society remain in awe of the hole from which they piss.