Project ‘Sexless Spaces’ is an exploratory activist project led by 24 year old, Norwich based Illustrator Jessie Whitehead (https://www.behance.net/jessiewhitehead). It aims to challenge pre-conceived notions of sex, gender and architecture; questioning the intermingling relationship of all three subjects and their presence within contemporary visual culture.
Jessie’s drive within this project has been to analyse the sociocultural perspectives that stem from the mass visual culture slamming the individuals of today, in regards to the topics of sex and traditional gender roles (http://issuu.com/storehouse/docs/issue_10/59). She has considered and challenged the notion that the images we engage with on daily basis may be enhancing the dysfunctional attitudes we pertain when engaging with these subject matters. Are the images attempting to highlight issues, or are they further encouraging the problem?
Her work has acted as a comparison to some artists who describe their work as statements of politics and activism. In one case an illustrator has used the image of a small girl with phallic weaponry placed between her thighs; as a message against the state of war and a comment on the notions of democracy. However some could read this art as seemingly unrelated to the topics he describes, and considered quite unsavory and distasteful.
The culture that these images have been created in has been accepting and tolerant of these portrayals, allowing the freedom of sexually explicit and perhaps exploitative tendencies of young children. Jessie in her work has attempted not to shun or dismember the intentions of these movements but instead shed some light on the unintentional bi-products of the some of the visual representations used within them, and the other more negative ways it could be read, in their reflection of gender roles within sex. The idea being that perhaps some works are being passed off as things they are not. Much of illustration is intended to be subjective, using aesthetics to please an audience and sometimes to make a claim of sociological issues or express some kind of statement. What is less celebrated or acknowledged is the fact these pieces are made through the eyes of another individual and that often subconsciously their own personality and beliefs seep into how the end product looks. Jessie’s work is a push for people to take on more responsibility and honesty in regards to what they are putting out into the world; she is not asking for an apology or calling for censorship just for more artists to be truthful about what their work actually is and not using the ploy of subjectivity to soften and blur what some may consider quite harsh and potentially hard-to-digest edges.
Neither does she exempt herself from this practice. She is very aware that the ‘adult content’ of her work is something not many are comfortable viewing, but often this is why she creates it in the first place. She said: “To an extent an artist puts through things they don’t mean to. I create pieces that are shocking. I turn around and think, wow, that’s disturbing. Subconscious material seeps through, but you can’t pass it off as something else; read between the genitals.”
A part of her ideology being that the more dishonest we attempt to be, the more illusion we add and the harder we make it to discuss authentically, subjects relating to sex and gender dynamics; which many treat as already taboo. This attitude is helping to encourage the tolerant behaviours society as a whole possesses when engaging with these issues. It is making it impossible to challenge because no one is willing to talk openly about the state of affairs, and in some cases they are accidentally celebrating these upheld damaging traditions.
In the creation of her work, I have watched the toll it has taken on Jessie to explore matters of disturbance, that are difficult and in many cases disgusting. The porn she has watched, the harassment of women she has explored and the articles and books she has read revolving around the topics of rape culture have made her very angry and sad at times, occasionally even impossible to go on any further because of the dark side it is showing to human nature. But all too often this is a side we like to neatly tuck away and ignore.
Sexless Spaces is an examination of the inter-relationships between gender, sexuality and architecture. Jessie’s work juxtaposes the natural human form against that of the man-made world surrounding it, which is often why she merges anatomy with architecture within her work. Her design analyses the cost of compromise it has taken to manipulate the natural form to fit with its external surroundings; often focusing more on the female body, as this is the one for whom it has been most taxing. She identifies the co-existence of gender and sexuality within the places that we inhabit.
Aesthetically many of her pieces are tight and claustrophobic expressing how these things infect every nook and cranny of our waking world. It shows how it is crammed into every fragment of our reality, fitted into every wall influencing all space that the human experiences, blended into the walls right under our noses where we cannot see it. It is an infection of the flesh imprinted onto our eyes that doesn’t shift even when we blink; often because we are unaware of what we are truly seeing.
Jessie spends a lot of time rearranging the physical representations of gender blending them to create a more harmonious effect that the astute binaries and polarities we are used to comparing in order to define and order our own personal encounters with sex. When researching for her project Jessie came across a very poignant quote that encompasses the pivotal focus of her work, and the involvement of human nature in regards to this topic:
“I could never have wanted more. Yet I would see sex everywhere. Splinters shoved into each molecule of every space, of every place. Saturating everything I saw, smelt and tasted and in everything I would ever touch” – From the film Mysterious Skin directed by Gregg Araki.
Sex is everywhere, we’re just not always aware of when we are seeing it, or how we are engaging with it and the damage that it may be causing us.
Some of Jessie Whitehead’s work will be available to view and buy at the Norwich University of Arts degree show (http://www.nua.ac.uk/visit/degreeshows/) being held between the 1st and 7th of July 2015.
Follow Jessie on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jessieslater22.