Trigger Warning: slightly graphic imagery
For the artist Eliza Bennett, her flesh is her medium; in embroidering her palm with thick threads, she hopes to explore the ways in which we view gender roles. Her hand, swollen and bruised by her own careful work, is titled “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done,” and her gruesomely precise handiwork serves to remind the viewer of the strife of women laborers, many of whom are paid far less than their male counterparts.
Embroidery, like most traditionally female crafts, is often belittled and considered frivolous, but Bennett’s representation of women’s work is urgently and painfully profound. By literally—and unflinchingly— penetrating her own epidermis, the artist subtly subverts the notion that the efforts of women are superficial or shallow.
Building upon these themes of gender constructs, Bennett’s project blurs the lines between the private realm, coded female, and the public realm, coded male. In many ways, her skin serves as the bridge between the internal self and the external world; in embroidering it, she makes a public spectacle of her own personal narrative. As if reading her own palm, she traces its lines in various soft colors, creating intricate patterns and granting certain patches of flesh both psychological and aesthetic importance.
When I first stumbled across “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done,” I was profoundly enamored, and I wrote a more extensive post on it for Beautiful/Decay magazine's blog. The reader comments on the post were impassioned; some were admiring, and others were outraged. One point of contention with the work was the idea that art like this could promote self-harming habits in young women; one commenter wrote sarcastically, "I can't wait until 12 year old girls pick up on this."
The other problem seemed to be the work's attempt to understand the experience of women laborers. Is it really within this artist's rights to represent a group of women of which she is not a part? readers asked. One woman explained, "a laborer would never do this [to] their hands -- the triviality of it would be astonishing to anyone that really works with their hands," and another reader felt the work cast a negative, patronizing light on working class women (I don't think I agree with that one).
The project is a jarring and courageous exploration of women's lives, making public what is so often kept private. But with the input of the fellow feminists, I'm ambivalent. Within a more nuanced social context, the work becomes deeply controversial. What do you think?