An Imaginary Space Made of Forest and Body
What do women do in the forest? The topic of femininity and nature threads throughout mythology and cultural history. Not uncommonly, it is sexually charged and — as is so often the case when it comes to female passion —associated with murkier notions. Such as witches, for example, who get up to no good in the forest with their man-and-baby-eating cannibalism. Or the consumptive heroines of the Romantic era in their flowing white gowns, who make beautiful corpses in the woods. A desperately needed, overdue updating of this theme is provided by Justyna Koeke and Mimosa Pale in their cross-media work of art Women in the Forest.
On display are photographic comedies, which turn the forest into an arena, a playground for liberation. Here, women and men alike rid themselves of the clichés about pleasure ascribed to them. Still, this is about more than just overwriting cultural stereotypes: with a playful ease, these pictures evoke a new understanding of power — one that arises precisely out of the abolition of power. But first things first:
For their investigation and liberation of passion, Justyna Koeke and Mimosa Pale literally went out into the open. Nature functions as an essential stimulus in their process. The resulting photographs depict a direct confrontation with it or what could even be called “a total exposure.” Nude bodies meet plants, fruits, earth, stone, or snow.
Still, the artists are not interested in simply presenting their own ideas of desire. Using the digital platform Tinder, they looked for partners for an “artistic adventure,” inviting their dates to go deep into the forest with them. And, in fact, the male collaborators who answered the digital call of the two artists may indeed have thought of witches when they were met by two women on the side of the road. One naked except for a wool sweater, and the other wearing a pink robe and holding a chainsaw. Yet, the men had not stumbled into a trap set by radicalized feminists, but into an individual performance.
Setting up blind dates in the forest brought about a state of mutual fragility, far from normative controls or immediate protection: the men who came put themselves into an unfamiliar situation, while the women were exposed to unknown people and their expectations. And this is exactly what the photographs of Women in the Forest are made of: expectations, dreams, and stereotypes come up against the open space of nature and are transformed through this unmediated situation. A transformation that is shaped as much by the visitors as it was by the artists, one that only emerges and is allowed to develop here, in the forest, free of shame or judgment. And hence, a new, shared imaginary space is opened up — an imaginary body made of human and forest.
Women in the Forest can, therefore, be thought of as a genuine cross-media work of art. Communication on a digital platform becomes an interactive, individual performance combining sculptural nature and the body, ultimately winding up again in the form of digital photography.
These pictures are not documentary photographs of nature. They are revealed to be stagings, artificial interventions in the primordial. Light, framing, and pose disclose what is human in the natural. The pictures radiate ease; at times they are ironic, at others, erotic. They invite us to expand our own notions of desire and sensuality and, above all, to revise the culturally reproduced topoi of pleasure.
Women in the Forest is about interaction and communication. Of central importance to it is the idea of mutual “surrender.” As both the performers and the participants surrender themselves and their fantasies to the work of art, a mutual dependency arises — or, even more, a necessary bond. In order to get a result from the situation, to create a work of art while knowing that one’s integrity is intact, both sides must rely upon each other. Common tropes, such as the strong man, the hunter who subjugates his prey — the objectified woman — are superfluous. At the same time, however, the men’s fantasies are not supposed to be exposed. The classic dichotomy of male and female passion gives way to a third. The notion of dominance and power is dissolved in a playful symbiosis. The artists liberate the men from the burden of their own clichés, as it were, opening up the door to a kind of pleasure free of power plays.
In this sense, Women in the Forest represents a kind of “anti-Newton.”
Helmut Newton, photography’s key witness to the male gaze, used the camera’s eye to display power through his presentations of the body as well as through the bodies themselves. In contrast, the pictures by Koeke and Pale present a space free of power: normative attributes of body, gender, and pleasure are undermined here. This is precisely where the actual utopian potential of these photographs lies.
Here, pleasure can also be thought of as the smallest unit of human interaction. And Women in the Forest adds a new, literal way of playing to this interaction. It creates the fantasy of human and, ultimately, societal relationships, which are not defined via power, but through what we have in common.
It is therefore time to take these photographs out of the forest and bring them into government buildings, executive suites, anterooms and backrooms, and the living rooms of the upper and middle classes. With playful ease and erotic lyricism, these works from the forest put a chainsaw to the branch where ancient power sits.
Welcome to the Wild Woods
I have a theory that Alice in Wonderland would never have been known as a literary masterwork (despite all of its absurd ideas and logical conundrums, it is a very dry read), if it were not for the illustrations — these pictures of a girl with wild hair and ecstatic eyes, following a cute little rabbit down a hole.
John Tenniel’s illustrations speak a different language than Lewis Carroll’s novel. We follow this Alice through Wonderland because we find her beguiling, but above all, because we identify with her, and in this process of identification, we discover that we ourselves are erotic.
For a considerable time now, I have been interested in the meta-narratives book illustrations tell, like a parallel, slightly different version of the original text. For instance, I am a big fan of Stuart Tresilian, who became famous as the illustrator for Rudyard Kipling and Enid Blyton. His interpretations of Blyton’s adventure series about four children and a parrot (not to be confused with the Five Friends — four children and a dog) had a strong influence on my childhood. At one point, the adventurous kids dive for smuggled weapons, and their hair floating behind them in the water conveyed to me the sudden, wholesale realization that swimming and flying are the same thing, only in different elements.
Every picture is more than what it depicts; it has a double life, like Alice’s world behind the looking glass. Which is a fairly good description of the function of art. Pictures are what they portray, but they are also more than that. They are all of the potential futures that might ensue from the situation depicted, as well as all of the pasts; time is unfurled. It is in these possibilities that the surprisingly adult-looking Alices, Lucys, Dinas, and Marys experience not only adventure but sexual adventure, too. And yes, it is a problem that they are all white. And how the non-white figures — even Mowgli, the hero of the Jungle Book — are depicted is also troublesome, but that is a theme for another essay.
This is about the norm-transgressing potential of illustrations that interpret the state of girlhood as something beyond the boundaries of gender; hence, they are not infantilizing, but a kind of release. These girls are unpredictable and wild, while their adult incarnations must be civilized. They are anachronistic versions of themselves, and their environments react to them as such.
And this brings us to Grimms’ fairy tales, because reading them is an unreasonable demand to make, especially upon children. Which is why it is preposterous that they are still part of the teaching curriculum in elementary schools. Along the lines of: These are fairy tales, so they are age appropriate. Have you ever read that crap?
But the pictures!
And especially the pictures we add to in our imaginations.
Little Red Riding Hood, peeking out from her cloak, like the clitoris under its hood. No wonder the wolf has such big eyes. In the thickets of the fairy tale woods, more figures stray from the straight and narrow path. Like Hansel and Gretel pictured from behind, tiny beneath the gigantic trees bending down toward them. They hold hands, their shoulders hunched, as if they feel guilty about going deeper into the forbidden forest, about following a trail of breadcrumbs — because the pictures reverse time, the breadcrumbs have been scattered before the children get lost. Here is the witch’s hut, more primitive than their parents’ house, and before we know it, it turns into the most original of places — a big, warm womb with walls made of food, like the placenta, and at the center stands the oven …
These images of witches and wild women (in whose footprints flowers bloom) or of houses that walk on chicken legs open up a reality beyond symbolism, beyond the sexual order. If I have learned anything from post-structuralism, it is that both of these terms are often used synonymously. So, I do it, too. Whatever Lacan can do, I have been doing for a long time.
That is the wonderful thing about pictures: they are not stuck with one story and open up more ambiguities than text does. I will not start with archetypes here, though. And with that, I have already done it. So, consider it done.
In order to establish monotheism, writing was needed to tell the story of a god who created the world and everything in it with only the assistance of the word. With the help of the written word. It is not for nothing that the great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are book-based religions. Where the sound of the spoken word is flexible and fleeting and must always be repeated and hence altered, letters proclaim THE TRUTH. Words need a body, writing needs books — of either the analogue or digital kind. Yet even the most pious of books cannot manage without illustrations, without ornamentation, without the art of typography. And even if there are no pictures in a text, no book is published without a cover image. And pictures are always ambiguous.
Pictures seduce—not necessarily with their beauty, but with the bemusement they trigger. With the gaps that we have to fill in. Although most of the princesses in Grimms’ fairy tales are passive and have to wait for prince charming to rescue them, they struggle at the center of the illustrations. They envelop themselves in animal skins (All-Kinds-of-Fur) and talk to nettles (Maid Maleen) or decapitated horseheads (the Goose Girl), while spindles, magical fruit, and witches’ cauldrons await them everywhere they go.
Above all, though, they go to the forest — the wild, wild woods. The German word Hexe (witch) comes from the Old High German hagzissa, with hag meaning “forest” and tysha meaning “elf” or “spirit.” So, a hayzissa is also a forest fairy. This forest is not a garden or any other kind of cultivated planting, but a realm beyond human rules and laws, where the boundaries between the species are transgressed, people turn into animals, and trees with eyes can see the reader. This connects them to myths, and, in fact, fairy tales are sometimes construed as crypto myths. In the Finnish national epic Kalevala, for instance, a lingonberry speaks to Marjatta, and when she subsequently eats the berry, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to the King of the Forests: interspecies communication, sex, and reproduction at its best.
So, it is only logical that Mimosa Pale and Justyna Koeke would also go to the woods, which in this case is a magical forest and a biotope in one. A projection surface for desires and fears — because in the forest there are robbers/witches/imps/berries/hedges & ditches & birch twigs for the sauna. The forest is an infinite reservoir of nutrients for body and imagination. Pale and Koeke address all of these aspects with ease, blending them into a magical potion made of the mundane and the uncanny, the familiar and the more than familiar. Fly agaric and Tinder dates. So, maybe more of a love potion? Let’s talk about sex(ual fantasies)!
Here, subtext becomes the main text. Here, what is implicit about the pictures becomes explicit. And here is where it gets intriguing, in the sense of being exciting and tense at the same time. Because sexual fantasies are usually shunted off to the realm of semiotics. That is to say, we do not talk about them. And why do we so rarely discuss our sexual fantasies? Not even with the people with whom we share our sex lives? Because, of course, we have sexual fantasies. After all, we masturbate. Arousal is a story — one told in pictures.
The answer is: Because we have no language for them. Correction: lots of people have a great deal of language for them. But we do not have a language that is part of our everyday lives, one that we learn, just as we learn to talk about other physical and psychological sensations — or, more poetically, corporeal and spiritual sensations. So, Justyna Koeke and Mimosa Pale use the language of the forest as a mythical resonance chamber and fertile soil.
So, they go to the magical forest; I know, I am repeating myself, but only because I want us all to go to this forest and penetrate the undergrowth. No thornbush, no curse stops us from expressing our fantasies — nothing does, except social norms. And the fear of no longer being loved, of course.
This presentation of pleasure, the exhibition of libido, the self-confident statement “I want … something, I am a woman, and thus a human being with sexual desires and needs” is all the more overwhelming because the narrative about women and sexuality is currently concentrated on the aspect of danger. Thus, in the long-overdue #metoo debates, there is far more discussion of sexual transgressions in the media (and I am allowed to say that, because I am part of the media and want us to do our job better) than there is over, say, consent, for example. There is more to prevention than just the avoidance of danger, such as the opportunity to independently shape one’s own sexuality. And although it is talked about, it is clearly not enough.
Recently, the British podcast “The Guilty Feminist” suggested something interesting: Since only women with plenty of money in their bank accounts can freely decide if they want to engage in sexual acts or not, why should it be that only rich women are allowed to make this decision — after all, we cannot be sure that all of the others are not doing it under pressure. What was most striking about this suggestion is that it was not made as a provocation (although it doubtless was), but simply as a way of pointing out (which it was, of course) that even though discrimination does indeed have to do with gender, it has more to do with the mechanisms of the market. How could a feminist audience be so blind to the fact that women were hamstrung for their own protection?
But they are not alone in this. Facebook, for instance, regularly blocks the accounts of female users who post pictures of themselves that are too revealing — not because they are considered offensive, but in order to safeguard them from sexism. E-mail providers are similarly motivated to install filters that block words like “vulva,” “vagina,” or “breasts.” Since body parts are, a priori, not sexist, it is meaningful when social media primarily link them to gawking, groping, and harassment, instead of with people who are autonomously displaying or enjoying those body parts or nursing babies with them.
Nowadays when we see nude female bodies, we immediately assume that they have been exposed (against their will); when we see nude male bodies, we think of exhibitionism, and upon seeing bodies that have no clear gender assignment, we get hysterical hiccups. It is the same old story that leads to the fact that we — and by this, I mean Facebook and Instagram and most of the media coverage and advice columnists and … and … and — divide the realm of sexuality into masculine and feminine spheres, all the while pretending that there is only heterosexual sexuality. As individuals, we are not sexist, but we have learned about this way of perceiving (sexual) gender roles over generations.
And sexist sexual knowledge goes like this: On one side are “men,” who always have to make the first move and are therefore always the only ones who have to risk crossing a line — or experience the narcissistic humiliation of being rejected. And never (or only rarely) are they the recipients of unwanted advances.
On the other side are “women,” who are supposed to learn how to say no and send non-verbal signals, who have to wait until Mr. Right (meaning, the guy they would approach, if they were able or allowed to) approaches them. Regardless of whether “he” is a “she” or nonbinary. This is about gender roles that we have internalized so deeply that they have seeped into our flesh and blood.
According to these rules, neither of the two sides has the opportunity to find out how it feels on the other side of the gender abyss. And that is a problem. But let us stick with “women.” Since they do not dare show their own desire, they do not have to bear the consequences of it. Because being visible always comes with the danger of not achieving your desire and being rejected. So far, so good. Or better: so far, so bad. Because by asking and being rejected, we learn that our value is not (exclusively) dependent upon others. This is a crucial experience, because it does not mean that we are less desirable, less lovable, or even worth less than before — only that this person does not want to have sex with us. And that’s that. The world still hangs on its hinges, or wherever it hangs.
I have never been rejected. Not because I am so irresistible, but because I am a cis-woman and therefore have never had to make the first move. How are women supposed to learn how to go after something — a kiss, sexual intercourse, a blow job, a job, a raise, a promotion — and if they do not get it, to simply try for something else — if they cannot practice within the secure framework of sexual encounters?
When I presented this essay to the artists, Mimosa Pale objected to it, because it did not correspond to the reality of her life. In her country of origin, Finland, women and equality are so strong that nothing happens without an active woman there. So, something is changing. Yet even she is always confronted with the narrative that a sexually confident woman will frighten men away. Subjunctive. As if men only wanted to have sex with women who are not interested in them. Once again, subjunctive. Why are these stories so persistent?
Note: sexual potency and power are bedmates. That is why it is so important that we talk — not just only, but definitely — about women’s sexual potency. Not as an alternative to economic and cultural power, but as a component of the same. As Lacan has already acknowledged, “what turns you on gives you power.”
But how are we supposed to discover what turns us on, if we are not allowed to express, experiment, perform? When every dating advice column in every “women’s magazine” tells you: Do not approach a man, do not show him that you are interested (in him, in sex) — otherwise, you will drive him away. A growing number of people — not just women — are not learning how to discover what excites them, what they want, and what they might want. Saying no does not help us here anymore. We must also learn how to say yes.
“We always say that we want to trust our partner. And by that, we mean, I want to trust my partner not to do anything I don’t want,” explains the sexologist Betty Martin, who developed the “wheel of consent” in order to give people a tool through which to communicate about consent. “The problem with this desire is that it is impossible. Another person cannot know how I would like to be touched at any given moment.”
Yet, as soon as the subject is sex, communication is writ small, and mind-reading is writ large. Instead of perceiving sex as communication, we learn that too much talking kills arousal. Really? And if I want to fly an airplane, I should make any inquiries about it beforehand, because that will kill the spontaneous feeling of losing the ground beneath my feet? Besides, sex is not just about “will you, yes or no?”. Rather, it is about expressing our desires and fantasies, about exploring together what turns us on. Sex is a conversation, not just a question and a response. And this conversation begins with us. And it begins with pictures, images, and imaginations.
If this were a radio feature, I would fade in some branches snapping here and follow Justyna Koeke and Mimosa Pale through the forest; I would also strip off my clothes and with them, slip into the clear, cold lake, which becomes a mirror at the moment of contact. “If I can swim, I can trust the water. But if I can’t swim, I’ll still go under, however much I trust the water,” says Betty Martin’s imaginary voiceover. “It’s no different with sexuality. If I know my own needs and boundaries, and know that I have a right to them, then I can trust myself. But if I can’t talk about, I’ll always feel as if I’m at the mercy of someone else.”
This is the explosive potential of these pictures: that they are as recognizable as they are outrageous, as close and familiar as they are transgressive — the mushrooms growing out of bottoms, the body parts blending in with the vegetation, as if a tree had a foot or an arm or the heather had a clitoris. What are these witches hunting, with their tangled hair and their sausages impaled on branches? The prey can be found in another picture. These pictures are humorous and playful, tender and bold, and always, always empowering. Or, to quote Betty Martins: “The worst disempowerment is not knowing how much power we really have.”
I look at these photos lying on top of my body in a thin layer, and I want to get undressed immediately and let my nipples sparkle among the cabbage leaves. I want to feel the veins in the leaves and the dampness of the earth upon which I lie. I want, oh, I really want to hug people again, as well as trees — especially trees. And that is perhaps the most important reason why I like Pale’s and Koeke’s work so much: because I am convinced that we should all hug a lot more trees.
Let me explain!
We grow up with the narrative that humans are separate from each other and from the world around us. And I believe that this is the foundation for a majority of the problems we are dealing with these days. If we consider ourselves separate from nature, we cannot integrate with it in any meaningful way. We cannot communicate with it eye to eye. What we can do is to exploit the environment or save it. But we cannot live consensually separate from it and with it at the same time. That is why the performance artists and sexologists Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens call for a change in paradigm: “From earth as mother to earth as lover!”
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor for environmental sciences and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, reminds us that in some countries the rights of all species are constitutionally enshrined, because they are recognized as personalities, whereas in the United States and Europe, corporations have more and more of these rights, while plants, rivers, and mountains have very few. “The way we imagine our relationship to the living world around us is central. The average American child can identify the names of more than one hundred company logos, but the names of only ten plants.” That is a problem, because people can only recognize what we already know. If we are not familiar with a plant, we literally do not perceive it. The term for that is “nature blindness” or “plant blindness.” The fewer names we have for the living world around us, the less we learn to appreciate it. “It is not the environment that has been destroyed. It is our relationship to the environment that has been destroyed,” concludes Kimmerer.
The consequences cannot be overlooked. Not only in the external world, but also in the internal one. Psychology, in the meanwhile, has realized that people who feel connected to nature are also better equipped to feel connected to other people and to themselves, as well. Of course, sensuality is not the only way to sense our attachment to trees and bushes and berries. But it is a very direct way. Love your tree as you would yourself. Sexual energy is the thing that links us to the world. It is what makes us human and more than just human. Each plant has its own reproductive organs (what a term!), its sexual feelers and senses, its potential to communicate erotically. Our need for sexuality unites us with all of life. And yes, even stones have sex. Don’t ask me how; I just know it.
It connects us to everything.
Sex is so much more than sexy. Sex is communicative and transformative. Sex means recognizing that we and everything around us has a soul.
Follow Mimosa Pale and Justyna Koeke into the woods.
Let yourself and the world be enchanted!