Rosie Gibbens and her Soft Girls at Zabludowicz Collection London
If you can, take yourself along to Zabludowicz Collection to see Rosie Gibbens work in real life. I hadn’t been to the gallery in well over a year and a half due to lockdowns and the general anxiety of travelling on the tube during a pandemic, but Rosie Gibbens’s work had already caught my eye online and I overcame my fears to go and experience it in person.
Gibbens’s ”Soft Girls” sculptural installation consists of sculpture, a video and performance. Contained within one pristine bright, white room, upon entering there’s a lot to look at. Many of the objects are at once familiar but combined in such a way as to render them absurd. The set-up feels like, part play-room, part gym, part clinical performance space. There are body parts, lips, eyes, orifices printed on fabric and made into soft sculptures combined with real life objects and moving parts, gym equipment, sex toys, lots of gingham and some PVC. A pulley with a giant tongue overshadows the entire room as though it’s waiting to lick you upon entry. The work exudes a fun playful cartoon aesthetic referencing desire but with a darker undercurrent of body horror, where innards and organs come tumbling out of the soft sculptures.
Gibbens is showing us the soft girl internet aesthetic meets anatomical Venus models from 18th Century Italy. She is referencing soft girls both in terms of the soft “girly” sculptures and the internet aesthetic of the hyper feminised adorable, cutesy, pink cheeked, lip glossed girls, who are submissive and sensitive and like hearts and highlighter. This stereotype of cliched femininity is taken so far that it could almost be deemed ironic if it weren’t for the ubiquitous nature of internet influence. The other reference in this body of work is the Anatomical Venus models of Eighteenth Century Italy. There is something exceptionally compelling about these models. If you’ve seen them, you’ll know their morbid beauty with their languorous poses, real hair, and guts spilling out of them. They are a grotesque mixture of the female form for anatomical purposes and an objectification of female sexuality, presented in a violently submissive way, reminiscent of a Victorian, Jack the Ripper murder scene. As they ooze their guts, they ooze meaning in terms of how the female nude in the past has been positioned and in turn help to inform how female bodies are seen today.
Standing amongst the soft girls, I have a sense that the sculptures need to be activated. But it isn’t for me activate them as the viewer. These sculptures are an extension of Gibbens’s body and I know that it’s her body that’s integral to the work. The works are only activated through her engagement with them and hers alone. She is not here on the day I go, so the video is essential to understanding them. It shows her working the soft girls in their strange mechanical ways. There’s a symbiotic quality to the interactions revealing the sculptures to be even more complex when you see them working, with many different layers of detail and mechanics. Once she’s ensconced within the various soft girl sculptures, the absurd mixture of objects, gizmos and soft sculpture that constitute them, makes perfect sense. As she works them her face is deadpan, expressionless, adding to the sense of complex futility in the repetition of the actions. Seeing the sculptures being worked, they speak of the repetitive actions that we mindlessly perform every day. They’re reminiscent of repetitive gym exercises and other methods of self improvement to both the body and mind in an effort to maintain the “correct” ways in which we are perceived and with which we construct our identities to fit within wider society. Everything is carefully curated but the confines are tightly laid down.
In her interview with the curator Paul Luckcraft, Gibbens says that her work often uses as her starting point, something in a culture that makes her uncomfortable. Soft Girls speaks very clearly about what she’s uncomfortable with. It speaks of the objectification of female bodies both within our culture and throughout the cannon of art history and highlights the trope of the submissive female victim. She is looking for a way to navigate through the often violent or submissive ways in which female bodies are displayed and lacking in any agency by using absurdity and humour to highlight a very real reality for women and girls. It’s on at Zabludowicz Collection until 15th August.