Ever since 1970s beauty became one of the most controversial concepts in art. Taking roots from feminist art theory, female artists began to discuss those idealized, sexualized and conventionally beautiful images of a woman that surround us on daily basis. In «Ways of Seeing» an English critic, John Berger, explores and critiques the traditions of Western art ideologies and canons. This book greatly impacted the feminist movement and gave a better perspective on how women were portrayed in advertisements and oil paintings. He focuses on the idea of the «ideal» spectator who was always assumed to be a male. Therefore, he states that any given image of a woman was designed to please men. This concept served as a leitmotif in female presentation throughout art history. Women were regarded as passive muses instead of authoritative subjects and makers, in control of their bodies, identities, and work.
Contemporary artists like Daria Barkova continue assessing and exploring the everchanging ideas of beauty by creating deliberately unattractive images in her “Bird” series. There is much to critique about the contemporary relationship between women and their photographic image, whether it’s taken by themselves or by someone else. On the upside, though, there is a growing awareness of the constructed nature of these photos ― how they tend to represent a playful performance more than a fixed truth. In Barkova’s series, she combines mutually exclusive concepts: emotional and intellectual conflicts, beauty and ugliness, delight and delirium, tragedy and comedy. Daria Barkova presents us with an image of her transformed body drawing parallels to metamorphosis of a female image in Western art.
It is suggested that the main conceptual inspiration of Barkova’s project came from the book “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. “The Metamorphosis” describes the transformation of a kind, sensitive, sacrificial person into a disgusting, grotesque beetle. Kafka describes in great detail the new structure of main character’s body, the inconveniences he is now experiencing, and his new pleasures, new tastes. The loss of the human form became a point of self-discovery both, for the main character of the book and for Daria Barkova. Barkova’s “Bird” series portrays Kafkaesque idea of human transformation and dehumanization. After all, you must admit that it is difficult to feel empathy towards something that looks inhuman, strange and ugly. This idea brings us back to Berger’s concept of an “ideal spectator”. If an image is conventionally unattractive for the viewer (especially if talking about male audience), does it hold any artistic value? If the main concept of the “Bird” series is based on the antonym of beauty, do we automatically perceive it as ugly art?
The overwhelming negativity of female images has perhaps led to a shift in direction and to more recent work that searches for instances of female agency through women’s patronage, ownership, use, and reception of visual culture. Daria Barkova is making an attempt in producing an art of revelatory impurities that encompasses both the wondrous and the disturbing. By transforming herself into an exhausted, bloody bird, Barkova tried to dehumanize herself expanding on the ideas of beauty and ugliness. Even though I can see how this process could help an artist on a personal level, I think that overall this series could be improved by contextualization of her theme and a better curated selection of images in the series. The staged appearance could be viewed as a mere image created for any purpose rather than a direct dialogue about her selected topic.
There are a lot of artists working on the same theme as Barkova does. For example,
Hannah Wilke, a pioneer of feminist art, who has established herself as both the artist and the subject of her work. Her works recast phallocentric stereotypes in terms of female eroticism and sexuality. Carolee Schneemann could also be a great reference for Daria’s future work. Being an experimental artist known for her multi-media works on the body, narrative, sexuality, and gender Schneemann used her performance stage as a space to create a dialogue between the body and the material. The idea of a beautiful female body would always be re-interpreted and re-imagined as our society changes and it would be interesting to see what Daria Barkova could bring to the table next time!