From the YBA to Beyoncé, Zoe Pilger speaks to Benoît Loiseau about her new novel and the forthcoming feminist wave.
 

Zoe Pilger certainly has more than one string to her bow. At 29, she is finishing up her PhD at Goldsmiths College, is an art critic for the British national newspaper The Independent, and her first novel Eat my Heart Out is due to be published in January this year by Serpent's Tail. On a rainy day in London, I meet with Zoe at the Whitechapel Gallery during a major retrospective of YBA artist Sarah Lucas. By the time I get there, I am soaked. I walk through the ground floor exhibition space, filled with Lucas’ overwhelmingly trashy early works: filthy mattresses, pig legs, fried eggs and other subtly dressed-up objects that somehow echo gender power relations. After a failed attempt at drying my hair in the toilets, I head to the café, where Zoe meets me.

I 

Zoe Pilger: It’s funny that we’re meeting here; Sarah Lucas is actually in my book. One of the main characters, Freddy, is an aspiring artist, and his father is an art collector – kind of a Charles Saatchi figure – who collects works by a fictional artist based on Sarah Lucas. I like Sarah Lucas a lot. A few weeks ago I went to review Louise Bourgeois’ exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, whose work I feel impacted a lot on Lucas’;  the sculptures with tights etc – almost seem borrowed from Bourgeois’ imagery.

BL: I guess you’re referring to Sarah Lucas’ early work in the 1990s.

ZP: Yes, the most iconic work, which carries this sort of symbolism with female body parts. The exhibition in Edinburgh featured mostly works by Bourgeois in her later years, however I would be surprised if Louise Bourgeois had been aware of Sarah Lucas. By that point, Bourgeois was in her nineties, and had been developing these motifs and sculptures from the 1950s and 1960s. Bourgeois’ work is very feminist; it’s not particularly political but it’s very much about the female experience – that’s how I read it anyway – and there is this sense of overwhelming anger that is remarkable in her work, because she manages to turn this anger into something very eloquent.

BL: So when you talk about the female experience, and this sense of anger: how do you think these translate in time and space, between Louise Bourgeois, born in the early 20th Century in France and Sarah Lucas, an emblematic 1990s YBA figure with a very "in your face" visual language?

ZP: That’s really interesting and funnily enough also relates to my book in the way it envisages feminist generations. Louise Bourgeois is coming from a completely different context; she was born in France and moved to New York at a young age. Louise Bourgeois, to me, is a proper artist; she is everything you’d want an artist or writer to be – she has the depth, the driving force and the passion; if she didn’t create, then she'd be dead. To me, that’s very different to Sarah Lucas or any of the YBA artists.

BL: How?

ZP: The YBA is about surface in comparison, you know; the heavy reliance on irony and popular culture. In this exhibition’s upper floor, Sarah Lucas has this series of huge photographs of men holding various objects in front of their crotches, like an opening can of beer etc – it’s funny and actually quite powerful, yet also makes you feel oppressed. But it’s the whole YBA thing;  the way they were all friends and part of a movement, which is also why they were so fetishised by the press. Louise Bourgeois, to my understanding, works alone; she’s a bit of a loner. She’s not trying her luck, playing with the art market, or having a laugh.

BL: Talking about the media and the context around the YBA, how do you see pop culture linking or overlapping with art practice today?

ZP: Post-internet art to me is an obvious example of how popular culture, technology and social media overlap, and it uses forms that we live with on a daily basis. To ignore them now would be a statement in itself – maybe not so much in art, because you can still work with more traditional forms – but certainly in literature, unless you’re writing a historical book, ignoring that side of life would be artificial.

 BL: I know you’ve been looking at popular culture and TV in your research. What are your thoughts on HBO’s Girls, and how does it relate to predecessors like Sex and the City?

ZP: Sex and the City to me is a very third wave show, in that it is using the language of feminism, such as empowerment. Carrie Bradshaw is a career girl, she runs a column, has her own money, but it’s still a discourse of empowerment through consumerism: buying shoes and getting disproportionally excited by the range available. It suggests that it is naturally feminine to be excited about pretty, girly stuff, which – I don’t know about other women, but I couldn’t care less. Girls is much more realistic; Hannah, the main character looks like an ordinary girl. It also shows the real conditions of work: they’re interning, it’s not glamorous.

BL: It’s also something that is very current, and specifically reflects on the economy and creative industries.

ZP: I suppose so. I think work is often left out in TV shows, which is weird since it is what you spend the majority of your day doing. It’s bringing it down to a more authentic level. One of the most powerful aspects of Girls is how the lead character shows her own abjection, especially in her relationship with Adam. That’s all really dark, but it is realistic. She’s obsessively texting him and calling him, and he doesn’t respond for weeks. And as soon as he turns around and says ‘I love you’, she’s like ‘Sorry, I’ve got other things I want to achieve, see you later’. I think Lena Dunham is really talented, her earlier stuff like Tiny Furniture – that’s even more abject, like when she’s having sex with a guy in the pipe. I think Girls does reflect on this growing interest in feminism in a way, and it’s part of that. It has found an audience because people recognise it. Not everyone does obviously, and it does get some criticism for representing a privileged milieu in Brooklyn.

BL: Looking at technologies today: dating apps and platforms seem increasingly to reflect on ‘window shopping’ culture, where you literally flick from one profile to another. It’s interesting to think how this affects our understanding of relationships and how we conceive interacting with people in a romantic way.

II

ZP: Ann-Marie, the main character in my book, is very much of that attitude where she sees love interests as being interchangeable and disposable. She failed her degree and didn’t graduate from university. She’s very chaotic, and working in a minimum-wage job, but she has a mentor called Stephanie Haight who is this second wave feminist. I wanted to create a dialogue between these two characters about different generations of feminists. Both of them come from very different generational viewpoints: Stephanie is in her sixties, comes from a working-class background and is very driven. She sees knowledge as a route to freedom, she sees the political meaning of educating oneself, whereas, Ann-Marie is 23 and a typical post-feminist girl; she’s obsessed with Beyoncé and is also very questioning and curious.

BL: Okay, so you have Stephanie the second wave feminist, and then Ann-Marie, the mad post-feminist school dropout; how do these two visions confront each other in the book?

ZP: Stephanie is kind of famous and has a new book out, called Falling Out of Fate, which is a book about the conventions of romantic love. Ann-Marie becomes obsessed with her and Stephanie takes her on as a protégé, devising this kind of plan for Ann-Marie to free her from what she, Stephanie, sees as the grip of the Lacanian symbolic.

BL: [Laughs.]

ZP: It’s a symbolic realm; since the 1960s, women have won a lot of rights: right to abortion, equal pay, and all these kind of legislative things, but since then there has been a sort of backlash culture. It is very ephemeral, difficult to pin down, because it doesn’t come from one source.

BL: So Stephanie takes on a mentoring role for Ann-Marie – does she succeed? It sounds like she’s on a real mission to save her!

ZP: Well they’re both quite deranged. By the end of the book it gets incredibly dark; she sends Ann-Marie out on a mission to perform a range of hyper-feminine actions, as if by performing them she would undermine those very ideas: stripping, knitting, child caring, cleaning. Stephanie’s got this idea of the ‘failed copy’, which comes from Judith Butler: by doing certain actions – in this case, hyper-feminine ones – you’re highlighting them as constructs. To be honest it is all very surreal in the book; the whole enterprise is kind of mad from the outset.

BL: You described Ann-Marie as being a post-feminist. I know you’ve also expressed the idea of post-post-feminism in recent interviews. Can you elaborate on that?

ZP: I think post-feminism is an important term. It is quite ambiguous as it describes a time after feminism which means that feminism either succeeded in its mission and we are now totally equal – which to me is obviously not the case, feminism is more urgently needed now than ever – or it means that people just got bored with feminism and moved on.

BL: Or has it turned into something else?

ZP: Well, I see Beyoncé as a post-feminist phenomenon. She combines these pseudo-feminist statements, like "Independent Woman", "Survivor", "Run the World (Girls)"; all those aggressive "fuck you", kind of songs, but she’s pretty much wearing a bikini the whole time she’s doing it. Obviously, she’s a very powerful businesswoman and an incredible performer, so in that respect she’s sort of playing by the rules. What Stephanie is trying to look at – and what most of my research is about – is trying to decode those supposedly universal values that we consume or are subject to about romantic love, this idea that "finding the one" is the meaning of your life and would be the apotheosis of your existence. I am not saying that it doesn’t happen or exist, but it has been so overused in mass culture. There’s a brilliant quote from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: ‘love is downgraded to romance’; that statement presupposes that ‘love’ is true and authentic, where romance is a cheap and mass-produced copy. To go back to post-post-feminism – who knows what that is – I personally believe that there is going to be another feminist wave very soon.

BL: You say that feminism is more urgently needed now than ever before. What is so urgent now?

ZP: Across different fields, different areas and classes – in this country at least, at the moment – there is a growing feminist movement of young women. Often I feel that women of the second wave generation had presumed that younger women were not interested in feminism, or that there was a golden age and now it’s gone. I really think that’s about to change. Second wave feminism was aligned to broader leftist movements of revolutionary change – the end of the Berlin Wall, end of the grand narrative of Communism – whereas what is often called third wave feminism is more aligned to subculture. Rather than any consolidating political movement, it is more a consumer idea of choice: feminism can be whatever you want it to be. Maybe that is important in its own way, but it is difficult because it makes it very vulnerable.

BL: I guess it is less defined and lacks the sense of political urgency. Queer politics or the notion of queerness has also certainly reshaped the contemporary discourse around feminism. How far do you go in defining gender or how a gender-based community may be politically organised to gain access or rights?

ZP: I think it’s coming from a very good place, and it’s very important. It’s all Judith Butler’s 1980s and early 1990s work, which really has defined gender studies as an academic discipline, as far as I understand it. Particularly her idea of performativity, radical post-structuralism, and trying to break down the binary of sexual difference. I think queer theory has come to dominate gender studies in a way, but everything should have its place.

BL: How would you envisage a new feminist wave?

ZP: I honestly don’t know. I think it’s just coming, it’s not like a choice. It’s not like "we’re gonna do this"; I don’t know who this "We" would be. I’ve spoken to various people who work in different areas who all seem to think that there has been a growing trend in feminism. I really think that with social media, this is a different thing we’re looking at now. In the same way as with lots of other social movements, the possibilities of people getting to know one another are endless. I am now friends with lots of young women in their twenties and thirties: feminist writers, artists; it’s like a network. People are aware of what you’re doing and connect you with others. That, to me, is the most exciting thing. As part of my book’s promotion we’re going to do a tour of feminist societies at universities across the country.

BL: Could that be the new wave: feminists on tour?

ZP: [Laughs.] Well, my book is fiction and what I love about writing fiction is that you don’t have to be politically correct. The book is a dark comedy, and I’ve tried to get ideas into fiction without it being dogmatic. Neither Stephanie nor Ann-Marie are remotely sane, let alone moral characters. To me that’s very important, because one thing that puts people off feminism – at least what I feel can put my generation off feminism – is this kind of didactic approach, which runs directly counter to popular culture. People might love Beyoncé, for example, then they’ll read a feminist book from the 1970s and it’s all about objectification, written in the language of phallogocentrism. So the question is, how do you marry these paradoxes in contemporary society, and I guess this is the conflict I try to look at in Eat my Heart Out.

BL: So you think there is a gap between feminist theory, or at least its discourse, and how it may be circulated across popular culture or culture in general?

ZP: It’s about ambiguity, you know. Conflict and ambiguity, and not having the answer; that’s what I try to explore in the book. It’s about putting those questions at the forefront again. Also what really interests me is this idea of desirable identity. What I feel is part of this backlash culture against feminism has been degrading the idea of a feminist, as some kind of man-hating hairy, ugly lesbian: "obviously you’re just a feminist because you can’t get laid", kind of thing.

BL: Do you think feminism today needs spokespeople, or figures?

ZP: I don’t know, because I am not an activist and have no desire to go into politics. I don’t know if it’s spokespeople that they need, or perhaps just a much stronger culture of debate, or a culture full stop.

III

  • I. Left: Sarah Lucas, Bunny Gets Snookered #1, 1997; Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London - Right: Louise Bourgeois, Couple I ,1996 Photo: Christopher Burk, © The Easton Foundation.
  • II. Still from the movie Tiny Furniture, Courtesy of Joe Anderson, 2010.
  • III. Cover of Zoe’s book ‘Eat my Heart Out’