In 1970, Bella Abzug, the congresswoman and feminist, planned to make a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives urging censure of President Nixon after he resumed bombing Cambodia while Congress was not in session. But first she went to a vocal coach. Abzug had a brassy voice and a strong New York accent, and she wanted to soften her tone.
Abzug once said, “Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.” Why would she feel compelled to change her tone?
Not much has changed since then. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was decried for having a shrill voice. In 2018, one of Elizabeth Warren’s challengers for Senate, Beth Lindstrom, said of her opponent’s voice in an interview on “Fox and Friends,” “Men, three times a week they’ll say, ‘It’s like nails on a chalkboard,’ truly.”
Women’s voices, like women’s bodies, have long been subject to casual critique. If they don’t purr, whisper, or lilt musically, something’s wrong. “Read My Lips,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, calls attention to how we objectify women’s voices, and indeed women’s mouths, with videos by four artists who have long worked to dismantle the brittle ideals of the male gaze. Dakota DeVos, a former curatorial research fellow in the MFA’s contemporary art department, organized this thoughtful and provocative show.
A woman’s mouth is an object of allure and the site of speech. Yet we identify more with our voices than with any body part; it’s an intangible stand-in for our very selves. “Read My Lips” starts with the mouth, then moves into the even more personal realm of the voice.
Marilyn Minter and Patty Chang riff on hypersexualized images in everyday media. Minter’s famous video “Green Pink Caviar” recalls the juicy lips in lipstick ads. She even screened it on billboards in Times Square and on Sunset Boulevard. It homes in ridiculously on a mouth smudging, kissing, and licking up glittery, colorful goop that might as well be directly on her camera lens. It’s startlingly intimate, frequently gross, and sometimes seductive.
As the video ricochets from attractive to repulsive, it’s hard not to laugh at Minter’s expressive inflation of pouty erotic imagery. Then, halfway through “Green Pink Caviar,” I suddenly saw the tongue as a paintbrush moving sloppy pigment over canvas. The video became a boldly feminine, craftily comic retort to Abstract Expressionist painters (Pollock, de Kooning), smashing and streaking their male ids all over canvases and being heralded as geniuses.
In “Hand to Mouth,” Chang likewise goes over the top, but rather than makeup ads, she spoofs porn, specifically Asian fetish flicks. Chang is a performance and multimedia artist renowned for pushing herself over edges, especially in early works such as this piece from 2000.
Dressed in a business suit and a succession of wigs, the artist begs for someone off camera to shoot water into her mouth from a balloon. She giggles, she gets soaked, she wants more all over her face. But in addition to water, the balloon has helium in it, so as the video progresses, Chang’s voice gets higher and more cartoonish. Amplifying the details, she drains this particular pornographic trope of any sexual charge and exposes it as a flimsy cartoon.
Sharon Hayes’s “Fingernails on a blackboard: Bella” revisits Abzug’s voice training minus Abzug’s voice, distilling the lessons down to their transcript in white letters on a blue ground, like a “Jeopardy!” question. This invites us to hear in our own minds the exchange, which ranges from the patently loony sounds of vocal exercises (“num num yum yum”) to Abzug’s discourse on Nixon. Still, the tension Abzug experiences with this process is clarion. “We won’t change your personality,” the coach assures her.
But is that true? A slightly softened voice would present a different Abzug. I’ve had some vocal training. I needed coaxing to let my guard down to speak with a softer voice. Other women in the class struggled with speaking more resonantly, like Abzug and me. For all of us, I suspect, a slightly altered voice meant being someone else in the world, and it was frightening.
All of these videos lead us from the mouth’s performance to the voice’s vulnerability. “Read My Lips” culminates with Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT’s “i turn over the pictures of the voice in my head.” This artist, like Chang, mixes performance with video and installation art. Here, she submitted herself to an endoscopy while reciting a lengthy poem. This is the medical video of her larynx as she speaks.
It’s deep, moist, and fleshy, like an open mouth or a wildly expressive and vocal vagina. The larynx opens and closes around the vocal cords at its center. Yet she — and by “she,” I’m not sure whether I mean the artist or the feminine quintessence of voice in this video — speaks of her voice, not her body. “It is the ladder I climb with words,” she says. She has us deep in the well from which the ladder emerges.
And, just like that, “Read My Lips” removes us from the frantic, confusing hustle of who a woman is supposed to be, and returns us to a touchstone of self, listening inward and speaking our truth.
READ MY LIPS
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through May 4. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org