Booby Machine is the title of a work by PHOA artist Carolina Mizrahi.
The pastel-pink claw machine filled with breasts is fetishised and surreal; femininity so distilled only the part the voyeur seeks to ‘win’ is on offer. Mizrahi is making work in 2017, nearly a hundred years after the birth of Surrealism in the early 1920s. She is a liberated female artist commenting on perceptions of a body that she too possesses, it is objectification as social commentary. Not, as so common in the history of art, objectification for aesthetics and the pleasure of the male gaze.
Mizrahi draws parallels with Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), the female artist who created one of the most famous Surrealist art objects, Breakfast in Fur (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) 1936. Oppenheim recoiled at the idea of being known as a ‘female artist’ but her gender is undeniably relevant in the context of the male-dominated Paris Surrealist group. The comparison of Oppenheim and Mizrahi is interesting due to the context of when their art was made. Mizrahi has the freedom to own her objectification whereas 1930s Paris did not grant Oppenheim the same.
Breakfast in Fur consists of a cup, saucer and spoon covered with fur. Alongside Booby Machine, it is a Surrealist object in the original sense. Andre Breton, the leader of the artistic movement, wanted to bring objects that appeared in dreams to the public as material things - “nothing less than the objectification of the activity of dreaming, its transfers into reality.” Both Oppenheim and Mizrahi show their objects in isolation, as if homeless and plucked straight out of a dream. This adhered to Breton’s intention. He felt the world was clogged with utilitarian objects and the presence of these dreamlike ones would serve to depreciate their value. Both objects exemplify Lautreamont’s description that came to be the archetypal example of Surrealist dislocation: "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” Fur has no practical place on a cup and saucer, whilst breasts have no rational place in a claw machine.
Meret Oppenheim. Breakfast in Fur (Le Dejeuner en fourrure). Fur and porcelain. 1936. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Breakfast in Fur was the work that defined Oppenheim. The object alludes to the feminine but not in the same overt way as Mizrahi’s. The fur suggests pubic hair whilst the cup is easily an allegory for female genitalia; the ‘pure’ porcelain concealed. It is further eroticised with inclusion of the phallic shaped hairy spoon. Oppenheim actually titled her object Fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon but Breton changed it to Breakfast in Fur. She was against this fetishising title because, for her, it was about the idea of the object itself born from a humorous conversation with Picasso. Oppenheim argued that this erotic reading was simply an ‘image of femininity imprinted on the minds of men and projected on to women.’ Three years prior to the making of Breakfast in Fur she had been photographed by the famous Surrealist photographer, Man Ray. His depiction of the nude Oppenheim earned her the dubious yet widespread label of “muse” to the movement. He publicly described her as “an uninhibited woman …very disturbing, a perfect example of the Surrealist tendency towards scandal.” This statement confirms that the male Surrealists did think of her as a woman first and an artist secondary; she too was a Surrealist object. Oppenheim’s object was sexualised by men whereas Mizrahi is humouring those that do the sexualising. Oppenehiem’s critique of the erotic reading is essentially the subject matter for Mizrahi’s Booby Machine.
Freud’s psychoanalytical theory of sexual development applies to both objects. He theorises that for young boys a female body exists in separate pieces; real ‘objects’ such as breasts, and also fantisised parts. Those ‘real’ objects are used by Mizrahi in her machine, separated from the female entity and used as a commodity up for grabs; to be ‘clawed’ at. The nude female is not seen as a whole person but broken up into separate sexual elements functioning for arousal. The fantasised parts come into play in the fetishisation of Breakfast in Fur. What a young boy ultimately desires is the phallic mother and because this cannot be realised he then displaces this desire on to ‘objects’ he has access to and fetishises them. Freud wrote that ‘fur and velvet… are a fixation of the sight of pubic hair, which should have followed by the longed-for sight of the female member.’
Mizrahi’s object is an unapologetic take on sexism. Oppenheim’s, an example of it. The two objects have no explicit functioning purpose other than the allegorical. Though outlooks have undeniably changed in the last century, the patriarchal framework in which both are placed is yet to be dismantled. Later in her life, Oppenheim said “Nobody will give you freedom. You have to take it.” The idea of a woman making a machine that inverts the objectification of women in art so explicitly (breasts as a commodity right there for the taking) is pretty liberating in my view. I think Oppenheim would have admired Mizrahi. Not simply because she is a ‘female artist’, but because, she too, has balls.
Written by London-based Freelance Writer, Lydia Veljanovska for The Public House of Art.