Ericka Beckman & Marianna Simnett, FACT, until 16th June

Words, Julia Johnson, Messy Lines

These five works by Ericka Beckman and Marianna Simnett cover over three decades of approaching what is essentially the same question: what is the experience of being a woman within society? Stretching from 1984 to 2016 the visual languages of the artists may be different – indeed, still evolving – but it’s even more striking how little the narrative has been able to change; that all of their questions still feel essential to our own time.

Ericka Beckman’s films are a fantastic blend of strong storytelling, challenging feminist subject matter, and great fun. Cinderella, after all, is a musical! A well-considered one too, with melodies, and dance sequences born somewhere between Broadway and the excesses of 1980s pop.  It’s suitably dramatic for this modern iteration of the fairy-tale, where Cinderella’s drudgery is based on corporate production. Her fame contains her with its commercialisation, her role fixed by the very skirt that she wears. But one garment can have multiple possible meanings, as it turns out that this same skirt, seen in a new way, leads to the liberation of her identity.

Ericka Beckman & Marianna Simnett at FACT, 2019

Computer graphics play an important part in creating the psychological setting for Cinderella and, considering the film was made in 1984, have aged well. Perhaps that’s in part down to the aesthetic: neon against black, with clear linear focuses. Stylistically, 1999/2015’s Hiatus – the second of Beckman’s films here – shares a similar aesthetic.  Hiatus is set in the world of 1990s video games, perfectly capturing their aspect of unlikely, exoticised characters speaking in stock phrases. It’s also a world which offers heroine Madi an ideal break from reality, which offers a sense of freedom whilst actually being tightly controlled by virtual parameters. But this control is seized from her by Player 33, an absurdly stereotypical Texan avatar who hacks her space – and attempts to do so with her body.  Even as online gaming was still developing a mainstream presence, Beckman understood that scandals like Gamergate were on the cards, almost as if harassment was encoded into the gameplay. Needless to say that Madi’s revenge, when it comes, is enormously satisfying.

Upstairs, the works by Marianna Simnett approach similar themes with a higher degree of unease.  Her work is very much about the female body as a site of conflict, where the circumstances of the physical form have painful consequences. Two films, The Udder and Blood, are being shown in tandem in the same room, and feature the same young girl as the central character. Neither is necessarily for the squeamish, particularly The Udder. Set within a cow’s udder afflicted by mastitis, scenes turn red as the treatments shown become increasingly invasive. The young girl acts as psychological interpreter, showing the desperation caused by this natal pain.

Blood, though, has the more compelling narrative of the two films. It’s a tale of two people who have been forced to reject their own bodies. Isabel’s minor nasal surgery leads to complications, we witness her being literally attacked by her own physical structures, furious that she has denied them the right to cause her pain. As one Isabel recovers, another version of herself finds help offered by Lali, a ‘sworn virgin’ who, following ancient and increasingly rare Albanian tradition, has chosen to live her life as a man. Lali offers hospitality and assistance – but is this solution, predicated on a view of feminine as weak and frail, what Isabel needs? Despite how this may sound, there is strongly and specifically no attack on Lali’s choice to switch gender, but questions perceptions upon which the tradition is predicated – traditions in which to live autonomously as a female was a right denied.  It’s left to a group of schoolchildren to explain that the best approach might be if all characters learn from each other, that binary choices aren’t inevitable.

Ericka Beckman & Marianna Simnett at FACT, 2019

The climax of all this conflict is Simnett’s installation Faint with Light. It’s an uncomfortable place to be for more than a few minutes, as bright white flashes mirror her desperate breaths as she repeatedly induces herself to faint. It’s the sound an visuals of a battle for control being waged against her body. Who’s in control, her physiology or her will?  It’s the battle at the heart of every work in this exhibition. The female protagonists of both Beckman and Simnett’s films live in between two ways of being. Fantasy and reality, or male and female, these alternative worlds offer characters ways of negotiating how to exist in accordance with their own desires. That their quests resonate so strongly reveals that this is a battle not won yet.

Ericka Beckman & Marianna Simnett, FACT, until 16th June

Words, Julia Johnson, Messy Lines