Your Body Is a Battleground

The Art of Protest
Tianxing Ma

The Art of Protest

Powerful. Bizarre. Haunting. These are some of the words that come to mind with Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground.)” The frame crops the image in such a way that the viewer can see only the face of a woman. She stares directly ahead, towards the topgazing at the viewer. A line starkly cuts through the middle of her symmetrical face: the left is a positive image; the right, a negative one. and the right is a negative production. And perhaps most startlingly, a sentence written in white letters and highlighted in red is superimposed upon the picture in three segments: “Your body is a battleground.”

Barbara Kruger, born in 1945, was a full-fledged conceptual artist by 1989 when she created this work. Kruger originally worked as a designer at the fashion magazine “Mademoiselle” and was a picture editor for “House and Garden.” Kruger later defined her own artistic style, using pre-existing images in her art and making them new by pasting words onto the images. In 1989, Kruger created “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground)” to be used as a poster for the Women’s March on Washington, which supported a woman’s right to choose.

At first, this work seems to divide the reproductive health debate into two sides: those in support of a woman’s right to choose and those against it. The two halves of the image—the negative and the positive rendition—emphasize the twofold nature underlying this issue. However, the words “Your body is a battleground” represent how the fight for choice is different from other political battles. In the case of abortion, the campaign for a woman’s right to choose occurs outside of her body, yet directly affects her. The female body becomes a combat zone that women both struggle for and in.

While “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground)” supports the right to choose, the photograph’s history raises more political issues regarding gender. This image is understood by many to be an appropriated image, for at this point in Kruger’s career, she had already immersed herself in merging existing photographs from magazines with texts. Although the exact origin of the image remains unknown, if this image has been appropriated, the viewers are forced to re-examine the work without the text. The figure is a perfected icon of beauty, with a symmetrical face and voluptuous lips. The image's history alludes to a societal fabrication of women.

As the stark line divides the figure’s face in half, the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to the impeccable symmetry of the face; her eyebrows are exactly the same shape, almost as if one is a mirror reflection. The viewers come to read this image as a construct of society, a stereotypical image of how women should appear: she is an object of beauty. In the book “Love for Sale” which survey Kruger’s work and its implications, Kruger is quoted as saying that she bases her work on stereotyping, a “domain as that of ‘figures without bodies.” In this image—a stereotypical depiction of women by society—the woman is no longer an individual. Rather, the depiction of the woman is a product of the society. By adding text, Kruger critiques the circumstances under which this image was originally produced.

Taking feminine stereotypes into account, the duality of the message becomes even bigger. Because the male gaze turns women into objects, women must fight to be recognized as people. Instead of objectifying her, the viewer becomes conscious of the intense feminist struggle. The positive and the negative are pro-choice and pro-life; women vs. stereotypes; women vs. patriarchal society. According to this work, women must always be on guard.

Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground)” is an aggressive, powerful work of art that compels the viewer to address the struggles that women face. It is especially noteworthy, however, that even though this work was created specifically for the pro-choice Washington rally in 1989, the work manages to shed further light on other gender and social discrepancies through its medium: the alteration of a previously and separately produced image. This image would not have borne such a significant political message without Kruger’s captions. With Kruger’s decontextualization, the image reminds the viewer that these struggles aren’t isolated incidents but ones that women face on a daily basis.

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