Culture

Artist Zoë Buckman: ‘The UK is screwed, but not nearly as screwed as America’

Zoë Buckman’s uterus has been doing the rounds on social media. The Brooklyn-based artist made the kinetic sculpture, which comprises a neon outline of an abstracted reproductive organ with fibreglass boxing gloves as ovaries, in the run-up to the 2016 US election, amid conversations about contraception, abortion and rape. Six years later, with abortion no longer protected under the constitution, the work is sadly just as relevant. “I appreciate anyone who shares it because it was intended to be a piece about resilience and resistance that united us,” says Buckman. “But for me, it’s become something that’s associated with bad news. I see that someone’s posted it and I think, ‘Oh God, what’s happened now?’”

Dilation & Curettage by Zoe Buckman, 2022.
Packing a punch … Dilation and Curettage, a boxing-glove work in shades of red named after the procedure to remove uterine tissue following abortion or miscarriage. Photograph: Adam Reich/Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

Buckman, who was born in east London in 1985 and moved to New York to study photography in 2008, has made a name for herself creating art about the female experience. Spanning embroidery, sculpture, poetry, photography and film, her work – with echoes of Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago and Tracey Emin – explores sex, trauma and violence from both a personal and a social perspective. “I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be where I’m at in my career if I weren’t in New York,” she says. “And one reason is because I don’t think I’d be having the same response to the work if I weren’t living among this shit. The UK is fucked, but not nearly as fucked as America. My friends in the UK have the right to sexual healthcare and they have support. In the US, choice is reserved for the elite and the blessed.”

We’re speaking from opposite sides of the pond ahead of Bloodwork, Buckman’s first solo show in the UK, which has just opened at Pippy Houldsworth gallery in London. The title comes from the artist’s experience of being left by a boyfriend after a miscarriage – left not just to deal with the psychological and physical fallout, but also to pick up the hefty bill for the bloodwork. “I started to think about that word and for me it encapsulated our toil, the work we do, and being in the female form. The show is about our capacity to go through these experiences – violence, miscarriage, heartbreak, abandonment – and to choose joy.”

Colourful embroidered portraits show Buckman’s friends and family, each one a survivor of trauma, singing and dancing, their mouths stretched into smiles and their arms raised high. “These are women who know how to throw down and rave,” says the artist, laughing. The portraits are accompanied by lines of her poetry and a couple of her signature boxing-glove clusters, which hang from the ceiling like bunches of dried flowers. The largest cluster, in shades of red, is called Dilation and Curettage after the procedure to remove uterine tissue following abortion or miscarriage.

You could describe Buckman’s work as feminist, though she’s wary of the label. “I’m not afraid of it,” she says, “but I am aware of its complexities and shortcomings. I feel that I often disappoint feminists.” She loses online followers whenever she posts photos of her body. “It’s almost fun to behold,” she says with a glint in her eye. “So much of my work comes from the desire to be seen in our totality, all the sides of us: the Madonna, the whore, everything in between. My experience is that men struggle with that – and that a lot of women struggle with it as well.”

Kiss in the Curb by Zoe Buckman, 2022.
Kiss in the Curb by Zoë Buckman, 2022. Photograph: Adam Reich/Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

Which is why Buckman embraces dualities: strength and vulnerability, text and image, masculine and feminine, life and death. Her gynaecological instruments are powder-coated bubblegum pink and baby blue, and she embellishes vintage lingerie with rap lyrics. Her art is about taking up space and being heard. It was only 11 years ago, after giving birth to her daughter, that Buckman felt confident enough to call herself an artist.

“I was in a relationship and my ex-husband [David Schwimmer] was the powerful person in the couple and in the room. He’s an amazing man and we’re dear friends. But when we met, he was 40 and I was 21. He knew himself and I didn’t know myself. He was established and I wasn’t. He had money and I had nothing. Then I got pregnant and for some reason I just knew what to do. It put me in touch with a power I never knew I had.” The first piece of art she made after giving birth was her preserved placenta.

‘There are women who know how to throw down and rave’ … a 2022 work called i spluttered & splintered into infinite pieces to avoid what was.
‘There are women who know how to throw down and rave’ … a 2022 work called i spluttered & splintered into infinite pieces to avoid what was. Photograph: Adam Reich/Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

Buckman believes we all have power – as demonstrated in Bloodwork, which celebrates sisterhood in the wake of suffering. As to whether she feels artists have a responsibility to draw out that power and spark a dialogue, she’s more equivocal. “I’m personally drawn to art that does have something to say and that challenges the status quo, but I don’t want to be someone who uses the word ‘should’.” She pauses. ‘I do think art should be intuitive, though. And it should be good.’

Bloodwork is at Pippy Houldsworth gallery, London, until 1 October

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