Elaine Sturtevant

Trilogy of Transgression


Not on display

Elaine Sturtevant 1924–2014
Video, 3 monitors, colour
Duration: 1min, 45sec
Purchased using funds provided by the 2013 Outset / Frieze Art Fair Fund to benefit the Tate Collection 2014


Trilogy of Transgression 2004 is a three-channel colour video lasting one minute and forty-five seconds on a thirty minute loop, by the American artist Elaine Sturtevant. The three monitors show three apparently unrelated images: from left to right, a still of Minnie Mouse; an abstract, pixilated form which might be read as a uterus or an hourglass; and the posterior of an inflatable female sex doll with various objects protruding from the orifice. The selection and combination of these images represents different iterations of the feminine or the female body across television, mass media, pornography and medical technology. The title suggests that these gendered representations are equally transgressive, with each one sustaining a tension between the sanitized and the abject.

Trilogy of Transgression is among Sturtevant’s more recent works and was included in her solo exhibition Leaps, Jumps and Bumps at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2013. Critic Kate Tiernan wrote of the exhibition: ‘Themes of looping and endless repetition are central to her work: examining the rapid growth over the past four decades of replication, revival, recycling and appropriation; asking us to unpick, question and reassess the machinery of this cultural phenomenon’ (Tiernan 2013, accessed 11 December 2015). Unlike earlier pieces from the 1960s, for which Sturtevant directly copied the work of other artists, Trilogy of Transgression is not based on another, single artwork. It does, however, borrow from the language of the American sculptor, performance and video artist Paul McCarthy, in a similar way to her larger multi-screen work Elastic Tango 2011. Both artists combine cartoons, advertisements and sexually-explicit imagery in their work; attack mass media representations and explore concepts ranging from originality to banality. The staging of gendered representation is also an important conceit for both Sturtevant and McCarthy. In Trilogy of Transgression Sturtevant’s use of repetition and continuation, parallels the central theme of perpetually unfulfilled desire in Marcel Duchamp’s work. Duchamp was an important figure for Sturtevant, along with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein of whose work she made copies in the 1960s.

Throughout her career Sturtevant explored questions of authorship, style and the creation of art, often repeating work by going through the same processes as another artist, rather than copying their work by means of mechanical reproduction. In the 1960s and 1970s her appropriations were met with hostility and criticism, in response she stopped making work – like Duchamp had five decades earlier – and began showing again in the 1980s. Despite her interrogation of authorship, Sturtevant was also invested in her own image or myth, as well as exploring the ways in which an artists’ presence or absence is understood and its effect on the reception of the artwork.

Trilogy of Transgression demonstrates how Sturtevant’s works were never direct copies, but selected, combined, recombined and juxtaposed found elements. Sturtevant’s use of technological imagery also highlights her interest in cybernetics and concepts such as feedback, in which information is returned to the present or future in a way that forms a circuit or loop – literally feeding back into itself to form a chain, with two parts affecting one another.

Sturtevant was born in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1930, but lived and worked in Paris since the 1990s. She studied at the University of Iowa, Columbia University, University of Zurich and Chicago Art Institute. She was awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Fifty-forth Venice Biennale in 2011. She has exhibited extensively in the United States and internationally over the past six decades; including the exhibition Leaps Jumps and Bumps in 2013 and Image over Image at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and Kunsthalle Zurich in 2012.

Further reading
Sturtevant: The Brutal Truth, exhibition catalogue, Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt 2004.
Sturtevant: The Razzle Dazzle of Thinking, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris 2010.
Kate Tiernan, ‘Sturtevant: Leaps Jumps and Bumps’, Studio International, July 2013 http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/sturtevant-leaps-jumps-and-bumps, accessed 11 December 2015.

George Clark and Tanya Barson
November 2013

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Display caption

A pioneer of appropriation art, from the 1960s Sturtevant questioned ideas of authorship and authenticity by replicating other artists’ works. Around 2000 Sturtevant began to use video to explore the proliferation and repetition of mass media imagery in the information age. Trilogy of Transgression juxtaposes seemingly unrelated looped footage of Minnie Mouse, blurry forms and close-ups of objects protruding from an inflatable sex doll. The work invites us to see a relationship between the sexual and banal imagery, revealing the how the mind can register associations without being fully aware of it.

Gallery label, February 2016

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