Pink: Libby Rowe on Interactive Art

Botticelli, 26 pairs of panties, hundreds of broken tea cups and challenging what it means to be feminine.

by The Editor on February 3rd, 2014

A pink line ran down the middle of the gallery. At one end, a pink bench with eight pairs of pink patent leather heels. The heels came in everything from very small sizes to larger ones, a range to fit most people. Videos, in small pink boxes on the wall of the gallery, showed Rowe in pumps and a pink dress, demonstrating how to perfect your posture.

Installation photo showing a gallery with a wood floor. A pink padded stool is in the foreground, with eight pairs of pink pumps lined up by the bench. A pink table with white teacups has a broom with a pink handle leaning against it.

Learning Feminine: Posture participatory installation, pink pumps, teacups, vinyl, stool, broom, 3.5’ x 5’ x 22’ (installation variable), 2008 Image of installation

The evening of the opening, the gallery was filled with people standing in an oval around the piece. For perfect posture, the instructions on the floor noted, you should have your head up, chin level with the floor, chest up, shoulders relaxed, lower abdomen flat. If you were doing it right, you should be able to walk the length of the line, pivot, and walk back, all while wearing a pair of the pink pumps and balancing a teacup on your head. If your teacup crashed to the floor, the pink broom was on hand for sweeping the remains into the ever-growing pile at the end of the line.

“At the Liu show, my goal was for people to engage in art less as a passive observing of something on a wall, and instead be more active: have to physically do something,” said Rowe, who works as an artist and is a Professor of Art at University of Texas, San Antonio.

The sounds of breaking porcelain and laughter filled the gallery, as people of all genders teetered around in the heels.

Being Venusified

Rowe is known for making work that explores the intersections of gender, interior narratives and insecurities. In her artist statement for Pink, Rowe states: “My artistic interests reside in defining and redefining women’s issues in ways that are both informational and confrontational, and yet accessible to a diverse audience.”

The first time Rowe thought about people participating in one of her pieces was Venusification, which started in 1998. Participants, mostly friends and visitors to her gallery show, were invited to be “Venusified,” by scheduling a private time to undress and have their portrait made in a painted diorama of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

View of Venusification installation. A pink satin dressing screen is to the left. In the center of the photo, a shell platform and a background mural based on Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus,’ while in the foreground a large golden paper maché  wig hovers suspended from a pulley.

Venusification installation, Installation Shot, Paper Maché Wig, Painting, Screen, Documentations, 15’ x 7’ x 1″” minimum, 1998

Giant paper maché hair lowered from the ceiling, on a pulley to adjust to the participant’s height. Today, the book of portraits that travels with the Venusification piece has 142 entries. Rowe said: “I was amazed at the diversity of the people who participated. Each person had their personal reason for participating, but most often the reason given for wanting to be Venusified was as a personal rite of passage, to give themselves permission to be ok in their own skin, as is, unaltered.”

Photograph of the Vensusification installation, showing an Audience member participating by standing on a large painted purple shell in front of a mockup of Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus' and wearing a golden paper maché  wig and nothing else.

Venusification installation, Installation Shot of Audience Participation, Paper Maché Wig, Painting, Screen, Documentations, 15’ x 7’ x 1″” minimum, 1998

The experience stuck with Rowe – talking to people about why they chose to be photographed, what it did for them. For most, the process allowed them to let go of the voices in their heads telling them they weren’t “enough”: smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, strong enough, muscular enough, feminine enough…

Rowe wanted the participatory action to prompt viewers to ask themselves the question: What is your belief system and where did it originate?

Question your own belief system

Another part of the Pink show, “Learning Feminine: Sister” is less overt. Synthetic hair extensions were mounted on the walls, with shelves nearby stocked with pink hair ties, clips and accessories inviting visitors to the gallery to style the hair. “I was thinking about not speaking my mind – things that push you into telling yourself something and believing it, rather than facing reality head on,” Rowe noted.

White art gallery wall, with nine pink picture frames. The frames are filled with pink silicon, and a variety of ponytails and hair are hanging down from the frames to be styled by the visitor to the gallery.

“learning feminine: sister” hair, silicon, hair ties. 4′ x 12′ x 5″ 2006

“There are so many ways young women and girls are taught to be feminine – how ‘feminine’ is defined by the culture they live in,” she said. “I remember having babysitters, and they and my sister and I would ritually engage in braiding hair. That was something I enjoyed. The ‘Learning Feminine: Sister’ pieces came out of that. With ‘Learning Feminine: Sister,’ my idea was all about action and activity. I could bring people along on the journey.”

Rowe also discussed the history of other artists exploring the cultural and political issues surrounding hair, citing Lorna Simpson, who has explored identity, race and gender through hair, as an influence.

Detail view of Rowe's 'Learning Feminine: sister' piece, showing a white art gallery wall, with three pink picture frames. The frames are filled with pink silicon, and a variety of ponytails and hair are hanging down from the frames to be styled by the visitor to the gallery.

“learning feminine: sister” hair, silicon, hair ties. 4′ x 12′ x 5″ 2006

The hair on display is embedded in silicon, which looks like flesh, a scalp. These cause some subtle discomfort.

“A lot of people style the hair in that work, both men and women,” Rowe said. The piece has has been shown many times, and is currently on exhibit in the Malone Gallery at Troy University through February 2014.

The Origins of Pink

“The origins of Pink were in grad school, ending a body of work on breast ownership and not being sure where to go next. A collage-a-day ritual led to one collage about endocrine glands, specifically ovaries. Early work was more physiological: the biological clock, vagina sleeping bag, emasculation 101, slinky dick,” Rowe noted.

“The nature of the Pink work changed direction when I moved to the South in the mid-nineties. I started having people constantly calling me sir, and having that tick away at my understanding of femininity,” Rowe said. “I started to document myself when I was called a sir, taking a picture of myself in the location and clothing where and when it happened.” The images reveal Rowe’s state of mind at that time, sometimes amused, often irritated.

Photo of installation of Rowe’s piece called ‘Not a Sir’ which is a collection of wallet-sized self portrait photos in a plastic accordion fold wallet insert, mounted on the wall. A detailed image shows a few of the portraits, which feature the artist in front of various locations, mostly stores, taken after she’d been called a sir by a stranger.

“Not a Sir”, wallet size photos in accordion fold wallet insert, 16’ (lengthens as images are added) x 3″, 2008. full installation image installation detail image


Pieces like “Defining Feminine” and “Panties Portrait” both invite the viewer to add to the piece by sending in their contribution.

“Defining Feminine” is a collection of objects and text that define or redefine feminine. Each submission is sealed into a cellophane bag and labeled with the age, gender and location of the participant. “Panties Portrait” is a collection of panties of all shapes and sizes, tagged with information about how the panties define the women who wear them. The pieces grow from installation to installation.

Grey wall with cellophane bags thumbtacked to it in a grid. The bags have art, tools, shoes, film stills, postcards, pressed flowers, and highlighted book pages in them.

Defining “feminine” Images, Objects, and Text, Submission generated installation, Size variable. 2005

Photograph of installation, showing 26 different pairs of panties of various sizes, cuts, and colors hanging on three wall mounted clotheslines. White label tags are hanging from the panties.

“panties portrait” Panties, Clothesline, Tags. Submission generated installation, Size variable. 2005

What is the reaction to these interactive projects? “Mostly, people tell me things,” Rowe said, laughing. The pieces open a line of communication where people share experiences and stories. “People will share all sorts of stories and secrets when given the opportunity.”

Rowe hypothesizes that it comes from people feeling relief at having finally looked at a belief that was at the core of their existence but that didn’t ever feel true, and realizing they don’t have to believe that anymore.

Pearls of Wisdom

In October 2013, Rowe performed a piece called “Pearls of Wisdom” where she slowly put on 16 foot long white gloves, while reading statements by elders, intended to be helpful, that had actually had the opposite effect on her and her sister growing up.

Stills from the video of the 'Pearls of Wisdom' performance, showing the artist in a pink dress, sitting on a chair, pulling on fancy white gloves that are sixteen feet long. A table near the chair holds cards that she is reading from, and cards are scattered around the floor where they have been tossed after reading.

Pearls of Wisdom. Performance. Youtube, 10m

“Pretty is as pretty does.” “Your room is atrocious. Who would marry this mess?” “Watch your mouth.” “Sit still, and listen.” “Pretty girls don’t talk like that.” “You sit like a man. No wonder you have no boyfriend.” “You are getting big.” “Your hair could stand to be longer.” “Anger isn’t becoming.” “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free.” “Learn to cook and clean so you can find a husband.” “Watch your words.” “Catch more flies with honey.” “No one is going to hire you with that hairstyle.” “Be nice.” “Don’t slouch. It is unbecoming.” “I just know this is the year you’ll find a man.” “A minute on the lips, forever on the hips.” “It’s simple. Choose not to be fat.” “Must you be so contrarian?” “Smile more. It will make you seem attractive.”

What’s next with Pink?

Pink will be continuing, Rowe says. “As long as the societal standards for women and identity remain unchanged there is room for this work. I still think about interactivity. I’m currently most interested in pursuing the performative aspect of Pink.”

“One of the projects that I’d like to develop next is to create a tea garden in public places, and wait for people to sit with me and have tea,” Rowe said. “My grandma, who was British, taught me about tea drinking, and I have been fascinated by the ceremony of tea, what that represents culturally and the connections it creates. In my garden, people can trade me for tea: time, energy, stories, objects. Some kind of exchange with me making tea and them giving in return. This idea of taking tea intrigues me – actually having tea, a stop at a specific time of day, a moment of meditative significance.”

By bringing together performance, interactivity, carefully chosen technology and new methods of fabrication – silicon molding, small televisions – Rowe is able to successfully create experiences where participants are drawn in, question their beliefs, and experience a transformation.

Readers are invited to participate in works like “Panties Portrait” and “Defining Feminine” – details can be found on Rowe’s website.

All images copyright Libby Rowe and used with permission of the artist.