Read My Lips: An Examination of the Female Voice

November 21, 2019 | By Lauren Aquino, Photos by Olivia Oriaku

Read My Lips, housed in the Krupp Gallery at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), is a collection of works exploring the way the world perceives the voices of women and how women, in turn, change their voices in response to expectations. It investigates the duality of connotations surrounding a woman’s lips, which hold visual cues of sexuality and fulfillment while also being the mechanism through which they empower themselves. Artists Patty Chang, Marilyn Minter, Sharon Hayes, and VALIE EXPORT each feature a video-based piece that conforms to the expectations of women while simultaneously criticising the absurdities and contradictions of such standards. 

Photos by Olivia Oriaku

The exhibition is set in a small room, its doors tinted black to block out the light. With only the glare of four TV screens to illuminate the pitch-black space, the viewer is immediately swept into a state of dissociation. A strange bell of no discernable source rings in strange increments, almost zen-like, while the faint sounds of women’s voices lie just beyond reach. It is unsettling and confusing, a strange bombardment of sensations without context. A short blurb on the wall outlines the purpose of the work, highlighting a powerful statement by feminist, activist, and politician Bella Azbug: “Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.” 

Patty Chang’s piece Hand to Mouth (2000), placed next to the door, is the first to draw viewers’ attention with its bright screen and lurid imagery. Chang, a former sex worker, mocks the objectification of the women who are cast in pornography with a homemade video of her being sprayed with a water balloon by an unknown figure. When the viewer dons the headphones that accompany the video, they are struck with a barrage of loud, high-pitched implorations for “more!” as Chang opens her mouth, eagerly awaiting the water balloon. Her hair is disheveled and her mascara runs. There is a certain tenseness and look in her eye that tells the viewer that she is deeply uncomfortable with the character she is playing. She seems to be asking how someone could view a woman in this way and still see her as human and respect her outside of a sexual context.

Meanwhile, VALIE EXPORT reads a poem titled i turn over the pictures of my voice in my head (2009), using medical endoscopy to film her own larynx while she does so. The TV screen is filled with a shot of her throat, the folds of her larynx moving discomfitingly as she reads. Her words are mostly unintelligible, leaving most of the focus on the visual aspect of her work. It is reminiscent of a vagina, drawing attention to the disparity of the treatment towards a woman’s words versus her sex. Her larynx, although visually similar to a vagina, elicits feelings of repulsion rather than desire. 

Photos by Olivia Oriaku

Marilyn Minter continues to walk the line between disgust and eroticism with her video piece Green Pink Caviar (2009). The work is the most visually appealing of the four — something fit for the world of cosmetics, an industry that emphasizes external vanity of a woman rather than the person who lies beneath it. In the video, Minter presses her lips against a sheet of glass that has been covered in a glittery, gooey substance. She licks and sucks at the goo, the transparency of the glass allowing the viewer to see the swirling of her lips and tongue but obscuring the rest of her face.

The work of Sharon Hayes, Fingernails on a blackboard: Bella (2014), is particularly relevant today as she explores the relationship between a woman’s words and the voice with which she is delivering them. While there is no audio associated with the work, the title suggests that the sounds produced by it would be offensive and unpleasant, but the visuals are actually depicting a textual representation of Bella Azbug practicing a speech. The twist: she is working with a vocal coach in an attempt to soften her voice, to make it more welcoming and easier to swallow for those who may disagree with her. Her sharp and witty words are being diminished because people complained about the harshness of her voice. 

Read My Lips is an exhibit meant to make viewers uncomfortable. It presents hard truths about the way women are perceived in the world: how they are held to a double standard of being desirable and deferential in a society that has consistently undervalued their worth and intellect. Each work delivers a sobering reminder of the impacts of societal expectations, but also reaffirms the power afforded by a woman’s voice.