Gerda Meyer Bernstein’s piece Marginalized consists of a fully deployed military parachute lying on the ground to act as the foundation for the twenty-two burlap-wrapped mannequins that rest on top of it. The mannequins, upon closer examination, are all women and the finger tips that sometimes escape the confining canvas also reveal a spectrum of ethnicity. The intended setting for the piece is a darkened room with the piece being illuminated entirely by four green floor-level spot lights. Though the themes of politics and race have long since been mastered by Meyer Bernstein in her artwork, this piece introduces a new theme to the activist’s rhetoric, that of gender. Specifically, sex plays a pivotal role in Gerda Meyer Bernstein’s installation Marginalized by combining a variety of literal, metaphoric, and allusive elements to represent the unceasing oppression faced by women across the world.
This piece is unarguably about women. They are the literal subject matter of the work and it doesn’t take an expert in iconology to deduce that the female forms are being oppressively confined by their form-fitting burlap body bags. In previous pieces, Bernstein Meyer has utilized a deployed parachute to represent the idea of safety net and that concept seems to extend itself in to this piece. The twenty-two women lay in their circular safety net, each one presented in a different pose. Their identities are anonymized by the canvas, and they are presumed to be dead. This equation that makes up Marginalized results in a depiction of women that have been and continued to be restricted by societies who presume that by giving women less rights, they are, in a sense, protecting them. The real result, of course, is women dying through the suffocation that these inflicted ideals cause. Former professor of philosophy at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, Maureen P. Sherlock, writes briefly about the piece and presents an alternative interpretation. she says that, “the figures, rather than being corpses, are cocoons, biding their time in the protection of the nest, until a future awakening.” This interpretation suggests women’s potential for a future awakening in to a world that presents one’s equality and integrity as a feasible goal.
Though this piece has yet to debut in a public forum, it has existed privately in the artist’s studio space, where I recently had the opportunity to view it, since 2006 and is presented in the body of her work included in a recent exhibition catalog. The history of Meyer Bernstein’s piece has, in essence, mimicked the concept of examining the role of women in history. Both women’s history and the artist’s piece have, fundamentally, been alluded to and presented in two-dimensional mediums; but, both have also had to wait to be fully realized by a wide audience. General history, until second wave feminism, was based almost exclusively on the males who, given their arguably unlimited opportunities, dominate the foundations of countries, wars, and revolutions. Women were hardly mentioned, and if they were, they were depicted as the support to their male counterpart or as a masculine rarity. Gerda Meyer Bernstein’s piece, in the same way, exists only as a brief allusion in a Sherlock essay and as two images that hardly do the piece justice. It’s current setting compared to its future setting may also suggest the formulated feminist theory that discusses the private versus the public; specifically, that a woman’s place is historically argued to be in the privacy of the home and not the public world of politics and economics. Where as it took a movement to unleash the specific study of women’s history on college campuses in the early seventies, it will take the right moment and opportunity for Meyer Bernstein to allow this piece to escape its own burlap imprisonment and reveal itself to the public. Although these parallels were probably unintentional, realizing the closeted history of this piece serves to gender it by indirectly associating it with women’s oppressive history and followed, hopefully, by a women’s movement and steps towards liberation.
Gender very clearly defines this piece and it comes as a surprise that this is the first installation of activist-artist Gerda Meyer Bernstein that the theme has infused itself into. Her works have continuously presented her private experiences and connections to the public via literal, metaphoric, and allusive elements. Exemplary of this are the themes of race and the Holocaust that have manifested themselves in several of her installations in order to relate her personal experience as a Jewish person and her family’s tragic experience with internment camps to that of the public. Meyer Bernstein being who she is is how several of her pieces seem to come together, and it’s no different with this piece where the direct experience of being a woman is painfully depicted through both its’ literal and metaphoric visual representation as well its subtle allusions and mimicking of the histories it serves to present.
Since the original publishing of this essay, Marginalized made its debut at a solo show hosted by DePaul University’s Art Museum in the Summer of 2008.