“The artworks that most successfully unpack the status quo, or dissect it, or start conversations, are the pieces that invite people in and create a space for dialogue”
Artist Zoë Buckman’s work Champ draws its power from a very direct opposition: it shows a simple diagram of a woman’s reproductive system in neon, but where you would expect to see the ovaries, you see boxing gloves. The feminine anatomy, which we might tend to think of as delicate, becomes a means of doing combat. The work draws not only on Buckman’s own experience of becoming a mother, but also her time training in a boxing gym in New York City, where the British-born artist lives.
Whether working in sculpture, installation, photography, or other mediums, Buckman explores themes of feminism, mortality, and equality. Some of the US’s greatest museums have displayed her work, such as the National Museum of African-American History & Culture, Washington, DC, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. She has shown at galleries worldwide, from Jack Shainman Gallery, in New York, to Goodman Gallery, South Africa, among many others. Buckman also works in the public sphere, including displaying a version of Champ that towers over Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles.
Buckman spoke with Absolut Art about the connection between boxing and toxic masculinity; about what she’s learned in the ring and taken to her studio; and the fact that her work with neon can be traced back to the birth of her daughter.
You work with many mediums, ranging from video to embroidery to sculpture to ceramics. You studied photography first, and you’ve said that “I felt that as a photographer, we use light and neon is light, and it felt more pure.” Tell us a little more about how you got involved with neon.
I realized in school that using photography made me anxious, and I think that’s because you’re not always physically touching your work, whether digitally or in the darkroom. The film is processed by someone else and spat out. I didn’t like to be removed from the actual object, and it made me feel a little out of control. I realized more and more that I’m often exploring power and control and times when I’ve been controlled by men and by patriarchal forces in my life. My work is a way of breaking out of that, so it’s important that I end up with something I can touch.
When I started thinking about neon, I had just become a mother. As a daughter and as a wife and a young woman in relationships, I never really held the cards. Then, giving birth, I knew what to do. It put me in touch with a force within me. It was a feminist awakening.
Then, having just given birth, I was told that my placenta had gotten depleted, which could have led to my child being stillborn. I was rocked. I had just had this incredible experience, and was looking at this perfect being, and I realized that she will die, and I will die, and everything that is living will die. I became consumed with mortality and death.
So I wanted to examine time, which led me to examine neon, which actually has a shelf life. The gas eventually runs out. And I think about smashing any neon sign I see! I think, “I could put that over my knee and break it.” So I geeked out on neon and I started to think of it as an exciting new terrain for me.
Your piece addresses the fight for reproductive rights for women, which you describe as being under assault. What have you learned about this fight by creating this work and displaying it in public?
The artworks that most successfully unpack the status quo, or dissect it, or start conversations, are the pieces that invite people in and create a space for dialogue. What was so interesting to me about making that piece into a public sculpture is that I didn’t realize that a uterus is so controversial in this country. There’s been a lot of pushback. I also put the image on a billboard, and the response was, “We can’t put a vagina on a billboard.” I could put a lung on a billboard, so why not a uterus? I realized how much work is needed to demystify and take away the associations that are attached to symbols of femininity, which are thought of as bad, naughty, gross, or weird.
Your piece includes a pair of boxing gloves, and you are a boxer yourself. Is there anything you learned in boxing that you’ve brought into your artistic practice?
Oh my god, so much.
I grew up with three brothers in a very rough part of East London, so I’ve been around a lot of toxic masculinity and a culture that values aggression and bravado. As women or young girls, we are subject to the darker consequences of teaching boys to aim for that standard. That has made me quite drawn to environments that are testosterone-heavy, because it feels familial to me.
The first time I stepped into a boxing gym, I felt a connection to my brothers. So I’m interested in the hard and the soft, and to things that can be dangerous but also have a very alluring quality. I’ve been exploring consensual spaces that can invite aggressive play. I became obsessed with boxing for a couple of years. It woke me up, having a glove coming for my eye. It put me in touch with the force that I talked about earlier, the part of me that gave birth for me, the instinctual woman who came up. I have a name for her: Nomi. I feel like after she gave birth for me, I put her back in a cage. So I find environments where I’m put back in touch with her. The boxing gym was one of those moments.
I started training in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Boxing gave me a place where I could channel some frustration and work through some personal traumas and process what was happening politically. I realized, There’s a war on us. I felt like I was getting ready to fight and I needed to fight and I had this place where I could train. So then one day I’d been at the gym and I was feeling raw. I was going through a divorce and I felt like I was fighting a lot of things. And I got into my studio and sat and meditated to recalibrate and I saw a neon uterus with boxing gloves as the ovaries.