How does this photo make you feel?
I can’t blame the museum guard for shushing my reaction to Kirsten Justesen’s photograph, “Lunch for a Landscape” (circa 1975).
Something about what the artist calls, “the vehicle of her life” had me in stitches when I first saw it hanging in the Women’s National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
It was joyful and resonated with me. It reminded me of time spent raising my children and the mindless escape of shopping among the grocery aisles. There were days when the simple act of food shopping breathed new life into my sanity, especially when the kids were very young. Sometimes the physical and mental demands of raising them were overwhelming, and even the smallest reprieve at the grocery store was liberating.
I learned I wasn’t alone in my response to this artwork. The photograph struck a chord with others when I snapped a pic and sent it with the accompanying text: “I’m famous! Where did they ever find this picture of me?”
My three daughters love when I send these “shock humor pics”; especially as they mature and discover I am more than their mother. They sent laughter emojis and checked to make sure it really wasn’t me. But I also wanted to see what a few girlfriends thought of this carefree, naked woman in the shopping cart. How differently it resonated with them, each seeing it in very personal ways. One suggested “we should go there” and another said, “She must be European!” Of course my mother weighed in, determining the photo was shamefully uncensored.
As I waited for more of the message replies to ding my cell phone, I circled back to the image in the gallery a few more times. What did Justensen’s work mean to me now, as a middle-aged woman? Would I have seen it this way ten, twenty or even thirty years ago? With each walk round the gallery I realized my feelings were evolving. My immediate laughter and joyful first response had shifted. I distanced myself from the woman in the cart and centered my attention on her surroundings and the unchartered road ahead. As well, I had suddenly taken on the identity of the faceless woman – I was in that cart.
l felt the anonymous woman’s excitement and freedom inside the cart, and her naked body didn’t seem so shocking anymore. I imagined the metal slats would be cold and my weight would create some pretty unsightly, square-shaped, indents across my backside. But I didn’t care. I also thought about the younger me that would have insisted on standing in front of the cart, fully clothed and pushing it after I had cleaned the handle with an antibacterial wipe. Back then, I would never have allowed myself to sit naked, riding merrily along towards an uncharted path? What would people think?
But maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to be outside the empty cart either? It would be under my control and I could fill it with whatever I wanted. I could be happily naked inside or outside of the cart, feeling free and unapologetic, depending on my needs and my mood. Who cared what people thought about how I looked or even what I was doing with the cart? No longer consumed by the same demands of family and social constraints, I felt free.
While I’m not recommending women go out and re-enact Justesen’s artful vignette, I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on who I am. If I’m really honest with where I am at this moment in time, I’d probably fill the cart with a few bottles of sunblock and anti-wrinkle cream while unabashedly proclaiming, “I’m free at last, free at last.” And on days when I decide to go for a ride in the cart, I’ll hope the rickety wheels sputtering underneath will keep my naked body from tipping over as I travel happily down life’s uncharted road.
Stay curious, connected and joyful. To learn more of Justenen’s provocative work, visit: https://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/kirsten-justesen