Wilke first performed S.O.S.—Starification Object Series for the public in 1975. Visitors were given colored gum, which they were asked to chew and then return to the artist, who, topless, stretched and folded the pliable wads into small, labia-shaped sculptures and stuck them to her skin. These handwrought anatomical forms have been read as both sensual fetishes and unsightly scars emblematic of the power, and also the stigma, of the female sex.
Interested in how these transitory actions could outlive the moment, Wilke posed for photographs for the S.O.S. series, making what she called “performalist self-portraits.” She hired a professional photographer to take editorial-style portraits of her while she expertly performed rote poses from fashion and advertising: hand on a thrust-out hip, mouth suggestively agape, fingers buried in voluminous hair. These facile displays of her sexuality are clearly farcical, yet she pointedly harnessed the simple truth of her good looks. Here Wilke challenged the viewer-voyeur to resolve the tension between revulsion at the sight of the gnashed forms scarring her body and pleasure at being given such access to her beauty. As the title of the project suggests, Wilke explored the relationships between prescribed constructs of beauty and femininity, states of seduction and distress, and the entangled roles of victim and aggressor.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)