ALICE Through the Glass Ceiling

Sally Levine

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The success of CARY’s More than the Sum of our Body Parts clearly demonstrated to me the power of exhibits to spark conversations about important social and professional issues. I was certain that this would not be my only effort to confront issues affecting women in architecture.  

In 1994, I was invited by New Langton Arts, a San Francisco art gallery, to continue my installation work addressing the status of women in architecture and professional women in general. The result was Architecture Lets In Chicks, Except…(ALICE) Through the Glass Ceiling. With this new multimedia show, I wanted to expand my investigations to recognize the progress women had made while acknowledging that women continued (and continue) to face many challenges in the workplace.

ALICE knew that the very metaphor of the glass ceiling indicated that women had made gains. After all, if women had not gotten their collective "foot in the door," they would not be able to see the ceiling at all. But like a ceiling of glass, women’s progress has been fragile, and it was (and is) imperative that these gains not be taken for granted. In Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen notes that “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” Entering the exhibit through strips of mirrored mylar, this ALICE’s wonderland was a series of seven playful, interactive, three-dimensional installations showing that women still needed to run at least twice as fast.

The vignettes confronted the ways statistics can be interpreted, the differences between media portrayals of women architects and the real work of women architects, the ambiguity of affirmative action programs, the ways that women are made to be invisible, and the challenges of climbing the corporate ladder.

In Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, I asked a number of questions about women’s status within the profession. Keeping the meter of the Wicked Stepmother’s question, text like “How many women architects in all?” and “Who’s the best paid of them all?” was inscribed on the outside of hinged panels. Upon opening the panels, which were connected to a mirror adhered “on the wall,” the viewer saw two answers—one indicating that progress had been made (written legibly) and the other showing the limits of that progress (written to be read in the mirror). The answers to the first questions above were: “There are 23,662 women architects in the US” (right reading) and “Women architects comprise 15 percent of the profession” (mirror image). The second pair read, “Male architects earn $1.00” and “Female architects earn $0.75.”

Rose Colored Glasses juxtaposed the rosy media versions of women architects and the reality of their actual architectural work. I drafted buildings by nine pioneering women architects—Ruth Adams, Han Schroeder, Alberta Pfieffer, Minerva Parker Nickels, Julia Morgan, Eileen Grey, Marion Mahoney Griffen, Eva Kuhleft-Ekelund, and Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter—and framed these 24 x 36 inch drawings in rose-colored plaster frames. These were contrasted with nine miniature images of women portraying architects—in films, on television, in magazine fashion spreads, and in print ads—clipped to thin cable strung from ceiling to floor. The next layer was composed of nine viewing devices held on stands made of steel plate, coil, and reinforcing rod. Various magnifying glasses, binoculars, monoculars, and telescopes, all covered with rose-colored gels, were connected to the stands. They were focused directly on the media images, placed in the gallery relative to their magnifying capabilities. Whether a woman showing architectural prints to a client whose string of pearls had broken or Elise Keaton (mom and architect) in Family Ties, none of the images came close to the accomplishments of the actual women. As the viewer looked beyond the media mystique, the real work became most prominent.

Ambiguity was the central theme of Shining Armor. Even though the whole notion of knights in shining armor is antithetical to professional ambition, it doesn’t necessarily make the concept of such a knight unattractive. Similarly, I had ambiguous feelings about affirmative action. The program offered opportunities to women but often limited these opportunities to consulting with larger, male-owned firms. As the piece evolved, I became interested in times when women wore their own shining armor, and I presented information about affirmative action within a historical context of women taking on their own battles. This large triangular sculpture corner was a patchwork of copper, bronze, steel, aluminum, wire mesh, and perforated metals. It stitched together a history of affirmative action alongside examples of women’s movements, from a twelfth-century harem revolt in Persia to a seventeenth-century riot by women bread bakers in Paris to marches in Washington, D.C.

I wanted to express my concern for the ways women have been made to feel invisible in the workplace, whether they are being denied credit for an idea or being left out of a meeting. This led to Smoke and Mirrors, Now you see her, now you don't, and Pick-a-Card, Any Card. In the former installation, slides were projected through gray “clouds of smoke” covering a platform that supported a projector and tape player. A mirror was placed in front of the projector lens to transmit the images horizontally onto another platform suspended from above, appearing to float. The projections were presented in pairs, allowing the viewer to “see her” before she became invisible. For example, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were shown as professional partners, but then Robert Venturi was shown alone as the recipient of the Pritzker Prize. These slides were accompanied by an audio tape with a magician’s voice revealing tricks used to make women disappear.

Adjacent to Smoke and Mirrors, long white-gloved hands were perched on pedestals clad with red satin. One hand cradled blank Red Queen playing cards, inviting gallery visitors to share their experiences with “sleights of hand.” The other glove held the ever-growing hand of cards, where visitors could pick a card to discover other tricks that had been performed on women visitors who had been made to disappear.  

In The Glass Slipper, I replaced the metaphor of the glass ceiling, pointing out the treachery and fragility of advancement made by women while wearing shoes made of glass. Couples’ dance steps were painted on the gallery’s floor, leading to a pyramidal ladder reaching from the floor to the ceiling. As a few glass slippers ascended the ladder backwards, more fell behind into a pile of broken glass and mirror. Throughout the gallery, women’s dance steps were the reverse of the forward movements of the men’s, suggesting, as it has been said of Ginger Rogers in respect to Fred Astaire, that “she did everything that he did, only backwards and in high heels.”

I have always thought that Crystal Ball was ahead of its time. I wanted to create a means for communication beyond the gallery walls. Small “crystal” beads were strung on silver string, along with a message charm that read, “What do you see in our future? Email ______” and then my email address. Purely conceptual in nature, this piece provided souvenir bracelets, placed in a crystal bowl for all to take. Today I would ask for tweets at #alicethroughtheglassceiling. No one sent an email, but the feedback I did receive assured me that this gallery show struck a nerve for both women and men.