Jess Dobkin Pieces It Together

Provocative lesbian-feminist performance artist extraordinaire Jess Dobkin is a fascinating study in juxtapositions. She is a caring mother of a toddler yet also a lesbian who publicly—and proudly—embraces feminism.


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Photo: David Hawe

She is extremely ardent about her art as well as activism for and with queer youth and is highly articulate about her performance work as legitimate exploration of gender, sex and culture.

And, it seems, no one mistakes Dobkin’s daring, and often disturbing, sexual and political performances as stunts presented solely for shock value. In fact, media coverage of her appearances reinforce the artist’s own deeply held conviction that “I want to create an environment to engage audiences in meaningful ways. I make it safe for them to explore some discomfort and shock is not conducive for my purposes. However I understand my work might come off as shocking because I deal with taboo subjects.”

After graduating with an M.F.A. in Performance Art from Rutgers University in 1997, Dobkin lived in Brooklyn and later moved to Montreal with a girlfriend. They subsequently moved to Toronto and shortly thereafter broke up. Dobkin decided to stay in Canada, where the former New Yorker lauds national and local public and private support for the arts. It makes Toronto an attractive base from which to live and work, and “provides healthcare I would otherwise not have for both me and my daughter and so many other quality of life things not available to artists in the U.S.”

Dobkin’s record of performances (Jessdobkin.com), from 2006’s "Lactation Station" (where viewers became participants at a “milk bar” with the opportunity to sample different types of pasteurized human breast milk) to the more recent Everything I’ve Got (where the artist catalogs seemingly random items from her journal --actually creative ideas for pieces that may or may not come to fruition for various reasons-- after penetrating herself with a dildo and birthing a mannequin head), make clear the artist is on a feminist mission. Dobkin herself points out, “My work is intrinsically feminist because it is always concerned with more than women’s empowerment, I explore issues of power and inequity. I also use my body as my starting point, it’s my primary material and I use it in relation to feminism as a way to take back…what has been taken from us as women. I am both subject and object.”

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