Art Pilgrimage – by Sarah Kingham

I have spent at least an hour today queuing to experience art. Firstly, because I mistakenly got to the Hayward Gallery an hour before it opened, so I passed a peaceful 40 minutes in the National Theatre expresso bar watching a man stick lines of dots to the windows. This seemed to presage the second part of my day, at least in retrospect. There was a small line of people waiting at the door to the Hayward when we returned at 10:58am.

Then I queued because I waited in line twice to commune with pieces of art. The first of these was Richard Wilson’s 20:50. The work is so popular at the Hayward’s current show, ‘Space Shifters’, that the ticketing staff advised us to go straight to see it, before the queue built up. That they gave this advice to everyone entering the show possibly nullified its efficacy. None the less, we chose to follow it.

 

There was a queue of around twenty people on the first floor. We joined it. A series of tape barriers showed that the queue could be four times longer later in the day, when things get busier. Out on the roof garden a huge convex, blue tinted mirror by Anish Kapoor reflected the clouds. They never seemed to move while I looked at them. It was peaceful; the air was heavy with the odour of sump oil and anticipation. As we approached the work, laminated health and safety sheets were handed out. We needed to remove coats and bags (there was a pair of storage boxes, like those in theme parks, before rollercoasters). If we got vertigo, we should look out of the window, but definitely not grab the sides of the path into the work; the oil in 20:50 goes right to the top of its container; the edges curve in voluptuous surface tension.

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Sky Mirror, Blue – Anish Kapoor

I absolutely love this piece. I first saw it in the second incarnation of the Saatchi Gallery, at the former GLC County Hall building. There it reflected the Edwardian splendour of the top two-thirds of a high windowed and wood panelled room back to itself, darkly. The realisation that the surface is flawed, marred by tiny motes of dust, does not detract from its black splendour. How deep is it? You imagine it could engulf you. Surely the director of ‘Under the Skin’ must have visited it at some point and sublimated its darkness as a future image to use. The space at Hayward is truer to the first conception of this site-specific work, a white cube lit by a grid of skylights. On the far side of the room, the oil continues through an open doorway and out of sight. The path cut through the slightly more than waist deep pool of oil narrows as you reach the centre of the space. (Surely it’s only a few inches deep? Otherwise the weight would bring the building down.) Despite the queue, and the gallery assistant hovering, I felt awe. It is a rare man-made exemplifier of the sublime. I was sad to hear that Saatchi sold it to a Tasmanian museum in in 2015. Two versions can exist simultaneously, one there and one on loan. I wish the Tate had bought it. They could’ve filled the ground level of the Turbine Hall with it. Imagine it installed in the whale gallery of the Natural History Museum.

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20:50 – Richard Wilson

Later we went to Victoria Miro Gallery. Somehow I had managed to secure a timed ticket to see the Yayoi Kusama show. I’d originally had two but their website had crashed before they were processed. Kindly they allowed themselves to be persuaded to let my friend in too. We queued into the building and were handed dot-covered passes to the infinity room installation, ‘My Heart is Dancing into the Universe’; these were also laminated. We queued up some stairs. The top floor of the gallery is a reclaimed industrial space with grey concrete and exposed beams, supported by an iron girder. We agreed that it was like queuing for something at a squat party. It was a long queue, and we had a lot of time to talk.

I first came across Kusama at the start of the new millennia, at a big Serpentine retrospective, her first in the UK. She’s one of those artists who fascinates through living her art as much as making work, like Kahlo or Warhol. Her New York happenings, her now self-imposed seclusion in an institution; the way that she chooses to embrace her overwhelming hallucinations, covering her work (and her costumes) with a riot of seething dots, multi-coloured or black on crimson or primary yellow, undulating with the forms they engulf. The Serpentine show also had an infinity room (possibly a box rather than a room; I remember something smaller). Mobile phones didn’t have cameras back then, so no one was taking selfies.

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Still from one of Yayoi Kusama’s 1960’s performances

When we reached the threshold of the infinity room at Victoria Miro we were shown a plan of the L-shaped space. We must follow the path, staying within the low barriers that delineated it. Rather facetiously (or hopefully) I asked if anyone had strayed off the path and become lost in infinity. No, but apparently a few people had blundered into the installation.

Inside it was a fairyland of black paper lantern spheres suspended in darkness. Each one was patterned with large dots that glowed through a range of colours, pink into purple or yellow into green. The colour changes were gradual. There seemed to be a whole universe of them falling away from us. We gawped and took some photographs (including, I’m afraid, the now obligatory ‘art selfie’). Seemingly seconds later the gallery assistant told us it was time to move on. We had to leave so the next person or pair could be entranced by it. Later I realised that another highlight of the Hayward show, the installation ‘Narcissus Garden’ was also by Kusama.

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Infinity Mirrored Room – Yayoi Kusama

It was impossible for many people to get tickets to see the Kusama show, which is a pity. I hope she gets another UK retrospective soon, it’s been eighteen years since the last one and she turns ninety next year, still prolifically designing large scale sculptures and painting dazzlingly intricate, vivid canvases, examples of both of which were on show at the Miro. The Hayward show is well worth a visit; there are many fantastic pieces there, and they interact wonderfully. Perhaps queuing for these works intensified them; we live in an age of instantaneous gratification, and the novelty of waiting added to the experience. I would have liked to have longer alone with both works, without the pressure of a queue behind me, but you can’t have everything.

Space Shifters was at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank and closed 6th January 2019

Yayoi Kusama; The Moving Moment I Went to the Universe was at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road, closed 21st December.

The problem with Frieze Week ’18 by Sian Matthews

 

That title is a little misleading because I did actually have a really great time at Frieze London. It has been over a month now since the fair and I have had plenty of time to contemplate it all, although there is one thing that has been playing on my mind that I would like to discuss. But let’s start on a good note! This year was my first time attending the art fair itself, although I have explored the sculpture park in previous years, and thanks to Sweet ‘Art I had a press pass!

This year Frieze week had a huge focus on women in the arts. Frieze itself commissioned some large-scale artworks, installations and performances such as Tatiana Trouvé’s ‘The Shaman’ (pictured below) a 1.2 tonne bronze tree and water pump. It was one of the first things I saw as I went into the fair and it definitely commanded the attention it was receiving.

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At the other end of the fair there was a curated section of stands showcasing the work of 9 female artists who had used their work as a form of political activism in the 80s and 90s called ‘Social Work’ I quite enjoyed Social Work as it was diverse on all levels, including race, age, backgrounds and even mediums and subject matter. The section included artists such as Nancy Spero, Helen Chadwick, Berni Searle and Ipek Duben; artists who use the female experience and themes of sexuality, gender, alienation and identity to challenge both aesthetic and political conventions. It worked really well and was an insightful look into the practice of some very influential artists. I was also lucky enough to wander past just as Sonia Boyce was giving an interview about her work! (I won’t lie, I felt a little starstruck!) It was fascinating to listen in and hear what she had to say about the motives and messages behind her work and what she thought of Social Work itself.

The stand I connected with most in Social Work was the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery who were showcasing the work of Mary Kelly. ‘Interim Part 1: Corpus’ is the culmination of 3 years of documentation by Kelly of conversations she had with women of her generation and displays their words in first-person text panels alongside screen printed images of fashion ads and medical photography of ‘hysterical women’. It feels personal and almost candid in its delivery, you get the feeling you’re reading something like a diary entry, something you shouldn’t be reading, and I appreciated the fact I was being told something so intimate.

The one thing that really disappointed me about Social Work is that it was hyped up quite a lot beforehand, but then felt like it was squished into a corner at the actual event. I would have preferred it to have had a more prominent spot in the fair.

Another nice touch to the fair this year was a fund-raising event hosted by Tracey Emin in the form of a postcard auction, with the proceeds going to women’s charities. Although unfortunately I didn’t manage to catch any of it!

Elsewhere in the city, galleries such as White Cube, Victoria Miro, the Parasol Unit and even the RA celebrated women by opening exhibitions and installations of works by artists such as Yayoi Kusama (who I love but sadly missed out on tickets for!), Cornelia Parker brought her PsychoBarn installation to the courtyard of the RA, Heidi Bucher and her beautifully haunting latex skinnings, and Doris Salcedo (pictured below) at White Cube. Women really did take over London for Frieze week!

 

On the Friday night I attended The Other Art Fair which also had a whole section dedicated to female artists. They had their own building across the road from Victoria House which was designed to be a statement called ‘not 30%’ to draw attention to the fact women typically get only 30% representation in art fairs. I thought it was a great idea (although I wasn’t sure about segregating them in another building away from the main event), and there was a diverse selection of work, from painting and sculpture to taxidermy and even tattooing. I so badly wanted to get a tattoo by artist Emily Malice but I missed her by a couple of hours as Friday night was the only time she wasn’t there! (maybe next time!)

Whilst we were there we also met two recent graduates who had turned their stall into a fun and inviting participatory project.  As Illustrators, they were drawing visitors to the art fair as any animal of their choosing for a small donation, so obviously we had to take part! See us below as a cat, a leopard and a jellyfish!

 

Overall I think The Other Art Fair may have been more enjoyable on a social level. More interactive, more inviting, it was more appealing to a wider spectrum of people. Dare I say more inclusive?

All of this sounds great doesn’t it? Women finally getting the recognition they so badly deserve. So going back to my clickbait title, where is the problem?

What has been playing on my mind is the idea that all of this new attention from large institutions, galleries and companies is just a form of box ticking, it felt like they were just ticking women off their inclusion list. I am not really sure of the exact thing that made me feel like this, maybe it’s the fact that both art fairs felt the need to over-publicise their inclusion of women and make a song and dance about it as if for attention; to be seen to be doing the right thing instead of recognising the issues faced by female artists, educating themselves and making the necessary changes. Obviously, I’m not saying we shouldn’t shout about the needs and rights of women in this industry, its massively important to talk about it! There was just something about Frieze week that made me feel like the motives behind it were off.  As you all must know by now, 2018 marks 100 years since the first women in the UK won the right to vote. This means that women’s rights are very much the theme of the year. It means that right now equality and women’s rights seem to be a bit of a fashion statement unfortunately and these companies need to be seen to be doing the right thing or they face huge backlash.

While I think its amazing what happened at this year’s Frieze week, and I certainly do not want to belittle the success of the artists featured. I can’t shake the feeling that we should all be a little wary of the motives and the intentions behind this sudden push for women. I am worried that next year this will all go away and no real progress will have been made. I hope I am wrong.

I have taken a photo of an article written in the free art news paper given out at the Frieze art fair itself which I feel sums up my feelings well and highlighted certain points for you. I feel it quite clearly explains why the focus of this years Frieze week only felt skin deep.

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Let me know what you think, am I just being pessimistic? Did you visit Frieze or any of the other events going on that week and what was your experience? I’d really like to know.

A Women’s day Experience by Sian Matthews

I had a bad experience for International women’s day and it helps prove how far we still need to go.

A friend and I decided to spend IWD at a few galleries in London which were holding exhibitions and tours about women artists, the female gaze and the influential women who helped shape certain institutions. I hadn’t seen my friend for a while, I was looking forward to celebrating women and art with her.

The day started strong with a coffee and a catch up before moving on to the newly opened Richard Saltoun gallery in Mayfair. The first exhibition held at this new gallery space, ‘Women Look at Women’ explored themes such as feminine identity, censorship, gender stereotypes, sex and relationships through the work of thirteen international artists. The exhibition included beautiful but honest black and white photography by artists like Renate Bertlmann, Francesca Woodman and Annegret Soltau, as well as sculptural works by Helen Chadwick.

It was great to experience an exhibition, curated by a woman, working with female artists, feminine themes and the female gaze. You know, other then when Sweet ‘Art does it. For the most part I was impressed by it. The exhibition felt refreshing; it was clean and well thought out, and most importantly for the viewer, it was insightful and thought provoking. Of course, any exhibition has space for improvement, to learn and ensure you do things better the next time. ‘Women Look at Women’ could have been more inclusive. It could have included a wider, more diverse group of works, but it did what it was meant to do well enough for me.

After such a great start you will understand my disappointment and, honestly, outrage at our next visit.  This year for International Women’s Day, the Royal Academy intended to celebrate with ‘Feminine Futures’, a series of events and tours from the 1st – 10th of March.

We got to the RA at noon for the IWD tour, which was billed as an event that will “explore the lives of some of the important women in the history of the RA”. What we were greeted with however was anything but!

Before I explain why I was so disappointed, I should point out that this tour was one of six or seven delivered over ten days. The tour is presented by a different guide each day and therefore is different every time. For all I know the rest of the tours were spot on.

To start, the male guide took us into a small corridor next to a staircase which was decorated with photographs of the current eighty academicians. He pointed out Tracey Emin and Cornelia Parker and briefly spoke about them (they were the only female artists mentioned for the whole tour). He then spent the next 5 minutes talking about several of the men on the wall.  He made no effort to mention any other female academicians, he didn’t even mention Sonya Boyce, the first woman of colour to be made a Royal Academician, as recently as 2016.

Moving on he spoke about two paintings depicting some of the life drawing classes at the RA many years ago. These paintings showed female models being drawn by male artists and were themselves by men, although I cannot remember who. While standing in front of these paintings we were told that at this point in the RA’s history, women were banned from attending life drawing classes because it was thought that it objectified them. The guide also informed us that all female life models were from local brothels as it was inappropriate for women other than prostitutes to model nude. But according to him, all of that was ok… because they were paid a little more than their male counterparts.

Throughout the rest of the tour the guide spoke about not only the building it currently occupies, Burlington house, but also when it occupied the top floors of Somerset House and the National Gallery. He spoke about the architects, the owners of buildings and artists who have worked within the RA: all men, including Constable and even Churchill. It would have been far more interesting to tell us the little-known fact that’s among the 34 founding members of the RA there were two women! Mary Moser and Angelica Kaufmann.

A few times other members of the group asked about the role of women at the RA, which was met with the guide asking if any of us were artists and what our practice consists of. Both myself and my friend answered, explaining that we are installation artists with an interest in the work of the YBA’s. So we were already familiar with Tracey Emin who’s work he promptly explained to us as if we had no idea who she was. ‘My bed’ he said was a “product of her realisation of the mess around her” not exactly what I would call an in depth, insightful or accurate description.

'My Bed' by Tracey Emin

Right at the end of the tour, after someone asked about them, he briefly mentioned the suffragettes, how they had “slashed a couple of paintings in protest” basically referring to them as trouble makers who had ruined a precious painting. There is a lot of information to be found about this incident at the 1914 RA Summer Exhibition on their own website, surely a tour guide at the RA should be able to talk freely and in a respectful manner about this event?

Reading back through this it probably sounds like I am making this up. But I can promise I am not. You expect to come away from a tour of influential women at the RA feeling proud of what these women achieved in an industry that wasn’t always accepting, I expected to hear about how the women before me helped to pave the way for myself to be an artist and work in the arts today and instead I was told about how women had been mistreated by the RA until after WWII. I left feeling deflated, like we had gone backwards for an hour and honestly, I was angry.

Another point I feel I should add here is that on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, the same day I was trying to celebrate with a friend. An exhibition opened at Tate Modern, all about famous “ladies man” Picasso.

After all of this I had just one question on my mind. How did such a small gallery in Mayfair, and countless other small organisations manage to get their shows and messages so right when the big institutions with all their money and resources get it so wrong? Do they not care? Do they not listen? It seems ridiculous to me and it highlights just how far we all still must go in not only getting, but understanding and respecting equality.

Threesome – an exhibition of three women painters, by Charlotte Elliston

As it was recently the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People act, which gave women who were over 30 and property-owners, the right to vote in the UK, and will soon be Women’s History Month (including International Women’s Day on 8 March), the Sweet ‘Art team will be trying to see, and post about as many relevant exhibitions and events as possible.

First up was a visit to New Art Projects gallery in London for a panel discussion about their current exhibition Threesome. Threesome is an exhibition featuring artists Roxana Halls, Sarah Jane Moon and Sadie Lee, and has been curated by Anna McNay. The focus of the exhibition is the female gaze; each of the artists are figurative painters, female, and identify as queer.  This follows on from the recent Tate show Queer British Art, which was a show timed to coincide with the anniversary of the  1967 Sexual Offences Act.  This was a great show of art by gay white men, but was a bit lacking on other forms of queerness. Threesome was partly intended as a response to this – showcasing the work of three contemporary lesbian artists. I knew in advance that the premise of the exhibition was that each artist was painting each other as well as themselves, and had also each painted a nude study of performance artist Ursula Martinez. (Along with Corrina, and some of the fab WIA group, we had recently seen Ursula in discussion with Sadie at the National Portrait Gallery for their Queer Perspectives Lates).

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Sadie Lee and Ursula Martinez in conversation at Queer Perspectives

So I was excited to see the full exhibition, and the works ‘in the flesh’ (pun intended) rather than just as images. The event featured all artists and Ursula Martinez in discussion with Anna McNay, and the gallery has said that the full transcript of the discussion will be added to their website in due course. I highly recommend keeping an eye out for this! The discussion began with Anna McNay inviting each of the artists to discuss their works in turn, before moving on to the portraits of Ursula and finally opening up the discussion to encompass more general themes from the exhibition.

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Portrait of Sarah Jane Moon, by Roxana Halls

 

Each of Roxana Halls’ portraits use heightened colours (in the discussion she mentioned positioning her subjects within a set of neon lights to create the effect) and stylised poses reminiscent of dolls, to create what I would describe as a ‘nightclub’ effect. Her subjects are flanked by mannequins dressed as iconic lesbian characters from films and are posed almost as if they are mid-dance. For most of the discussion I was facing the portrait of Sadie, and (I don’t think it was just the fact that she was wearing glasses), I was reminded of some of the iconic images of Grace Jones. I attributed this mental link to the almost luminescent skin tones Roxana created, and to the strength and power of her images.

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Bulletproof Heart album cover.

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Ms Jones in 1984 in London, by Adrian Boot

In the discussion, Roxana said that she often uses mannequins within her work, not always so explicitly. Her reason for doing so is that straight male film directors will often use mannequins in their films to represent lesbian women; somehow implying that lesbian women are not quite ‘real’ women, or not quite human. Judith Butler says in her essay Imitation and Gender Insubordination “I suffered for a long time, and I suspect many people have, from being told, explicitly or implicitly, that what I “am” is a copy, an imitation, a derivative example, a shadow of the real”. This was echoed by the ideas present in Roxana’s work

The discussion of the use of the mannequin to represent lesbian women also made me consider the myth of Pygmalion, and the use of this trope in art and culture. Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with the figure of a woman he had carved, and she was brought to life with magic and became his wife. The myth has been widely used in painting, film and literature.

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Pygmalion and Galatea, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

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Still from the film, Mannequin, dir. Michael Gottlieb

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Still from My Fair Lady, dir. George Cukor (They changed the ending from the original play to add ‘romantic’ interest)

In both the straight and queer versions, these tropes appear to be created with the fear of the unknown, and the desire to impose control by not just objectifying, but actually making the woman into an object. The myth also places the creative agency in the hands of the male, whether that be the sculptor Pygmalion, shop-window dresser Jonathan Switcher, or linguist ‘Enry ‘Iggins. In these instances not only a creative, but a sexual power is also conferred to the male as in each instance, the bringing of the ‘mannequin’ to life results in sexual union.

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Portrait of Roxana Halls, by Sadie Lee

 Sadie Lee’s work focuses on the ideas of intimacy and sexuality. Her three artist portraits are reclining figures, shown in their underwear, on rumpled beds. Within the discussion, Sadie said that her aim was to use (and I think to subvert) the traditional Venus pose, where the subject had one arm bent over her head, and another around her waist.

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Venus Anadyomene, by Jean Dominique Ingres (with a barbie-doll genital area)

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Venus Williams, taken by Hirakawa for ESPN Magazine

Her portraits were created by looking at the subjects from a position between the legs (described by Sadie as a position a lover might see them from), lit from below with a harsh raking light. They pick up qualities of the skin like dimples and stretch marks. The underwear is everyday; big knickers, 100 denier tights, bras with the label sticking out. In the discussion, Sadie said that she wanted the portraits to be real and mundane. She deliberately used a harsh light, to challenge traditional notions of female portraiture equalling female beauty. Her aim was to contest the thought that a portrait of a woman has to be flattering.

The portrait of herself was based on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, where the model is purportedly using her hand to hide her genitals, but could equally be masturbating.

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Sleeping Venus, by Giorgione,

Sadie’s self-portrait replicates this pose, but turned away from the viewer in order to make the pose “more threatening”. She explained that by turning her back on the viewer, she removes complicity in the voyeurism. The subject knows that the viewer is there, but is performing the act for herself and not them. Sadie’s portraits lie in direct contrast to the European tradition of the female nude, in which the subject displays her nudity for the observing male’s pleasure. John Berger sums this up in Ways of Seeing “In the art-form of the European nude the painters and the spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them” – I really hope Venus Williams actively sought out her nude photoshoot of herself as a Venus!

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Portrait of Sadie Lee, by Sarah Jane Moon

Sarah Jane Moon’s portraits were created with the aim of giving her sitters agency. The fact that they are all painters was important to her, and she wanted to show them as creators in their own right. Each of the portraits was painted from visiting the artist in their own studio, and the studio features as a backdrop. Each of the artists is also featured holding a tool of their painting. The subjects all stare back at the viewer, making eye contact which is direct and unapologetic and could even be described as challenging. The paintings show that in each case the viewed is also the viewer.

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Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Sarah’s portraits made me remember the self-portraits of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the 18th century French painter, and the thoughts of Griselda Pollock on this piece in particular. The artist has painted herself with the tools of her profession, but she is also portrayed as unambiguously female. She is well groomed, well dressed and beautiful. The shadow of her hat across her face and her gaze avoid confrontation. Her mouth is slightly parted in a demure smile. Pollock says that the aim of the piece is still to create a spectacle for us, the viewer, as through Western art history there has always been “an insuperable distance between the notion of the artist and the notion of a woman”.

Sarah’s pieces also critique the tradition of portraying the male artist in his studio, with his female (nude) model. In two of her portraits, we see completed works, or works-in-progress depicting naked female bodies. Within the discussion, it was revealed that one of the pieces behind Sadie was actually a self-portrait, further subverting the idea.

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The Artist’s Studio, by Gustav Courbet

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Lucian Freud, shot for Vanity Fair

Although each of the Threesome painters has a very distinct style, and is aiming to explore different things within their work, the discussion also drew out common themes. The idea of agency seemed very relevant. It seemed important to each of the artists that they were not simply producing a passive image of someone, but were creating a piece where the subject was active, dynamic and powerful – in some cases, stripping the viewer of their agency and relegating them to the role of passive consumer.

The discussion ended with the questioning of what is different about the female gaze. The panellists mentioned ideas of empathy, truth and respect; possibly even love, certainly from a queer female perspective. The point was also raised as to whether defining the female gaze was reductive. Is art created by women inherently different to that created by men? Should differentiation even be employed between art created by women and that of men?

 

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Anna McNay, Sadie Lee, Sarah Jane Moon, Roxana Halls and Ursula Martinez in conversation

There was also the acknowledgement that the idea of the female is seen through a history of the male dominated society. Notions of femaleness, and queerness are both linked to notions of otherness, perpetuated in the Western art tradition, so what does being ‘female’ even mean – how can this be defined in a society which has always just seen ‘female’ in opposition to ‘male’ and ‘queer’ in opposition to ‘heterosexual’.

The theory of there being a somehow unified female gaze also implies that there is a shared way of looking which links women through history and across the world. Griselda Pollock also references these kinds of theories that art produced by women has commonality, saying that this idea will “…efface the fact that although women as a sex have been oppressed in most societies, their oppression, and the way they have lived it, or even resisted, has varied from society to society, and period to period, from class to class. This historicity of women’s oppression and resistance disappears when all women are placed in a homogenous category based on the commonest and most unhistoricized denominator”.

Many of these discussions and debates are far to large and unwieldy to continue here, but I am sure that we will touch on them again in our various exhibition visits. I also again recommend getting down to see the show for yourself before it closes. It is also running on conjunction with 3X3, also curated by Anna McNay, which is a photographic show from 9 queer female artists.

Threesome opened on 11 January 2018 and runs until 4 March 2018 at New Art Projects, London.

‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’; a graphic take on the counterculture – by Sarah Kingham

‘Records and Rebels’ at the V&A applies their house style of curatorial ‘cluster-fuck’ to the 1967-70 period, when psychedelia ruled avant garde and pop culture, and mainstream media and advertising rushed to jump on the bandwagon. The aesthetic of the show is more; disparate objects clustered in arbitrary groupings, and headphones (previously utilised in the phenomenally successful ‘David Bowie Is’ show) releasing blasts of various music of the era as you approach the display cases. On one level, this jumble of sound, colour and imagery is justified as appropriate to the times; densely layered and vividly hued visuals were a signature of the graphic design work of the counter culture, as were collages of images or sounds in the arts, and multi-media ‘happenings’ that utilised light shows, sounds and performance.

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Unfortunately some of the connections are just too obvious or gauchely executed to be effective. In one of the several rooms devoted to protest inspired art and objects, Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’, the seminal Situationist attack on visually mediated culture, is displayed as a (presumably first edition) copy inside a gutted old fashioned television. As you approach this the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ blares through the headphones. It’s too gimmicky, too obvious, which is somehow disquieting; you can all too easily imagine a group of creatives around a table throwing out ideas; ‘radical’ exhibition as a precursor for a well-stocked gift shop (which of course there is). The tune ‘Revolution’ doesn’t even seem an appropriate choice, as the ambivalent lyrics advise the imagined young wannabe-revolutionary it addresses to change their head, not their surroundings; and that ‘if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow’. All of which makes this viewer (and listener) wonder if the show is even more vacuous (or possibly much cleverer) than it appears. Along with the crumpled fencing hanging from the ceiling alongside blow ups of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and Angela Davis (despite her commitment to Communism, I’m not sure how she would feel about sharing the space with Uncle Joe), it reads as a strangely garbled retelling of the preoccupations of the day.

Displayed alongside posters advocating gay rights, black power and women’s liberation, and protesting the Vietnam War, is an original, skimpy, costume from space-opera/sexploitation movie ‘Barbarella’, with a quote from director Roger Vadim claiming Barbarella’s disinhibited sexuality as a triumph not just of free love but for women generally. This juxtaposition of genuine politically engaged objects with a supposedly politically ‘justified’ relic of a piece of cult, pulp culture is rendered even more bizarre by its contrast with the other mannequin on display nearby, decked in a ‘recreation’ of a Black Panthers’ uniform of black leather jacket, beret, and trousers.

To be fair on the V&A, they are a design museum, and attempting to reify concepts, especially those as simultaneously charged and vague as ‘rebellion’ or ‘youth’ through objects is problematic at best. The pieces on show include relics of the era; the wicker, high backed chair Black Panther Huey Newton posed in as an armed and radicalised post-colonial African Prince; two of the Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper’ satin coats displayed in a re-creation of the album cover, disappointingly gaudy and hideous in the flesh. These share space with the ephemeral, mass produced art-meets-design of the album cover and poster, whether it be advertising a festival or sharing a political or philosophical sentiment.

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Huey Newton seated in wicker chair, 1967: photography attributed to Blair Stapp (shown here reprinted in contemporary poster)

Although the one of a kind objects have an and authenticity and the glamour of celebrity – though more ‘street style’ and less stage costumes and designer wear of the rich and famous might have been truer to a coherent vision of Rebels as well as Records – the strongest objects in the show are often the collisions between the avant garde, graphic design and countercultural and radical politics. Some, like the …and Babies anti-Vietnam poster on display, are so powerful and disturbing that 50 years on they are still painful to view, and hard to imagine living with as ‘decorative’ objects (albeit as serious displays of the political commitments of those who hung them), between pinups of Che and Dylan on the walls of squats and teenage bedrooms.

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‘And babies’ creaated by the AWC, a group of New York based artists whi oppsed the war, using an image of the My Lai Massacre taken by US combat photographer Ronald L. Heaberle in 1969, overlaid by a quote from an interview with US soldier Paul Meadlo who participated in the massacre.

Others show the cornucopia of influence, both on and by the alternative in the graphic arts. The historic inspiration, combining Fin de Siècle and Art Noveau swirls, Dada-like cut and paste and explosions of Victorian circus and Art Deco style lettering, rendered in vivid rainbows of colour is still recognisably present in current design and media.

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Alphons Mucha’s ‘Job’ rolling papers pin-up goes pshychadelic. Poster for Jim Kweskin Jug Band at the Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, 1966.

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The Acid Test, avertising late 1960’s happening, facilitated by Ken Kesey, by Californian artist and designer Wes Wilson.

These aesthetics are still with us today, as is that of the witty and politicised advertising and media style shown in images like Cramer/Saatchi’s 1969 ‘Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?’ campaign for the Family Planning Association.

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‘Would you be more careful it it was you that got pregnant?’, created by Alan Brooking, Bill Atherton and Jeremy Sinclair for Cremer Saatchi advertising agency, London, 1969.

There is plenty to enjoy here; the sheer exuberance of the graphic design’s elaborate and colourful detail is exhilarating, and the idealistic belief displayed in images and objects of protest is profoundly moving. There are contemporary photographs of protestors at the Pentagon, including a youth poking chrysanthemums into the muzzles of guardsmen’s rifles (the first recorded instance of this kind of protest, and the origin of the term ‘flower power’) and earnest young peaceniks in Grosvenor Square tussling with bobbies in capes and domed helmets, who despite their now endearingly anachronistic appearance seem to be dolling out some fairly brutal treatment. Iconic objects are plentiful; not just that photo of Christine Keeler, but also the contact sheets of the shoot, and the original Establishment club chair she straddled in the picture.

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‘Flower Power’ Antiwar demonstrators, Pentagon Building, 1967 by Bernie Boston.

Unfortunately, the combination of the high price of entry (£16 for a full price ticket), uncomfortably dense crowd, mostly of baby boomers, presumably here on a nostalgia trip, and the incoherent nature of the hang strikes a discordant note with the overarching vision of the era the show attempts to communicate. The mandatory gift shop, overflowing with overpriced objet tenuously linked to the era (and an admittedly cheap selection of reprinted protest badges) only serves to heighten this impression.

‘You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’ is open at the V&A, London until 26 February 2017

Sarah Kingham is a London based artist, writer and academic. Trained in art history, theory, and fine art, she is currently engaged in a Masters in Cultural and Critical studies at Birkbeck University. 

Turner Prize 2016 by Charlotte Elliston

In the lead up to Frieze week, I decided to go and check out the 2016 Turner Prize at Tate Britain. Having heard that for the first time, 3 of the artists in the running to win the prize were female, I was interested to check out the works on show.

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Another first for Tate was to allow photography in the exhibition. Someone clearly has seen the opportunities for social media within the exhibition, and realised the selfie potential from the works on display!

The first room presents the artist Helen Marten (who also has an exhibition on currently at the Serpentine I now want to see). Her sculptural works are assemblages of found and manipulated objects – a mixture of the domestic (cotton buds, eggs, money, fruit) and the esoteric (a shed snake-skin?). The blurb from Tate says each sculpture is meant to suggest a “workstation or terminal where some unknown human activity has been interrupted” but both the shapes and randomness of the collections in each piece reminded me more of an animal creating a den or home – the way a bird will collect items purely for shape and colour, with no knowledge or interest in their previous use.

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An aspect of Helen Marten’s work I did find curious, and which none of the reviews I’ve read mentioned, were the curious artist-made aspects of the work. In places, it was evident that metal and plastic had been worked by the artist to form shapes. The most obvious of these was in the first chrysalis-like sculpture formed of interlocking metal parts. Within this sculpture were shapes very reminiscent of a vagina dentata – imagine if Marnie Scarlet’s Vagball from SHE had teeth – this is how clear the reference seemed, to me at least, and yet no mention of this anywhere in the literature I have yet read.

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Next up was Anthea Hamilton’s work and yes, this is the most ‘grammable piece of work in the exhibition, with visitors posing in the ‘crack’ for photos. The piece Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce) was created from designs for a New York apartment door through which people would enter. It is possibly a comment on social housing – those of lower social status would have to enter via the rear, but here, in a gallery space, being photographed by affluent visitors, seems to lose any of this. Perhaps if visitors to the exhibition had been forced to actually walk through the doorway it may have been different.

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I preferred this piece of Hamilton’s work. A brick print suit set against a brick print wall. With references to surrealism, and hints of the nature of camouflage, I also felt it referenced ideas of invisibility, blending in, and the way clothes can enhance or deflect notice.

The third room was dedicated to Josephine Pryde, with a mainly photographic display. I had read the text handout on the artist before I entered the room and was excited by the sound of her new works created by Pryde, where she “placed objects on the back of the worktops, and then exposed them to sunlight in London, Athens, and Berlin” as I love a photogram, and was intrigued by the introduction of the domestic – expecting something similar to Běla Kolářová’s work  seen in Double Take earlier this year. I was quite disappointed in the actuality of the piece, where mostly vague shapes were seen on vague backgrounds. In one piece the artist had clearly imposed the word ‘Jo’ herself, and the most interesting of the series was the piece where a griddle had been placed a few times on the worktop, leaving a geometric design.

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The other half of the room was taken up by a scale model of a graffiti covered train, and photographs of hands interacting with objects. These were created to resemble advertising or fashion images but just arranged as to display hands at the point of touching an object – pine cone, lamp, etc. The most noticeable thing for me in these images was the large number of electronic devices chosen – phones and Ipads seemed to dominate. Perhaps this was even more noticeable now that everyone was photographing all of the works in the gallery (yes, I was one of them too!)

The final room led to Michael Dean’s installation. Entering the room, visitors had to negotiate bits of metal, cement chunks and debris which led round into the centre of the room. Bent metal poles and chains formed half-letters, possibly spelling out variants on the word SHORE, which was also present in stickers in the walls and papers on the floor. Hands and fists emerge from piles of rubble, as if trying to escape from a cave-in.

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In the centre of the floor is a huge pile of pennies. This is titled United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016 and is £20,436 in pennies. The government states that this is the minimum a family of 4 require to live on for a year. When installing the piece, Micheal Dean removed one penny, meaning that this family would now be below the poverty line. What strikes me most about this installation is how little the money looks. Although a large pile of pennies, I would image £20,000 worth of pennies to fill a swimming pool, not a few meters of a gallery floor. The installation as a whole seems more thoughtful, political and relevant to the current UK zeitgeist than the other three exhibiting artists. Whilst I loved Hannah Marten’s strange sculptures, I am rooting for Michael Dean to win.

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The Turner Prize is on until 2 January 2016 at Tate Britain

Helen Marten: Drunk Brown House is on until 20 November 2016 at the Serpentine