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.

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

 

 

On the road – Liverpool – By Charlotte Elliston

A few weeks ago I took a mini road trip to Liverpool, having never been there before (and knowing it had been the European Capital of Culture in 2008), so was keen to check out some of the art there.

The Liver Building

The Liver Building

First things first as always for me in a new city – a bit of a walk around to get the ‘jist’ of the place. I was very impressed overall with the beautiful buildings in the city – a wealth of great architecture from the Georgian right up to the contemporary.

Liverpool Cathedral

Liverpool Cathedral

Next stop Liverpool Cathedral, and I was surprised to find a Tracey Emin piece over the entrance. As my photo does not do this piece justice, you can see a better image on the cathedral’s website. The text piece in neon reads “I felt you and I knew you loved me” and is said by the artist to have been created to allow visitors to the cathedral to contemplate the sharing of love. I’m not sure why I was so confused to find contemporary art in a cathedral – after all the church has historically always been a major patron of the arts, but contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin often challenge authority with their work – something establishments fear, so it was nice to see this marriage of the new and the traditional here.

Metropolitan Cathedral Liverpool

Metropolitan Cathedral Liverpool

Another cathedral next, this time the Metropolitan Cathedral with it’s unusual crown-like design. This is a very modern-feeling building, especially inside where the large circular hall contains saints chapels each with a very different design. Here too, was modern art – abstract paintings adorning some of the chapels.

Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool

Couldn’t visit Liverpool without a stop at Tate. I guess being used to Tate Modern and Britain, I found this very small and was round it in about half an hour.

Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool

I was caught by an unusual display in the gallery – about five paintings from the collection were hung on a clear perspex wall in the centre of the floor, so that viewers could walk round and take a look at the back. I wasn’t quite sure if this added to the appreciation of the painting at all (probably the opposite as I spent more time at the back than the front) but is an interesting concept to bring up discussion of the object and authenticity.

Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool

Then I bumped into Susan Hiller’s piece ‘Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall’ – almost literally as it was quite strangely placed by the exit. I’d seen this before in a different exhibition, and remembered it being more atmospheric and representative of a domestic room. Here, it felt a bit like a visitor seating area done out in Ikea.

The Bluecoat

The Bluecoat

Next to the Bluecoat, to see Listening, a Hayward touring exhibition of sound art. My favourite here was Laurie Anderson’s ‘The Handphone Table’, where listeners have to place their elbows on a table and hands over their ears in order to hear a soundtrack – the vibrations conducting the sound through the body.

The Duke of Lancaster

The Duke of Lancaster

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The Duke of Lancaster

Back on the road, and I make a stop at the dilapidated passenger ship, The Duke of Lancaster. The ship was purchased to be made into a luxury shopping mall, but I guess planning permission wasn’t granted or finance ran out as she was left to rot in the middle of nowhere. Since then, street artists from around the UK have made her a giant canvas and the sight is pretty spectacular.

Portmerion Village

Portmerion Village

Final stop – Portmerion Village – a bit of a stretch to call it art but certainly a unique vision/disnificaion of a place worth seeing!