In tribute to my very sympathetic and supportive editor it is unsurprising that this review landed at my feet. My words earlier this year ran along the lines ‘from now on I’m only reviewing solo shows by women, or in the case of group shows there must be at least 60% (minimum) female representation’. The reason for this lay somewhere between requiring to be part of a push for greater female art visibility and my own finding of feminism in my early 30s. Paradoxically on this occasion I felt both an adrenaline rush at the thought of adding my words to the debate coupled with an agonising anxiety of possible embarrassment in front of the academic community who regularly opine on shows of this nature.
Many of the 48 practices on show here are already rich in dialogue and debate, names such as Judy Chicago, Valie Export, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Alexis Hunter, Sanja Ivekovic, Suzanne Lacy, Ana Mendieta, Orlan, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke are considered household feminist names (excuse the domestic pun), staples in the canon. With this in mind our intimacy with their work shouldn’t negate the radical, experimental, ‘avant-garde’ reality of what all of the above achieved during this rich era of feminist art practice.
Encountering this show is to be reminded of the hilarity of Martha Rosler swinging a knife in ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’, of Ana Mendieta’s squashed self-portraits pre-dating the selfie and of Hannah Wilke’s ‘Beware of Fascist Feminism’ collages but also acquainting yourself with artists often undiscussed. It is to be reminded, too, of Helena Almeida’s outstretched palms either welcoming you to her reality or trying to escape, Gina Pane’s exquisite performance work unpacking aesthetic narcissism and the culture gender politics of Mlle Bourgeoise Noir aka Lorraine O’Grady.
The show itself is what you would expect of the location; image-focused – heavy in photography and collage with a healthy amount of video work and DIY publications –important references when realising the lack of funds afforded these highly relevant practices and interesting when you cross-compare with the octane glamour of the Simon Fujiwara show upstairs (which, may I add, gets a whole gallery, while this retrospective attempts to squeeze 48 practices into the remaining spaces below).
While the show is a relevant historical encounter illustrating the activist tenacity of these practices it struggles to encounter this within a wider current social context. Work by Mendieta is welcome – especially in light of recent somewhat under-represented campaigns on behalf of the artist at the opening of the Switch House at Tate Modern. With this in mind inclusion of Cindy Sherman’s blackface portraits is incredibly problematic / borderline unacceptable – no warning is placed before encountering the work and no real contextualisation afforded. Though I value the importance of not overly interpreting work for the viewer (thus frustrations at the chosen thematics used within the show are noticeably absent from this review) I also think inclusion of this work without a curatorial justification shows a lack of sympathy and understanding for current feminist woc debate. The show itself echoed this with the ever-present question of who is representing who especially pertinent when exhibitions of merit are continually a curatorial whitewashing.
Through the show’s contentious curatorial decision-making there is still an urgency to allow visibility for collections such as this to be present and accessible in our public organisations. With the subsuming of ‘The Women’s Library’ in Whitechapel by LSE and the instability of ‘The Feminist Library’ in Waterloo it has become increasingly important to discuss the lack of visibility of works by even the canon in most of our larger permanent collections. The strange reality that they reside in the art collection of Austria’s leading electricity company makes the comparison ever more relevant. Whilst I don’t necessarily feel that politically active feminist artists need to await acceptance by the establishment, that they rally against the reluctance to acquire works of this nature in sustainable collections paves the way for their work to remain in the niche purgatory of academia. The reality is that these works speak beyond the philosophical context often primarily afforded them, they are rich and verbose, and as with the Sherman portraits they can get it wrong. It is the ability to apply the works’ context to the practicalities of gender equality which problematises the pains the practices went to to underpin the injustice in the world.
Subscribing the work as a feminist-only avant-garde underscores a glitch which defines the political agency of these artists as something of ‘female’ value as opposed to something inherent within a wider social critique. It also manages to bookend the transformation of that society by ‘representing’ works made only within the 1970s – systematically adhering to the rhetoric that feminism comes in waves as opposed to being an ongoing battle worth fighting. Encountering the work through prisms of representational brackets highlights the ongoing current debate around defining female practice as feminist as opposed to something being created as a critique of the current socio-political system to which we all are accountable.