Quoting from the Michel Foucault essay ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’, 1984 alongside Hannah Arendt’s political theories on ‘Action, Power and The Space of Appearance’ the Cooper Gallery’s comprehensive survey on contemporary feminist visual art practices is grounded in notions of “organising… acting and speaking together, the sharing of words and deeds”; and a description of spaces as fluid, holding multiple meanings, while using the mirror to metaphorically describe the contradiction of utopias: real and unreal, its reflective display of dual and opposing meanings.
Artists featured in the exhibition which unfurls over two chapters, ending in March 2017 include Conrad Atkinson, Anne Bean, Cullinan Richards, Rose English, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Margaret Harrison, He Chengyao, Susan Hiller, Alexis Hunter, Mary Kelly, Linder, Lucy McKenzie, Annabel Nicolson, Hannah O’Shea, Siôn Parkinson, Su Richardson, Monica Ross, Jo Spence and Georgina Starr. The artists’ collective materials: texts, posters, sculpture, craft, photographic documents, performance scripts, clothing and social invitations are brought together by the installation’s architecture of free-standing units constructed of mirrors, scaffolding and sheets of polished wood – ‘A Modular Infrastructure in concert with Cooper Gallery’ by artist duo Cullinan Richards. Exhibits are assembled, with a dimensional quality, floor to ceiling to be seen in correspondence and in unison. Texts, manuscripts and notes can be read together as they are brought together. Works overlap and are positioned in close proximity. So much so that they begin to read as one phrase. All the while the viewer is conscious of their appearance in the mirrored surafced. At times the optical illusion Droste effect is set up making the identities, spaces and the notions it represents multiplied and amplified. There is a harmony of material and intention in evidence: a layering of gestures within the works: time, place and narration are unstable, ideas surface with a sense of impermanence and rawness. Materials are often found at points of transformation or at porous boundaries. Words becoming objects, the ephemeral becomes solid, artists create time machines and speak with the dead. Much of the work represents a breaking of political, social or economic silences or where women’s words, contributions and appearances are prohibited or have been erased. There are calls to community action and the initiation of women-only spaces: the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common and protests at Miss World pageants, Annabel Nicolson’s ‘Menstrual Hut’, 1981 and Lucy Mackenzie’s ‘Flourish Nights’, 2001-2003, for example. Elsewhere experiences of the woman’s body are celebrated and made sacred. Much of the work occupies the moment and presents insights into the sensitivities of practices that are difficult to document, works made of light and air, or had to be, through their urgency, documented differently.
Monica Ross’s manifesto History or Not Text, 2000, is presented beside documentation of her ‘Monument to Working Women’, 1985. Here the removal of women’s labour from the narratives of capitalism are expressed through a demonstration at a monument to a male industrialist. He Chengyao’s ‘Opening the Great Wall’, 2001, shows the artist at the Great Wall in China naked from the waist up. In moments of liberated and defiant self-expression her work explores femininism and mental illness as defined and controlled by patriarchal governmental or institutional apparatus. The three large-scale light boxes that form Mary Kelly’s ‘Flashing Nipple Remix’, 2005-2007, meeting our gaze head on, is a re-enactment of an Anti-Miss World performance protest from 1971. In a coordinated gesture lights at the genitals and breasts of a group of women blur together building a temporary barricade. This mesh of light attempts to defuses the media commodification or commercial representation of the body. Seen also in Alexis Hunter’s ‘Approach to Fear XVII: Masculinsation of Society – exorcise’, 1977. Similarly Lucy Mackenzie’s ‘Olympic Dames’, a collage of archival photographs of competitive sportswomen alongside models holding sexualised poses from pornography, which was commissioned to be a centrefold in Make magazine in 2003, explores the media’s mass distribution of women’s bodies. “Your Body is a Playfield” to be folded, collected and discarded Mackenzie asserts.
A sense of double-vision, of combining a past and present of self a key themes of the exhibition seen in works by Jo Spence, Rose Finn-Kelcey and Anne Bean forms the basis of Georgina Starr’s ‘The Joyful Mysteries of Junior’, 1994-2012, in which the artist, at the time on a residency at a gallery in The Hague constructs an alter ego in the form of a ventriloquist’s puppet. In their later reunion the puppet speaks Starr’s truthful unmediated mind and taking cues from magic tricks and end-of-the-pier summer variety entertainment parallels them to the workings of the subconscious mind. Alongside this video is the artist’s ‘Exorcism of the Luna Milk Orb’, 2015, a captured bubble-gum breath sculpture representing an undisciplined elaboration on the female body.
The term ‘exorcism’ is repeated throughout the exhibition. And comes in the form of methods of expunging modern patriarchal ‘demons’ from financial, economic and institutional models including those of the art market itself. These subversive methodologies can be seen further in Linder’s performance couture made of hybrid prints of lizard skin and butterfly wings shown beside intricate photomontages from 2013. Meanwhile documentation of her riotous performance at the Hacienda Club in Manchester in 1982 wearing a dress with a meat bodice in which she protests the nightclub screening pornographic movies plays out as a large-scale video projection. Annabel Nicolson’s work also presents activism as a key component for performance presented in restless, blurry and grainy documentation of her expanded cinema events that combined film, writing and the spoken word. Her fragile 16mm films ‘Reel Time’, 1973, ‘Firefilm’, 1981 and ‘Stock Exchange’, 1983 will screen during an adjunct events programme for the exhibition.
Moments of rationality and irrationality are seen to collapse and places of the mind in conscious and dream states are aligned. Susan Hiller’s portraits of her inner self that combine automatic writing and images of sleep with the supernatural shape the multiple layers of her ‘Midnight Self-Portraits’ series from 1980-1989. While this complexity and the building of narrative from disparate parts, unfolding through gestures in different spaces, at different times is the root of a rephrasing, using a new reflective voice-over, which reads like a metaphysical séance, of Rose English’s performance ‘Berlin’ that was presented in a derelict townhouse, swimming pool and ice rink in London in 1976.