History hasn’t been kind to much of Pop. Since the 1960s the exploitation of the movement by advertising has obscured the reality of what was, at first, a utopian project. Tate’s ‘The World Goes Pop’ brings the democratic intent of the 1960s to light; a time when art dismounted from its high Abstract Expressionist horse and attempted to be a culture of the masses. Much of this exhibition isn’t intellectually challenging and that is precisely the point. As ‘The World Goes Pop’ demonstrates, Pop is supposed to be easy, a truly popular art language, recyclable across cultural borders and political contexts.
The first room begins at gunpoint. Fighter plane-come-missile launcher ‘Machine No 7’, stands opposite the doorway. Built by Shinkichi Tajiri in 1968, it has all the mechanical menace of Jacob Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ (1913-15), but wearing a coat of Pop art technicolour. Epstein’s sculpture depicted industrial man as a visored robot, pounding the earth in search of ore. Tajiri’s sculpture, though, needs no human for its operation. In Tajiri’s age, after two World Wars and the atomic bomb, the figure has disappeared; some violence has been done.
Many of the art works in the first room set up the exhibition’s narrative by depicting the human form as wounded, altered in some way, with bright colours serving to make this feel all the more gruesome. Polish artist Jerzy Zielinski gives a Rocky Horror Show vision of political censorship in ‘Without Rebellion’ (1970): a large red satin tongue literally falls out of a canvas, pierced with a metal nail. Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara uses traditional imagery of courtesans from Edo period woodblocks, blowing them up in size, Pop-style, while at the same time removing their facial features. Lacking the power of expression, these spectral waifs feel violated. During the Reformation, one of the favourite pastimes of Protestant zealots was the defacing of church sculpture. Without the face, it seemed, sculpture would lose its links to God – it would cease to act as an icon. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the Pop era was also a kind of secular Reformation, this time not of Catholicism but of art.
Geographically, ‘The World Goes Pop’ is vast. In the catalogue essay, co-curator Jessica Morgan introduces the ‘many Pops [that] emerged simultaneously… often imbued with an ambivalence, if not outright hostility, to the notion of American economic (and implicitly artistic) dominance’. Each room presents a mishmash spanning the globe. It is quite an undertaking, clearly involving a dedicated team of researchers with an impressive array of languages. As with so many international events these days - The Olympics, Glastonbury - the feeling of world-wideness is transmitted through colour, each room of the exhibition aflush with at least one super-bold hue. The artworks’ barriers, too, participate in this rainbow playfulness; instead of shin-height wire ropes we have solid cuboids of colour jutting out from the wall. But it’s not all peace, love and flower power; much of the work engages with the more sinister side of the 1960s: authoritarian politics, the Vietnam War and the rampant ‘coca-colonisation’ of the entire planet by American Pop culture.
Uwe Lausen was the James Dean of German Pop art; he died young and was notorious for his Situationist affiliations and experimentation with drugs. His headless sculpture ‘Pilot’ (1966) is the highlight of the earlier rooms. It stands in front of his comic-strip style painting ‘Geometer’ (1965), which includes two similarly beheaded figures. These be-suited decapitees feel unsettlingly cheerful, prefiguring the kind of American Psycho black comedy Bret Easton Ellis would champion in the 1990s.
Eulàlia Grau’s works continue the macabre theme. Titled ‘Ethnographies’, they are a critique of censorship in Spain in the 1960s and 70s. Spanish mainstream culture under Franco has been termed a “culture of evasion”, in which present realities – poverty, censorship, corruption – were swept under the carpet. Grau’s photomontages mix a Victorian découpage aesthetic with a twist of evil: a doll-like figure lies below a menacing vacuum cleaner, a group of smartly dressed figures sit nonchalantly, legs swinging, over an image of soldiers wading through mud.
Brazil’s rocky political landscape is represented by Marcello Nitsche. A large polystyrene fly-swatter, ‘Kill Fly’, hangs from the ceiling of room 3 like the sword of Damocles, held by a luridly coloured human hand, ready to swat a human passer-by (the sculpture would have been all the more menacing if it was placed above the exhibition-goers, rather than safely above the barriers on the side). Produced three years after Brazil’s military coup in 1964 which saw a US-backed authoritarian government come to power, Nitsche’s sculpture now feels transparent in its critique of the dictatorship. However, as Nitsche claims in an interview conducted especially for the exhibition, at the time this was a camouflaged commentary that would have slipped under the censorship nets.
German artist Peter Roehr’s repetitions of adverts, played on loop until they lose all meaning, is a high point of the exhibition. As is Vienna-born Kiki Kogelnik’s vinyl cut-outs of human shapes hung on hangers. So too a work by the Spanish avant-garde collective Equipo Crónica, which illustrates the massing of a crowd through a grid format.
There is something of the circus about the exhibition, both on the part of the artworks and the design. Modernist aesthetes will hate it, post-colonial and gender studies devotees will love it. At times, the sheer profusion of socio-political contexts on show can be overwhelming. ‘The World Goes Pop’ does well, though, to bring out the rougher edges of the Pop era. Much of the focus of American Pop art tends to be around consumerism and the media. ‘The World Goes Pop’, on the other hand, is able to explore the violence and political repression that defined the era just as much as Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe.