Although quite young in the 1970s I do have some vague memories of the women’s liberation struggle and these will have been informed by TV and radio reporting at the time. I recall this struggle as been quite visceral but more loud and ‘in your face’ than violent. Coming from a reasonably informed left-wing working class background the young me was somewhat puzzled by it. I couldn’t understand why working class people who themselves were engaging in a form of political struggle with structures of power where so anti towards women in their similar struggle. However, I was quite young and while puzzled by this I didn’t dwell on it; I was in my early teens and had young teen thing to do. It is strange though how these memories and feelings were reawakened by the gallery visit and the pre-reading I had in the days beforehand.
The study visit was hosted by the tutor Dawn Woolley and around 10 OCA students attended. We started in the Photographer’s Gallery and afterwards headed to Tate Modern.
As this was my first study visit I wasn’t sure of the format. It was actually quite simple; we would look around one floor of the exhibition and then Dawn would invite us to comment or raise a question on any of the works that had caught our attention. This seemed to work very well and made for interesting discussions between us all, with Dawn posing further questions or adding further information. There was no pressure to speak and the whole event felt relaxed and informal. At the end I left feeling I had a good day feeling artistically and intellectually stimulated and pleased to have met other OCA students. I hope there will be other study visits I can get to in the future.
The exhibition presented works in varying degrees of ‘accessibility’. Some were obvious challenges to the expected roles of women in the male dominated hegemony of the 70’s while others, particularly those presented as performance art, or documenting it, left me not really sure what the artist was attempting to achieve, if in fact they were trying to achieve anything. I cannot comment on every piece at the exhibition so I shall limit my approach to the works that caught my eye the most.
A series by Ana Mendieta referred to as ‘glass on body imprints’ (1972) caught my attention. She was not the only artist in the exhibition to adopt this approach in her work. She distorts her face by pressing it against of piece of glass. I am aware of the role of attractive women in the history of art and it was clear what Mendieta and others were subverting this traditional representation of woman.
Ana Mendieta: Glass on Body Imprints
The series reminded me of some of the works by Francis Bacon that I had seem at an exhibition at the Sainbury’s Centre at the University of East Anglia last year. I can fully understand and even politically support the subversion intent within work, and while they are compelling pieces I don’t think I would want them on my sitting room wall.
That last comment has made me curious about these challenging works. While I can get behind the ‘message’ I too would seek to place beauty on the walls of my home – in fact I have large photography of an Albatross on one of them – and would not feel comfortable with the raw and visceral. Of course I guess that is exactly what the artist was attempting to convey. However, I am still curious of to why Mendieta and the others chose to press their faces against a small piece of glass. Within the images it is clear that the glass is being held against the face. If the she had chosen to do the same against a much larger piece extending beyond the limits of the frame there would be a stronger sense of artifice, leaving the viewer uncertain as to whether or not this is how she looks. Of course holding the glass to the face does imply a sense of self-mutilation, of rendering herself as ugly which also subverts the stereotyped view of how a woman should present herself to the world.
A series by Martha Wilson called ‘A Portfolio of Models’ (1974) left me curious as to whether the sexual politics of the time had evolved and moved on. Wilson presents us with several stereotyped roles for womanhood: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, the Professional, Earth Mother and Lesbian. It was the last one, the Lesbian and that it didn’t seem to sit with the others that led me to think that gender based politics may have changed over time. All of the others are roles to which woman might be attributed but lesbian is state of sexual orientation. Looking at the other roles I question why can’t they be lesbians too? I acknowledge that homophobia is still around in the UK but we live in more enlightened times compared to the 70’s and I wonder how Wilson would present this work if she was to (re)create it today.
Martha Wilson: ‘Lesbian’ from A Portfolio of Models
In our group discussions Dawn made a very relevant point regarding the exhibition. What was missing was any reference to women in the work place. We didn’t know it if this was a curator’s decision or whether the source collection from which the exhibition is drawn doesn’t include any works covering this aspect of women’s lives. On reflection I do wonder whether the exhibition had a somewhat bourgeois slant to it with this important exclusion. However, this gap was filled by an exhibition in the Switch House wing of Tate Modern. Three artists collaborated in this work: Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly. This exhibition was interesting in that the artists used social science research methods to create their work. The study took place in a factory in south London in the mid 1970s. As exhibited the works included photographs to women and men in the work place and the task they did. But it also used text and official documents – for example ‘clocking on & off cards’. Overall the exhibition highlighted the discrimination women faced in terms of their lower pay and access to the higher skilled jobs and supervisory roles that attracted better pay levels. As an artistic approach this differ greatly from the works in the photographers gallery and probably because of my own background it had an immediacy with which I could connect. Although I view it through male eyes this work seemed more personal and even more relevant (more important?) because of it’s connection to lives of working women than some of the works in the Photographer’s Gallery. That said it is not my intention to form some hierarchy of feminist art, preferring to accept each on its own artistic terms.
The Photographers’ Gallery
Francis Bacon Exhibition
Tate Modern: Women and Work