Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, 1982 (Photo by Reed White/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Women’s anger and women’s ambiguities

A new exhibition offers interesting, if sometimes confusing, perspectives on women in revolt

Artillery Row On Art

In the trademark slow-shuffle exhibition walk, I join an elderly man to look at a series of photographs on the gallery wall. The man wears a sandy trench coat, a cravat and spectacles — what you might call your “typical” Tate Britain visitor. The photographs depict a naked woman pulling out a scroll of paper from her vagina. She reads the words on this umbilical cord of knowledge ferociously. The man looks confused, spooked and somewhat alarmed.

He is one of the few male visitors to the Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 exhibition at Tate Britain. To his relief, our mutual embarrassment of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger in this innocent act of voyeurism was foreshortened when his wife joined. Chuckling, she said to him, “Don’t worry, you’ll be a woman one day.” Her nonsensical comment broke the tension, and they continued to plan their lunch.

Women in Revolt! is an exploration of feminism in 1970s and 80s Britain. There have been various exhibitions exploring these decades in relation to feminism over the years, but this show is monumental in its depth and scope. It surveys feminism from the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1970 to Thatcherite neoliberalism in the late 1980s.

The depth of research is immediately impressive, indicative of the skilled archivists at collections such as the Women’s Art Library. The first room — “Rising with Fury” — sets the context through primary evidence. It uses source materials to tell the story of the 1970 Women’s Liberation Conference in Oxford. Photographs taken by Chandan Fraser of this meeting provide fascinating insight into the atmosphere. They capture the excitement, passion and anticipation of its participants — a conscious historical movement.

Visual sources animate the preponderance of text that overwhelms the exhibition: text on the posters, text in archive cases, text accompanying artworks … The sheer amount of text is exhausting, and it is difficult to absorb everything in a single visit. After the first three rooms my attention began to lag, and so did that of others. One X/Twitter user (@peerq) recalled a conversation overheard at the exhibition: “Is there much more to see, Gladys?” “No, only punk and lesbians.”

The necessity of text is related to the confusing nature of feminist art itself. The Marxist’s Wife (still does the housework) (1978/2005) by Alexis Hunter is a case in point. This photographic series depicts a woman’s hand polishing a poster of Karl Marx. The accompanying wall label does an excellent job of explaining the series which would otherwise resonate only with a select few. The viewer must first be familiar with the work of Karl Marx, then realise the omission of household labour from his theory, and then pair these together in a dense exhibition alongside hundreds of similarly-politically-complex works.

Household items are interspersed across a subsection of barbed wire fence

The Marxist’s Wife is, in fact, one of the easier works to visually interpret due to its striking appropriation of advertising techniques. The zoomed-in perspective of a hand touching an object is a distinctive motif in the practice of Hunter. She was astutely aware of its capacity to give photographed objects tactile reality. This technique had been tried-and-tested by marketing companies for visual arrest, and it was subsequently mimicked by Hunter in this effective act of postmodern pastiche. In comparison, performance art — a major medium of the feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s — is more difficult to understand without the aid of textual interpretation. Live performances are reduced to still images or looped on video screens.

Usually, aesthetic value can provide light relief in exhibitions, but to take pleasure from the naked performance pieces featured — the scroll-pulling artist described above (Interior Scroll (1975) by Carolee Schneemann), Helen Chadwick dressing herself as kitchen appliances (In the Kitchen (1977)), or Penny Slinger presenting herself as a cake for male consumption (Consider the Lilies (1973)) — is antithetical and damaging to the feminist cause. For this reason, the exhibition could be alienating to those visitors unfamiliar with feminist history, preaching only to a very specific subset of the “public”.

Some artworks communicated feminist messages in more subtle ways. Eileen Cooper’s Figures on a Ladder (1979) is technically and aesthetically arresting with its classical solidity of form. On another level it provokes questions as to how we help or hinder others on their journey through life, with the ladder serving as a striking metaphor.

Another effective artwork in the exhibition, Margaret Harrison’s installation Greenham Common (Common reflections) (1989-2013), underpins the theme of an entire room. On 5 September 1981, a group of women — later dubbed the Greenham women — gathered to protest a proposed nuclear missile site in Berkshire. The camp they established became home for thousands of women across several years. Harrison’s installation recreates this historical event: household items are interspersed across a subsection of a wire netting and barbed wire fence. The success of this room lies in its strong historical narrative.

The exhibition thereby sits uneasily on the fence — not of the Greenham Common type, but between art and non-art, with the Tate Britain as an unexpected exhibition venue. In part, this relates to the radical nature of feminist art itself. Non-traditional mediums — such as performance and photography — were pioneered by feminist artists to rebel against the artistic canon. The awkward pairing is indicative of the wider challenge for institutions as they adjust to academic shifts away from l’art pour l’art towards activist art. This exhibition was full.

Political niches are gallery gambles, with the capacity to polarise rather than attract blockbuster audiences. The artworks seek to disturb and challenge, and the shrill screaming sound heard throughout the first half of the exhibition — 3 Minute Scream (1977) by Gina Birch — underlies this unsettling experience. Traditional notions of the gallery as a space of contemplation or entertainment are dismantled. Practicality is enmeshed within exhibition rhetoric — art for a reason, art as activism. Activist art has now been institutionalised at the level of public funding in national galleries, with interesting implications for democracy.

At times it would have been helpful to delve further into the conflicting strands of feminism(s). One of the most arresting sources to this end was a BBC documentary that featured interviews with women in Oxford. The interviewer stopped women on the street to ask them what they thought about the Women’s Liberation Movement conference. Most expressed delight in their role as housewives. The boldness in including these alternative opinions to complicate the exhibition arc of progress was refreshing and testament to the curatorial dedication to archival materials, but deserved more serious exploration in order to illuminate the continued pressures faced by young women.

Women in Revolt! effectively unearths these archival resources in a national space, to enable first-hand access to the past. As a woman in her mid-twenties who has grown up unphased by obstacles related to sex, the exhibition was a jolt in historical consciousness. The archives animate an all-too-recent time before the Equal Pay Act (1975), when married women were legal dependents.

Overall, the academic rigour of the exhibition is well-deserving of a national gallery or museum — but exactly which one is up for debate. Its awkward transition from archive to gallery raises questions about the function and value of public art. Certainly, if you are looking to be “entertained” by an exhibition, you are best eavesdropping on the reactions of visitors.

Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 at Tate Britain.

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