History Is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain

February 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

150210-150426_history_is_now_credit_penny_slinger_web

Penelope Slinger, Lilford Hall, 1969

The Hayward’s History Is Now overflows with so much to see. A sense of too little time hurried me on from Hannah Starkey’s section and a lot of photographs, many of which were familiar from the 70s and 80s, until I finally had to slow down in the effort to make perceptual sense of Richard Hamilton’s diptych, The State.

It shows a British soldier on patrol with a telescopic rifle on a street in Northern Ireland. What’s odd is that the legs of his camouflage fatigues and the weapon in his hands stand out in sharp focus, while the hands themselves are as blurred as his camouflage-smeared face under a raised visor that appears likewise perversely sharp. You can’t do this with a camera, at least not in 1993, but what I, in my unseemly haste, had thought was a photograph turned out to be something technically more complicated, involving oils on canvas and photographic paper. The effect contributes to the unease in the figure’s stance: tense, on guard, seeming to move simultaneously forward and back, altogether in the wrong place. He’s also wearing trainers, not the footwear you’d expect.

Richard Hamilton is a presiding spirit in this show, which spans the 70 years since the end of World War II and the Labour victory of 1945. It has seven curators, all born in different decades (with the exception of the twins Jane and Louise Wilson, who share an artistic identity), and six sections that are to some degree chronological, without any rigid adherence to period. Hamilton’s screen print, Bathers (1967), appears in Richard Wentworth’s coastally-themed post-war selection, which includes work by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Paul Nash and a real decommissioned surface-to-air missile on the outside of the building. By the time I reached these the gallery was closing and I only caught a glimpse from a distance. It’s an interesting itinerary that takes you from the flat white plinths of the minimalist present on the ground floor to an upstairs space where floor and walls entice you with jostling monochrome and colour, and what those might convey about post-war optimism.

Wentworth’s wasn’t the only section I missed out on. From what little I saw of Roger Hiorns’ contribution, it looked fascinating, a kind of Foucauldian exploration of the BSE outbreak, variant CJD, the resulting national crisis and what it said about the state of the nation. I’ll be back to see it.

I’d been detained for a while in the dark, by John Akomfrah’s unmissable selection of films from the Arts Council Collection, 1968-1995. These add up to around ten hours of viewing, so I watched mainly shorts. Katrina McPherson’s Pace uses dance in experimental, high-energy mode, creating a visual-kinetic experience rather than just a film of performance; dance functions likewise as the carrier of narrative in Rodreguez King-dorset’s 1994 the beard of justice, about Winston Silcott’s wrongful imprisonment for the murder of a policeman. You can see Judith Williamson’s analysis of how advertising constructs narratives of women in daily life, A Sign is a Fine Investment, from 1983, and James Scott’s 1969 Richard Hamilton, a glorious montage of Pop Art icons and advertising hyperboles.

The state

Though seduced by the visual potency of advertising, the Pop Artists were fully alive to its manipulations and turned them to account. Hamilton features again, with The State and Greenham Common Print Portfolio (a collaboration with Jim Dine and German Fluxus artist Dieter Roth), in what for me was the highlight of the show, the Wilson sisters’ selection.

Jane and Louise Wilson set out to look at sites of ‘conflict and contention’ through the prism of artists’ responses. One of these was Greenham Common, and they bring together grainy, much enlarged photographs of women breaking through the perimeter fence, with protester Lyn Barlow’s journal from prison and their own piece Gamma, filmed in one of the Cruise missile silos – tough, disruptive images counterpointed with the delicate Print Portfolio made by those three male artists.

Rita Donagh’s aerial views of the H-blocks in the Maze prison, and Conrad Atkinson’s strip of 126 photo-based images on Northern Ireland during what was known as ‘The Troubles’, both confront politics head-on with a conceptual approach that nonetheless saw Atkinson’s series banned in the 70s for being over-sympathetic to the IRA. The mining community of Peterlee, in County Durham, connects artists’ interventions across different periods: Victor Pasmore’s 60s design for the Apollo Pavilion, the Artist Placement Group Project in the 70s and Stuart Brisley’s Beneath Dignity (1977) a work that enacts the struggle of a miner underground drilling tight seams of coal. The photographs show a performance on the shore of Lake Constance as people watch or pass by: he lies confined by a wooden frame, his writhing and twisting leaving traces on the paint splattered beneath him. This is the antithesis of the free movement in Jackson Pollock’s action painting, and a far cry from Yves Klein’s rolling blue bodies.

Cages, fences, bars and prisons – the restriction of space and freedom, ideas that are reiterated across the Wilson sisters’ choice of work. Their alignment of diverse practices and different generations achieves an urgent historical coherence in art that is confrontational while also being sophisticated.

Documentary photography had a resurgence in the 70s, helped for the first time by Arts Council funding. In the decade’s climate of deindustrialisation there were parallels with 1930s’ economic decline and an earlier documentary movement. These inform the work of photographers such as Chris Killip and Paul Trevor, shown in Hannah Starkey’s section. Here they deploy a powerful visual rhetoric in indictment of poverty as it affects whole communities, and particularly the young. Killip’s Youth, Jarrow (1976, and 40 years on from the Jarrow March) is a picture of contained desperation; Trevor’s shot of a contorted male figure, head disappearing round the high L-shape of a pillar and a parapet, offers us the Liverpool skyline in the distance and a foreground of feet clad in tattered socks with gaping holes. Both images speak with economy, their eloquence that of the body.

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Starkey’s is the section where the Hackney Flashers’ Who’s Holding the Baby? is on view, now as a slideshow. Three of us stood in front of it, marvelling at how a piece of work we made as agitprop well over 30 years ago could be having its second turn at the Hayward Gallery (the first was in 1979). Some of the best work in History Is Now could be described in terms of art as activism, while ours persists in being activism as accidental art.

Some of the slides must have been badly packed in the carousel, and these projected images were cut off at the top (we’re assured that the problem has now been remedied). When we remarked on this defect, a woman next to us said, ‘Maybe it’s deliberate’.

Art has its reasons, and its excuses…. Which brings me to the present, or rather what represents it at the entrance to the show.

These days poverty is rarely made manifest in ragged clothes or socks like the ones in Paul Trevor’s Liverpool image. The neoliberalism of the 1980s is notorious for making us first and foremost consumers rather than producers, customers rather than passengers or patients. Clothes are now cheap for us, because of globalisation, with others a continent away paying the price of their labour.

It’s easy to say that everything in our culture is commodified. Is that entirely true? It applies to many aspects of everyday life, and to a lot of art, for sure, but it isn’t over-optimistic to see that there are still artists who refuse and work against these smothering tendencies. All the stranger that Simon Fujiwara’s contribution as curator for the 21st-century section looks like a surrender to sterility. A Damien Hirst spot painting, a Hockney iPad drawing, a Sam Taylor-Johnson video of David Beckham asleep, and a few other artworks are mixed in with ‘found objects’ from the realm of the commodity: cellophane packaging from Waitrose, a Farrow & Ball colour card, a pair of Nigella Lawson salad servers, merely creating the flimsiest of ironies. What a good thing that the show only begins here, rather than have it end with this terrible dwindling.

In 1956 the Independent Group (founded at the ICA by Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and others – those Pop Artists again) put on a show at the Whitechapel Gallery whose fame lives on: This Is Tomorrow – there’s a film of it which is probably easy to track down on YouTube. The title History Is Now is uncanny in its inverse echo of that earlier show, a (not uncritical) celebration of a future opening up optimistically. It seems that in today’s difficult times we need the past, not as nostalgia, but as inspiration, and that is how most of the Hayward show’s curators seem to view it, and how artists have always worked, learning from art’s history and renewing it. For this is art that still has the power to engage our thinking, to provoke strong feelings and to energise. The triumph of History Is Now is its active reminder that ‘The Storm We Call Progress’, the title of the catalogue’s opening essay (and a quote from Walter Benjamin), is still raging.

Hackney Flashers back at the Hayward

February 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Hackney Flashers appeared at the Hayward Gallery in 1979 as part of ‘Three Perspectives on Photography’. Nearly 36 years later we’re back there in ‘History Is Now’, a show opening next week, where seven different curators have chosen work covering Britain’s cultural history since the post-war period. Once I’ve seen it I’ll write about it here.

 

Here’s to the Collective

April 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

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Since August 2012 I’ve been meeting up (and exchanging countless emails) with a group of women I’ve known for a very long time. We had reconvened after an interval of more than 30 years. The group is a collective called the Hackney Flashers, and we’ve just launched our website, hackneyflashers.com.
Collectives were everywhere in the 70s. Collectives of filmmakers, journalists, designers and illustrators, as well as theatre groups, print shops, and groups engaged in all kinds of campaigns (including the rights of children, claimants, the mentally ill). There were Co-ops too: publishers, magazines, health food shops and more. Co-ops and collectives were the offspring of the 60s, emerging from the upheavals of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement in the US, the international ferment of the New Left. Many sprang up from the nascent women’s movement: the London Women’s Film Co-Op, the Sheffield Film Co-op, the See Red Women’s Workshop, Spare Rib magazine. In their forms and functioning they varied, but they shared a general principle of cooperation rather than competition, without hierarchy, without leaders, often aiming to share skills and expertise within their communities. Decisions were made either by consensus or majority vote. Of course there was debate – sometimes fierce – and disagreement. We took this for granted, just as we assumed that the space for such alternative modes of work and activism would continue to widen and influence many more areas of life.
I joined in 1976. By then the Flashers, for the most part photographers, had been in existence for two years and had produced an exhibition, Women and Work, that documented women’s role in the labour force in Hackney, a north-east London borough. In the early 70s there were still jobs that have since disappeared, mainly in factories making clothes and toys, as well as the jobs that women continue to do: as cleaners, hospital staff, dinner ladies and much else. The exhibition was in part commissioned by the Hackney Trades Council, to make up for the all too obvious shortfall in its planned celebration of ‘75 Years of Brotherhood’. Women and Work went on to do years of solid agitprop service at trade union conferences and Women’s Movement events.
Who’s Holding the Baby?
When I got involved the collective was beginning to think about its next project: how to explore the question of childcare provision when there was far less of it than there needed to be, which made it tricky to photograph; how do you delineate an absence, how do you clarify the structural difficulties of combining paid work with looking after children? The result, in 1978, was Who’s Holding the Baby?
The first exhibition had tinkered with photomontage, confronting stereotypes of women in magazines – whether impossibly idealised in ads for cosmetics or medicalised in those for antidepressants. Another montage highlighted the huge discrepancies between what machinists in the clothing trade were paid and what customers paid for the clothes (the target here was Simpson’s, whose factory on Stoke Newington High Street has now become a coffee shop and vintage outlet, just one of the many new faces Dalston has acquired in recent decades). Otherwise the exhibition followed the standard pairing of photographs and explanatory captions, with statistics to set women’s employment in context.
Who’s Holding the Baby? departed from this conventional visual approach. It juxtaposed and collaged images, used archive material and original cartoons, and even contributed to the graffitiscape, inscribing a Dalston wall with a spraycan protest that was then photographed and deployed in a photomontage. The core of the exhibition was a series of documentary pictures and interviews carried out over an 18-month period with parents and workers at the Market Nursery near London Fields. This was a community nursery, which meant that parents were involved in its management and played a part in day-to-day childcare there. Along with much discussion of the benefits of such an approach for children as well as adults, the interviews explored related issues such as jobs, incomes and housing.
This work produced a sequence of panels, designed for portability and touring, and left in other hands when the group dissolved. You can see most of them on the website of the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. They are part of its permanent collection and got there unbeknownst to us. Subsequently we’ve discovered that panels have strayed as far as Canada. When we looked on the internet, we found inaccurate second-hand accounts of our history. Multiple confusions had arisen in part because we only ever had a collective identity, never naming ourselves as individuals. It was time, we decided, to clear these up and one result is our website, a good while in the making due to the collective process. Its completion is thanks to the hard work and design talents of Angela Stapleford, the young academic researcher who had brought us news of our presence in the digital world and elsewhere.
Art and Agitprop
Repeatedly, we have found ourselves described as a feminist art collective. Perhaps this perception derives from our participation in the Hayward Gallery 1979 show, Three Perspectives on Photography, an invitation we accepted only after lengthy discussion. Our intention was not to make art, but effective agitprop. The artist we consciously turned to for inspiration was the German communist John Heartfield, who used photomontage to attack Nazi ideology in the 1930s. Some of us knew the work of Hannah Höch from the Hayward’s 1978 exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, and it wasn’t just cultural theorists who were reading Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which first came out in Britain in 1973.
Clarifying our history required a degree of detective work; we unearthed ancient diaries and files, and together corroborated individual memories of chronology. We felt that it mattered to set the record straight because our collective history offered one example among many from the diverse network of feminisms that was the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s. Who’s Holding the Baby? may be a period piece, but it remains relevant at a time when childcare is more expensive than it has ever been, particularly in Britain, where it has become increasingly privatised.
What happened to collectives?
There are sundry reasons why collectives waned, but not all collectives are dead and buried. The Hackney Flashers was fairly short lived compared to many. The heroic Amber Collective in Newcastle must hold the record for creative endurance in the face of difficult odds. It began in 1968 and went on to play a central cultural role on Tyneside. It still runs a gallery and cinema and continues to develop film and photography projects that involve local communities. ‘Amber is a commitment rather than a job’, they say on their website, and this would apply to the general ethos of the collective as a place of work. Amber is one of many collectives which by their nature depended on public funding, and its gradual diminution or withdrawal is the reason so few have survived. In London the Greater London Council’s policy of supporting employment included grants or loans to co-ops, and these came to an end when the GLC was abolished by Thatcher’s fiat in 1986. In the Thatcherite climate, public funders displayed a growing aversion to collectives. Financially self-supporting groups like the Flashers were also affected by changing times, as well as the demands of changing lives.
More generally, it’s the profound differences between now and then that tell us why collectives have become thin on the ground, and indeed why those as young as we were in the 70s often don’t understand what is meant by the term.
Unlike them, we could get by on very little money, and though finding a place to live with meagre resources wasn’t always easy, there were other options such as squatting and short-life housing. People often chose to work part-time, so as to make room for politics or collective commitments. Before privatisation, fuel bills didn’t break small budgets, and likewise public transport, including trains, didn’t have to make a profit. What’s more, we didn’t have the pressure to buy so much stuff; a lot of the stuff that now creates such pressure didn’t even exist. It must be hard for the young to imagine a world without computers and the internet, without email and mobile phones and scores of ever mutating electronic devices. It’s staggering for us to look back on it.
But what these changes, some of them potentially wonderful, have come to mean in reality is a growing commodification of everyday life. To a degree that applies to all of us, whatever our generation. This is Thatcherism’s great triumph: it changed mortgages and loans from transactions to ‘products’, and it turned housing and heating and travelling even a short distance (no longer as passengers, but as customers) into a costly business which entailed more and more work, along with greater fear of losing it. And to cope with this pressure, along comes debt, debt made easy: a modern kind of enslavement, its grip allowing scant freedom for opposition or protest. Student years, like the rest of life, have become corroded. Even the Co-op Bank, the historical antithesis of the debt trap, fell prey to banking madness and is now in dire trouble.
Solidarity was a keyword of the 70s, not ‘making a difference’, as current parlance goes, or ‘giving something back’ – both paltry notions, however well meant, since they accommodate or express gratitude to a world of ravaging inequality.
There’s a lot to be learned from the past, but nostalgia’s no cure. Brecht said something about the ‘bad new days’ mattering more than the ‘good old days’. The question is how to take them on. Despite everything, there are hopeful signs. The resurgence of feminism, in varied shapes and forms, is real and encouraging. Young women want to know about the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. Spare Rib is in the process of being digitised by the British Library, there have been events and conferences on Second Wave ideas, alongside burgeoning blogs and highly visible journalism exploring sexism now, and there are women’s groups again. It may be that these separate manifestations will come together and find common cause with other movements for change. We need solidarity. Collectives, with their deep, half-forgotten roots in the utopian and anarchist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, could thrive again.

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