Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

This review of the group exhibition ‘Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands’, at Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert in London, was published in Frieze magazine issue 154, April 2013

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Rose English, Rose on Horseback with Tail, 1974/2012 c-type photograph 76.2 x 50.8 cm

Occasionally the disparate programmes of London’s galleries spontaneously coalesce around a single theme. At such times an uncanny institutional synchronicity seems to spread across the capital, turning geographically distinct spaces into the participating venues of a kind of unofficial citywide biennial. At the time of writing, various exhibitions, seminars and symposia exploring the cultural legacy of second-wave feminism are popping up all over town. A sample of recent activity would include: Space Station Sixty Five’s ‘Music and Liberation’, an exhibition about the UK Women’s Liberation movement and feminist music-making; Suzanne Lacy’s Silver Action, a performance exploring feminism and old age at Tate Modern; and Ruth Noack and Calvert 22’s feminism conference ‘Twenty Three Percent’ at the Royal College of Art. ‘Taking Matters into our Own Hands’, a group show staged between Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert, threw two interlinked displays exploring photography and performance into the mix.

The curatorial premise was to bring together four female artists who saw in performance and its documentation a new tool for critical activity in the 1970s. Against that decade’s backdrop of increasing activism and militancy, artists Rose English, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Alexis Hunter and Carolee Schneemann – all of whom were London-based at the time – viewed body-centred action as a political device capable of shattering what Betty Freidan called ‘the feminine mystique’: her term for the collection of oppressive social stereotypes – the happy housewife, unhappy neurotic careerist, Madonna or whore – that pushed women into second-class citizenry. Their goal was to identify, dismantle and recalibrate oppressive cultural constructs that defined what the female body signified, how women should act and what women were permitted to do. While the feminist movement ran parallel with equality struggles spearheaded by gay rights activists, as well as black and minority ethnic groups, the activities of each band remained remote and tinged with subtle factional prejudices.

An extraordinary work by Hunter, displayed at Saltoun’s space, rendered these frictions as a social-realist allegory. ‘Dialogue with a Rapist’ (1978) comprises a series of ten framed black and white photographs, accompanied by a handwritten text telling of a white woman’s encounter with a black, knife-wielding, would-be rapist. Each image is a photomontage: a single street scene overlaid with superimposed images of two struggling hands. What unfolds across the transcribed victim-and-aggressor dialogue is a curious Pinter-esque inversion of power and status. ‘You’re not bad looking,’ she says, ‘Can’t you pick women up in a disco?’ She goes on to explain that the area – Bermondsey in south London – is notoriously racist, and that the repercussions of the rapist’s actions, if he’d assailed the wrong person (i.e. not a clued-up feminist), would have resulted in innocent blacks being targeted by the local fascist rabble. Viewed today, the notion of a white middle-class feminist, civilizing, educating and politicizing an ignorant black youth leaves a bad, neo-colonial taste in the mouth. Like Germaine Greer’s liberal use of the term ‘buck negro’ in The Female Eunuch (1970), it also reveals the feminist movement’s startling ignorance of what parallel struggles for equality found acceptable.

Elsewhere, a lighter tone was in evidence. Schneemann’s ‘Ice Naked Skating’ (1972) comprises six images of the artist – amidst assorted winter props – naked, save for skates, scarf and hat; here is sexual liberation as a series of staged subverted department-store nativity scenes. Two photographic series from the same year, ‘Aggression for Couples’ and ‘Exercise for Couples’, traced the blurred line between violence and play for consenting adults. Fifteen years later, Andrea Dworkin argued that ‘violation is a synonym for intercourse’, in her controversial book Intercourse, but Schneemann’s works depicted this relational liminality from a subtler, less shrill viewpoint.

Also on display were three large colour photographs from English. Each work was a reprint from Quadrille (1975/2012), a site-specific performance staged at a 1975 open dressage competition in Southampton. English hired six professional dancers, dressing them in scant tunics, leather belts with mane-like tails and high heels made from horse hoofs, and choreographed a routine that they performed in front of an unsuspecting audience. Installed across town at Schubert’s space, a larger installation of Quadrille featured a video of the event, alongside more photographs and the dancers’ costumes. The footage shows the eight dancers moving around in a series of movements made to echo the trot, canter and piaffe of traditional dressage. The confused spectators make for entertaining viewing, but it is unclear what Quadrille sets out to achieve beyond a temporary interrupt in the schedule of equestrian routines.

Feminist performance of the 1970s remains a fertile area for research and interpretation, but the question of the efficacy of that decade’s activity still hangs in the balance. ‘Taking Matter into our Own Hands’ offered no definitive answers, but before pan-institutional interest in feminism fades, perhaps an exhibition is poised to spring up that will.

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