Tate Modern fails to move its public into the feminist movement, and gives the impression it was just a room to fill.
Heading up the legendary escalators to the themed display ‘Media Networks’ on level 4, the display invites us to think about the position of women within the mass media. The first room displays Andy Warhol and the Guerrilla Girls, a surprising collaboration, while the third room focuses on Feminism and media.
Andy Warhol and the Guerrilla Girls work perfectly together: pioneers of challenging prejudice, they make us wonder if “women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum” on one of the artwork of the display. This shows the power of words in art. Nonetheless, the Feminism and media display is not as exciting, even with eight different works of art from seven amazing female artists.
Feminist art developed in the 1960s with the women’s movement and has encountered some obstacles. The show displays works of art from Sarah Lucas, Valie Export and Cindy Sherman among others. These women all fought for women’s rights, in a way or another.
In fact, Cindy Sherman, who is not the most involved feminist of all, lets people interpret her art as they want to without interfering. In 2013, she said: “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”
In 1971 art historian Linda Nochlin wrote an innovative essay called ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ in which she was evaluating whether talented women were stopped from achieving the same status as men due to social and economic factors.
Feminism and media doesn’t display powerful works of art such as Judy Chicago’s piece The Dinner Party (1974- 9), seen as the first legendary feminist artwork installation, but focuses more on the works of art showing women and made by women. This is a room where there is not an ounce of a man’s presence in it. Is that really feminism though? Feminism is more than women looking at other women.
As there is artwork from too many (amazing) artists – eight in total – there is no continuity or logic in the display.
In these circumstances, their talent are not being appreciated as the selection is weak, doesn’t flow and nothing is explained properly. Valie Export succeeds in questioning gender roles and women’s self-identity in the late 60s within two powerful photographs (Identity Transfer 1 – 2, 1968). They show the same woman with her hair and makeup done as the 60s dress codes dictated, but who is wearing unfeminine clothes – trousers and bumper jackets – and posing ‘like a man’. She subtly plays with gender codes dictated by society. In fact, having two pictures of the same person attracts the visitor’s eye. Visitors can follow the woman’s journey through these photographs.
Feminism is more than women looking at other women
Linder Sterling’s piece of art is also deeply in context and relevant to visitors. As a radical feminist, she is clearly making a point about the expectations of women. Best known for her collages, here she uses printed papers on paper of an advertising shot showing a couple in a moment of tenderness. The shot is disrupted by an oversized fork, which suggests an intrusion into a perfect romance.
But catastrophe comes with the installation of Sanja Ivekovic, the first artist in Croatia to label herself a feminist artist. Called Make up – Make down, 1978, it is a nine-minute-long video of a woman applying make up, with her face hidden: we only see her chest and the movement of her hands and arms. Its purpose is to show the privacy of women’s ritual performances. This is a bit superficial for an exhibition at Tate Modern as there is absolutely no interest to watch a pair of hands touching a lipstick at all.
Sarah Lucas’ piece is also disappointing. Part of the generation of Young British Artists who emerged during the 1990s, her works usually employ dirty humour. Chicken Knickers, her most powerful, disturbing and extraordinary photograph – showcasing a plucked chicken attached to a pair of granny panties – tells a story for women and truly looks at gender roles. She uses food as substitutes for human genitals and reveals in this photograph how feminine gender roles are sexualised in today’s society. In this display, it is an- other story: Lucas’ piece is an enlargement of a tabloid newspaper double page spread, showing a provocatively-dressed woman eating ice cream. Here she looks at the representation of the female body in popular culture, and more precisely in the tabloid press.
According to Lucas, women are being objectified and dehumanised through their cultural portrayal. Although the idea is pertinent and there is a point to make, the curator disappoints by only choosing this unattractive piece of newspaper.
The let-down is in the majority of the display. Valentina Ravaglia should be aware a curator’s job is not only to fill a room with art but to pick the right art to tell the right story.
Feminism and media
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG