What’s Lost When Activist Art Enters the Institution?

LONDON — Almost every political movement sees its impact soften over time. The mainstream shifts, the razor’s edge of contemporary debate becomes part of the longer timeline. By the time the artistic output makes it into a museum, it’s over, firmly sealed in the past. Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970–1990 is a classic example of this: a massive show that covers British feminist art from the 1970s to ’90s, pressing disparate groups and causes into a neat timeline. 

This show takes over the large ground floor galleries at Tate Britain and is crowded with material, the majority of it loaned — for whatever reason, Tate has not seen fit to welcome these artists until now. It’s also unusual for its reliance on documentary photos and archival material, including zines and ephemera. Plenty of works in the show were made for art spaces by the likes of Susan Hiller, Lubaina Himid, Claudette Johnson, and Sutapa Biswas, but they are shown alongside more photojournalistic work, like the series Who’s Holding the Baby? (1975), an investigation into the lack of childcare in East London by the women’s collective Hackney Flashers. 

Such a dense display of archival material in Women in Revolt does two things. Firstly, it gives prominence to the role of creative production in political movements: the banners, flyers, and performances are rightly treated as artistic work in service of radical change. Secondly, and more insidiously, it risks reducing these movements to what is visible and archivable, and turns them into aesthetic experiences. The exhibition opens with photographs of the first Women’s Liberation Conference, next to performance stills of Anne Bean’s “Heat” (1974–77) and “Shouting ‘Mortality’ as I Drown” (1977). Looking at these sets of images requires a similar imaginative process, remembering that these are reflections of an event and not the whole. 

A later section, called “Greenham Women Are Everywhere,” documents the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. From 1981 until 2000, the group blockaded the Greenham Common Royal Air Force base to protest against the nuclear missiles stored there. The Peace Camp is represented in Women in Revolt through black and white photographs of actions against the base and the protestors’ day-to-day activities, as well as some banners and performance props. There’s also Margaret Harrison’s “Common Reflections” (2013), a recreation of part of the fence surrounding the site, which the protestors hung with treasured and everyday objects. This work is straightforward commemoration, reenacting the look of Greenham without its social context. In the gallery, the spoons, photos, and clothes hanging off the chainlink fence are really just things to be looked at, a reflection.

Tate Britain is an art museum, so it’s natural that Women in Revolt would focus on artists’ responses to political events. It’s also a nationally narrow exhibition: The remit of the show is focused tightly on Britain, creating an artificially insular narrative, considering the internationalism of many of the featured artists. One exhibition cannot be expected to tell a global story, but Tate emphasizes that “Greenham women saw their anti-nuclear position as a feminist one” and devotes two rooms to the British Black Arts Movement without giving space to the contexts and international networks of which these artists were part. 

Something weird happens when activism enters the exhibition space. The institutionalization of radical history inevitably blunts the message, and streamlines the complex whole into a concise lineage. There is no easy way to represent the breadth and significance of a political movement in an art exhibition, nor should there be. Yet the way archival material is presented in Women in Revolt, through documentary photographs and ephemera displays shown alongside more conventional artistic responses, gives the false impression that creative production is the same as direct action. That’s unfair to the artists whose political engagement continues outside of their art, and it aestheticizes the participants in protests like Greenham, turning their actions into performances.

An occupation of the scale and duration of Greenham is almost unthinkable now, at a time when the British government is treating even the most peaceful protests as threats to national security. Women in Revolt makes oblique references to the violence — gendered, racialized, homophobic — that these artists faced, and alludes to the arrests at Greenham and the anti-racist uprisings throughout the period. The onus is on us as visitors to see the way that violence runs beneath everything in this show, to know how it flows through into the present, to not only look at events like Greenham as performances but to learn from them what it is to live against war. 

Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970–1990 continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through April 7. The exhibition was curated by Linsey Young, Zuzana Flaskova, Hannah Marsh, and Inga Fraser.

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