The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop @ Tate Modern

Pop Art is not exactly a neglected movement. As recently as two years ago the Barbican hosted a comprehensive exhibition of Pop Design while at the same time Tate Modern was hosting a vast Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. In the spring of 2014 Tate Modern did a big Richard Hamilton show and earlier this year the Barbican’s exhibition about artists’ personal collections devoted a room each to the artifacts hoarded by Andy Warhol and Peter Blake. Who hasn’t heard of Warhol, seen the Elvis or Marilyn silk screen paintings or doesn’t know about Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper cover?

In this blockbuster show, The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop, Tate Modern turns its back on these well-worn artists and familiar images to examine the impact of pop everywhere outside the bubble of Britain and America, taking a comprehensive look at Pop Art from around the world. Thus the show brings together over 100 colourful, exuberant works from Latin America and Asia, from Europe and the Middle East.

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection) © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood
Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection). © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Art in the USA and Britain was essentially free, artists could more or less say or do anything and had the machinery of pop music and consumer adverts to play off against, to incorporate into their work and (the Beatles, the Velvet Underground) to help propagate their images.

If the exhibition says one thing it is how untrue this was of most of the rest of the world, where whole populations and their artists languished under all manner of dictatorships and repression: the entire communist bloc frozen by Soviet domination, southern Europe and a lot of Latin American nations ruled by traditionalist military juntas, African nations torn by civil wars (Biafra 1967-70), Pakistan heading towards the catastrophic Bangladesh genocide (1971), China about to experience the persecution and chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the war in Vietnam spilling over into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. And looming behind it all, the ongoing Cold War confrontation between the superpowers with the ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Pop offered a new idiom with which to capture the absurdity of living in a society increasingly dominated by adverts for glossy lifestyle products while the whole world could be blown up at any moment.

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) Acrylic on canvas MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund Photo: Tony Coll © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund. Photo: Tony Coll. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Thus the global Pop Art the curators have gathered here is far more confrontational, troubled and often explicitly political than the Campbell soup tins and dated album covers of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. If Pop was an orgiastic celebration of the fabulousness of consumer culture here in the West, in most other places it was a language of protest, using the language and imagery of consumer goods and popular culture to satirise the repressive regimes of the artist’s homeland, to ironically comment on the shallow values of the fabulous West, which very often shaded into mild or not so mild anti-American sentiment.

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Bombs in Love 1962 Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

The 100+ works are packed with ideas and references, but several themes emerge strongly:

  • Satirising American consumerism The basic premise of Pop Art is its re-use of the explosion of new consumer products, advertising and popular culture in the post-war USA, seen at its most fatuous in the 1950s, and satirised and mocked from the mid-1950s onwards. The early 1960s saw the creation of several iconic pop images including Warhol’s Marilyn silks and Lichtenstein’s Wham. The effects of the post-war boom and the use of imagery from popular culture – cartoons, film posters, adverts, TV stills – to celebrate and/or undercut it ripple outwards from the Anglo heartland: what is loving homage in the States (cans and cartoons) becomes mild mockery in England, and turns to satire, scorn and sometimes overtly anti-American feeling, in further flung countries, typified by French artist Bernard Rancillac‘s savege At Last, a Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist.
  • Pro-revolution pro-communist imagery, texts, works, ideas – power to the people, Maoism, the cult of Che Guevara, exemplified here by Henri Cueco‘s Large Protest, a room-sized sculpture using comic-strip silhouettes cast in metal of figures enacting the glorious Revolution.
  • Anti-communist works voicing rebellion against the dead hand of actual communist regimes in the countries of the Eastern bloc eg Jerzy Zielinski‘s Without Rebellion or Sanja Iveković‘s Sweet violence.
  • Feminism 1960s-style eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellÁngela GarcíaMari ChordàJana Želibská.
  • The Triumph of Youth

1. The Revolution

Revolutionary sentiment was in the air throughout the 1960s, leading up to the strikes and civil disorder across much of Europe which climaxed in ‘events’ in Paris in May 1968, when students joined with striking workers to create a crisis which came close to overthrowing the government. Throughout the 60s and well into the 1970s, the rhetoric of revolution dominated the thinking of many writers and artists.

The wall labels and the audioguide reflect this, echoing the rhetoric of the time and reiterating the rather samey sentiments about this or that ‘radical’ artwork ‘subverting’ or ‘engaging with’ or ‘ironising’ the values of ‘patriarchal’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘consumer’ culture. Each time I read another label about a work which encouraged the overthrow of capitalism, supported the Revolution, heralded the dawn of a classless society, romanticised guerilla fighters and marching strikers and the May 1968 événements, I thought how very, very old all this now sounds and how completely these attitudes and approaches have been vanquished.

In our time, from China to Brazil, hyper-consumer capitalism rules the world, underpinned by the all-powerful banks, implemented by the all-pervading digital culture which most of us have voluntarily signed up to. Instead of overthrowing American corporations, we have welcomed them into every aspect of our lives (Google est.1998, turnover $66 billion, Facebook est. 2004, 1.5 billion users, Twitter 300 million users). The often fading paintings, creaking sculptures and flickery videos on display here come from a distant time when people thought there was an alternative to the finance capitalism and all-encompassing American corporations which now dominate our lives.

2. Communist oppression

Looking back, one of the massive contradictions or ironies of the period was that all the radical artists in the West wanted a communist revolution to overthrow beastly American capitalism, while all the dissidents in the East wanted to escape from the stifling straitjacket of inefficient, repressive, brutal and philistine communist regimes to the wonderful freedom of the West.

The exhibition displays works from the two halves of Europe (and the world) next to each other as if they were both the same kind of ‘subversion’ and criticism, but I don’t think they were: the conditions of their production and the mindsets of their producers were drastically different.

Anti-capitalist movements linger on into our day as ineffectual student-style groups like the Occupy movement; ‘third wave’ feminism endures in all sorts of forms; but the struggles of dissident artists and samizdat writers under communist regimes have completely disappeared and it’s hard to now recall what that world was like.

I can discuss feminism with my teenage daughter because she is learning about the exploitation of women at school, I can discuss the power of multinational banks and corporations with my teenage son because he’s got accounts with some of them and reads about their tax avoidance, criminal miss-selling of products etc on a daily basis.

But if I try to explain that when I was growing up all of Eastern Europe was under Russian communist control, and enormous fences topped with barbed wire formed the border between capitalism and communism, that anyone trying to escape over them was blown up by the landmines or shot dead by the guards, that artists and writers who protested against the state were locked up in psychiatric institutions or disappeared into prison camps, they look at me as if I’m mad.

There are plenty of artists from the Eastern bloc in this show – one even has a room dedicated to him, the Romanian Cornel Brudaşcu. But I felt the extremely difficult, often dangerous, conditions of producing any kind of art in the Eastern Bloc could well have justified a room to itself, a space which really tried to recreate the terrible claustrophobia and fear of the time. This could have described and examined the situations in the different countries (Poland, East Germany, Slovakia etc), whose regimes and cultural traditions were often quite different. This would have given much more depth when it came to describing the strategies specific artists adopted to circumvent the censors and the authorities.

Maybe there are the seeds of an entirely different exhibition here: ‘The Art of the Eastern Bloc 1945-90’.

3. Feminism

Feminism, the women’s movement, women’s liberation, is a very big presence in the show, with three of the ten rooms dedicated to women’s issues, women making up about 26 of the 60 or so artists, and a lot, if not all, the women artists, ‘engaging’ one way or another with the problems of gender.

In the 1960s women intellectuals and artists began to rebel against all kinds of constraints society placed on them: against the way advertising used women’s bodies to sell products, against the way society confined women to stereotyped gender roles – having to be ‘the mother’, ‘the good housewife’, ‘the perfect hostess’ and so on – while depriving them of involvement in a great swathe of social activity, from business to politics. Society was dominated by all-male establishments which women challenged in all manner of ways, from the courts to the classroom.

What emerges from this exhibition is that many of the women artists featured here seemed to think that merely being more forthright about the reality of women’s bodies was a kind of ‘subversive’ and liberating act – that if women themselves created, controlled and published images of the female body, it would liberate them from the prison-house of the ‘male gaze’ and assert the autonomy of female sexuality and therefore of the female subject.

For example, according to the wall label, Evelyne Axell (Belgian, 1935-72), thought that ‘Space represented an emancipation site for women’. Her striking work, Valentine, represents Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who on June 16, 1963, became the first woman in space. The helmet taped to the screen represents the space part, the stripper-style silhouette with the fabric rising up off the picture as it comes unzipped to reveal her breasts and pubic hair beneath, represent her female sexuality. She is, according to the commentary, ‘a feminist heroine and a monument to female eroticism’.

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Valentine 1966 Collection of Philippe Axell Photo: Paul Louis © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Collection of Philippe Axell. Photo: Paul Louis. © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

I understand celebrating a woman pioneer. I understand and like the helmet tacked to the canvas. But I didn’t so much understand why the outline of a sexy woman whose zipper is coming undone Austen Powers-style is liberating. To me, it conforms to all the sexist stereotypes of the era, precisely the commodification of an absurdly idealised woman-as-sex-object which I thought we were meant to disapprove of.

Fifty years later any sense of irony or empowerment at the display of naked women has surely long vanished. Instead of the ‘subversion’ and ‘irony’ which the commentary and labels attributed to much of this imagery, I just registered lots of female artists depicting the female body, legs, thighs, breasts and a number of vulvas, in photos, silhouettes, realistic or abstract painting, in satirical videos and even – strikingly – in mirrors (see Jana Želibská below).

Presumably, at some point, it dawned on women artists and women more generally, that displaying images of naked or semi-naked women in ‘art’ really just amounts to displaying naked or semi-naked women. The particular audience who view them (‘art lovers’) are just a tiny, statistically insignificant, sub-set of the great naked-women-viewing public, who don’t get the joke. It doesn’t change anything. In fact, surely it’s just another way of packaging and commodifying the female body.

4. Young and old

The exhibition’s achievement in including women artists and foregrounding women’s issues tends to mask another 1960s theme, maybe the theme of the 1960s, so that it goes strangely unremarked. It was the decade of Youth. In all spheres the 1960s saw the rebellion of the young against the old. ‘Hope I die before I get old‘ and ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30‘ were the catch phrases of the time. So for me the striking thing isn’t that there were lots of breasts, bellies, thighs, vulvas, sexy silhouettes and licking lips on show – it is that they are all young, fit and nubile breasts and hips etc.

Dorothée Selz could create a series of photos of herself copying the poses of scantily-clad glamour models from magazines because she herself looks like a model. The outlines of women which dominate Jana Želibská‘s feminist work Kandarya-Mahadeva look like they’re from the title sequence of a James Bond movie.

A lot of the dolly bird nudity on show here doesn’t make much sense if viewed through a feminist paradigm because it seems so obviously self-defeating: but it does make sense if seen as part of the overthrow of the Fat and Old by the Young and Beautiful. In this context, taking off your clothes proves you are on the right side, immediately shows you are on the side of the young and beautiful, man, we’re going to get rid of war and capitalism and all that bourgeois crap, man, and all those creepy sexual hangups our parents had, we’re going to get naked and get high and come together and create world peace.

Thus Evelyne Axell‘s work The Pretty Month of May in which she paints herself naked, is surely a failure if it’s seen as a ‘feminist’ work, seeking to ‘subvert the male gaze’, since all I can see is a young naked woman whose patch of black pubic hair deliberately emphasises her sexuality. But it does make sense if we recapture the spirit of 1968 and see it as a typical gesture of openness and honesty and frankness about sexual pleasure, all of which (at the time) put her on the side of the angels against the stuffy, repressive older generation.

(For the attitude to parents, to businessmen, to accountants in bowler hats, see The Beatles track The Piggies (‘Everywhere there’s little piggies, leading piggy lives/You can see them out to dinner with their piggy wives.’). For the attitude of the cool sexual revolutionaries, listen to Come Together, which ends, as so many songs from this time, in a simulated orgasm. The orgasm was a political gesture, symbolising the overthrow of capitalism/the old/the bourgeoisie and all their controlling repression of sexuality, which should be free and unfettered, shared and liberating.)

5. The missing black artists

The three women curators have included lots of women artists and lengthy explanations of women’s issues throughout. This is a striking achievement and an enjoyable introduction to many artists who were new to me. In fact, all the works I liked best were by women artists eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellDorothée SelzEulàlia Grau to name a few.

But towards the end of the show I realised I hadn’t seen a single black Pop artist. Maybe there weren’t any. And I don’t think there was a single artist from Africa, 10% of the global population in 1970, in a show which is meant to be about global art. a) In the industrialised West, especially America, were there really no black artists who could have been included? b) Was there really no African art which could have been included, especially considering this period saw a large number of independence struggles/civil wars across the continent which would surely have fit into the Mao and Che-themed revolution sections?

Fun

If all this sounds a bit earnest, it is and the wall labels do tend to be full of ‘issues’ and ‘concerns’.

But most of the works themselves are lots of fun – bright, confident, experimental, exuberant – men and women from around the world playing with a western idiom and transmuting it for their own purposes. Some pieces seemed to me weak (I didn’t like the folk art room, the works of Beatriz GonzálezParviz Tanavoli or Raúl Martinez – details below – seemed to me drab and dull); lots of others are great or great fun, for example, the strikingly clear and bold ‘American interiors’ of Icelandic artist Erró – American Interior 1; and much I couldn’t quite decide what I thought, leaving me puzzled or thoughtful. Altogether there is plenty here to discuss and mull over.

Some reviews have criticised the curators’ decision to paint the walls of each room bright primary colours, but I thought it was funky and accurately reflects the dayglo, plastic world of Pop: it is entirely fitting that the final room is completely covered in a tongue-in-cheek ‘subversion’ of consumer capitalism, Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle, made up of multiple copies of the famous cheese logo. As subversion it scores 0 – as funky wallpaper, 10.

And then the shop…

And if you had any lingering doubt about art’s complete inability to change society, you emerge from the last room (‘Consuming Pop’, full of works ‘subverting’ consumer capitalism) into the exhibition shop! Here you can purchase a whole range of desirable consumer products – Pop mugs, Pop posters, Pop tea towels, Pop books, Pop cushions, Pop scarves and Pop bags – to adorn your dream home and impress your friends.


List of artworks

Room 1 – Introduction

Room 2 – Eulàlia Grau (1946-, Spain) and Joe Tilson (English)

Room 3 – Pop politics

Room 4 – Cornel Brudaşcu (1937-, Romania)

It was good to have a room devoted to the enormous subject of art in the communist bloc but I’m not sure the four or five big paintings by Brudaşcu could quite carry that much burden. They are coloured solarisations of images mined from pop sources eg newspaper photos, album covers.

Room 5 – Pop at home

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968) Private Collection Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm © Teresa Burga

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968), Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm. © Teresa Burga

Room 6 – Pop bodies

Room 7 – devoted to one work by Jana Želibská (1941-, Czechoslovakia)

  • Kandarya-Mahadeva – based on a temple in India, consists of a massive rectangular pillar constructed of 48 panels, each one depicting the silhouette of a woman’s body in a Bond girl pose, clad in the outline of skimpy bra and panties. BUT the subversive thing is that at the crotch of each woman is embedded a mirror! Ha, gotcha, male gaze! According to the audioguide, the mirrors ‘virtually put a woman’s sexuality right in your face!!!’ Take that, male chauvinist pigs!!
  • The room itself is lined with swags of orange and white paper flowers and the walls painted with enormous baby pink silhouettes of naked women also with big mirrors in the crotch.

I like breasts and vulvas as much as the next man but by this stage I’d seen quite a few, and occasionally it’s nice to think about something else, so it was a relief to walk into a room which was not dominated by images of women’s bodies.

Room 8 – Pop crowd

Room 9 – Folk Pop

Room 10- Consuming Pop

All the walls of this room are covered with the Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle. That’s sticking it to international brands! I wonder if Vache qui rit ever approached him to use it.

  • Boris Bućan (1947-, Croatia) Bućan Art – a series of images spelling ART in the styles of various corporate brands. It ‘denounces consumerism and global brands’. a) nice idea, quite funny, though zero impact on brands (unless they rip the idea off for publicity) b) note the Vache qui rit wallpaper in the background.
  • Sanja Iveković (1949-, Croatia) Sweet violence (1974) This five-minute, black-and-white video stitched together adverts from communist Yugoslavia and superimposed prison bars over them, a brave thing to do at the time.
  • Toshio Matsumoto (1932-, Japan) Mona Lisa, experimental 3-minute video using then-revolutionary techniques to phase and overcolour the image.

The final taboo

Trawling through the biographies to create the list above, I came across several women artists saying, sadly and alas, that their work ‘subverting the patriarchy’ and ‘exploring issues of gender and femininity’ are just as relevant – as necessary – today as they were 50 years ago. The rather tiresome quote from Einstein comes to mind: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

If some of the women artists ‘exploring issues’ around the ‘representation of sexuality and eroticism within a social context’ genuinely think little has changed in 50 years, maybe they should consider changing their tactics. Or consider that there might be some kind of biological basis for the social structures and attitudes they have spent 50 years failing to alter.

Their comments tie up with one of the main learnings from the show, which is the complete failure of all the revolutionary hopes of the majority of the artists. Capitalism wasn’t overthrown. It has a stronger, more pervasive grip on all aspects of our lives than ever before. Everything is being monetised.

Which prompts a further uncomfortable thought: maybe the ultimate taboo in art is not (as one of the wall labels asserts) creating images of the vulva, or of the penis or of shit (Gilbert and George have made some very nice images of shit) or any other bodily parts or functions, come to that.

Maybe the ultimate taboo, the dirty little secret that artists and curators dare not mention, is that art subverts nothing. You can assert that it ‘questions’ and ‘engages with’ and ‘interrogates’ whatever you fancy, till the cows come home – the result is nothing. Nothing except more exhibitions, more commentaries and more audioguides, more subject matter for the ever-increasing numbers of people doing MAs and PhDs in art criticism. A small clique of art professionals who have a vested interest in believing – or persuading or reassuring themselves – that art plays a critical role in society, and isn’t – as all the evidence suggests, as the Tate shop suggests – just a decorative hobby and shopping opportunity for the well-heeled middle classes.

Could it be that there is nothing ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’ about art, not today? Soviet art, communist art, conceptual art, dada, surrealism, stuckist art, shit art, minimal art, heads made of blood and handprints of child murderers, piles of bricks and sharks cut in half, all these were done years ago, some over a century ago.

Instead, the audio commentary and wall labels of this show come close to proving that art and art criticism today merely play with ageing tropes of ‘revolutionary’ politics or feminist ‘subversion’, talking a special language to itself about ‘engagement’ and ‘questioning’ and ‘situating issues’ and ‘negotiating paradigms’ – while leaving the actual power structures of society, the economic constraints we all live by, the concentration of money into fewer and fewer hands, the infiltration of every aspect of our lives by surveilling digital technology, the indignities of ageing, the difficulties of earning enough money to pay for rent, heat and food, completely unchanged.

In the commentary of this and other shows about twentieth century art, I get the feeling the curators are nostalgic for a time when art did have some kind of impact, when artists really did suffer for their art, when they genuinely risked being arrest and imprisoned, when art genuinely did ‘subvert’ various forms of authority, patriarchy, western consumerism etc.

Now you’d be hard pressed to create a work of art which won’t be bought up by Russian billionaires or sovereign wealth funds looking to diversify their investment portfolio. Very difficult to escape form the process whereby everything becomes an investment, everything is monetised.

Art’s irrelevance

According to a press release, all the Tate locations had a total 7 million visitors in 2013/14. This is an extremely impressive achievement – especially the standout fact that Tate Modern is the most visited gallery of modern art in the world. Respect to the enormous achievements of Tate’s leadership and staff in reaching out to more people than ever before.

But I also read in today’s paper that Snapchat reported 6 billion views of videos on its digital platform, every day. It is sneaking up on Facebook which claims some 8 billion video views per day, and that some 500 million people use its video app every day. When I told my teenage son, he said had I read Pornhub’s results (much shared among his mates, apparently)?

Pornhub claims to be the world’s number one porn website and allows users to upload and share pornographic videos. In 2014 about 50 gigabytes of porn video was uploaded to the site every second. Over the course of the year 78.9 billion videos were viewed, 11 for every man, woman and child on the planet. The top two search terms were ‘teen’ and ‘lesbian’.

I love art and will continue to go to art galleries and support artists. I love the space, the quiet, the opportunity to admire beauty and reflect on interesting ideas. But when you situate traditional ‘art’ – small paintings and silent sculptures – in the context of this unprecedented tsunami of images, an unparalleled explosion of imagery flooding out of every screen into everyone’s faces all across the planet, the art of all of these artists doesn’t just not seem subversive: statistically, it doesn’t exist. Its impact is immeasurably tiny.

Judy Chicago’s funky car hoods, Jana Želibská’s dolly birds with mirror crotches, Dorothée Selz’s small photos of herself adopting glamour model poses – I like them: they’re funny, attractive to look at, inventive, cheeky, maybe they played their part in changing attitudes for the better. But to imagine that they are subverting anything in our time seems to me the height of self-delusion.

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