Nancy Spero & Marcus Coates, Serpentine Gallery | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
Nancy Spero & Marcus Coates, Serpentine Gallery
Angry art with a sense of social responsibility.
A maypole greets you on entry to the Serpentine Gallery; don’t expect a cheery celebration of spring, though. Nancy Spero’s installation Maypole: Take No Prisoners II (2008) is a scream of rage against violence and its hapless victims. Dangling from coloured ribbons, dozens of decapitated heads hang in the air like an explosion of shrapnel. Mouths gape open in pain and terror - or is it hatred? One can’t be sure, since some seem to be spitting venom from bloody tongues as though, even in their death throws, they are intent on spreading a gospel of vengeance and destruction.
The strength of the work lies in its ambiguity; the people being blown to smithereens could include suicide bombers proclaiming victory even as they detonate their lethal weapons. The gender of the victims is also open to question; some are obviously female, but others could be male. Cut from sheet aluminum, the two-dimensional heads are more like drawings than sculptures, or pictures culled from newspapers and enlarged into a grisly spectacle commemorating recent atrocities.
American artist Nancy Spero died in 2009 aged 83 and this retrospective is intended as a celebration of her achievements, but by focusing on work filled with rage it offers a lopsided view of her contribution. Having lived in Paris for some years, she returned to New York in 1964 at the height of the Vietnam War protests and began a series of works on paper that encapsulated her outrage at the enormities being committed in the name of freedom and democracy.
Helicopters feature large in an extensive series comprising some 150 gouaches on paper. In SUPERPACIFICATION (1967) bodies dangle by their tongues below the belly of a helicopter; elsewhere, victims attached to helicopter blades whirl in an obscene dance of death. The most potent symbols of evil are humans that have the power to rotate like helicopter blades. The head of Male Bomb spins at speed while his tongue spits a circle of fire; his penis has multiplied into five serpentine blades endowed with venomous heads. The head of Female Bomb (pictured below) has the same lethal capacity to whirl and multiply while her breasts and groin have sprouted heads that spread destruction through open mouths.
Others evoke the mushroom cloud generated by a nuclear bomb. A multi-breasted figure resembling Artemis, Greek goddess of childbirth and the hunt, stands sentinel like a tree trunk. Her eight heads fan out on branch-like necks to form the canopy in the shape of a mushroom cloud, emblem of death and disease, while a river of blood flows from between her legs. Like Artemis, Spero’s goddess is associated with life and death; we each have a propensity for good or evil, it seems to imply, and Spero’s disgust is reserved for those who choose violence.
The filmy veils of watery gouache that she deploys with such delicacy make her incendiary subject matter seem highly paradoxical. The charm of the technique belies the horror of the message, and the contradictions inherent in the combination act like a reminder that war is not inevitable; choices are made and peaceful options rejected.
On her return to New York, Spero entered a male-dominated art world awash with large-scale abstraction. In this climate, figurative artists were regarded as irrelevant and women as fundamentally inferior. A female artist who chose to buck the egotistical trend by making small-scale, fragile and figurative work therefore had no hope of success, and bitterness at the shabby treatment she received began to infiltrate her work.
Paradoxically she found an outlet for her frustration through the writings of French playwright Antonin Artaud, the mad misogynist who spent the last 10 years of his life incarcerated in an asylum. Juxtaposed with collaged figures or scrawled-over blotches of paint, fragments of his obscene rantings declare that "All writing is pig shit" and "No pig foot is more grandiose than the semitic symbol of the cruciform insemination of this (urethral, urinary) cosmos". "I was using his language to exemplify my loss of tongue," Spero explained. "I fractured his already fractured texts because I felt a victim as a woman and an artist."
If the Artaud paintings come across as explosions of impotent rage hurled into the fray from the margins, text pieces such as Marduk (1986) are directed at specific targets. Didacticism gives way to ambiguity as men are portrayed as the enemy and women as their victims. Typewritten reports of the abduction, rape and murder of female activists in countries including South Africa, the Philippines, Paraguay and El Salvador are juxtaposed with extracts from a Sumerian creation myth in which the god Marduk murders the goddess Tiamet and slices open her body to make a “covering for the heavens”. The implication is that women have been the victims of male violence since time immemorial – that their oppression is fundamental to patriarchal culture.
The message is depressingly fatalistic, but a glimmer of hope is offered by In Her Body Itself (1977). A description of the rituals prescribed for the consecration of catholic novices is juxtaposed with an analysis by feminist philosopher Helene Cixous of the way men have inveigled women "to be their own enemies... Against women they have committed the greatest crime of all: to have led them insidiously, violently, to hate women". But, adds Cixous, "One has only to look the Medusa in the face to see her: and she is not deadly. She is beautiful and she is laughing."
Perhaps inspired by such affirmations, in 1985 Spero declared that "what I’m also talking about in my work is jouissance. It's about joy and the full appreciation of one’s own body." I remember the energy and euphoria of the work in her exhibition at the ICA in 1987. Olympic athletes and Dionysian dancers borrowed from ancient Greek vases formed scroll-like friezes embodying the euphoria of youthful self-assurance. But only a single example of these vital expressions of optimism has been included in the Serpentine show.
"What about Azur?" I hear them cry. The 36 panels of Azur (2002) contain a panoply of powerful female figures culled from history. Alongside the athletes and dancers, embedded in bright colour reminiscent of stained glass, are images of the Medusa, Kali, Lilith, Indian and Egyptian goddesses and Sheela-Na-Gig, the celtic fertility goddess who opens her vulva to reveal the origins of humanity. But they are juxtaposed with porn stars who spread their legs to confirm their availability, bound and gagged sex slaves and women hanged for their political beliefs. And with contemporary women represented as victims of abuse, the message seems to be that things are getting worse.
Nancy Spero was a tireless activist for women’s rights as well as a subversive voice that refused to be silenced, but by weighting the selection of work towards anger rather than assertion, this exhibition does her no favours. She comes across as a disgruntled whinger rather than as a fiercely intelligent critic who dared to celebrate women at a time when it was considered ridiculous to do so.
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