Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Keywords feature: Art Culture and Society in 1980s Britain at Tate Liverpool

I was recently asked to write this feature for the Skinny about a new exhibition which opens at Tate Liverpool this week (Friday February 28). It was a last-minute commission, and it would have been nice to have spoken to more people involved in the exhibition, but it was good to have an excuse to read more Raymond Williams as his books Culture and Society and the Long Revolution, along with his essay Culture is Ordinary, which concern the development of culture and social change, were among the best things I read last year.

Keywords: Art Culture and Society in 1980s Britain

In 1976, a book was published which offered a new way of understanding and using language, defining and interpreting familiar and inter-related words such as culture, art, revolution, family and society. Written by cultural theorist Raymond Williams, Keywords is a social, historical and cultural guide to the evolution and meaning of everyday words we often take for granted. Taking Keywords as its starting point, a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool continues the conversation Williams sparked around language more than three decades ago. Artworks from the 1980s, the decade in which the book's ideas found particular resonance among a generation of artists responding to upheavals in society, are juxtaposed with a selection of words from the book in a specially-designed exhibition space by artists Luca Frei and Will Holder. Aiming to enhance the visual and conceptual legibility of the artworks, the installation will encourage visitors to ponder the complex and often charged relationship between what they see and the language which can be used to describe it.

“The impetus of the exhibition came from conversations we had about the book with artists making work in the 1980s, who said that at the time they were beginning to be influenced by the growing field of cultural studies and by books such as Keywords as much as by art history,” explains Gavin Delahunty, Head of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Liverpool and curator of Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain. “Keywords is a good read and an easy, not over-academic way for people to engage with key ideas about culture and society. It is one individual's attempt to unpack complex words and what they meant for him and his time, which provides a tool and filter for people to understand the world around them.”

The exhibition uses artwork and language to present a very complex and diverse moment in both British history and British art. “It was an extraordinary decade where there were so many shifts in culture and society that continue to have an impact today,” explains Delahunty. It was also a confusing time. On the one hand was the affluence of the City of London, but elsewhere in the country miners' strikes, the Liverpool riots and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were taking place. “A whole raft of social issues were bubbling to the fore,” says Delahunty. “The old histories were being dissolved and disintegrated, creating a fragmented moment which we have tried to capture in the exhibition.” 

Keywords also aims to showcase the work and ideas of artists who did not necessarily receive widespread recognition at the time but reflected the increasing plurality of voices in the art world. Through provocative and challenging visual and performative acts these artists helped change not just ideas around what belonged in the art gallery, but the vocabulary which was used to describe it. “In the 1980s one of the huge changes was that new voices were starting to be introduced into the art world, often drawn from what had previously been seen as marginalised communities,” explains Delahunty. “Artists were immersed within powerful new movements based around Second Wave feminism, race, sexuality and ethnicity and wanted to point out the historical and social imbalance, which wasn't representative of the diversity of the UK.”

To help the audience engage with the work and messages on display the curators went through the whole of Keywords and chose thirteen words to show alongside the artworks, looking for both their frequency and their resonance today. Among the words chosen was 'materialism', which Delahunty points out “was associated with the 1980s catchphrase 'greed is good', but is also a word that is in people's conversation at the moment and is linked to our understanding of the world and morality”. Another is 'criticism', which Delahunty links to the critical approach artists used to protest gender stereotypes and the invisibility of black and female artists in the 1980s. One word which was quickly agreed on was 'liberation', which Delahunty says is related to the development of identity politics. “A whole generation of artists were making art addressing questions of ethnicity, gender and sexuality, against a backdrop of the horrors of the British colonial past,” he explains. “There was a whole new generation of artists who were touched by that.”

The energy of the 1980s and the desire for artists to tell their stories comes across strongly in the exhibition in a series of very powerful visual statements. The curators asked artists active in the 1980s which artworks they considered to be game-changing at the time. Although several of the artists they came up with are not household names, and some of the artworks in the exhibition haven't been on display in decades, they have had an enduring influence in the art world. These include work by socialist feminist artists such as Rose Finn-Kelcey, as well as Helen Chadwick's provocative 'Carcass', last shown in 1986; this is a work which Delahunty says has “stimulated and inspired so many artists”. Displaying 'Carcass' is a logistical feat, comprising a column filled with food waste which will transform into a living sculpture as nature takes its course over the lifespan of the exhibition. Another key work is Sunil Gupta's 'London Gay Switchboard', which is grounded in the near-hysteria of the 1980s AIDS climate. The work, initially shown on a slide projector but now updated to a digital format, depicts the central information point which helped thousands of men and women access expert information on the virus. “It had a huge impact,” explains Delahunty. “It shows the day-to-day aspects of the work at the gay switchboard as well as people going out socialising. It demonstrates how, in a time of confusion and fear people still had time to hang out and be friends and get on with life.” If one work sums up the exhibition, it is Donald Rodney's multimedia sculpture 'Visceral Canker', which uses coats of arms depicting aspects of slavery, bloodlines and former colonies to speak of Britain's colonial past.

The keywords incorporated into the show do not directly correlate with or illustrate the artworks, but rather provide a 'jumping-off point' and stimulus for thought and discussion. They ask questions such as 'could you apply the word 'violence' to this artwork, or are they worlds apart?' As Delahunty explains, “the exhibition is more about slippages of language and how it changes over time, just as artworks evolve over time.” He adds: “We live in a world with a strong desire to contain life within language, but artworks can't be reduced to single words. They are complex, nuanced and textured and constantly changing and mutating.”

This is very much in the spirit of what Raymond Williams intended to show with the publication of Keywords; he hoped that the book would provide a starting point for ongoing discussions and prompt further collections of words and meanings. The exhibition at Tate Liverpool perfectly demonstrates this potential. Keywords has been reprinted to coincide with the exhibition, and is as relevant today as ever as language continues to evolve to meet new times and new contexts. As Delahunty says, “The book is so open-ended it still allows the freedom to have conversations about what words are, how we use them and how we make sense of them in everyday situations.”

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