I am sitting at a long antique wooden school table, burning capital letters onto the surface: ‘B****.’ Other words swarm all over it: ‘Vagina Dentata’, ‘Fishy Vagina’, ‘Bicycle’, ‘Butch Bull Dyke’, and ‘Fat Poisonous B****.’ The word ‘b****’ appears many times, in many permutations; so too does ‘c***’ and ‘slut.’
Miss Pokeno and The Sisters of Perpetual Resistance invite women to sit at the table, remember the worst names they have ever been called because of their sex, and burn them onto the surface with the aid of a pyropen, an electric device with a hot red nib that creates a satisfyingly scorched smell as you write, and requires patience.
It really makes you think about the words as you brand them onto this symbol of education and authority. The pyropen mimics the long needles that Victorian ladies used to hold in the fire before using them to create landscape pictures. Miss Pokeno and The Sisters also provide a selection of brandy, whisky, and chocolate, should you need help with inspiration.
The table is called Too Ugly For Words (work in progress) and it is the star of this exhibition of feminist militia art. Both a homage to the history of feminism and its current, electrifying resurgence, the video, sculpture, and fashion here is screamingly indignant. While female artists a few years ago cynically used feminist imagery (Tracey Emin) but rejected the label, this exhibition is committed. The table in particular is an engaging and brilliant conceptual piece.
“Miss Pokeno and The Sisters of Perpetual Resistance” is in fact a pseudonym for New Zealand-born London-based pop-star turned artist Alannah Currie, 56, formerly of 1980s New Wave band The Thompson Twins. The table was inspired by 1970s feminist consciousness-raising meetings, whereby women would sit around and smoke fags and talk about their experiences. The meetings elicited “a tidal wave of words,” as Currie puts it, and the simple fact of expressing them proved revolutionary.
The same is happening now. Women are fighting back against the misogyny that comprises so much of contemporary culture, from policy to music videos. The power of Currie’s work lies in its timeliness: rather than an echo of bygone days when women were proud to call themselves feminists, this feels like an exhibition for right now.
Marching Coat connects histories of feminist direct action. A black, silk-lined feminine coat is slung on a pole and chained to the ceiling. Its arms are outstretched, which gives the impression of a crucified martyr. There is a Pussy Riot balaclava over its head and the pockets of the coat are designed to hold Suffragist “instruments of nuisance”, updated by Currie: a glass hammer (£325), a gold brick (£500), and a wrecking bar (£350).
Some feminists will have a problem with the commodification of resistance here, the transformation of weapons into fragile, beautiful objects. However, the spirit of Currie’s work is difficult to criticize. Rather than an expression of the psychic damage women endure under patriarchy, this is pure affirmation.
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