BP Spotlight: Sylvia Pankhurst & Women and Work
Dave Beech’s review of Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013 (‘A Blockbuster for the Left’, RP 184) assessed the usefulness of the exhibition form for presenting the complex histories of left-wing politics and their intersections within art practice. Two concurrent exhibitions at Tate Britain (16 September 2013–6 April 2014) raised comparable questions about the historicization and display of politically informed art within the contemporary museum, in relation to feminism. Situated adjacent to the primary circuit of Tate Britain’s new BP Walk through British Art, BP Spotlight comprises ‘a series of regularly changing collection displays which … offer more depth on spespecific artists or themes or highlight new research’.1 In Sylvia Pankhurst, attention was focused on the politipolitical campaigner’s often-overlooked art practice, while the neighbouring exhibition displayed the collaboratively produced Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour, from 1975. Demonstrating a clear interest in the ‘specific theme’ of women and labour, the foremost concern to arise is: why is Tate showing this art now? The imperative of situating the works within the (past) socio-economic conditions of their production, whilst reflecting on the (present) contexts of their display, can generate unsettling questions for the constantly renewed relationship between feminism and the art institution. The powerful dissonance between these artworks and their display in Tate Britain offers a heightened illustration of ongoing debates about the role of institutions and exhibition practices in consolidating art’s history in the twenty-first century. The place of formerly ‘marginal’ art histories in this process (here, feminist one) invites reflection upon the relations of such histories to the institutions that they have belatedly come to empower through their appearance within them.
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