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

David Hockney, My Parents, 1977

David Hockney, My Parents, 1977

Keywords at Tate opened its doors last week, and Art in Liverpool went along to see what the collection is all about.

An exhibition based on Raymond Williams’s seminal study of the vocabulary of culture and society, Keywords takes poignant examples of language from the iconic book, and pairs these words with relevant work by artists as diverse as Sonia Boyce, Helen Chadwick, Rita Donagh, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Elizabeth Frink, Sunil Gupta, Anish Kapoor, Stephen McKenna, Carl Plackman, Ingrid Pollard, Bridget Riley, Donald Rodney and Jo Spence.

The exhibition, which spans 20 years from the first publication of Williams’ book, ‘Keywords’ in 1976, through to the period of Conservative rule, has a strong focus upon British art of the 1980s. Using his selected vocabulary as a starting point, Keywordsexplores British art through the lens of Williams’s book.

Willie Doherty, The Bridge, 1992

Willie Doherty, The Bridge, 1992

Stepping into the gallery space, visitors are confronted by an expanse of white walls emblazoned with carefully selected terms from the book, adjacent to walls busy with the work of dozens of artists. Luca Frei and designer Will Holder are the pair responsible for the design of the exhibition space, which encourages visitors to debate and discuss the relationships between the words and the artwork on display.

David Hockney’s My Parents is positioned in the corner of the gallery space, opposite the word “Private”. This coupling suggests a very intimate portrayal of the domestic arrangement of the Hockney family, which is clear from the image itself. Hockney’s parents sit relaxing at opposite sides of the painting, his father engrossed in the papers as his mother looks directly at the viewer (or perhaps the painter, her son). His father’s lack of engagement with the lens, as it were, suggests an ease and indifference to the portrait being created, whilst his mother’s calm and gentle expression hints at a level of comfort as she poses for this snapshot of family life.

Donald Rodney, Visceral Canker, 1990

Donald Rodney, Visceral Canker, 1990

The exhibition also asks visitors to consider the links between words perhaps not so obviously related. “Violence” and “Folk” sit side by side, opposite work which explores the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Willie Doherty’s The Bridge (1992) is a diptych comprised of 2 large-scale black and white photographs, taken of opposite ends of the Craigavon Bridge, which crosses the river Foyle in Derry. This bridge is important, as it marks the point of connection between the Protestant and Catholic communities in the city, where Doherty was born. Derry is a city divided by sectarian violence, and so Doherty’s work can be readily considered in the context of the words written upon the gallery wall.

Next, also under the banner of “Violence”, Donald Rodney visualises Britain’s role in the Atlantic Slave Trade in Visceral Canker, (1990). 2 wooden plaques, bearing the heraldic images of Queen Elizabeth 1 and slaver John Hawkins are connected by a network of tubes which pump fake blood around this synthetic circulatory system.

Derek Jarman, Ataxia - AIDS is Fun, 1993

Derek Jarman, Ataxia – AIDS is Fun, 1993

This work is placed adjacent to Derek Jarman’s 1993 work Ataxia – Aids is Fun. Aesthetically bold and impossible to ignore, Jarman used his fingers to spread the brightly coloured paint onto the canvas, after losing his eyesight, as well as much of his physical control when his illness began to attack his central nervous system (the medical term for which is Ataxia). A campaigner for gay rights, and outspoken against the homophobia which accompanied the discussion of AIDS in the 1980s, Jarman used his art to send out a clear message. By pairing this work with the word “Violence”, curators ask the viewer to consider the varied types of pain that can be inflicted on humanity, both by nature and by other people in society.

Elsewhere, Sunil Gupta’s London Gay Switchboard (1980) explores similar issues around the perception of AIDS in his photography project, which documents much of the work and development of the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. Founded in 1974, the LLGS was the leading source of information on HIV/AIDS, which at the time was fairly new and unknown. This display of Gupta’s work marks the 40th anniversary of the switchboard, whose volunteers later went on to form some of the UK’s leading HIV charities.

The End Vol 8, 1981-1989.

The End Vol 8, 1981-1989.

And lastly, my personal favourite on display in the exhibition is the collection of The End Vol 1-20 (1981-89), a local magazine which documented much of the turbulence of the 1980s in Liverpool. This hand drawn fanzine was created as a reaction to the living and working conditions in Liverpool at the time, as an act of defiance and rebellion by the city’s youth. Now seen as iconic, the magazine offered a voice to Liverpool residents as it became more political with each issue. Whilst on display at Tate, visitors can examine the front pages of each issue, which boast brilliant scouse humour as well as an insight into current events at the time of publication.

A politically charged exhibition, set against a backdrop of incredible British artwork, Keywords challenges visitors to reconsider the meaning of everyday words, from “Liberation” and “class” to the very meaning of “art” itself.

Keywords will be on display at Tate Liverpool until 11 May 2014

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About teafortwotalk

Freelance writer @Pickwickmag @Corridor8 @Biennial / Editor @artinliverpool. Available for writing and copyediting.
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