“Expanding Our Palate Beyond Campbell’s Soup”
The Tate Modern’s current exhibition, ‘The World Goes Pop’ (17 September 2015 – 24 January 2016), attempts to move away from the conventions of Pop Art and explore how different cultures and countries contributed to the movement. This exhibition consciously departs from Pop Art’s iconic figures and instead showcases lesser-known artists from around the world who engaged with Pop’s “spirit” during the 1960s and 70s. Occupying ten galleries, with walls painted in scintillatingly fluorescent colours that immerse the viewer into the world of Pop, this exhibition illustrates how the strategies and aesthetics of Pop went beyond the celebratory attitude to modern consumer culture and engaged with broader issues from wider geographical contexts.
An essential part of the Tate’s global vision for Pop is the theme of politics. Within the exhibition, the viewer is presented with work that uses the Pop vocabularies initially pioneered in New York and London, but were adapted by the artist to critique or comment on their specific political circumstance – varying from American Imperialism to the Vietnam War to the context of dictatorship in Brazil to censorship within the Eastern bloc. This theme also gives attention to the sense of raging protest and mass demonstration particularly in the large gallery entitled “Pop Crowd” where the eruption of political frustration and the spirit of revolution and resistance almost ricochets around the walls.
This revisionism also includes female artists, often excluded from the canon of Pop Art. Male artists, throughout art movements, have used images of women or the female body to depict women in their traditional role, structured within a patriarchal society or as a sexual commodity. Pop Art isn’t any different; one has to only think of Allen Jones’, “Hat-Stand, Table and Chair” (1969) to identify gender essentialism. What a refreshing change it was to see female Pop artists use the female image and body, to focus on their own subjective experiences and question repressive and sexualised attitudes towards the female form. For instance, Jana Želibská’s installation, “Kandarya-Mahadeva” (1969) occupies an entire gallery, immersing the viewer in a highly sensual environment. Walls depicting brilliantly bold, pink silhouettes of female bodies bedecked with paper flowers and neon outlines of dancers surround the viewer. However, their genitals are replaced with mirrors, so that the presumed male gaze is challenged as the viewer is confronted with their own face, revealing themselves uncomfortably as voyeurs. The Tate rediscovers these forgotten female Pop artists whose work strove for female liberation by challenging their representations and identities within the socio-political current of the period.
Whilst highlighting lesser-known artists and omitting the stars of Pop Art such as Andy Warhol is courageous, it’s worth noting that these icons had defined the visual language of the movement. Arguably, their inclusion should have been essential as most of the artworks within the exhibition are inconceivable without them. Furthermore, this revisionism of Pop Art was perhaps at times too ambitious and came across as slightly confusing, as seen with the gallery entitled “Folk Pop”; a controversial oxymoron as the mass-produced Pop is usually perceived as the opposite of homespun. This small section displays Judy Chicago’s sprayed car hoods (1965); the conventionally ‘macho’ car hoods contain sexual imagery to evoke male and female forms in order to establish a gender balance in male dominated environments. One could question whether Chicago’s work fits under the title, “Folk Pop”? Wouldn’t they have been better suited under a more feminist gallery title?
Nevertheless, the considerable amount of new research that has gone into this exhibition in identifying artists and themes that aren’t often considered to be at the forefront of the movement is admirable and even challenges our accepted tastes, which is what Pop Art did from the start. Rethinking Pop Art in this original snapshot of global culture of the 60s and 70s is perhaps most appealing because it speaks as well to conventions and attitudes that present day society continue to share and challenge.