In Modern Art Oxford‘s unisex toilet, the little box for collecting sanitary waste is overflowing. Sanitary waste just sits there, at the top of the box, staring at you. It seems slightly vulgur and, inevitably, you have to wonder when the toilets were last checked. But is it disgusting? Why should confronting the detritus of ‘the other’ (a male perspective) and the healthy signs of female bodies, feel wrong? We’re in a gallery for Lork’s sake. Wasn’t it in a gallery that Coum Transmissions presented us with a used tampon? Wasn’t there a whole body (pun intended) of work dealing with the female body as a political space, in galleries? That’s the thing really, what we face in the gallery, isn’t always what we’re prepared to confront in the real world. If galleries are temples for re-evaluating the everyday, why are we all sunday worshippers? We should be carrying those insights out into the real world. Come on everybody, get real. Feminism is supposed to have helped us deal with all that.
I guess feminism doesn’t have all the answers, after all? Does Barbara Kruger think so? Maybe, but not today; at least not in her current exhibition at Modern Art Oxford (on until the end of August) where the work seems to cover some broader issues about all of us and barely a single mention of feminism is seen in any of the works. Hey, maybe feminism is dead? Or passé like emotion and irony, brushed into a corner and ignored by everyone except for those too stupid to realise it. One day, feminism will be talked about like the First World War. All those lives lost in the battle and now we’re all in it together, friends at last.
Oh hang on, on Modern Art Oxford’s web page, they reckon Barbara Kruger uses “ironic appropriation of specific slogans and imagery” to play around with “the often manipulative logic at work in the language of advertising, television and other media and the role of Western consumerist culture.” Shit, sorry my mistake, irony isn’t dead. Or maybe this is historical irony? Some of the works on show are from the 80s, when Kruger created her paste-ups. These collaged works look a bit advertisement-y but play around with what you might expect in the text. In the 80s, we were all becoming only too aware of the power of advertising, thanks to Saatchi and Thatcher. Nowadays, we’re aware of advertising but we all thinks it’s nonsense, so I’m not sure we need it decoding for us? These are records of the past: historical irony.
And feminism? Or Feminisms? Any work that deals with the power of advertising is going to be dealing with the objectification of women in modern culture. Kruger’s work is ripe with engagement on the feminist front, but it’s not obvious in the work on display here. Kruger has said that there are multiple feminisms, and doesn’t explicitly out herself as a feminist artist, but someone who is engaged with feminism through her work. Nice word play there, Barbara! We’re all exploited by advertising, in one way or another then. Women and men. I told you we were all in this together.
I liked the big room with the massive words. It was so colourful and.. big! I mean proper large, considering the space available. Untitled (Titled), 2014 had some nice colours: black, green, white, in a way that wouldn’t work if it was your own lounge wall, but looks great here. The wordplay veers from light to dark, I mean in the tone of voice. With one end of the room dominated by the word Joyful, you’d imagine it was all going to be inspirational and lovely. But as you step back and scan the rest of the sentence, you realise there’s darkness as well. This is what Kruger’s work does well: Flirts with positivity, then sticks the dark dagger in when you think you’ve understood it. Advertising again, eh? The thing is, contemporary advertising isn’t about words. It’s mostly visual these days.
So sure, we all ‘understand’ advertising and we’re all capable of decoding/deconstructing it. But are we still pawns/willing pawns/drones etc? I think the argument now is who owns the public spaces? CCTV doesn’t belong to everyone, even though it’s there for our own protection. But it dominates public spaces along with advertising. Our personal space and awareness is being bombarded and extracted all at once. Who am I in the middle of this maelstrom? Kruger’s work continues to explore the location of ‘I’ in modern society, and that’s okay. But it’s moved from engagement with the outside world, and is focussed on the gallery space just a little too much to keep it completely relevant to contemporary culture… maybe?
Last I looked, the toilets hadn’t been sorted out. At least the art still gives us the clean and acceptable face of society.