So this one’s going to sting a bit…. I was a little disappointed with the new Guerrilla Girls show at Whitechapel Gallery. I was hoping for an exhilarating new campaign with iconic new images that would not just shame European galleries for their lack of female artists, but become a beacon, a rallying cry, that would call more to the ranks, to inspire a new generation to take on prejudice and discrimination.
Instead, what we have in Guerrilla Girls: is it even worse in Europe? is an important campaign, but with little to make it interesting, radical or cool.
As a brand, the Guerrilla Girls are out on their own. Iconic. Every woman wants to be a Guerrilla Girl, to put on a gorilla mask, to use the power and freedom that anonymity brings to rise up against male domination in art. The Guerrilla Girls are intoxicatingly cool. The power of image as protest. They’re unmatchable.
Yet this display, though with an honourable and worthy campaign at its core, is a little bit flat.
The Guerrilla Girls (GG) set out to examine the statistics on the diversity of artists on display in over 400 contemporary art galleries across Europe. To get this information, they created a standard questionnaire, looking for percentages and monetary value of works from female artists and non-gender confirming artists in these collections. This show is the result of that survey.
It would be misleading to describe this as an exhibition; it’s more a display. One room has been set aside at Whitechapel Gallery to showcase the responses that were received. The completed questionnaires are pasted onto the walls and bound into books on nearby tables, every page made available for us to scrutinise.
Incredibly only 100 galleries responded. The other 300? Well, they’ve been named and shamed (and, rather wittily, GG have printed their names on to the gallery floorboards for us to walk over).
I am all for supporting the intentions here. The alarming low response rate, and the eye-watering responses to some of the questions (Manchester Art Gallery, I’m looking at you here for your statement of “We talk about these issues a lot” when asked if you run stats on diversity. As GG point out, your collection is 80% male and 85% white so, you know, perhaps take action rather than chat!) clearly indicates we are miles away from anything approaching parity here.
But there was nothing new here in terms of possible viral images, an injection of fresh energy. The gift shop downstairs has mugs emblazoned with GG’s famous, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met? banner, complete with the manipulated image of Ingres’ nude from La Grande Odalisque, her face hidden by a gorilla mask. But that campaign, and that image, is over 25 years old now.
I was desperately holding out for something new here but it hasn’t materialised. It’s not surprising news that contemporary art galleries are not platforming women artists – in that, this campaign isn’t telling us something we don’t already know – though the statistical proof to back this up now is sobering (and thanks to GG for that). But for this campaign to have vigour, it is crying out for a breath of fresh air, for the Guerrilla Girls to bring something new to the table other than completed surveys.
It hurts me like hell to say this, it really does. And I feel I am being somewhat disloyal to a cause and group that I love, but oh, what I would have given for a cool new image that we could use as the defining image of protest for the next decade.
Whitechapel Gallery, London, to March 5, 2017
All installation images by me.