Review: Dreamers Awake, White Cube Bermondsey ‘Ambitious and Exciting’


Well, this is a thrilling and exciting show, for sure. And an ambitious one, too. For Dreamers Awake is a major exhibition that sets out to examine and explore the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than fifty women artists. In total, there are over 180 works on show at White Cube – a huge amount of works! – covering painting, photography, sculpture, drawings, film, and objects. And these artworks cover almost one hundred years, from the 1930s to the present day.

It’s a monumental scope for, in addition to the number of artists and artworks, as you can imagine there’s a huge variety in subject matter too, from gender and sexual politics, and discussions on identity, to eroticism and even mysticism. At times, you feel overwhelmed by the volume and variety coming at you, but it’s a wonderful sensation, as if the very voices and ideas of those silenced for so long are finally breaking through the barriers, teeming all over you at once.

Of course, challenging the male gaze and assigned gender roles and responsibilities are central themes, and Linder’s bright and bold It’s the Buzz Cock, 2015, captures all of these with a wonderful touch of surrealism. Dominating the North Gallery, this huge image shows an oiled up naked female body in glamour pose, only her head has been replaced with a domestic iron. Hard to think of a better, more explicit, way to combine the two roles society has set out for women.

An undeniable highlight to the display is a collection of joint works by Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin. The project worked with Louise completing a series of headless torsos – male and female – in a delicate gouache wash, which were then passed to Tracey who annotated these with figures and words that transformed these works into some form of personal exploration and narrative.

The works are wonderful. And clever too. For the headless female torso is a tricky proposition in art – the sense of mutilation; the (often male) desire to rid the woman of her troublesome will, individuality and humanity and reduce her to a body – a vessel – in which to satisfy (their own) sexual desire. Yet here, in these works, and in many of the others on display that take the headless female torso as their launch point, not only is there a spirit of reclamation, but through the removal of the head or face, here, women artists explore the freedom of being removed from the self-repression, fear and control that comes from minds conditioned by misogyny and, instead, allow the body to explore feelings and sensations.

And that spirit of freedom, of sexual agency, is one of the most exciting and joyous aspects of these works. Of course, there’s a series of photographs from Francesca Woodman, whose beautiful, haunting black and white photos have inspired generations who’ve followed. But there’s also some interesting photographs from Carina Brandes, who takes up that mantle in a series of photographs that seem to blend the human form with a dog’s, whereas Rosemarie Trockel takes Courbet’s Origin of the World and sticks a giant tarantula over the pubic area.

Caluda Cahun, of course, makes an appearance, as does Gillian Wearing. A few of their images may be familiar to visitors of their recent joint show at the National Portrait Gallery, but no show on Surrealism would be complete without them.

There’s also a strange sensuality to some of the artworks on display, from Elizabeth Jaeger’s white ceramic artworks where, seemingly, carved torso skins lie flung over iron stands, to Tomoko Kashiki’s bedroom scenes where S&M wrist-ties are colourful paperchains.

The female body itself also is repeatedly examined, whether through Surrealist representation such as Sarah Lucas’s instantly familiar stockinged bodies, or Mona Hatoum’s love-hearted wrought iron chair complete with a large clutch-full of pubic hair. And, of course, there are vaginas. Plenty of vaginas, including Hannah Wilke’s collection of terracotta ones, and Mona’s collection of glass ones in a wall cabinet.

There is so much to this show that to cover all its themes, styles and insights here would make this a lengthy article, to say the least. And even though the artworks on display are all covered (some, somewhat loosely) by the surrealist theme, there’s a certain attractive and intoxicating chaos to the various genres and artists on display. So many voices, so many different visions and ideas…

This is an exciting and stimulating show that challenges, provokes and asks searching questions on so much around gender politics, identity, sexuality and freedom. No doubt, it is a show designed to build on the surge in interest in overlooked female artists and feminist art, largely provoked by the backlash on the exclusion of women artists in major galleries, the push by the Tate Modern to platform women artists, and the hugely popular Feminist Avant-Garde show last year at the Photographer’s Gallery (a show, I hasten to add, which has been name-checked many times in conversations I’ve had with galleries), but it is a welcome one, nonetheless, and one that deserves a repeat visit simply to be able to take it all in.

White Cube Bermondsey, London, to September 17, 2017
Admission free.

See more images from the show in my Facebook album.

Image Credits:
1 Linder, It’s The Buzz, Cock!, 2015. duratrans on light box 251 x 153 x 10 cm, 98 7/8 x 60 1/4 x 4 ins. Edition of 5 + 2Aps © The artist and courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
2 Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin A sparrow’s heart 2009 – 2010 Archival dyes printed on cloth 30 x 24.02 in. (76.2 x 61 cm) © Tracey Emin
3 Carina Brandes, Untitled (CB 096), 2012 B/W photograph on baryta 13.7 x 9.2 in. (34.9 x 23.3cm) © Carina Brandes. Courtesy BQ, Berlin. Photo: Roman März
4 Jo Ann Callis, Untitled, from Early Color Portfolio Circa 1976 © Jo Ann Callis, Courtesy of the artist and ROSEGALLERY

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