Keywords, Art Culture and Society in 1980s Britain

Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4BB
28th February – 11th May 2014

Reviewed by Pippa Jane Wielgos

“Keywords” presents a fresh look at British art from the 1980s. It is based on the re-publication of Raymond Williams’ 1976 seminal book, a micro-essay of 131 keywords that explore the relative and contextual change of meaning of words, the study of the English language, cultural studies, the academic field of critical theory and literary and visual culture.

Tate Liverpool uses Williams’ book as a metaphorical construct, its framework to re-evaluate key art works, through the juxtaposition of text and image of selected key art works by leading artists from the Tate’s collection active in 1980s Britain.

Peter Kennard - Haywain with Cruise missiles

In Williams’ book “Culture and Society” (1958), he redefined culture as “responses in thought and feeling” as to what is going on in society, asserting that the “surprising confusion of any particular uses of a word, within a group or period is a very difficult question”.

The objectification of its entries expresses the dissemination of the history of language of ideas, suggesting a move away from left/right wing politics, illustrating the evolution of the word and ideas against the backdrop of 80s British artists and discourse of narratives of parochial, national and international politics.

Organised in partnership with Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts, London), where the first incarnation of Keywords was presented from 27 March - 18 May 2013, the exhibition spans a twenty year period from the first publication of the book to the last year of Conservative rule in 1996.

It depicts a seminal discourse of oppositional politics in Britain, which had an impact on culture – from the miners’ strike, to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), ongoing insurgency against British rule in Northern Ireland, race riots, gay liberation and feminism.

Rose Finn-Kelcey - One for sorrow two for joy Jo Spence - Libido uprising

The exhibition’s thematic construction is presented through thirteen key words by Luca Frei, collaborating with Will Holder.

They use templates of keywords in unique blue typography painted directly on to the gallery walls, thematic words within which other works are hung include: PRIVATE, STRUCTURAL, FOLK, VIOLENCE, CRITICISM, LIBERATION and FORMALIST, MYTH, ANTHROPOLOGY, NATIVE, MATERIALISM, UNCONSCIOUS and THEORY.

The tightly packed exhibition, selected from 300 artists works, endeavours to express the purports to explore the discursive polyphonic polemical discourse of the 80s through fifty two works, including 13 films by 55 artists, selected from over three hundred artists, presented in two separate gallery spaces which includes two-dimensional, sculpture and film-based work, by artists such as Stuart Brisley, Helen Chadwick, Peter Kennard, Rose English, Alexis Hunter, Yve Lomax, David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, Sir Anthony Caro, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Bill Woodrow, Jo Spence and Stephen Willats, Paul Graham, Willie Doherty. Yve Lomax, Derek Jarman and Elisabeth Frink and a great deal more. Within its ambitious remit it incorporates geopolitical, national, and micropolitical facets such as Liverpool’s local fanzine magazines, prior to the 80s riots, as “The End”.

Other key art works presented that strongly juxtapose narrative, text and image include “One for Sorrow Two for Joy” 1976, a pioneering performance from Rose Finn-Kelcey, Sunil Gupta’s “London Gay Switchboard” 1980, Helen Chadwick’s notorious “Carcass” 1986. This is also on display for the first time since its premiere in 1986.

The artist Peter Kennard (65) who was present at the show, who abandoned painting in the 1970s in search of new forms of expression that could bring art and politics together for a wider audience, and whose photomontage work was made in response to the radical disruptive political dichotomy of our time, considers that the Tate’s exhibition presented an opportunity for a speculative art critical evaluation of the work produced in the period in relation to key works and keywords associated with Williams’ book and British 80s artists.

Sunil Gupta - Heaven from the tape-slide project gay switchboard

Kennard believes it also reassesses a cyclical debate of relative associational political values, allowing the opportunity to assess the ongoing very real inequalities that people and young people in education in Britain face today.

Kennard’s seminal work, “Haywain with Cruise Missiles”, constructed from a reproduction print of the work by John Constable, “The Hay Wain” (1821), which he purchased at the National Gallery (London), was made in response to the announcement on the 17 June 1980 of the first US nuclear cruise missiles to be stored on British soil (at RAF Greenham Common, Berkshire). Kennard uses Constable’s “Haywain”, an archetype of the British landscape, to further the discussion around CND.

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