“Protest & Survive”

Originally a slogan of the fight for nuclear disarmament, the phrase “protest and survive” was hijacked by the curatorial team of Matthew Higgs and Paul Noble for an energetically eclectic exhibition featuring work from some forty American and European artists, spanning several generations, with a core of local Londoners. The rallying cry—coined by socialist historian and activist E.P. Thompson for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1980—conjures an idealistic image of organized resistance against the common and clearly identified threat of nuclear power and its champions. But the show presented no such united front, offering instead a wild array of various forms of disorder and disaffection. Despite the curatorial invocation of radical politics, the exhibition’s emblematic figure was that of the oddball rather than the anarchist, the misfit rather than the revolutionary. This was both an inevitable and an enjoyable aspect of an exhibition whose assembled personnel ranged from Dan Graham to Rob Pruitt, Jonathan Borofsky to Jeremy Deller. While the declared purpose was to explore “the possibility of identifying a radical ’community’ of artists,” the implausibility of describing such a motley crew as a “community,” however loosely defied, was implicitly acknowledged by the curators’ judicious deployment of scare quotes. Their professed attempt to provide a sounding board for “the political voice that is forever glossed over” itself glossed over the fact that some of its most prominently featured voices were at considerable odds with one another. (Just imagine an ancillary program that featured, say, a conversation between Richard Hamilton and Gilbert & George on the subject of Margaret Thatcher.)

The nostalgia expressed by the exhibition’s title was reflected in its inclusion of intriguing, dusted-off ’60s and ’70s photographic arcana from Jacques Charlier, Mike Hollist. Endre Tót. and the Hackney Flashers, a women’s agitprop collective. Also featured were some of Öyvind Fahlström’s designs for Vietnam protest posters, and a small side room dedicated to Valie Export included documentation of her legendary street action Tap and Touch Cinema 1968, in which the artist wore a makeshift miniature “cinebooth” strapped to her chest and invited passersby to fondle her breasts. Indeed, the show’s sexual politics were overwhelmingly of a ludic and left-field bent, political incorrectness being safely ensured by the inclusion of such unlikely bedfellows as Me1 Ramos (a cheesy boudoir tableau entitled David’s Duo, 1978), Cosey Fanni Tutti (documentation of a series of outré modeling sessions, 1973-79), and Tom of Finland (a selection from the late ’60s of his signature, finely drawn illustrations of big boys at play). This meant the relative sidelining of what might be described as the mainstream, theoretically inflected Anglo-American feminism of the ’70s and ’80s. Isolated, for example, was Jo Spence and Terry Dennett’s Remodelling Medical History, 1982-90, a photographic and textual documentation of Spence’s fight against breast cancer, which was intended both as an indictment of the medical establishment and a contribution to debates on the representation of the female body. In fact, the gender imbalance evident from a crude head count resulted in opening-night protests echoed in some subsequent press coverage.

The show’s social politics also favored direct engagement over discursive complexity. In Richard Hamilton’s installation Treatment Room, 1984, classic TV footage of Margaret Thatcher’s inaugural speech was screened in a reconstructed hospital X-ray room, effectively highlighting the lethal mix of the demagogic and the clinical present in the Iron Lady’s dismantling of the British welfare state. In an inspired decision, the curators distributed copies of The Big Issue—a popular weekly magazine sold on the streets by the homeless—guest-edited and photographed by recent Turner Prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans. Thomas Hirschorn’s bold stroke was to punch a hole in an upstairs wall in the gallery cafe and build a ramshackle covered walkway connecting the gallery and Freedom Press, an anarchist bookshop adjacent to the Whitechapel. The fact that his original proposal ultimately proved impractical (the Swiss-born artist had planned to build a tunnel between the downstairs gallery and the library next door) added an air of thwarted utopianism that was wholly in keeping with the show’s spirit. Further commentary on society’s ills ranged from Paul Graham’s mid-’80s photographic interiors of Department of Health and Social Security offices throughout Britain to McDermott & McGough’s more recent suite of inventively crackpot “Conspiracy Paintings,” 1997.

To exhume and display the trappings of a more radically engaged era, however imaginatively, is not the same as recapturing, much less rekindling, its spirit, and the general atmosphere of “Protest & Survive” was resolutely downbeat, if not exactly defeatist. Yet the fact that it inspired spirited critiques in the press from both the traditional right and left suggests that it was genuinely thought-provoking, an effective call to argument if not to arms. The inclusive, cross-generational mix was also indicative of the recent turn away from the cheeky ahistoricism that was such a boon and a hindrance to the first generation of YBAs in the ’80s. It remains to be seen whether this signals a genuine sea change or just a passing fashion, one that would seek to swap historical blinkers for the ’anorak of the kind of neo-Conceptualist trainspotter who can tell you what some forgotten Conceptualist had for breakfast on February 23,1971.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a Dublin-based critic.