This afternoon, I dropped eldest at pre-school, put youngest down to bed for his nap and headed into town. (Attention Social Services: Daddy works from home, obviously I don’t leave my 2-year-old alone).
I didn’t manage to sort either of the jobs I’d intended to, so decided today wasn’t my day and paid a visit to Nottingham Contemporary instead.
I’m really proud to live in a city that is home to one of the UK’s largest modern art galleries – especially one like the Contemporary, that’s housed in an award-winning building, has been described as “the most inspiring gallery in the UK” by The Guardian, is currently Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019 Shortlisted and is completely FREE.
They showcase a number of exhibitions each year and I do my best to visit all of them, and to take my sons when I can. (They also host a range of family activities and learning programmes to complement exhibitions).
Currently, in a rare move, the Contemporary has dedicated all its galleries to a retrospective by Lis Rhodes, a British artist and feminist filmmaker.
Dissident Lines spans Rhodes’ almost 50-year career, from older iconic works to a specially commissioned new piece and covers some rather hefty and powerful themes including women’s rights, migration, poverty, corruption and war.
This might not sound like the ideal jumping off point for inspiring your idea of art, but that’s exactly what I like about contemporary art. I’m drawn to creativity, to modes of expression, to the discussion of important subjects outside of traditional channels. It might not be ‘easy’, but nothing that’s worth it ever is. The amazing thing about art, particularly contemporary art, is that it invites you to explore all sorts of themes and emotions, as often it’s open to personal interpretation, and that it allows you to access it through a variety of mediums other than just a flat, unmoving canvas.
My parents hate contemporary art (it’s usually not pretty pictures) and I’m sure I’ve heard my husband use words to the effect of “arty farty bollocks.” And honestly, some of it doesn’t appeal to me either. Sometimes I have to force myself, like a book you just can’t quite get into. In art, as in anything, there will be things that don’t speak to you. You might not have experience of the topic being discussed, you might disagree with it – maybe you just downright don’t like it.
But I keep trying. And when something resonates with you, touches your soul… it’s powerful. There were several of those incidents for me today whilst wondering around Dissident Lines.
The first of those moments was encountering Much Madness, a one-minute film which was part of the Hang on a Minute series commissioned by C4 back in the early 80’s. The short explores the impact of domestic and emotional labour so it’s safe to say that as a ‘housewife’/‘stay at home Mum,’ this topic was always going to pique my interest. And for a one-minute film, it certainly packed a punch.
Shots of a woman stood by a blackboard, bearing phrases like “Talked at, not listened to,” “overworked and unpaid” and “I’m not mad, I’m angry” were interspersed with images of drawers being pulled open to reveal pointed questions: “depressed…?”, “hysterical…?”, “fat…?”, “PMT…?”, “menopausal…?” All in all, it could have been reading my mind.
Up until I had our first child four years ago, I’d always had a ‘proper’ job, whether it was at the local shop after school, or my professional career post-university. Raising children was my first experience of being ‘unemployed,’ of ‘not contributing’ and it’s been a rollercoaster.
I wouldn’t change it. I’m happy and proud to be raising my children and spending that valuable time with them before they head off into the world to craft their own lives. But I wasn’t prepared for the shift in how people saw me, from society to my husband, and the shift in how I saw myself.
And clearly, I’m not alone in this feeling. If women are the inferior sex, then housewives are plumbing new depths. No wonder we always fall back on the old Mother’s Ruin.
As you can really only do through art, Dissident Lines had me jumping from domesticity to the horrors of migration in List of Deaths, where I was confronted with a wall of information detailing where, when and under what circumstances migrants and refugees have died in their attempt to enter Europe. To say it was sobering would be the understatement of the century.
Suffocating in a car boot after an attempted 30+ hour journey. Being crushed between smugglers lorries. Drowning after a boat capsized or was attacked by pirates. Driven to suicide. Tens of thousands of men, women and children just trying to find a better life for their families. Most of whom, we don’t even know their names. Nobody puts them on the side of a campaign tour bus.
The final work that really called out to me was Ambiguous Journeys, the new piece created specially for this exhibition. The Contemporary described it perfectly as “…tracing the inequalities and instabilities of contemporary life, often experienced as a result of war, migration, and poverty. From student debt to enforced labour and human trafficking, the film overlaps and accumulates to create an all-encompassing critique of contemporary society.”
I would really encourage you all to look this piece up. Ambiguous Journeys is the definition of good art, because it is so much more than art – eye-opening, revolutionary. We all like to think we’re ‘up’ on certain issues, but the fact is that getting BBC News updates pinged to our smartphones does not make us culturally or societally aware. We are ignorant, and the powers that be like it that way.
Ambiguous Journeys is thorough and tirelessly researched, deftly weaving real life stories, statistics, poetic lyricism and cold hard facts to present us with the terrifying global truth, narrated by Rhodes herself.
Back at home, as I was sat at the computer tapping away, my husband spotted something on the desk and asked what it was. When I answered that it was a handout from the Contemporary, he muttered “oh right….” and swiftly scurried away. I’m self-aware enough to understand his fear when I leave a gallery or museum with a fire in my belly, a sparkle in my eye and a desire to start a revolution.
Maybe he’ll ask me about it later when he thinks I might have had a glass of red wine and calmed down. Or maybe he’ll see this, and just steer well clear.