Nancy Spero Maypole: Take No Prisoners 2007
■ Nancy Spero. Dissidances MACBA Barcelona July 4 to September 24
In an interview conducted with the Art Newspaper in 2007, Nancy Spero commented that her art was intended to be ‘something that would not be acceptable in the usual daily, ordinary, polite way of communicating’. She made this statement on the occasion of her installation entitled Maypole: Take No Prisoners, 2007, at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. This large-scale work comprised a ten-foot metal pole which functioned as the structural spine for a web of silk ribbons and steel chains. It appears now as the culmination of Spero’s first ever major retrospective at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. The metal and silk cords descend to just above the height of the viewer bearing the shapes of human heads cut out from aluminium. Dangling from blood-red ribbons, some of these ghoulish heads are shown with their tongues sticking out as a sign of the body in distress. The overall appearance of the work resembles a macabre trophy of torture due to the strange conflation of the associations of festive play and human execution. An unsettling vision planted in a museum renowned for exhibiting political art, it is certainly a fitting example of what Spero meant by creating an unacceptable and impolite work. With its vitriolic anger and polemical zeal, it harks back to the artist’s earlier ‘War Series’ of drawings which she completed in the late 60s in response to the Vietnam War. The curators of ‘Nancy Spero. Dissidances’ – Manuel J Borja-Villel and Rosario Peiróó – have been forthright in making visual and conceptual connections between Maypole and these early war sketches. There is a cyclical return to the violent iconography of the protest drawings which is shown by having one of these images positioned alongside Maypole. The work, Kill Commies/Maypole, 1967, reveals how Spero has cannibalised her early work,
the screaming heads of one war being a suitable motif for relaying the artist’s recent disgust at US’s invasion of Iraq. The rest of the war sketches are shown together in one large room according to the chronological arrangement of the exhibition; offset dramatically by the crisp white walls and lofty height of the gallery space, these fragile paper manifestos made from gouache, ink and even the artist’s own saliva function as overbearing reminders of political atrocity. The graphic energy and apocalyptic display of sexualised violence suggest the artist’s frustration at not possessing a voice either as a citizen or as a female artist. Predatory helicopters and sperm bombs of dripping-tongued heads provide a nightmarish vision of the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese people. This ferocious anger and revolutionary spirit has informed Spero’s art to differing degrees over the course of her 60-year career as she has sought to develop a content and form which accord with her political agenda. Her reputation as an artist, understood in relation to her selfproclaimed identity as a socialist and a feminist activist, was already confirmed when, in the late 60s and 70s, she became a prominent figure in the protest movements that besieged New York City. Even now, as the artist moves into her early 80s, she still considers herself to be a militant social commentator whose job it is to stir things up and incite a new wave of political protest. The title of MACBA’s retrospective – ‘Dissidances’ – is a conflation of the two words ‘dissidence’ and ‘dance’ and is taken from a text by Héélèène Cixous. In the introduction to the accompanying catalogue, the curators explain how the term describes ‘the spirit of protest’ and ‘the importance of movement and the body as vehicles for the articulation of (Spero’s) discourse’. Certainly these two aspects of her art stand out as one surveys the 178 works in the show, especially in the overtly feminist works which the artist produced from the late 70s onwards. It is especially Spero’s commitment to feminism which has made the most significant impact on her art.
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