From the Fragmented Archive- A Review of ‘The Great Refusal: Protesting 1948-1984’ (London, January 2014)

Like many academics, I have several digital storage locations filled with fragmented, unfinished and unpublished writing. Most of it should most definitely stay buried in the layered chaos of those drives, but there are few bits and pieces that may as well appear here.

The following is a review I wrote in January 2014, directly after seeing the exhibition, which apparently I was extremely unimpressed with. This seems to have been largely because it refused to engage with the intersectional dynamics of power between and within identity politics during the formation of protest movements, and the normative strata that the project reinforced. In the current Australian political climate, these reflections seem somewhat more relevant than they otherwise might:

The exhibition “The Great Refusal: Protesting 1948 – 1984” was shown at The Hayward Gallery Project Space (12 October 2013 – 5 January 2014) as part of The Rest is Noise series which focussed on culture of the twentieth century. The exhibition was framed by the post-War publication of George Orwell’s 1984 in 1948, and the anti-government, anti-establishment sentiment it inspired.

The associated catalogue (which provides limited information about each of the works exhibited) contains a “a short chronology” in which counter-cultural movements are described primarily in terms of their resistance again “establishment” and secondarily in relation to identity politics and social normativity.

Surprisingly little online presence, which would have complimented the exhibition well. The accompanying ‘zine is primarily pictorial in nature, and has taken its aesthetic cues from the Vice school of meaning-avoidance with a side of pastiche irony.

The inclusion of some pieces seemed bizarre – stills from the cult-child-drug film Christiane F (Uli Edel, 1981) are mounted alongside images of the suicides of members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, as though they were equally culturally innocuous.

An apparently unintended consequence of the exhibition (a consequence not mentioned in any of the related documentation) is the demonstration of the shortcomings of the individuation of identity politics. The most striking thing about the exhibition, is the apparently unexamined irony of the representation of countercultural radicalism (“Make Love – Not War” “Ronnie digs Dick”) that explicitly reinforces culturally normative identities and behaviours (heterosexuality, whiteness, women’s oppression, nuclear familial structures).

In an exhibition that claimed to chronicle counter-cultural protest movements in the postwar period, there was very little documentation of identity-specific protests, and those that were represented were deeply problematic and were displayed unchallenged. Amongst Berne Greene’s photographic series “Protests in New York, c. 1969” is an image of a white man holding a placard that reads “I’d rather marry a black”. The implied heteronormativity alongside the dual dehumanisation of women of colour (reduced to a homogenised colour preference and secondarily as a woman, an object to be owned in marriage) in this poster is as shocking as the governmental policies it was intended to challenge.

Another poster depicts a group of people appearing in protest against the Vietnam War. One man of colour is shown, holding a sign that reads “The Vietcong never called me a N****” and two women holding images of children, ostensibly mutilated by Napalm. The deeply problematic semiotic system of this apparently egalitarian anti-war poster is staggering. Why are the women not holding signs saying “The Vietcong never called me a slut”? Why is the man only able to object to the war in relation to his racial identity, and the women in relation to their normative position as child-bearing vessels?

A further poster, perhaps the most blatant of all, is “Ronnie Digs Dick” (anonymous, 1970s). The poster depicts Ronald Regan alongside Richard Nixon. In the midst of gay rights activism, the inference of a man (Ronald Regan) as homosexual is still used as way to undermine and humiliate his authority, the gesture of which runs counter to the aims of the movement itself.

The irony of the prevalence of socially normative representations that appear throughout the counter-cultural images of the period is something that requires curatorial address. This somewhat bizarre phenomenon afforded the opportunity to commission a series of essays addressing the issue of continued oppressive cultural phenomena despite resistance in the twentieth century, which is something that continues in the identity politics of today.

The realisation being (and apparent when inspecting these posters in concert) is the absolute futility of addressing one injustice, while reinforcing another.

In place of a critical approach to the issue, the curators chose the lurid pictorial nuclear explosion as background for the posters, with absolutely minimal intervention. The experience of the exhibition without context was akin to sniggering at sexist and racist advertisements from the 1950s, made acceptable by the comfort of temporal distance, and re-used for the sham shock of the Vice-aesthetic.

Ouch.

The Great Refusal: Protesting 1948-1984 Hayward Gallery London

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