Creative Complaining: The Guerilla Girls Revisit “It’s Even Worse in Europe”

The Guerrilla Girls know how to silence a room. Dressed head-to-toe in black, their faces concealed behind snarling masks, the impression is something between a gang of bank robbers and superheroes in disguise.

Guerrilla Girls artists Kathe Kollwitz, Zubeida Agha and Frida Kahlo during a press preview for an exhibition of works by the Guerrilla Girls titled "Not Ready To Make Nice: 30 Years And Still Counting," at the Abrams Art Center, 466 Grand St, New York, NY on Thursday, April 30, 2015. (Andrew Hinderaker)

Andrew Hinderaker

It’s unexpected when they speak in bright, amiable tones, approaching visitors to shake hands and pose for pictures. The somewhat jarring incongruity in this approach echoes the central tension between aggression and playfulness in their work, at its most distinctive in the lurid pink and yellow billboards that splashed shameful statistics on racial and gender imbalances in the art world during the 1980s. Thirty years later, a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London runs in tandem with a separate workshop at Tate Modern to revisit one of their most iconic statements, “It’s Even Worse in Europe.”

This summer, the Guerrilla Girls sent 14 identical questions to 383 European museum and gallery directors; only around a quarter responded, though nobody has escaped inclusion in the show. Those who declined or ignored the invitation have been relegated to the floor, with visitors invited literally to walk all over them. The raw material of their investigation forms the majority of the exhibition: reimagining the banal trappings of gallery administration as a performance, the viewer takes on the role of researcher, poring over reams of paperwork and lists of statistics. The register of responses tends to contrast between the colloquialisms of smaller, more independent galleries and the bulky, bureaucratic speak of the larger institutions. The collated questionnaires, presented in their unedited forms, are gathered into tomes, whilst some of the more scandalous revelations are emblazoned on posters around the walls.

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Further exploiting and inverting the paraphernalia of bureaucracy, the Girls are supervising a Complaints Department as part of Tate Exchange, where participants are invited to air their grievances–on everything from gender politics to the inefficiency of the lifts at Tate–on oversized blackboards interspersed with Guerrilla Girls billboards. One of their posters kindly makes room for the  misogynists of past and present, including a quote from Napoleon (“Nature intended women to be our slaves. They are our property.”) as well as Donald Trump (“Fat pigs, slobs, disgusting animals. I don’t have time for political correctness.”). Whilst the work focuses on shaming institutions and individuals through exposure, the identity of the artists themselves remains protected. This creates friction between what is revealed and what remains hidden, a continuous balance between their own performative presence and their output.

The Whitechapel’s Archive Gallery curator Nayia Yiakoumaki is presenting the show alongside Xabier Arakistain, known also as Arakis, whom the Girls described in 2012 as “the most committed, outrageous curator in all of Spain and probably the rest of the world.” Yiakoumaki discussed how receiving the questionnaire herself provoked “a profound engagement with our own institution,” the exact kind of internal debate the Girls hope to incite. Having received criticism for allowing their practice of protest to become “institutionalized,” they responded: “What do you do when the art world you’ve spent your whole life attacking suddenly embraces you? Well, you don’t waste time wondering if you’ve lost your edge. You take your critique right inside the joint.”

The focus for much of their most recent work has indeed centered on the inner workings of the art world establishment. Their 2015 billboard, which appears at Tate Modern, skewers the entrenched art world culture of unpaid internships and pervasively low salaries.

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Drenched in an acid sarcasm, the statement burns to the core of this most problematic habit of galleries and magazines, which implicitly favours those who can afford to work for free. As a consequence, it’s easy to empathize with the broad perception of the art world as peopled by homogenous swathes of privileged individuals. Such discriminatory practices relate to what the Guerrilla Girls term the “bad behavior” of U.S. art institutions—the opportunity for private, super-rich, usually white, usually male individuals to dictate the collecting practices of public art spaces.

The proportion of private and state funding received by museums and galleries is clearly a central concern for the Guerrilla Girls, and their questionnaire probes institutions for details of their financial investors. Almost every respondent specified that the acquisition of funding was one of the most urgent issues facing their organization. In many ways, statistics represent a bottom line—concrete, quantitative andirrefutable—but they can also be manipulated to obscure the real complexity of opportunity and representation.

Last year, the socialist leader of the British opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, ensured gender parity in his shadow cabinet—but none of the most influential positions were entrusted to women. In politics and business, calls for equitable practices are often met with criticisms that such policies are patronizing and tokenistic. If art institutions were required to implement gender parity in their displays, alongside proportionate racial representation, would such a policy be enforced by the state? If less funding were available from private sources, thereby alleviating their corporate responsibilities, might the state play a more interventional role in what art it deems appropriate for the public? From these questions arise new problems.

In re-examining their 1986 work, the Guerrilla Girls have shaped a new enquiry. Originally, the statement was based on anecdotal evidence, which has been supplanted by research-based analysis, and the conclusions drawn are just as disruptive as ever. In perhaps their most inclusive work to date, the viewer is a collaborator, utilized to parse the data and scrutinize the influences at work within the art world.

Now, the declaration is transformed to pose a question: Is It Even Worse In Europe?

headshotSiobhán Forshaw is an independent writer and curator based in London. She has a website and an Instagram account.

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