By Madeleine Cater
Visual Arts had the opportunity to sit down with Elaine Robertson and Ellen Ranson, curators of the next exhibition at Durham’s very own TESTT Space. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ dissects and questions the concept of gender and will be showing from 22nd March to 5th April 2018. Click here for a link to their Facebook event.
Why did Empty Shop and the TESTT Space appeal to you to stage an exhibition?
Empty Shop in Durham has this new, amazing gallery space and studio facility. The gallery itself has space for many different art practices to be exhibited, including a dark space for video installations. It also brings art out of the Newcastle-centric art scene to somewhere where it can reach new audiences.
And how did you find the artists for the exhibition?
We visited many local artist collectives in Newcastle and the local Universities that have a Fine Art course. This process helped us to explore and decide on our theme of gender. We saw in the work many different ways in which artists were dissecting gender as part of their practice. We then contacted them with a call for artist submissions and from there we were able to compile a range of artists who work in different mediums and discuss gender differently.
How much involvement do you have with the artworks produced? Have you seen them yet?!
Between the two of us, we have seen all the work that will be exhibited in ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’. Some of the work shown is from artists from our Universities so we have seen the progression of the work, and some of the work is new to us. This has been an exciting process for both of us as it has introduced us to artists locally in new ways. We are excited to see how the work will come together in a group exhibition and how this will spark new conversations between the audience and the artists!
How did the project come to be? And what do you want to achieve with the exhibition?
We were invited by the Empty Shop project to curate a show. We worked together last year directing an art festival called ‘Conny’ and it was fantastic being able to do what we love in our local community!
This project is another opportunity to work locally which we’re super grateful to Nick and Carlos for!
We decided to do a group show featuring artists who dissect and question the concept of gender in their practice. Elaine became interested in gender studies after studying it as part of her course and a few years ago performed in and co-wrote a sketch show at the Edinburgh Fringe which dissected gender using humour. Ellen has been researching the intersection of gender in Abstract Expressionism for her dissertation and within her practice.
‘Gender’ is one of those words like ‘Feminism’ that people hear and instantly get clammy hands. Unfortunately, it’s a topic which has somehow become associated with academia and pretentiousness, or dismissed as aggressive. We wanted to curate a show around gender which has moments of humour and light-heartedness. We hope it encourages a positive discussion.
What is the meaning behind the title ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’?
We chose ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ as a lifted, well known introductory phrase. That’s why we have it in quotation marks. It’s a reminder of how society functions in a way whereby before anything else we are introduced as ladies and gentlemen or boys and girls. What’s the reason for this? Who does this categorisation benefit? Who does it exclude? With what do we associate the word lady? What do we associate with girl? Which would we rather be called? There’s much to be picked apart and the artists involved do so in a range of ways.
Is the concept of gender is received or discussed differently in the North East?
Each person’s experience is different. Gender is on feature of identity which intersects with many other features: age, race, class etc. You may not have thought about gender before as a topic for discussion and debate and that’s fine. They’re far too diverse to separate into chunky regional differences.
However, for some people, it’s been a topic they have had to come to terms with very quickly and intensively to make sense of their own personal identity, to navigate a society of ‘ladies and gentlemen’, of ‘boys and girls’ , which does not accommodate them.
Do you think the way one identifies with their gender will affect the artwork produced?
Probably, even if it’s not a direct engagement. Artists have always had to navigate the way their identity is received as its always been read as integral to what they make. We’re often as interested in who the person is and their backstory, as the work itself. Even if an artist doesn’t make work explicitly about how they identify with their gender it’s not uncommon to latch onto, say, for example, the ‘feminine’ aspect of a woman painter, even if this projection derives solely from the fact we have realised that she is a woman!
Artists can perform, subvert or omit gender from work, but it is an unavoidable projected discussion with some more vulnerable than others.
How progressive do you think the art world currently is towards issues of gender? Do you think more needs to be done to advocate female, non-binary or transgender artists on the larger platforms (such as the Tate/ the RA)?
The problem with massive institutions like the Tate and the RA comes paradoxically from the good thing about them, which is how they function for a wider audience as part of a huge tourism hotspot. They can never stray too far from what we call the ‘art canon’; those established in history as the defining greats, the representatives of their genres.
The issue with the canon is that it’s predominantly white, male, and Eurocentric due to a history of this demographic being in power. This made it incredibly rare for women, lgbtq+ people and people from ethnic minorities to be elevated and considered credible, and near impossible to be seen as geniuses who defined their time. They were however participating and making incredible, genius work!
More needs to be done to educate people about those missed out from history and to pick apart reasons why so many have been left out to combat myths such as ‘there’s no such thing as great women artists’.
Steps have been taken such as the RA’s queer art exhibition, but the majority of big institutional exhibition listings remain centralised around white male artists. There needs to be a greater diversity of artists who are elevated and made visible through being exhibited, written about and discussed. Not just our contemporaries but those excluded from history too!
Featured Poster: Luke Dawes
Photograph: Elaine Robertson