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Revisiting Retro: A Case for Women Only Shows

29/09/2014 13:48 | Updated 28 November 2014

About a year ago, I decided I should read Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: everyone else had read it, and I thought I should catch up, plus I had enjoyed a profile about her in The New Yorker. As feminist, I felt I should know what other feminists were saying: hopefully I could learn something, find new ways of being a more equal person.

She gives lots of advice, lots of good advice.

But I am an artist, and wondered how it might apply to me. "Lean in" she demands, speak up, don't say I, say 'we', even when you are just talking about yourself. Elements of this made me chuckle- as an artist, how should I do this? "We have just made a new sculpture, and we are thinking about this performance we want to do. We wondered if you would like to come to our studio and have a look". I'm pretty sure that people would think I was a nutter.

But this does highlight an important issue: the matter of naming oneself: who and what one is. One appeal of collectives is that they distance you from the sticky problem of self-promotion. The 'we' strategy is a similar device to the use of male names for female writers in the 19th and 20th Centuries. There are also those mysterious genderless people with initials (P.D. James, E. Nesbit, P.L. Travers). In these contexts, gender neutral begins to sound male. And what kind of example is that to set for girls?

There is another piece of advice Sandberg gives women, and I'm not sure how everyone else feels about this, but it's simple: Take Up Space - physical space. I live in London. Space is an issue, especially on the tube, at rush hour . I'm not sure I want people taking up more space, being more power hungry, leaning in, describing themselves as we. Do we need more people being 'like men'? I think possibly we need more men being 'like women': listening, being self-questioning, looking after others (their own children especially - here I wholeheartedly agree with Sandberg) and all the other good things women are encouraged to do and be as they grow up.

But I do want to hear from them, women, I want to read their books, see their art, read their philosophies, watch their films, learn from them, and we have much to learn, because there is so little out there. While we arty types might all be up on our theory, our Derrida/Butler , escaping the gender binaries, the case still remains: women make up 60% of art graduates, but they only account for 31% of gallery representation in London . Clearly they are not taking up space. So why is this? Why aren't gallerists showing women artists? Or more precisely what can be done about it?

In the 70s the answer was women only shows, but all too often people balk at the idea because they are seen as arbitrary, ghettozing. But what if they are a way of getting work seen? As Lynn Hershman Lesson says in !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION: "History is fragile it clings to the most obvious evidence that remains". Certainly I am grateful for the work of the women's movement she was a part of for making a space for women's art to be seen, recorded. If something is good, isn't it worth seeing in any context as a means of preservation of sorts?

From the 70s until the 90s representation of women steadily inclined- but since then has dwindled. I wonder to what extent the women's movement is accountable for the progress made redressing the balance, and to what extent the very existence of women-only-shows worked as a tool of consciousness-raising with repercussions across the breath of the art world, reminding us all, not only when looking at women's work, but also when we look at men's work too, that we do not look from a void: that our perception of the world is mediated by our experience of it, we carry our prejudices with us, wherever we go, including gallery spaces. Given this, can these shows disrupt our unconscious ways of looking?

Or should curators, like special hidden forces, be holding these things in mind, presenting shows of all women artists without mentioning it, even though there might be elements of their gendered lives that play out in their work? Should we pretend that affirmative action is not happening, for fear that it will reinforce the gendered way we look - in the same way that segregation reinforces segregation - or does it help us reevaluate our looking? Or will, in fact, these changes happen slowly over time? I don't have answers to these questions, (which is why I have put this panel together), but at the beginning of the year an artist friend of mine, was asked if she was a feminist artist, a question that seems to imply 'is your work about feminism?' which it isn't, and the answer she gave I liked: "YES. Its feminist because I say it is" (this might annoy you), but in a simple way its true, the act of women's work taking up space, in galleries, museums, and public spaces is a feminist act. It is to claim some space for women, to redress the balance. This year 78% of acquisitions made by The Contemporary Art Society have been of women's work, and something tells me that this is not just pure chance. This work will be donated to museums and public galleries across the UK, which is good for all of us, because in a fundamental way gender equality is good for all of us, men as well as women. We all benefit. The same goes for all the other people that are not heard from enough, the minorities, the oppressed.

So the question is: while we all might wish for a post feminist, decolonized world to exist, given the present, (where we can't always rely on progressive directors), how might we move towards such a state?