London was a hotbed of dissent and underground activity at the end of the sixties, and when it came to surface it was like burning lava. Miss World 1970 will be remembered not so much for the award-winning beauties but for the rain of stink bombs and leaflets on the Royal Albert Hall stage, and for the banners with which young feminists expressed their rejection of that cattle market. Among the activists, there was one wearing grotesque plastic breasts with orange peel-like nipples. She was Margaret Harrison.
The following year she held her first solo exhibition, which also resulted in police intervention. The “macho” audience (indifferent to the subdued criticism of presenting women as foodstuff) delighted with the pin-ups lying on beds of lettuce, between slices of bread. But that same audience did not be able to digest the transformation of Hugh Hefner in one of his Playboy bunnies, or the vision of Captain America with breast prostheses, running on a stiletto heel or wearing corset and lace garter.
Although the caricature of the patriotic superhero was a clear rejection of American imperialism (the massacres were still in Vietnam), and the feminization of the Playboy mogul was a direct criticism of the reduction of women to sexual objects, what really bothered was lurking in the questioned gender binarism.
Censorship would serve Harrison to delve into the taboo surrounding this issue, but it would take two decades for her drawings on gender fluidity to be reread and vindicated by the queer theory.
Meanwhile, Margaret considered other strategies to change the status quo. Women and Work (1973-75) was a collaborative project with Mary Kelly and Kay Hunt, in which the wage gap between men and women was highlighted as a result of case studies and interviews with workers from a factory in Bermondsey. Statistics, photographs, documents, collages … arranged in minimalist panels would set the tone for a series of works that Harrison would later carry out on the exploitation of home-based work, the devaluation of craftwork and the consequent increase in prostitution, and more recently, about gender violence.
This last theme is dealt with in Beautiful Ugly Violence (2004), where drawings of crime tools overlap the abusers’ written statements. By giving voice to the aggressors, we have a contextual vision of how psychic disturbance sprouts in certain environments. The sociological study coexists with the subjective interpretation, the personal intersects with the political, the iconic representation is next to the confessional document … Harrison’s more conceptual works continue to involve the body but without showing it.
Griselda Pollock urged the women artists to treat the body in an elliptical way, without representing it, because the female body is too loaded with history, produced and reproduced by the discourses of publicity and popular culture.
Thus, going back to Margaret and her intention to point out the relationships between sexuality and power, if she had confined herself to show the violated victims, it would have been a simple paraphrase of television sensationalism, bait by the media and the morbid voyeurism.
Rape has been and continues to be a war tool, another issue that traverses the work of Harrison, either to oppose the war fervor of man in front of the belligerent pacifism of women (see her tribute to the nuclear weapons protests in Greenham Common), either to condemn the eternal return of barbarism (Guernica / Aleppo 2018).
The title of her exhibition in ADN Gallery (Barcelona), “It has not changed: and babies?”, makes more sense seeing this triptych (Guernica / Aleppo) created specifically for this event. Among the debris of two cities, a Goyesque Saturn devours its children. The hunger for power is self-destructive. If we remember the Greek genealogy of titans according to Hesiod, both Uranus and Kronos would have sacrificed all their progeny (for fear of losing their supreme power) if it had not been avoided by their wives, Gea and Rhea, mothers above all.
Since ancient times, then, the masculine mind was filled with false values about competitiveness, glory and virile force that led them to distrust and mutual annihilation. In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf deduces that the only way to defuse the war drive is to educate men and women out of a patriarchal system that, like fascism, is based on privileges (of a gender, of a class, of a race).
For years, Margaret Harrison has worked against this system based on privileges: mocking of patriotic masculinity and transgressing gender binarism, with drawings of superheroes that seem to have taken too many estrogen and super-empowered women (see Hugh Hefner turned into a fur rug), reinterpreting works from the history of contemporary art with an underground-like air (a dominatrix nailing her stiletto heel in a Warhol Brillo Box, the singer Dolly Parton commenting on the table-woman on all fours by Allen Jones …), or investigating cases of blatant abuse (at work or at home).
Harrison, always attentive to her surroundings, has been capturing the new paradoxes of femininity in the era of celebrities, and she has also continued to “cutting off heads” of trendy artists such as Marc Quinn, who in “The Golden Phallusy “(2010) is melting into the gold sculpture of a contortionist Kate Moss (Siren).
Between the echo of the bombs in destroyed cities, the data crisscrossing in her conceptual panels, the laughter that her drawings draw…, there is a work especially appropriate, for its silence, to end the route. “Marilyn is Dead” (1994) shows us an aged and bruised face, inspired in a forensic photography that when translated to the canvas, the reverse of a sexual fantasy is dignified.
Margaret Harrison. It Hasn’t Changed: And Babies?
in ADN Galería, Barcelona
until 24th Novembre 2018