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Interview: Queer British Art

James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

July 27, 2017
7 min read

James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.

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The Excursion of Nausicaa. © Tate

Tate Britain’s exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. But it deals with the century up to decriminalisation in 1967. What’s interesting about that period?

What’s really fascinating about that period is that there was a clear emergence of a self-conscious group identity among people who we would now call gay, lesbian and bisexual – and in the second half of that period of trans people as well – and yet those identities were legally and culturally prohibited. The tension between those forces produced forms of queer culture that are quite specific to that time.

Since 1967, people have been able to speak so much more freely about being gay, queer, trans. There hasn’t been the same pressure to convey such experiences in the more coded, subtle terms that you find in the Queer British Art exhibition. You could almost describe it as the queer art of the closet.

If you look at the art towards the end of the exhibition [it goes chronologically], it starts to get more open, starts to feel less coded, if you like…

Yes, especially with David Hockney’s work from the early 1960s. His pictures are really exceptionally outspoken at that time about being gay – I think it’s fair to use that word by that stage – and are a sign of how decriminalisation was already in the air. There’d been the Wolfenden Report in 1957, recommending it. Victim gets released in 1961: a film that’s a cultural gesture of sympathy for the situation of gay men regarding the law. Though gay sex was still criminalised in the 60s, bolder forms of gay expression have begun emerging – you see it with Joe Orton as well. It’s a step change from what you find 20 years earlier.

This isn’t an exhibition of queer artists but of ‘queer art’. Can you tell us what that means?

The list of identities we might group under ‘queer’ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual and so on) has only formed very recently and within a western context. There have obviously been experiences throughout history that correlate to what we would now call, for example, ‘gay’ or ‘transgender’ and they have been labelled in all sorts of ways and valued very differently. The extent to which those experiences have been queer – outside the norm of expected experience – has been very variable.

When you’re looking at art made in a place or time that’s remote from where we stand now, you can opt to identify things that read as queer to us or that were queer at the time the art was made. So you have a double perspective. ‘Queer art’ doesn’t mean works made exclusively by queer artists, and I wouldn’t apply it to half the art made by people who’ve led queer lives.

Do you have a favourite artwork in the exhibition?

There are many artworks in the exhibition that I love. If I had to pick one that I was particularly excited to see, I think I’d choose The Excursion of Nausicaa by Ethel Walker, which is also in my book. It was painted in 1920 and it’s vast – about 12 feet across and 6 feet tall. It must have been one of the artist’s proudest achievements and yet it’s probably been sitting in storage for decades. Both I and the curator, Clare Barlow, saw the picture in Tate’s catalogue and thought ‘ah!’ But it’s always a bit of an unknown until it actually comes out; what’s it really going to look like on a wall?

Well it turns out that it’s quite stunning, so the gamble paid off. Walker painted a crowd of life-size female figures, mostly naked or semi-naked. The storyline comes from Homer’s Odyssey. Princess Nausicaa and her attendants are enjoying themselves near a beach, washing and playing games, and it’s really quite lesbianic – as was the artist. It’s a decorative picture, more of a mural than a ‘respectable’ gallery painting, but it looks spectacular.

How does your book differ from the exhibition?

My book presents a sample of queer art that’s been made since 1900 from around the world. I’ve taken about 65 examples to look at in detail, taking us up to the present. It’s a compact book, as the title suggests, which helps make it affordable. But even though the space was limited, I wanted to present as broad a range of artists as I could. There is a tendency in most writings on queer art to focus heavily on North America and Western Europe. That’s the more familiar side of queer art history and it would have been easy enough to fill this book with white, American, gay men without needing to do any research! I wanted to ensure that artists from around the world were present, that trans artists were more than tokens and that the selection gives a real balance between artists of different genders.

You talk in the book about the idea of an ‘art gallery gaydar’, perhaps as a necessary counter to mainstream art history’s neglect of queer art, or of the queer gaze…

I want to celebrate this queer gaze in the art gallery. It’s something that comes to people instinctively, and perhaps slightly furtively because it’s not something that’s validated as a way of responding to an artwork – those times when we say, ‘I reckon they might have been…’ Of course, where we can, we should seek to uncover reliable information about the queer past and how that relates to the art that we see on gallery walls, proper art history research in other words, but I also think those initial hunches that people have in the absence of official evidence are important. I want to encourage readers to feel that their ‘gallery gaydar’ is something to be proud of!

To what extent are the artworks in your book activist or directly political?

There are some, although they are a fairly small number in the book as a whole, and concentrated in the post-1970 period. I wanted there to be a flavour of activist art in there, but didn’t want it to dominate. My main criterion was that the works in the book had to be beautiful, and to be powerful works of art. In some cases that power may come from a political message, but it could just as easily come down to an expression of love.

There are also little political asides of my own in the text. I hope that it reads as a book written by somebody who has a political perspective on the queer experience, and how gender and race have intersected with that experience. The final artwork in the book (Sadie Benning’s Bathroom People) allowed me to touch on the threats to transgender rights now in the United States. From my perspective, that felt like an appropriate note to end on.

Alex Pilcher’s book, A Queer Little History of Art, is published by Tate Publishing. Queer British Art is at Tate Britain until 30 September

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.

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