Words’ worth: Keywords at Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition on Raymond Williams’ Keywords brings together a wide range of work but fails to capture the political impulse of the original text, writes Danielle Child

April 1, 2014
6 min read

Tate Liverpool has opened its doors to its second left-inspired exhibition of the year. This time, the exhibition is not based upon a broad definition of the ‘left’ but around the writings of Marxist cultural theorist Raymond Williams, an important figure (alongside the late Stuart Hall) in the development of cultural studies in Britain.

The focus of the exhibition is on a selection of words from Williams’ seminal book Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, first published in 1976 and still prominent today across a number of disciplines, including the study of art. Originally conceived as the appendix to his 1956 book Culture & Society, Keywords is the result of a 20-plus-year undertaking in which Williams presents a compilation of short essays examining the changing social and cultural histories of 131 key words. The exhibition aims to reflect the diversity of interpretations for each of the 13 words included.

As Keywords was largely received in the 1980s, the exhibition is mainly focused on a selection of works from that decade but across the selection the works date from 1976 to 1996. The artworks are also understood broadly as ‘British’, with all the included artists working in Britain within this period. The curators further speculate that most of the artists would have been aware of Williams’ book within this context. The exhibition thus seeks to present the cultural and political landscape of 1980s’ Britain.

Although it appears visually haphazard, the exhibition is organised in a formulaic manner: two-dimensional works occupy the first gallery (Riverside) and three-dimensional the second (Dockside). Notably, time-based media is presented almost as an afterthought in the back corner of the Riverside gallery on computer monitors and a room in the passage to Dockside gallery, respectively. Each keyword is painted on the wall opposite the works to which it loosely corresponds.

The information presented is minimal – thus, the visitor is invited to make their own connections between the words and their accompanying artworks. Sometimes the connection is obvious, while at other times the viewer will struggle to make one.

For example, the first term encountered in the Riverside gallery is ‘private’, which is uninspiringly juxtaposed with paintings and prints of interiors and intimate scenes: John Murphy’s An Indefinable Odour of Flowers Forever Cut (1982-4), David Hockney’s My Parents (1977) and Harry Holland’s Lovers (1982).

The next term is ‘folk’, which, the curators elaborate, had a particular resonance during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As such, the works presented opposite ‘folk’ are not what we might expect. Here, on the border of folk and violence, we encounter Willie Doherty’s The Bridge (1992) and Paul Graham’s Republican Coloured Kerbstones, Crumlin Road, Belfast (1984) – two powerful photographic images referencing the Troubles through everyday urban landscapes – exhibited alongside Stephen McKenna’s almost kitsch painting An English Oak Tree (1981). The blatant pairing of Irish and English national identities here is not lost on a viewer able to read the cultural context of the images.

Politics and propaganda

The two-dimensional works are presented on what looks like a 1970s-inspired temporary partition running through the gallery space. As the terms and works within the space deal with more political ideas – private, structural, folk, violence, criticism and liberation – the curators intended the partition to act as a propaganda wall that hits you on entering.

This is problematic: yes, the gallery does feel more confined and confrontational but there is a danger in reducing political works to the level of propaganda, rather than encouraging critical reflection. Works presented here cover a range of political ideas, predominantly identity politics in the forms of national (Graham), racial (Donald Rodney), sexual (Derek Jarman) and gender issues (Jo Spence), alongside those of violence – the threat of nuclear attack in Peter Kennard’s 1980 reworking of John Constable’s painting The Hay Wain, for example.

The conflation of politics and propaganda in this way is disappointing. It is a lost opportunity to highlight the political tensions of 1980s’ Britain within today’s cultural context. Instead, the reduction of politics to propaganda dates the political content of the show, which, in turn, has a neutralising effect on the exhibited works.

Set apart from the two-dimensional works, tucked away behind the partition, is a digitised version of Sunil Gupta’s 1980 slideshow London Gay Switchboard (one of only a handful of works not from the Tate’s collection). The project started as a documentation of a call centre set up as a helpline of sorts, and broadened its scope to document gay life in London more widely. Despite the curator’s obvious excitement for the work, it appears somewhat marginalised through the organisational structure of the Riverside gallery as a whole. But if the slideshow isn’t missed entirely, its standalone position away from the ‘propaganda’ wall could emphasise its importance for some visitors.

Dampening the political spirit

Once we cross over to the Dockside gallery, which exhibits the three-dimensional works, the political spirit is further dampened. Terms addressed here are: formalism, native, anthropology, myth, unconscious, materialism and theory.

Alongside ‘formalism’ are exhibited canonical sculptural works by Anthony Caro, Anish Kapoor and Tony Cragg. These appear to be obvious choices as works that engage formal concerns – the three-dimensional equivalent of the ‘structural’ section in the Riverside gallery. However, the unusual three-dimensional focus of a term so closely aligned with painting (through the criticism of 20th-century American critic Clement Greenberg) would not escape someone familiar with art history.

From this point on the pairings become more literal. ‘Anthropology’ and ‘native’ include a mix of references to what the modernists would term the ‘primitive’ by more contemporary artists: Elisabeth Frink’s Seated Baboon (c1989) and Riace I (1986), the latter of which depicts a blackened bronze man with a white-masked face. ‘Theory’ displays library-book wallpaper in the guise of Anne Tallentire’s Bound Words–Stolen Honey (1988/2014), which again addresses Ireland’s turbulent history, while ‘materialism’ presents matter in the form of Helen Chadwick’s Carcass (1986) – a glass box filled with rotting food that will decompose for the duration of the exhibition.

By the end of the exhibition, the connection with Williams is almost completely erased. As with its predecessor, Art Turning Left, Tate Liverpool appears to have neutralised the political import of the selected works and those of the thinker who inspired the show. Williams’ presence is, however, dominant within the gallery handout, which acknowledges the importance of his book and further updates the terms for the gallery-goer. In keeping with Williams’ ethos, the viewer of the exhibition has to be active in order to make the connections.

The publication of a new edition of Keywords to coincide with the exhibition should renew interest in Williams’ work for a new generation of creative and critical thinkers. Unfortunately, this emphasis is not clear within the exhibition itself, which, rather sadly, lacks the criticality that one would expect from something inspired by such a culturally and politically‑aware writer.

Keywords: Art Culture and Society in 1980s Britain is at Tate Liverpool until 11 May 2014