Curatorial Projects > The Bodies Are Back (2010)

The Bodies Are Back - A Solo Exhibition by Margaret Harrison

February 10 - March 27, 2010
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

Margaret Harrison is widely considered to be one of Britain’s best-known artists and a pioneer of feminist art. The Bodies Are Back explores notions of the human body as an object of sexuality, consumption, and gaze, and consists of close to twenty works on paper produced in the late 1960s/early 1970s alongside works made in the late 1990s and eight new works created for this show. The Bodies Are Back is not positioned as a retrospective, but rather as a necessary reinvestigation of work that at the time did not have the proper context to be appreciated and understood. Now an established artist with work in the permanent collections of institutions internationally and the sole British representative at the 11th International Istanbul Biennial in Fall 2009, Harrison is critically re-engaging with this body of work, continuing the dialogue that she began over four decades ago.

In the context of the burgeoning feminist consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s, Harrison utilized her years of formal art training at London’s Royal Academy and at the Academy of Art in Perugia, Italy to turn sexuality on its head. In 1970, she was one of the founders of the first London Women’s Liberation Art Group. She came of age as an artist during the heady years of pop, minimal, and conceptual work. Her infamous first 1971 solo exhibition was held at the Motif Editions Gallery in London and featured works that, in Harrison’s words, “tread the fine line between irony, sexuality, transgender, transvestism, power, masculinity, objectification, and exploitation.” The show was shut down after only one day by London police, who felt its contents were too controversial for public exposure. Harrison was told that the police didn’t mind the images of women in the exhibition, rather it was the male images that they objected to. Highlights of the show included works such as Captain America, where she depicted the American comic book icon, with large breasts, wearing stockings and stilettos, and an image of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner dressed as a Bunny Girl. The original drawing, entitled He’s Only a Bunny Boy But He’s Quite Nice Really (reproduced here for this show), was stolen on the show’s only open day amongst rumors that the culprits were Playboy associates. This rumor spurred a media frenzy in London, and Harrison found herself fighting off repeated, aggressive requests from national British tabloids to pose for “cheesecake” photographs as the controversial artist.

She basically buried the drawings until she was persuaded that they could be viewed in a different light: where the humor could be appreciated and sexuality and identity could be explored in relation to images in popular culture. It seemed that Harrison’s work was too subversive and unacceptable for the art establishment then. Although her strong sociological and political beliefs have always informed her work, the decision to revisit the thematic emphases of the early series was inspired by the evolution in art production and the adoption and appropriation of certain more populist styles. Harrison says, “I realized that my potential audience couldn't take the work at that point in time; there was no context for the work, and this propelled me into another strategy and direction to try to understand the world I was living in. My feeling is that the context is right for this work, and the new work, now.”

In the 1990s, Harrison exhibited select pieces from this series at U.C. Davis and Manchester Metropolitan University; then the Woodruff Art Center in Atlanta, GA in 2000 to test responses from a younger generation. The students and younger artists responded to the work with genuine interest and excitement. The irreverence and irony that Harrison employed to confront issues of objectification and exploitation of women initially backfired because these strategies weren’t widely understood as intentional lenses through which critical discourse could happen. Furthermore, there was scant space for women to speak about their experiences, both in the art world and in the larger culture. As Harrison states of the early work, “I did some pieces showing women in sandwiches and things like that. So that was again the notion of women described as being delicious and good enough to eat. Oh, how delicious and how juicy and all the rest of it. So I thought: well OK, I’ll put them in sandwiches and I’ll see how that works. Now the fact that I put them in sexy underwear and stuff didn’t seem to the gallery to be any different to the other stuff they normally saw. I thought I was quietly subverting it but it was too close to the imagery of the time. So I think that was kind of a mistake of mine because I didn't understand the context. You just didn’t know what was going on in many ways, you weren’t clear about it; you had to try it out…So it was the testing out…what happens if you put a man in high heels? And so I just did it basically…you’re always in a different strategy at a different time, in different periods.”

With the emergence of modern feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s, many rights were fought for, including equal pay, political influence, and economic power for women, as well as important victories in the U.S., including Title IX of 1972’s Education Amendments prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools and 1973’s Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Theorists and activists continue to explore the intersection between gender and sexuality, race, and class through the lens of feminism. Through this exhibition, we want to show that the issues and themes Harrison investigated decades ago and continues to explore today are not historicized and impertinent, but rather entirely relevant to our time and age.

- Kevin B. Chen