Saturday, 13 March 2010

Trouble At Mill, Part 2: Vaginas And Peacocks

The trouble, I'm happy to say, has been resolved for the time being. There is room for more but, for now, it's settled until the next wave of curatorial nerves falls due. It happened like this. Shattered will be showing at Cliffe Castle, part of Bradford Museums and Art Galleries, from March 27th until September 27th 2010. It will show in the highly ornate, Victorian reception rooms - a sort of 'intervention' you might say. At around 5.00pm on February 23rd, so that's just over a month before the show is scheduled to open, I receive an email from the exhibitions officer saying, '(we decided) not to show Princess Hymen ... due to the title and clear vagina imagery.' Only four of the five pots would be collected.

Gob-smacked - to put it mildly. I was just setting off to the launch of, 'Possibilities and Losses: Transitions in Clay,' a book of pictures with a couple of pretty good essays in it by Glen Adamson and Jorunn Veiteberg, when the email arrived. Fortunately, I had to rush off, otherwise I might have replied and that would not have been a good thing. So I went and sounded off at Emmanuel Cooper, (Ceramic Review) and Alun Graves, (V&A), and Rosy Greenlees, (Crafts Council), and quite a number of other people, in fact any poor sod who was willing to listen. Before you imagine I routinely hang out in such illustrious company, I don't. This was just one of those weird little moments that bursts through the haze of everyday normality from time to time. Armed with words of comfort from the said confidants, I returned home and emailed a suggestion that all five pots be collected and the final decision made when they had actually seen the work - which they hadn't and still haven't. They've seen only photographs.
No reply came for ten days so I emailed again, this time saying quite a bit more and that I'd spoken to various people with big names. I also pointed out that there is no 'clear vagina imagery,' as such on Princess Hymen, it is in fact the inside of a peacock feather purse and is copied from one of Ingres's 'Odalisques.' It is a visual pun. They had had all the documentation about Shattered for over a year and only now, such a short time before the show was due to open, had they raised this matter.

The next email I received was a proof of the invitation, but still no reply to either of the two emails. Interestingly, however, the proof included a picture of Princess Hymen. I replied saying I liked the invitation, but couldn't understand how they could use an image of PH as a marketing image but not show the pot itself. Again I suggested that they might not really know what the pot looked like in reality and it might be better to collect all five and then decide. This now has been agreed. What actually happens remains to be seen, but I doubt they'll find the pot anything like as scary as they think they're going to.
The thing that puzzles me more than anything though is this: by far the most disturbing pot in Shattered is Traffic, (left), and I must say, I would have thought that was clear from the photographs. One child at the Original Gallery show said that she found the inside 'scary,' and hid behind her mother and I have seen three people dissolve into tears in the show, all three because of that pot. But it is not this one they wished to remove, it is Princess Hymen, which has proved consistently popular.

So the censorious instincts of galleries is alive and well. I had not thought for a moment that it would be like this in an organisation of such international renown as Cartwright Hall. I hope we pull through ok. I'm cautiously optimistic for now. But it's salutary to be reminded of the extent to which this goes on and the power that petty officials have to decide what can be seen and by whom.