da The Guardian, Tuesday 29 January 2013
Tate Modern's women's liberation army
Suzanne Lacy's latest work, Silver Action, will see 400 women,
all over 60, gather at London's Tate Modern to celebrate their
roles in some of the greatest political protests of the last century
di LAURA BARNETT
Lacy. Photographed in the
'We should see older women as an amazing resource'
Suzanne Lacy. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
One evening a couple of years ago, 82-year-old Barbara
Robson was crammed in a rush-hour London tube train. Politely,
she asked a young man near her, smart in his suit and tie, if
he might move along a little. "He turned to me," she
says, "and told me that, as an old woman, I was a total waste
of space. I felt so wounded I could hardly speak."
Robson's experience of social attitudes towards
older women is one of many that will be aired this week at London's
Tate Modern, in a major performance-art event conceived and curated
by US artist Suzanne Lacy. Silver Action will see 400 women aged
60 and over who have taken part in some of the last century's
major political protests, from the 1968 Ford sewing machinists'
strike to Greenham Common converge on the gallery's subterranean
performance space, the Tanks, for a live, unscripted performance
about ageing and activism.
Sitting at card tables in groups of four, the women will discuss
what first spurred them to become politically active, and what
still drives them now. Audiences, moving around the tables, will
be able to listen in or read transcripts of the conversations,
blogged and tweeted as they speak, and projected on to the walls.
In another area, dubbed the "kitchen table", eight of
Britain's most prominent feminist thinkers including Irish
abortion campaigner Ann Rossiter, and Gillian Hanna, actor and
co-founder of feminist theatre company The Monstrous Regiment
will discuss their thoughts about women's activism, its
legacy and its future.
Lacy's central aim is to challenge preconceptions about older
women. "There's a very large public conversation now about
resources," she says, "and what to do with an ageing
population. Because women live longer, that will impact them more
than men. I'm trying to shift the discourse away from one of isolation
and increasing frailty: we should see older women as an amazing
resource not just talk about them taking resources."
Robson, a mental health activist, is certainly excited about
Silver Action's potential to change the way she feels about growing
older. Along with 13 other women who will be taking part, I meet
her at a workshop at Tate Modern, arranged to stimulate the conversations
volunteers will have on the day, and compile a timeline of significant
events they've been involved in. "This feels like such an
important thing to be a part of," she tells me. "Every
day I feel invisible this is a way to feel less so."
Woineshet Fanta has joined the workshop from Ethiopia; she's
in London visiting her daughter, Fitsum, who encouraged her to
come along. She speaks no English, but tells me through her daughter
how much it means to be able to discuss older women's power and
potential. "I used to be part of a women's forum in Addis
Ababa," she says, "but I've never seen anything on this
scale back home."
Lacy, who is based in Los Angeles, has long operated in the borderland
between art and activism. She's written books on public and performance
art, and created several performance pieces tackling subjects
such as rape, poverty and ageing, one of which, The Crystal Quilt,
trod similar ground to Silver Action. On Mother's Day 1987, Lacy
invited 430 women over 60 to gather in a Minnesota shopping centre
and air their views about getting older. The work was as much
about aesthetics as politics: the women sat at tables covered
with brightly coloured tablecloths, so that, viewed from above,
each table looked like a square in a great, patterned patchwork.
A quilt was, in fact, made to document the work, along with a
film, a series of photographs and an audio piece, all of which
were recently acquired by Tate Modern and are also on display
in the Tanks.
Images of The Crystal Quilt will be shown during Silver Action,
linking the two pieces but Lacy emphasises that the political
context of this new work is different. "There are similarities,
of course," she says. "Both are about older women. But
here, I'm focused on activism. What's interesting is that a lot
of women over 60 in England have fought hard to transform the
social and personal sphere. And now that we're looking at cuts
to a lot of the rights they fought for, their role in those fights
needs to be acknowledged."
So does she believe an artwork such as Silver Action can have
a tangible effect on the way older women are perceived? "An
artwork is not as effective as a treaty or a law or a budget change,"
she says cautiously. "I don't think a single artwork transforms
society. But what an artwork does is create a cultural milieu
within which things will be understood differently. That is what
we're hoping to achieve."