Say the words “pop art” and a pre-selected bunch of images come to mind: a Campbell Tomato Soup tin, technicolour Marilyns, comic strip scenes made from conspicuously visible dots. Despite starting in the UK, it is overwhelmingly the zeitgeist of 1950s and 60s America – American culture, American concerns, American images. What this blockbuster at the Tate Modern proves is that far from just reflecting and perpetuating American heteronormative culture, pop art was widely used to rail against and expose American cultural and economic imperialism and the totalitarian regimes it propped up across South America and Asia, as well as the imbalance in their own gender relations on home soil.
The exhibition begins by situating us in the political and cultural concerns of the 1960s, seen through the eyes of artists from all over the globe, and gives a taste of the movements and issues which the exhibition is going to cover, with a striking work from each concern – Bez Buntu’s powerfully symbolic Without Rebellion (1970), a nail through the tongue representing censorship in Communist Poland, introduces that growing spectre in the Eastern Bloc which would continue until the fall of the Berlin Wall; the festival of dolls, an event historically celebrated in Japanese wood prints, has been given the Pop Art makeover by Ushio Sinohara (1966) to expose the rapid American modernisation of traditional Japanese culture which began after the Second World War: made over in garish neon Perspex, the faces are featureless and crowd the picture plane; the usual Japanese figures have been replaced with a Western man and male and female Japanese prostitutes. The role of women also looms large via two aspects: objectification and emancipation. Anna Maria Maiolino’s Glu Glu Glu (1966) transforms open mouth and exposed organs into potent symbols of female repression and subjection during the Brazilian military dictatorship that began in 1964, but Evelyne Axell’s work from the same year celebrates women moving into new emancipatory spaces such as outer space; Axell makes a feminist icon out of the Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, combining the eroticism of her idealised body revealed by an undone zip with the astronaut’s helmet that endows her with professional authority.
In fact, it’s the female cohort which carries the exhibition, with powerfully unsettling works which explore the complicated intersections of female sexuality, occupation and domesticity. Eulalia Grau perfectly encapsulates female domestic imprisonment in Vacuum Cleaner, part of her Ethnographies photomontage series: an enormous vacuum cleaner head dominates the picture plane, about to suck up a wedding cake-esque figurine of the perfect 1960s bride, complete with glassily fixed smile. Martha Rosler similarly conflates female body parts with domestic appliances in collages made from magazine cutting, thereby deconstructing the female domestic role and railing against the fallacious equation of female biology with domestic duty. Angela Garcia takes a sharply different turn with her abstract painting Breathing Out, full of erotically charged hot pinks and sinuous curves, redolent of legs, vaginas, breasts. Through such fragmentation Garcia hoped to redefine representations of femininity during women’s struggle for autonomy in Francoist Spain. Just round the corner in the next room, Jana Zelibska’s room-sized Kandarya-Mahadeva sees the female body bite back with a vengeance, as you enter a kind of temple of female sex, bestrewn with pink garlands and mirrors on the walls in highly suggestive feminine shapes.
As is customary for the EY exhibition at the Tate Modern, this is a mammoth show, and not everything here, in fact very little of it, can really be said to be great art. The Guardian’s ever-acerbic art critic Adrian Searle has claimed that this isn’t even pop art and to a certain extent, perhaps he’s right. As art objects, I can’t say I found these works particularly appealing, and I wouldn’t want any of them on my wall. But I don’t feel like that is the point of this exhibition. In some ways, it’s less an art exhibition than a revisionist view of 20th century politics and artistic activity. They’re mementos, messages both for the people of their time and those who come after, of the corruption in society and politics, the perennial need for democracy, a warning to never sit safely on your laurels where your rights are concerned, and a reminder of just how recent the emancipation of some groups, including women, have been. Is it pop art? I’ll defer to the experts on that. Is it even art? Not in my opinion. But then again, it’s all so interesting, I don’t really care.
The World Goes Pop is on at Tate Modern until 24 January 2016
I do not own any of the images on display in this article.