17 works by women photographers lent by the National Museum of Women in the Arts reflect the diverse, complex, and often shared experience of women worldwide.

Lying on a bed in a green dress, staring at the viewer with twirled hair styled and placed in a halo around her head, Daniela Rossell’s ‘Medusa’ is a better, more substantial precursor to Kendall Jenner’s most liked instagram pic. There is power here, and vulnerability and intimacy which, shockingly, is not present on Kendall’s gram.
Hellen van Meene’s photographs are like illustrations for a book of fairy tales. The text described them as looking natural but actually planned meticulously. To me they do look painstakingly curated and posed. To me there is nothing natural about the props and scenarios. Each subject seems to have an unclear but definite story – one girl is a bubblegum princess in a tower, another girl dead from a curse, a third girl blows magic dust to cast her spell. In this exhibition on the female body and the female gaze the fairytale element is unsurprising – fairytale women have very definite roles set out for them. Here there is some discussion of how real girls and women feel – bubblegum princess is bored, and the girl clutching the feather heart looks more angry and sad than happily in love.

Nan Goldin’s ‘Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC’ has a melancholy intimacy about it. Partially clad on a bed in a rosy dawn or dusk light, this could be a romantic, post-coital scene, but the back to back figures seem to hold something from one another. Their tension and frustration is in contrast to Brian’s upfront sexuality that can be glimpsed in the photograph of him, cigarette dangling from lips, pinned in the top right corner of the work. This is an honest snapshot of a moment in relationship, and an almost universal experience.

It’s always a pleasant relief to see images of women through the eyes of women. Interestingly, there were no nudes in this exhibition – these were women’s and girls’ bodies without the sexualised male gaze. That’s not to say the women depicted were devoid of sexuality, rather that these women are more than simply sexual. There was an intimacy present in many of these photographs; the viewer is often invited into a bedroom, again not so much a sexual as a private place. But there were also grand scenes, such as Marina Abramovic as a peace warrior on a white stallion. Women can be everything, and there was a little bit of everything in these photographs.

Richard Mosse uses weaponry to make art. In this installation, he uses a heat sensing camera made in the UK and sold to militaries worldwide, transforming it into an artistic device to document the biggest worldwide movement of people since the Second World War. The opening scenes of life in a refugee camp have no plot and no real action. The screens blur, judder, and change direction. It’s tense and nauseating, a state of transition but also of stagnation. 

After this you have to walk through the curve in the dark, unable to see where you’re going or who else might be there. It’s immersive, a tiny taste of the fear and uncertainty that millions of people worldwide face as they flee into the unknown. 

You’re then met by a huge three screen video installation. The footage is always changing, you’re never quite certain what you’re seeing. The heat seeking camera reduces everyone to the same colour and renders everyone anonymous. Are the refugees being helped out of boats and into boats being rescued or damned? There are little touches of raw humanity, a smile or a tear, interspersed with footage of war planes in empty skies. Shots of people in life jackets with no shoes are shown against scenes of uniformed and armoured soldiers loading missiles on warships. There is no fairness – the perpetrators are safe, and the victims are vulnerable. 

Then you emerge from the darkness into the easy breezy life of the Barbican, and you’re reminded how safe you are, how different your situation is from that of the refugees you’ve just seen. You feel like you’ve somehow ended up on the side of the perpetrators of this violence. 

This is very serious art. It makes you assess your role in worldwide violence. It’s very relevant today as Assad’s chemical weapons and US missile strikes hit Syria. It makes you uncomfortable, and it should. Incoming forces us to stare the refugee crisis in the face. These people are people and we should not turn them away.

Rachel MacLean’s video and print study of social media and all its darkness is a glorious madness. Emoji-yellow Data presides as queen in a post-apocalyptic world, while her plague ridden devotees wait endlessly for her next upload. Ratty, wire-chewing trolls hack her and literally shit all over her feed. It’s not subtle, and it’s brilliant. 

The video installation was funny, gross, and completely disturbing. The scene where hacked Data masturbates using a touch screen while Scam fists her until she bleeds is a gory but accurate allegory for the self indulgence of the internet and the often unrecognised violence prevalent in online behaviour. 

I’m not sure what the printed images added to the installation, other than behaving like adverts for the film, and ironically they made a great Instagram snap. They fitted well but I can’t yet put my finger on why. 

The juvenile and sterile colour scheme of pink, yellow and blue lent an additional discomfort to the whole room – painted like a nursery, but with a sign outside warning parents not to bring their children inside. 

Video and edited photography are the perfect media to explore the phenomena of social media. The sickly brightness and a Disney-esque song sequence fit perfectly around the reference to the sinister, dark side to social media underneath all the airbrushed perfection. The artificial sweetness of the installation made it more palatable; it was bleak but funny. It didn’t offer any solutions – and why should it – but it was a clever addition to the contemporary debate around the safety and trajectory of the internet, while being a jokes way to spend a Saturday afternoon. 

This event was mad educational. I’m not particularly hot on my art history, but this 2010 film highlights how pretty much nobody is hot on women’s art history, and how women’s art is consistently undervalued and under-documented.

The At one point in the film, pundits outside an art gallery were asked to name 3 women artists. One of them managed to name Frida Kahlo, and everyone else drew a blank. A succinct summary of the state of affairs. 

Artist Sarah Turner’s introductory talk raised an interesting argument about the difference between women’s and men’s art during the feminist movement. Turner argues that female artists were outward looking, their art consistently relevant to and fighting against the real life conditions of the day, whereas male artists were concerned with their own legacy. She described this as women’s art being about content as much as form. This necessary outward engagement is the reason that for years there was a black hole in art history where there should have been women. White male artists’ privilege allowed them to focus on themselves and on art itself to ensure their own place in art history – they didn’t have to spend their time fighting for their bodies and their rights. Women had to address the real world in their art because the real world was treating them like shit.

I learnt so much about women artists and the feminist movement from this evening. The film discussed the art of Ana Mendieta, exiled Cuban American artist, whose work dealt with the body, feminism, and displacement. I had never heard of her. She fell to her death from a 34th story window, with her artist husband, Carl Andre, accused (and acquitted) of her murder. Her art was used by Andre’s defence as evidence that her death had been suicide. 

Liv Wynter, poet and representative of WHEREISANAMENDIETA, gave an enlightening and inspiring introductory talk. I got all fired up about her work making art available to everyone – she works with youth groups, reenacting performance works performed by Ana Mendieta, who herself had been reenacting another artist’s performance. There’s some beautiful rebirth in this.

!WAR does not shy away from the conflict within the feminist movement. There are tales of Judy Chicago making other women cry. B Ruby Rich is visibly and verbally angry at the Guerilla Girls’ lack of response to Ana Mendieta’s murder. The film shows that the feminist art movement was the most important art movement in the 20th century, but failed to solve the problems it raised. So it is down to female artists now to continue the fight. 

As I say, I learnt loads watching this. I would have liked to see more discussion of the role that race and sexuality played in the feminist art movement. Introductions by Club de Femmes mentioned queerness but it wasn’t raised at all in the film, and I think only two artists discussed their race, and that was briefly. From an intersectional perspective this film was missing those key elements. 

I feel like I have a whole side of art history to learn.

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[Disclaimer – I whizzed round this exhibition because so little of it grabbed me.]

Robert Rauschenberg may have been the father of pop art but I was less than head over heels with this exhibition. His Red Paintings seemed dull rather than revolutionary, and the wall of his collage-esque silkscreens was uninspiring. These were new and innovative when Rauschenberg first made them, but their visual aesthetic is now so ubiquitous that it reminded me of the way we covered our GCSE art sketchbooks with various related images to make them look cool and arty. Although maybe that’s the point – his revolutionary has become our ordinary.

I did enjoy the goat. It’s pleasantly fitting that Rauschenberg really struggled to fit the notoriously stubborn goat into his art. He tried many goat compositions with none of them working, until he rammed it through a tire and voila.

I found the first room  by far the most exciting, showing his experimentation with everyday materials and the role of the artist in the creation of work. Rauschenberg barely contributed physically to the John Cage, Automobile Tire Print (1953), a long thin black tyre tread. Rauschenberg poured the paint, but Cage drove the car and made the image. So who made the work?

I picked out Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) from afar for the aesthetics of the work, but totally lost my shit when I realised what was going on. Ostensibly just a grubby piece of paper in a gold frame, this is a work of conceptual genius. Rauschenberg had asked de Kooning to make a drawing which Rauschenberg could then erase. This work is a collaboration with de Kooning, or an ex de Kooning, an authorised undoing. A destruction and a creation. I’m still fangirling over this.

I can appreciate that Rauschenberg’s work has incredible artistic value, but alas many of his pieces were just not to my taste. Having said that, his experimental work where there is a blur around the question of markmaker as artist absolutely blew me away. Maybe with a little more understanding I’ll warm to him as an acquired taste.