Uncanny Feminism: Rose English at The Harley Gallery

Uncanny Feminism: Rose English at The Harley Gallery

Imagine it is 1975. You are an attendee at the Southampton Show. You are sitting comfortably on the lawn surrounding the dressage arena (or possibly uncomfortably, if you are clad in the kind of elaborate attire that such an event demands). Regardless, you are having a jolly good time, and your day of equestrian amusement is unfolding without incident.

That is, until six women enter the arena. They are dressed as horses. They wear nothing but tunics, with real horse tails strapped by leather belts to their waists and their feet encased in horse hoof high-heeled slippers. They begin to dance and the choreography bears an odd resemblance to a dressage performance. You are momentarily alarmed. You turn to your companion, whose face reflects your feelings of confusion.

But as the performance unfolds, you become captivated by their movements, which are as laboured as they are exquisite. What is this absurdity? you think shrilly to yourself. Well, you have not only just witnessed a disruption to the decorous atmosphere of Southampton Show, but you have also just observed one of the most important pieces of performance art to emerge from Britain’s dynamic 1970s feminist scene.

Quadrille is an installation by Rose English at The Harley Gallery, which juxtaposes equestrian objects from The Portland Collection with the props and documentation from that 1975 performance. Subversively adhering to a traditional museum display, the objects lose none of their impact thanks to clever curation and juxtaposition. Wandering through the lofty gallery spaces of Harley, the abject nature of the objects is actually heightened. There is something dramatic and deathly about the horse hoof high-heels and horse-tails contained as relics in a glass case, particularly with video footage of the original performance playing on a haunting loop in the background. In that performance, English drew a parallel between the human spectatorship of equestrian sport and the role of women captured by the male gaze. It is provocative, pressing and fearless.

I feel very unsettled when faced with the installation and I am reminded of Freud’s description of the uncanny as something “familiar but having undergone repression and then emerged from it”. The tails and hooves are anatomically correct, but removed from the horse’s body and inflicted on the bodies of women 40 years ago, now laid bare in a glass case, they evoke absurdity and horror. English’s objects are humorous, dark and surreal.

As Laura Cumming pointed out in her review of English’s Camden Arts Centre show A Premonition of the Act, “her performances down the decades have been so ephemeral that most of us have very little experience of her work first hand.” The exhibition at The Harley Gallery creates a highly charged environment in which to engage with English’s important works. Because a dialogue is maintained with the site’s rich equestrian history, the work is all the more subversive.

Another installation in the show is entitled Country Life, and is made up of numerous small white porcelain horses, each looking at the portrait of a debutante from the 1960s and 1970s, arranged in a fan shape on the floor of the gallery. This piece shares the deathly feeling of Quadrille, almost evoking some kind of memorial in its layout. English is again raising questions around the fetishisation of the female body and around standards of female beauty, which were perpetuated not only by the press at the time, but are still ingrained in the press of today to an even more extreme degree through social media.

Full of criticism and wit, English’s equestrian visual language is an ingenious and subversive one, and a powerful vehicle for questioning the fetishisation of women. And it is as unsettling and urgent now as it was 40 years ago.

 

Rose English at The Harley Gallery is part of The Grand Tour and is on until 5 June. Free admission.

The Grand Tour is the formative cultural experience of the 18th-century traveller – made modern day. It invites you to view the treasures of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire through the eyes of today’s leading artists. A partnership between Nottingham Contemporary, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Chatsworth House and The Harley Gallery

 

Written by Becky Timmins,

Contributor

 

Image credits in order:

Rose English, The Eros of Understanding, 2014  Exhibition view. Photo: Anders Sune Berg (Kunsthal Charlottenborg)

Rose English, Quadrille, 1975. Installation view. Courtesy Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert, London

Rose English, Rose on Horseback with Tail, 1974. Courtesy Richard Saltoun  and Karsten Schubert, London

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country life quadrille rose english