Artist Tamsyn Challenger helps to Free The Pussy!

This article is from 2018

Free The Pussy!

New exhibition curated by Tamsyn Challenger supports the imprisoned Pussy Riot members with help from Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneeman and Yoko Ono

In 2012, Pussy Riot staged their now infamous agit-prop performance in a priests' only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour as a protest against the Orthodox Church leader's support for Putin during his election campaign. They were arrested and held without bail. Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were subsequently jailed for two years. The trial and sentencing drew criticism from the West, and the international arts community rallied around in support; performance artist Emely Neu launched the book, Let's Start a Pussy Riot and invited 70 artists to contribute, with funds raised going towards supporting the imprisoned Riot members and their families.

Tamsyn Challenger, who had only recently toured her own politically challenging work '400 Women,' which drew attention to the hundreds of women that go missing in Mexico every year, was an obvious choice. She proposed a pop-out ducking stool that would spring out of the pages of the book. 'There wasn't enough money to do this, so I made the sculpture instead,' she says, referring to a pine reclaimed chair fixed to a human sized catapult. This is now installed within the first space of the group show she has curated at Summerhall, called Free the Pussy!. 'I made a work that is famous for destroying women who speak out. There's such an immediate backlash for any women that raises their head above the parapet, nowadays – possibly more than ever,' says Challenger.

This raising of heads above the parapet; the willingness of artists and activists to resist, confront and challenge oppression is what defines Free the Pussy!. Many of the artists in the show are fellow contributors to the Let's Start a Pussy Riot publication, including feminist art legends like Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneeman and Yoko Ono – together, they create an unmissable exhibition of some of the most risk-taking, politically immersed artists working today. 'I consider myself an artist and I think with that term, with that way of life, activism, politics, philosophy all feed in. I don't think you can separate art from activism, or politics, or reflecting societal issues,' says Challenger.

Free The Pussy!

While Free the Pussy! has been timed to coincide with Pussy Riot's 10-day performance at Summerhall this August, it resonates well beyond that. 'Look at Weinstein,' says Challenger, 'it took years, decades for those women to come out from the abuse and the suffering they'd been dealt at the hands of that person and yet there was an immediate backlash, just in the same way the Riot were called sluts and bitches.'

Then there's Trump, who made it into office despite the 'grab her by the pussy' tape. Challenger's previous show at Summerhall, The Hyperbowl in 2016, predicted his election: '[Hyperbowl] suggested that Trump's brand management is second to none and he will get into office on his hyperbole alone,' says Challenger, 'sometimes it's that Cassandra thing with women, you feel like you're going to go mad, you feel like you can see the thing happening two, three years ahead and then it happens and no-one listens,' she continues. 'There is a question as to whether I was a different gender whether it would be different for me.'

Free the Pussy! opens with one of several playful artist-curatorial interventions by Challenger; a glowing red button on the wall that, when pressed, triggers a 40 second count-down that concludes with a coquettish 'meow'. '40 seconds is the amount of time Pussy Riot performed in the Cathedral, before they were arrested' explains Challenger. It sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition; it's loud, clever and provocative. It constantly interrupts the hubbub of the entrance of Summerhall; if people weren't listening to Challenger before, they are now.

The exhibition is divided into four rooms; there is a screening room; 'the womb room' showing videos by Carolee Schneeman, 'The Gluts', 'No Bra', and a YouTube clip from Pussy Riot's performance in the Cathedral. Challenger has painted the space deep red from the floor to the ceiling: 'Red raises the blood pressure and there's a nod to Carolee Schneeman's work because obviously she uses blood a lot in her work,' says Challenger, 'there's also a certain religiosity about it,' she continues. This religiosity extends to the display of copies of Let's Start a Pussy Riot, which are shown in vitrines around the room, lying open on each member of the Riot's testimonies in court, as if modern day prophets.

Free The Pussy!

Nadya Tolokonnikova herself has had a very direct hand in the show, contributing what is for Challenger the exhibition's most controversial work: 'Kissing a Policewoman' (2012). The video shows members of Voina (an activist collective pre-dating Pussy Riot but with some of its members, including Nadya herself) filmed kissing policewomen against their will in public spaces around Moscow. 'Some people are very uncomfortable with it, but I think it's important,' explains Challenger, 'I think it opens up a lot of questions. It's very difficult for me to stand in judgment on something that is made by people under a regime that I have no experience of…truthfully it's a complex work.' There are also paintings made by Tolokonnikova's daughter on the walls, made while Tolokonnikova was in prison.

Challenger has commissioned new work for the show too; including a 'How to have an orgasm' video with UK feminist collective Gaggle. There is also a piece with the original instructional-art maker, Yoko Ono. 'This was bucket list stuff ' says Challenger, referring to the triangular wall piece with Ono: 'the shaping is me, it's curatorial, so I kind of see it as Tam-Yoko collaboration,' she laughs, '[Ono] approves this message - she said she loved it. I don't really get fan-girlish but she is inspiration for life.'

The show ends as it begins, with another of Challenger's provocative interventions around Summerhall - the renaming of The Royal Dick bar. Over the festival it will be known instead as 'The Royal Pussy'. 'I would love if people referred to it as "The Royal Pussy",says Challenger, standing beneath the shiny pink temporary signage on the front of the building. 'Obviously there are all sorts of connotations, but this show is all about reclaiming that word, that word is a deeply controversial word,' she says. 'The term pussy is still a negative, but not for me. This exhibition is a celebration of pussy'. Meow.

Summerhall, Free The Pussy, until Sun 23 Sep, free.

Free the Pussy!

Exhibition curated by Tamsyn Challenger in protest of Pussy Riot’s imprisonment by the Russian government in 2012. Artists included in exhibition are: Gina Birch, Tamsyn Challenger, Judy Chicago, Billy Chyldish, Gaggle, John Keane, No Bra, Hayley Newman, The Gluts, Kaffe Matthews, Yoko Ono, Miss Pokeno, Pussy Riot…

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