It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that Tate Modern decided to open its new ‘Exchange’ space, on the fifth floor of its new extension, with the Complaints Department, an installation by the Guerrilla Girls. As the late Robert Hughes wrote in his sharp critique of the contemporary art world back in the early 1990s, the ‘culture of complaint’ has become mainstream. In pushing the victim to the heart of art’s raison d’être, and making therapy one of its central functions, contemporary art, and the museums which have followed in its wake, has created a Dante-esque purgatory of endless and pointless whinging.
According to the Tate website, ‘Tate Exchange is about the exchange of ideas and artists working with the public’. It is part of Tate’s strategy for community engagement: ‘From a small charity in the Welsh valleys to a community radio station in East London, to healthcare trusts, volunteer groups and university departments, organisations and members of the public will have the chance to become involved in Tate’s creative process.’
Tate Modern, one of the most important and influential modern art galleries in the world, is expressing its commitment to public engagement by inviting people to complain. In the echoey space, plastered with Guerrilla Girls’ agitprop posters, members of the public are invited to sit at a table filled with coloured paper and pens, scribble out their complaints and pin them to one of the boards around the room. After a couple of days, the boards were full of complaints about everything from elitist art collectors to low wages for cleaners, from the lack of affordable housing to the misuse of the apostrophe. The boards created a silent, confused, colourful cacophony of grumbling.
Are we supposed to take this seriously? I would say so. The Guerrilla Girls, an activist collective of female artists based in New York, has been complaining for over 30 years. Always wearing gorilla (geddit?) masks in public, because it wants be anonymous and to deliver its complaints with a disarming sense of humour, the group seeks to expose persistent ‘discrimination’ – by which it means a lack of representation – in galleries in relation to women and minorities. Now the Guerrilla Girls’ complaining modus operandi is being embraced by art museums internationally.
The Guerrilla Girls’ approach is particularly galling because each member assumes the name of a great female artist, such as Freda Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz. Both of these women suffered deeply in their lives – a fact trivialised by the Guerrilla Girls’ appropriation of their names to complain about a lack of representation in art galleries.