Symposion 02

Conversation with Nancy Spero

Stella Rollig: In Austria's daily newspaper "Der Standard", each month a work of yours will be published, beginning in October 1994 until March 1995. Have you done some work for a newspaper before?

Nancy Spero: Not to this extent. Actually Group Material, a group of four New York artists and Aids activists, invited me to participate on a project they did for a New York Times Sunday paper. It was a supplement, done by a group of artists. It was like one of these Christmas advertising supplements. So again it was classifying the artists as something special, apart from the ordinary.
The Standard project with the artists is very interesting, it's amazing how the artwork is integrated in the newspaper. In a way it's quite subversive, you don't know at first, that it's an artists' project.

SR: What I found remarkable and interesting is that you still can see that these pages aren't commercial advertising, that you still feel the difference between the visual language created by an artist or by an advertising agency, even though the looks of advertising have become so diverse today.

NS: Absolutely!

SR: So can you tell me about "Woman / War / Victimage / Resistance"?

NS: The story about this is that my husband and partner Leon Golub found this photograph that I have transformed for the Standard. It is a found photograph in which there is a bound nude young woman, her head is banded. It's like in a pose of shame. Her whole body is bound, and one can see that it's brutally done because one of her breasts is higher than the other. The only apparel she has on are stockings and shoes and her mouth is bound and she has a noose around her neck and she is obviously about to be hanged. Underneath it says: "Found on a member of the Gestapo" which I assumed meant that he saw this young woman being hanged. To me this is a real illustration of pornography, but real pornography. When one looks on it from a distance – and I had printed it on gallery walls – it does look as if it comes from a porn magazine. Then one goes close and reads the chilling explanation of what the photograph is and you realize what it is and start thinking about these interrelationships and how they all intermesh and are related but to various degrees to it. Then I use the phrase "Explicit" with this photograph. Now it so happens it's an English word and it's also from the Latin. Years ago I did a series under the kind of generic title "Explicit Explanation". Explicit Explanation came from one of the Spanish medieval books of the apocalypse in which at the end of every chapter in Latin it said Explicit Explanation in the same way as in English or Explicit Storiae, meaning that the believers go to heaven and sinners go to hell. So these were more or less moral lessons or religious lessons to be learnt from these books. The books of the apocalypse were telling what would happpen when the world goes to hell if the sinners don't repent. So I picked up Explicit Explanation for this generic title for a book in 1974 and then I started playing around the word, cutting it off, making it "licit" which in English means the opposite of "illicit" and it also has a funny sound to it, like is it really a word? Then I started working with this photo and thought even if it doesn't come across explicitly .so I took liberties. But the image itself is so powerful. So I have used it in connection with a poem by Bertold Brecht: "The Ballad of Marie Sanders the Jew's Whore". I've done it in Germany and in Amsterdam and the US in many venues. It's the story of a young woman during the Nazi era who slept with a Jew and was forced to walk down the street in her shame, her hair was cut, the whole thing is very sinister. So I put those elements together.

SR: There's a third element coming into it as I see it. It's the explanation where the photograph has been found. That wasn't anywhere, it was on a Gestapo man. That brings in an additional aspect of voyeurism, quite cruel, horrifying voyeurism. The term "Explicit" reminds me of the censorship happening in the US, where some rap, hiphop and other music bands had been forced by conservative family organizations to put these "explicit lyrics" stickers on their records.

NS: What did that make you think?

SR: Well, I thought that there are times when some people gain the power to determine what may be said, shown, watched and listened to, and that's very dangerous. Also your work is published in an Austrian newspaper and we have our own Nazi history.

NS: I think it's remarkable of a newspaper of a country with Nazi history to publish this work. It's challenging memory and the recognition of what happened and such forthrightness is unusual. I am extremely honored and pleased to do it and get out of the art milieu and into another kind of public dialogue. It's a little scary too in a way, because some of the readership might feel I, as an American artist am trespassing on something that's none of my business, that's your business to take care of and what is she doing pointing her finger?. Maybe it comes across moralistic, and in a way I do have this moralistic message in my awareness of repressive regimes, not just in the past in Austria and Germany, but what goes on with censorship and the tendencies for a right wing government and right wing attitudes in the US.

SR: Have you experienced being seen as interfering in something which is, as you say none of your business with other public work you have done?

NS: Well, yes, that was with a mural on a wall in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1990. That was quite an interesting situation. There were very young British soldiers walking around carrying their machine guns as in Belfast and anywhere else in Northern Ireland, but Derry of course is one of the more notorious spots that is also doing very bad economically. It was a public project with international artists plus Derry artists. I had been given a wall that traditionally a group of Derry artists used for wall murals. When the time came they were reluctant to give up their wall, and I understood because they said they have so few places to show their artwork in Derry. But eventually they gave me the wall and the go-ahead and I did it. This mural was a hommage to the women of Derry when the British troops came in 1971, but I also had another cast of characters like some Greek figures circling around these Derry women banging on garbage cans announcing the British troops. It was right on the street so I got lots of commentary. People are extremely vocal in Ireland and that was lovely. But then there was this group of artists who was very angry at me. Some took offense and some did not and then there was a panel that really opened up my eyes to what happens with public art, that I come in with good intentions and had to realize that I was a stranger coming and they didn't really appreciate it. That showed me how easy it is to misunderstand a situation and think you're doing alright but you are not. It's hard to really know how to act, but if you are too fearful to act, you end up not doing anything.

SR: At a certain point of your career you decided to use only images of women in your artwork.

NS: Yes, I decided to put my art where my politics were. I was in some women artists groups. That was the early seventies and in the art world we found there were very few women in the prestigious art galleries, at art schools there were only men heading the art departments, very few women were represented or written about in art magazines. We realized how women artists had been left out of the discourse. Then we looked at the Whitney and that year there was the Biennal and there were four percent of women in the show. So a group of women including myself started picketing the Whitney. That was in 1971. Meanwhile the percentage has gone up as you know and could see in the last Biennal. But I was included
in this one so this maybe causes my forgiving tone.

SR: At the end of the fifties you left the US and went to live in Paris for five years. Was it the dominance of the white male "genius" artist that was so prevalent at that time that made you leave?

NS: At that time I didn't realize that it was the male white artist hero. But both Leon Golub and I went to Europe to pass over New York which we felt entrenched with the abstract expressionist aesthetic and ideology, there was nothing else. The power of Paris was fading at the time when we came there, but we felt that both of us as figurative artists and with content in the work, messages really, that Paris might prove a more interesting place to continue our careers for a while.

SR: In the mid-sixties we find you back in New York and very active in the art scene and politically active artists groups. You were involved in the founding of Art Workers Coalition.

NS:.but before that we were active in anti-Vietnam activism with artists and writers.

SR: Had you already been involved in this kind of political activism in Paris?

NS: Not at all. We were ex-patriots and we knew there were marches against the troops in Algiers and we drove around in Paris in our 2CV and saw all this. the police and everything, but we didn't do anything. But I think it was unconsciously preparing us for our activism in New York. Leon and I were both in Art Workers Coalition. We were analyzing the power structure of museums, magazines etc. In the beginning feminism wasn't really an issue, but after a while these feminist groups were founded.

SR: Did you feel that your art and your political involvement came closer until the decision to show only images of women or did men just vanish out of your artwork?

NS: No, I banned them! That was in 1975. In all these analyses we did I found how much women had been left out of the discourse. So I decided on a way of reinventing women into history, and of course we had always been there, and to see history – if I could – as a woman artist, through the images of women. I wanted to shift around, kind of feeling rebellious and that the world wasn't doing so great and that I as an artist symbolically could start dealing with these issues even if it wasn't understood exactly.But it was understood what I was doing for sure. It's not so hard to figure out.

SR: That brings us back to your work for the Standard. The image you use there is different from a lot of the other images you've been using. There were images of powerful women, joyful.

NS:.celebrating, showing strength and a sense of possibilities. You are right, this is unlike a lot of the other images that I have done. But then a lot of the others are unlike a lot of the others, you know what I mean, they keep shifting and changing and I want my work to be open-ended and have other elements come in.

(New York, 03-11-1994)