How pop went indie at Tate Modern

“The World Goes Pop” shows a side of pop art we're not used to: global, challenging and politically angry.

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When pop art exploded in the 1960s, bits landed all over the world. There is a tendency to think of pop as a uniquely American and British phenomenon, and indeed the big names – Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake et al – came from its heartlands. But in other, less privileged countries pop’s use of commercial imagery offered a means of approaching topics above and beyond omnivorous consumer culture.

Artists from South America to Iron Curtain Europe, and from Africa to Asia took the palette of pop, the visual language of magazines, television, advertising and celebrity, as a way of doing more than poking fun at some of the shallownesses of modern life. Pop could also be used to attack social inequality and censorship, campaign for civil rights, women’s rights and sexual liberation, and to protest against war and American hegemony.

“The World Goes Pop” at Tate Modern examines this indie side to pop. It is in many ways rather a brave exhibition, in that, in place of the familiar figures, it centres entirely on artists with precious little name recognition outside hardcore modern art initiates. Thomas Bayrle from Germany, the Equipo Crónica trio from Spain, Erró from Iceland, Raúl Martínez from Cuba, Marcello Nitsche from Brazil and the other 58 artists on show are not obvious draws, and neither is a curatorial framework that promises pop as a form of political protest. In fact, although the exhibition flirts heavily with the worthy, it never slips into the dull.

What is most striking is that although pop was born as a sometimes ambiguous or ironic celebration of American commercial and cultural power, artists elsewhere turned it against itself and used pop as a way of attacking the country that had given birth to it. This, in the age of Vietnam, was hardly surprising; the inventiveness of some of the responses frequently is. They range from the clunking to the earnest to the witty.

In the first category is Equipo Realidad’s Divine Proportion (1967), a cartoonish spoof of Leonardo’s celebrated Vitruvian Man, this time with the Renaissance ideal man being replaced by an American soldier. It is an effective picture but one with all the subtlety of a Banksy. Raimo Reinikainen’s four sketches for alternative US flags from 1966 display a more nuanced unease: he replaces the red and white stripes with an array of Technicolor lines and the spangled stars with newspaper images of US grunts blazing away in the Vietnamese battlefields. Erró, meanwhile, depicts well-appointed American homes straight from lifestyle magazines and menaces them with Maoist troops massing outside the window or a Vietcong guerrilla planting a bomb in the bathroom. America’s enemies here are not being fought a long way away but have infiltrated the white picket fences of suburbia.

US power, however, was not the only target, but authoritarianism in general – soixante-huitisme was everywhere. One of the most potent examples is Jerzy Zielinski’s The Smile, or Thirty Years, Ha, Ha, Ha (1974) in which he took the three Roman numeral Xs used by the Polish government on everything from postage stamps to coins to celebrate 30 years since the foundation of the state and turned them into three stitches sealing up a mouth. In a related work, a huge satin tongue emerges from a painted face, with Polish eagles for eye sockets, and is nailed to the ground. In both pieces it is censorship that has been more effectively nailed.

Another area where global pop differed from the almost exclusively male Anglo-American version was that it attracted women artists. With first-wave feminism at its most active, much of their work deals with the female body. Martha Rosler’s photomontages show huge breasts or bottoms pasted on to domestic appliances such as ovens or freezers, wittily conflating old ideas of the woman’s place being the bedroom and the kitchen. Jana Zelibská’s Perspex outlines of female bodies have mirrors in place of pudenda, so that when the viewer’s eye is inevitably drawn downwards what they find, disconcertingly, is their own face staring back.

Naturally an exhibition that deals with ideologically motivated art comes with the associated critical verbiage: “evoke”, “critique”, “reference” and “commodify” make frequent appearances. Like pop art more generally, many of these exhibits have both the strengths and the weaknesses of graphic art, in that they have an instant, but not necessarily long-lasting effect. Although it is refreshing to be presented with so much unfamiliar work, it is unlikely that many of the artists here will challenge the established pop art canon. Given the weight of much of the subject matter, however, this is an exhibition with a surprisingly light touch where, often to great effect, playfulness is in the service of deadly seriousness. Pop, in other words, could be more than a bubble; it could be heavyweight.

Runs until 24 January. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War