It might be tough to convince gallery goers that a five-screen video installation featuring non-actors reading aloud letters written to defunct feminist publications makes for a good time: but it really does.
Firstly, American artist Sharon Hayes’s debut UK solo exhibition answers that burning question: what did people do before the internet? If you were a lesbian living in smalltown America or rural UK, you might have subscribed to a bulletin, delivered to your home by post and containing political action updates and readers’ letters compiled by collectives surviving on volunteer power.
Featuring 13 members of the queer and feminist community in Philadelphia, where Hayes is based, the five concurrent films show domestic settings – kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms – through which various people walk, lounge, make a sandwich, listen to music, and deliver the contents of such letters (written between 1955 and 1977). The domestic settings reinforce a sense of ‘normalcy’: it is in regular homes that politics take place.
The missives express all manner of isolation, frustration, alienation and debate. Not only about society’s failings to protect the rights of individuals, but also the complex nature of self-described communities themselves, where whiteness and blackness and class structures don’t just disappear. One letter writer’s refrain reads: ‘We are black, we are gay, we are women.’ She goes on to say that this triple oppression has been reinforced, not lifted, by others in the black, gay and feminist movements.
Secondly, and most importantly, the show answers that other burning question: how can you make universally relevant art about seemingly specific themes? Hayes, who studied anthropology, does so by appealing to the viewer’s emotional intelligence; her approach is nuanced, not divisive, and the work is a reminder of what makes us human – the desire for love, acceptance and belonging. Hayes also reminds us not to avoid asking those difficult questions, whether posing them to those closest to us, or furthest away.