‘Taking matters into our own hands’, 23rd January – 8th March at Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert focuses on feminist performance art made in the 1970’s by London based artists Rose English, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Alexis Hunter and Carolee Schneemann. Rose English’s video, Quadrille, has women dressed as horses wearing horse hooves, horse tails and leather harnesses. The appendages from the video are on display in Karsten Schubert. Rose Finn-Kelcey shows a photograph of a performance from 1976 where she spent two days and nights in a gallery with a magpie. Carolee Schneemann is photographed with a python.  Alexis Hunter is the only one not using animals to make her artwork about domestic tension, violence and rape.

When an artist makes feminist work that is speciesist it makes me wonder why the artist is making activist work in the first place. If you are part of a group that is discriminated against  you may have first hand experience of  injustice but I think it is also important to question why injustice is fundamentally wrong in the first place and whether all injustices are linked.  I believe It is morally wrong to use and exploit any sentient creature, be that a non-human animal, a women, a person of a different race or sexuality or anyone else simply because they are part of a different group to our own. All sentient animals suffer, they all have an equally valid claim on life and want to go on living. We don’t have a right of ownership over animals any more than we have right of ownership over other people.

These four artists are well aware of issues of exploitation of the ‘other’, they make intelligent questioning work and have thought about their use of animals. Rose English’s Quadrille looks at how women and horses are both fetishised and she gave considerable thought to her use of animal parts when the work was originally made, nearly 40 years ago. Carolee Schneemann challenges male stereotypes of women with her images of heterosexual erotic power. Rose Finn-Kelcey’s performance uses the association between magpies and witches. However, after all that consideration, a decision was made at the time to use animals and again to re-show the work. So, although the matter is complex, I’m assuming that the artists stand by the work and do not see it as exploitative.  To look at it from another perspective, if animal rights activists were to use naked women to promote animal injustice they would be called sexist and inconsistent, precisely the charge leveled at PETA campaigns. We need to be aware of our anthropocentric double standards because, unfortunately, non-human animals cannot take matters into their own hands.