original anarchist artist gee vaucher on politics, activism and creativity

With her first retrospective currently underway, the artist and member of the cult anarcho-punk band Crass is showing that her politically-probing work is as relevant as ever – not that she's happy about that.

by Clementine de Pressigny
01 February 2017, 9:19pm

Oh America, 1989. © Gee Vaucher, courtesy Firstsite

Few images can sum up the current political situation as devastatingly well as Gee Vaucher's work Oh America — created in 1989 — so it's little wonder that it went viral after Donald Trump was elected president last year. That Gee's work has now been seen by huge number of people is perhaps amusing considering she's a cult underground figure who has staunchly rejected the mainstream. She's never played the game, she doesn't sell original artworks and rarely exhibits, choosing to spend her time working away quietly at the creative commune in Essex that she set up with writer, poet, artist and fellow Crass member Penny Rimbaud in 1967. The time is more than ripe for a retrospective of Gee's unflinching art that deals with political and social issues ranging from animal rights, war, gender inequality, Thatcherism and the latest US election. This vast exhibition — which includes paintings, collage, sculpture and installation, photography... the list goes on — is vitally important, so don't miss this very rare chance to see original Vaucher works in the flesh. And on the 10th of February there will be a showing of Gee's videos for Crass made between 1978 and 1984, giving insight into the pioneering art/ anarchist punk band's ideas that resonate long after they split up.

When did you realise you would commit to being an artist?
Well, as I have said somewhere before, I just happened to be one of those kids that never stopped playing around with paint and paper. I had an early go at ballet but didn't like standing on my toes, so went back to drawing and I've never stopped. I strongly believe that everyone needs, and has, a way of expressing themselves creatively, but all too often, especially as children, this is not recognised, encouraged, or is deliberately misdirected. In later life, creativity seems to be left 'for later', a later which never comes.

Being creative was very much part of my everyday life when I was a kid. My parents were always making something from nothing, my mother, clothes and food, my father, toys and mending things, so it was seamless and natural for me to continue life creatively.

To me, a vital part of finding out about yourself and growing is to express it in some way. The obvious is through painting, music, writing — but there are a thousand unique ways creativity can be expressed. Seems to me, if you can't express your emotions and problems in some way, it's like having a steam valve in your head that builds up pressure and if you don't release it, can get so often get converted into something negative like anger, hate or self loathing, which is both dangerous to others and to your own health.

Gee Vaucher and Penny Rimbaud, EXIT Wrap Piece, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1973. © Gee Vaucher

What led you to decide to do a show now?
I didn't. I was asked, I considered it and agreed.

How did you decide what to include in this show?
Well, as it was to be a 'retrospective' I had to dig deep and go further back than I have been before. As I don't sell originals there were a lot of drawers and cupboards to go through. I actually had too much in the end and had to leave out several series. We could have crammed them in, but then the exhibition would not have read so well and looked so beautiful. Another time, a bigger space perhaps?

Did you rediscover works that you'd not thought of for many years?
Yes, I found a lot of work that had been undisturbed for many a year. Some were better than I remembered, others remained in the drawer. Then again, I looked for work that I clearly remembered and really wanted to include in the exhibition, but as I couldn't easily find the pieces my patience ran out and they still remain hidden. Having the patience to look for stuff seems to get harder as you get older. Strange that.

International Anthem No.2, Domestic Violence, 1979. © Gee Vaucher

What was that like?
Finding work that I had kind of forgotten, though not totally, was interesting. In some of the works I could see that there were avenues I had not seen or pursued at the time. There were some images I still couldn't see what I was trying to express, so who knows, I might just pick up on them again and see where it takes me.

Your show opened just after the world discovered Donald Trump would be the 45th US president, and many of your works felt incredibly relevant in light of that. Did your show feel different to you, with that news in mind?
No, why should it? Sadly it would seem my work is timeless, nothing changes whoever is in power, wherever. In the end, I'm not really concerned with what those in power get up to. I'm more interested in the individual, learning to take responsibility for one's own thoughts and actions, and understanding that in the end all belief is at the cost of something, unless it encompasses all and everyone. It seems to me that life is about unravelling the thoughts and actions that we have been taught and are expected to adhere to.

It can be a long and painful journey to pursue for some, but if we really want to 'fundamentally' change this world around us, I can't see how we can unless we 'fundamentally' change ourselves, how we are with each other and the role we play. Losing fear of self and others would be huge step forward for the whole world, I think.

Gee Vaucher and Penny Rimbaud, EXIT Wrap Piece, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1973.  © Gee Vaucher

Are politics and art inextricable?
Absolutely. Where is the line between the two? Every concocted shape, colour and image sets out to express an individual's expression, from the design of a cup, to a painting by Picasso. From the latest food craze to the new architectural nightmare. We have amazing senses that pick up on everything, whether we like it or not, and this affects the way we feel. As a simple example, a bare light bulb in a room is not the most nurturing situation, yet people live with it without realising that it adds to their feeling of loneliness, despair and irritability. People don't grasp the power that creativity has over them, they underestimate its subtle force. At its worst, creativity is malevolent and undermining. At its best it is inspiring and life affirming.

Would you describe yourself as an activist?
What is an activist? If you mean someone who is continually voicing an opinion or observation in some way in the hope that it might bring positive change, yes I suppose I am. I don't take to the streets these days though, I prefer to work in the studio trying to understand the thing that is intriguing me. I suppose if I'd like a piece of work to do anything, it is to chip away and undermine the accepted 'norm'.

What do you hope that viewers of your exhibition take from it?
Inspiration. Love. Excitement at the possibilities that they might feel. Some understanding that in the end, each person is unique, we are alone and yet, we are one.

Inside poster for Crass single, Bloody Revolutions, 1980. © Gee Vaucher

Gee Vaucher: Introspective is on at Firstsite until the 19th of February


Text Clementine de Pressigny 
Images courtesy of Firstsite

Gee Vaucher