The Venice Biennale is one of the longest running cultural festivals in the world. Founded in 1895, this year will see the 57th International Art Exhibition here (the seeming miscalculation of years resulting from cancellations during the First and Second World War). Both the representatives of Britain and Scotland[1] are female, but there is a noticeable generational discrepancy between them. The British Pavilion will play host to seventy-two year old Phyllida Barlow, the Scottish representative Rachael Maclean, aged thirty, comes from a much younger generation of artists. Barlow found fame late, and as recently as ten years ago wasn’t even selling work. As Tate Modern’s director Frances Morris explained “Many great women artists have suffered from the shadow effect, they have been out of public view until their 60s and 70s”; navigating the male dominated art world has been a challenge for many females hoping to pursue an artistic career, as can unfortunately be demonstrated by Barlow’s career.

Only 33% of the artists representing Britain at the Venice Biennale over the past decade have been women,[2] so this year’s selection hopefully indicates that the gender bias evident in the art world is beginning to disintegrate. Unfortunately this progress isn’t reflected everywhere: male artists continue to dominate worldwide art collections; in 2013 the Great East London Art Audit found a mere 31% of artists represented by both non-profit institutions and commercial galleries in London to be female,[3] despite Higher Education statistics revealing that 61.7% of those graduating with degrees in art and design the same year were women.[4] However it is not all doom and gloom, and a shift is starting to occur and leading art institutions are attempting to redress this gender imbalance. A notable example of how more equal gender representation is being pursued in the art world is Tate Modern’s decision to dedicate half of the solo rooms in their recently built extension Switch House to female artists.

While the number of prominent female artists is increasing, for many such Phyllida Barlow it has been a lengthy struggle. Graduating from Chelsea College of Art in 1963, it wasn’t until her 2010 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and following representation by Hauser & Wirth, that Barlow’s name finally started being known and respected. Prior to this the artist had forged her own opportunities: exhibiting works on the street and creating installations within disused factories that may never receive an audience. The fact that Rachel Maclean exhibited her first solo show in 2012, a mere 3 years after her graduation from Edinburgh College of Art, hopefully reflects a broader break between sexism and the art world which will mean female artists will no longer have to struggle in the same way as Phyllida Barlow. Today’s generation of female artists, many of whom such as Maclean employ video and virtual reality technologies, are finally being given platform to showcase their work, and this will inspire the inclusion of more women in art shows and a narrowing of the gender divide.

Racheal Maclean’s portfolio of surreal and slightly absurd film works each construct fantasy narratives, making use of green-screen backdrops, computer animation and post-production to create a cinematic collage. With the help of prosthetics and outlandish consumes each of the characters in these satirical works is played by the artist herself, echoing influential conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman. With an unnerving, almost cutesy, aesthetic, Maclean’s work has focused on themes such as national identity in light of the recent Scottish referendum. This theme of Scottish identity within Maclean’s practice is interesting when considered in relation to Scotland having a separate representative to Britain at the Venice Biennale (see footnote 1 for an explanation why). The artist’s most recent series WOT U 🙂 ABOUT?, currently exhibited at Tate Britain, sees her sinister candy-coated world play host to a critique of the exploitation of happiness by corporate powers. For Maclean, happiness is good for capitalism: if you’re happy and you know it profits soar. Her short film It’s What’s Inside That Counts, from this recent series, parodies social media, advertising, children’s television programmes, and fairy tales: playing on techniques used by corporations to sell us happiness.

Phyllida Barlow creates three dimensional, rather than digital, collages. Playing with scale her works utilize materials such as cement and plywood which most artists would overlook. Barlow creates expansive sculptures which respond to the space surrounding them. These site-specific works confront the viewer, requiring an active relationship rather than simply a passive gaze. In lieu of responding to a particular subject her practice considers the made object. With this in mind, Barlow’s commission for the Venice Biennale cannot fail to respond to the 2017 theme Viva Arte Viva. This year’s Biennale celebrates the artist and their practice and the world surrounding it. As 2017 began by hurling us into political turmoil, the role of art and the artist is more important than ever. Viva Arte Viva champions this, embracing art as an innate method of individual human expression. In a time of anxieties and control art facilitates a form of freedom, providing a place for meditation and an opportunity to communicate feelings that words cannot.

If art is indeed a facilitator and expression of freedom, it seems only natural that the art world it should also champion equal opportunities for both men and women. While art activists such as the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous feminist group utilising gorilla masks to conceal their identities from the public, are still needed to expose inequality in the art world, it does seem that a lot has changed for the better since they began their campaign 30 years ago. We must not be complacent, but recognising progress is not the same as accepting the present sate of affairs. As we turn our focus to the ongoing battle for equal representation in the arts, it is important to recognise and celebrate the progress already made.

[1] The reason both Britain and Scotland are represented separately is the establishment in 2003 of “Scotland + Venice”, a partnership between Creative Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland, and the British Council which aims to promote Scotland as a centre of excellence for the Visual Arts by complementing the other UK presentations at the Biennale.

[2] Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “How the art world airbrushed female artists from history”, The Guardian 6th February 2017.

[3] Great East London Art Audit, East London Fawcett 2012-2013.

[4] Louisa Elderton, “Redressing the Balance: Women in the Art World”, The White Review 2013.