Assistant curator, Stephanie Straine, unlocks the stories behind five works on display in Tate Liverpool’s Keywords exhibition; a show that debates how changes in the meaning of words reflect shifts in society

Sutapa Biswas, Housewives with Steak-Knives 1985
Sutapa Biswas, Housewives with Steak-Knives 1985

Sutapa Biswas, Housewives with Steak-Knives 1985

In this monumental canvas, Sutapa Biswas has depicted the powerful Hindu goddess Kali, who is the destroyer of evil. This work is both a painting and a collage, with the flag held by Kali containing a photocopied image of Judith and Holofernes c.1620, a Renaissance masterpiece by the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Through this visual reference, Biswas connects her image of female strength and empowerment (making dramatic use of the colour red) to a longer narrative of the suppression of women artists throughout art history.

Donald Rodney, 'Visceral Canker' 1990
Donald Rodney
Visceral Canker 1990
Perspex, wood, paint, silicon tubing, gold leaf ,blood bags and electrical pump
unconfirmed: Panel 1 (wood and perspex sheet) 1220 x 910 mm; Panel 2 (mixed media and 2 perspex sheets) 1220 x 910 mm; Panel 3 (wood and perspex sheet) 1550 x 910 mm; Panel 4 (mixed media and 2 perspex sheets) 1550 x 910 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2009© The estate of Donald Rodney

Donald Rodney, Visceral Canker 1990

This complex installation (a fairly recent addition to Tate’s collection) has been one of the most technically challenging works for our team of conservators and art handlers to prepare and install. The electronic motors in Visceral Canker pump fake blood around a network of tubes running across two coats of arms. The ‘blood’ connects the heraldry of John Hawkins, the first slave trader to sail from Plymouth, to Queen Elizabeth I, visualising Britain’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1567, Hawkins was granted the use of a ship from Elizabeth’s fleet for the purpose of enslaving Africans to sell as free labour in the Spanish colonies. As a Black British man suffering from acute sickle cell anaemia, Rodney’s use of blood could hardly have been more charged.

Bill Woodrow, 'Car Door, Ironing Board and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head-Dress' 1981
Bill Woodrow
Car Door, Ironing Board and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head-Dress 1981
Mixed media
displayed: 1865 x 2830 x 1570 mm
Purchased 1982© Bill Woodrow

Bill Woodrow, Car Door, Ironing Board and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head-Dress 1981

Woodrow’s sculpture looks like one thing but it’s really something else completely. The full-sized Native American headdress of the title has been carefully constructed from old, battered consumer objects including a washing machine: their supple sheet metal surfaces become, through a delicate process of slicing and reshaping, the feathered plumes of a majestic war garment. The brand logos and stickers that remain are stark reminders of the confrontation between native cultural heritages and the march of industrialism. There is a real sense of drama in this sculptural transfiguration: nothing has been added nor taken away, and yet there has been profound change.

Rose English, Plato's Chair 1983/2013
Rose English, Plato's Chair 1983/2013

Rose English, Plato’s Chair 1983

In the Keywords exhibition we are showing video documentation of Rose English’s 1983 performance work Plato’s Chair. The audio track, which includes excerpts from the opera Carmen and the artist’s dramatically delivered monologue, floats out across our otherwise silent Dockside gallery. In preparing for her performance English worked not with a script but rather a page of ‘keywords’ (including the void, the theatre, stage lights, stage fright, soul and death), that prompted her improvised monologue. She used props, objects, and costumes in the performance, which addressed questions of female representation and creativity within a patriarchal society.

Keywords at Tate Liverpool, installation view 2014
Installation view of Keywords at Tate Liverpool with Helen Chadwick's Carcass 1986 in the foreground

Helen Chadwick, Carcass 1986

Carcass was first exhibited at Chadwick’s solo exhibition at the ICA in 1986. There, the glass tower of rotting vegetable matter seriously leaked during the exhibition’s run, and was removed from display. In the intervening years it has taken on a mythic status, because the idea of disrupting the purity of the gallery space with decomposing organic matter seems just as subversive (and just as hard to achieve) today. The sculptural container has been made of perspex instead of glass this time around, for safety reasons. Chadwick explores the organic processes of decay and renewal, by which the gases and liquids building up in the confined space animate the dead matter. As a work of art, it’s constantly changing, and constantly needs to be replenished with new food waste. It has become a collaborative project at Tate Liverpool, with the whole staff getting involved in collecting vegetable food waste. At a distance, it could be mistaken for an austere minimalist sculpture; in close-up, it reminds me of a Dutch seventeenth-century vanitas still life.

Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain is on display at Tate Liverpool until 11 May 2014