Lucy McKenzie Tate Liverpool

The University of Liverpool and Tate Liverpool run a programme called Tate Exchange. I was lucky enough to be one of the four academics selected this year to take part to deliver workshops. I would like to thank Hannah Schumann, Research Partnerships Marketing Manager, Professor Fiona Beveridge, (and all at UOL who made this happen) all the staff at Tate Liverpool and the incredible photographer Gareth Jones (whose work can be seen in this post).

I would also like to thank Lucy McKenzie for her exhibition and my students for taking part. You can see Lucy McKenzie for Tate Liverpool here.

University of Liverpool students can access all of the exhibitions at Tate Liverpool for free: show your valid student card at reception. As a Dyslexic I am keen to use visual pedagogy wherever possible and encourage students on my modules to use a pastiche of materials to develop their sociological/criminological thinking.

The lecture theatre and the seminar room should be the starting place for students to go out and explore the world. I invited students from my optional capstone module SOCI347 Creative Consultant: Dissertation by Portfolio.

Gemma Ahearne and students gaze up at McKenzie’s Trompe l’oeil at Tate Liverpool. All photographs are taken by Gareth Jones.

Lucy says here that: “The work is then to connect those things to a kind of bigger picture and how you can actually just use them as a certain material to talk about bigger things, important things. Everything’s there. And you just have to kind of tease out the different narratives to talk about the things that are important to you”.

Glasgow-born Lucy speaks to my own desire for an accessible art that meets people where they are at. As someone from a non-traditional academic background, who champions widening participation, I am delighted when I discover artists with such an ethos.

Gemma Ahearne at Lucy McKenzie with students from the University of Liverpool, March 2022
The space of Tate Liverpool becomes an excellent teaching place.
Gemma Ahearne and students discuss the module SOCI347 Creative Consultant Dissertation by Portfolio

At The Double Negative, Mike Pinnington describes the work as “Feminism, social commentary, sport, pop culture, and political ideology; painting, film, architecture, fashion, and design. If anything is clear from the recently-opened Lucy McKenzie exhibition at Tate Liverpool, it’s that the artist is a voracious cultural omnivore. Bringing together more than eighty works that span roughly the last couple of decades, the exhibition demonstrates the remarkable breadth of subject matter that Glasgow-born, Brussels-based McKenzie has so far explored in her still-short career”.

Pinnington states that McKenzie’s work speaks to him, and I agree. I lead five modules at the University of Liverpool, many of which focus on gender and issues of bodily regulation, respectability politics, sexualization, transgression, and layers of understanding. McKenzie’s work aligns perfectly with several of my modules and it was a joy to talk through these parallels with students.

Gemma Ahearne talks with a student at Tate Liverpool, March 2022
Gemma Ahearne walks around the Lucy McKenzie exhibition at Tate Liverpool, March 2022
Student observes the work of Lucy McKenzie

Being a former dancer, and having 20 years experience of the sex industry, it is little surprise that I run a module called Crime, Justice and the Sex Industry.

My work focuses heavily on dirt and disgust discourse, I find it fascinating how women’s bodies are simultaneously positioned as sites as desire and sites of disgust. The way in which Lucy McKenzie has the ability to present the two in tension, in the sanitized space of the art gallery, is genius.

Students look at the work of Lucy McKenzie at Tate Liverpool
Gemma Ahearne discussing work with students at Tate Liverpool

Those on my module will know that we study contested spaces of sex work, and consider how bodies change their meaning in different spaces. When I performed for artist Alison J. Carr at ‘Into the Spotlight’ for Bloc Projects Sheffield, it was this discomfort I tried to rouse.

McKenzie’s work ‘Curious ‘ (1998) shows the sexualized body of a woman runner bent over the starting blocks of a race. A sporting achievement reduced to the male gaze. In contrast to this, McKenzie shows the ludicrousness and blandness of our hyper-sexualized society that seeks to exploit and consume women’s bodies yet also be repulsed by their natural form.

In one piece which made for passionate debate with students, (yet left men in the gallery looking sheepish and uncomfortable), a woman sits eating alone looking bored, with a thought bubble above her showing a woman masturbating. How readily our society consumes the bodies of women, yet how disgusted most people are by the thought of a woman, with a real body, engaging in a solo sexual act.

It speaks to my own work, that we can be sexual or an intellectual, but never seen as both. A woman makes her choice.

In her work, McKenzie reclaims the space of the gallery in a feminist conquest. Women’s bodies exist here to tell their own narrative, and to hang out of reach. It is not inconsequential that ‘Curious’ (1998) is at such a height that onlookers have to peer up, deliberately being intrusive. The placement of this sexual image among the seemingly mundane, also speaks to the ‘fast food’ porn society we live in. We are only ever a smartphone screen away from porn.

Gemma Ahearne talks about ‘Curious’ (1998) with students from the University of Liverpool

This piece also speaks to consent, image-based abuse and upskirting. It also reminded me of the model and author Emily Ratajkowski’s essay ‘Buying Myself Back’ on the complexities of who owns a models’ image.

Lucy’s work on menstruation and disgust is something I am a big fan of.

In a booth, a screen shows a short film by Richard Kern and Lucy McKenzie ‘The Girl Who Followed Marple’. Interrogating many of the issues we discuss on module SOCI256 Power, Culture and Social Change such as the beauty myth, the film explores the unrealistic standards women must adhere to, and the repulsion that our ‘leaky bodies’ produce. In a world where menstrual products use blue blood for adverts, the footage is provocative.

McKenzie’s response of revealing her breasts when asked her age (36) is an ode to the value given to women’s youthful bodies and pert boobs. It also shows the proud embodiment of McKenzie’s past as a fetish model, and the mesh, once again, of ‘high and low’ brow art. It is sophisticated and antagonistic. It is also bold and unapologetic.

McKenzie pulling out her mooncup filled with red fluid is a powerful feminist act.

As a woman with acute Endometriosis who finds my body at battle with itself, I enjoyed the tipping out of the blood onto a pile of photos. Our blood is life, it is pain, it is joy, It accompanies most women and girls for half of our lives. It is discomfort, it is annoyance, it is shared conversations with friends and chimes with strangers. It is the dishing out of tampons to women we have just met in public toilets, it is the familiar ripping open of plastic, or washing out of mooncups or reusable sanitary towels. It is the beat to our life, the cycles that punctuate.

And yet to so many our period are shameful, our bodies should be hidden.

McKenzie has also created a 9 metre high mooncup painting that is seen in the film. She also talks about menstrual blood making a beautiful painting material.

I was also drawn to the work Atelier E.B (Beca Lipscombe and Lucy McKenzie) a window display created with Barbara Howard and Howard Tong. Window dressing is often used to interrogate taste and value. Women are often reduced to doll-like form, our bodies are symbols for social conventions, regulation and decay.

Gemma Ahearne talks with students as the photographer Gareth Jones takes a picture through the shop window front.
Gemma Ahearne and students in discussion

McKenzie asserts that this is an interesting period for reconsidering histories, and I argue that women’s work must take centre-stage in that. Lucy McKenzie is a very welcome artist and I will continue to follow her journey.

My staff profile is here and I would be delighted to answer questions about my modules, pedagogy, or speak regarding collaborations.

My twitter is here.

My online CV is here.

Gemma x