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The art of protest: Interview with Nancy Spero

Still angry in her 80s

For over 50 years, Nancy Spero has been active not only as a professional artist but also political activist, street protester, community organiser and proudly avowed socialist and feminist. Spero often exhibited with her ­long-time husband Leon Golub, an overtly political partnership as well as a great art world love story. If Spero has often been more acclaimed in Europe (especially the UK and France) than her native country where she remains almost a cult ­figure, this seems to be shifting as she steams into her 80s.

The Art Newspaper: Your installation at the Venice Biennale is both physically attractive and rather gory.

Nancy Spero: Well, it’s called Maypole: Take No Prisoners and from this maypole we’ve hung almost 200 heads. They’re cut out of aluminium sheets, scrubbed down to give them a surface with a power-sander then primed with house wall paint, like priming a canvas but with a much more severe surface, then we paint and print on them. The head images come from these little paper cut-outs I made.

TAN: Can we assume these are people being tortured?

NS: Well, yes they are, they’re kind of screaming, the tongues sticking out, I think that has to do with language and also ­obviously with being tortured, it’s like vomiting, just the body in a dire situation. But it’s also about a language, about ­sticking one’s tongue out at the world… I’ve always wanted my art to be something that would not be acceptable in the usual daily, ordinary, polite way of ­communicating.

TAN: The title Maypole: Take No Prisoners might be a direct reference to current American military activities?

NS: It’s kind of a continuous theme in my work and unfortunately seems a continuous theme in American policy, as an earlier version of this imagery was in my “War” series and that’s from 40 years ago!

TAN: You make a direct ­parallel between Vietnam and Iraq.

NS: It’s the same, it’s no ­different, I don’t have to do a special series on Iraq, it’s just like Vietnam. I did the “War” series about Vietnam and now here we are again in the Iraq debacle, watching the same damn thing, I don’t feel I need to say it again. I find it really so unbearable, and there doesn’t seem to be any activism in the US, it’s amazing there doesn’t seem to be any strong reaction or response to this catastrophe.

TAN: When you did your 1975 series on Chilean political ­torture, you never imagined such torture would be an issue in America itself in 2007?

NS: It’s really so shocking, ­seeing what is going on here. The US did once, in the past, have this sense, this ideal, of what it stood for, for something else, against terror, against ­torture, to get rid of these things that took place in other parts of the world. And to see the sanctimoniousness of Americans now, it’s too much to bear, it’s even worse than it was 40 years ago, because of the power of the US and what that means now.

TAN: Those involved in ­political activism in the 60s surely could not have dreamt how bad it was going to get?

NS: That’s right, it’s unbelievable. I shouldn’t torture myself listening to the radio, especially late at night, what Bush does daily, every moment, it never fails to shock me...With Bush I now really have someone to stick my tongue out at, if not other parts as well!

Biography

Currently showing: Padiglione Italia, Venice Biennale (until 21 November); Galerie Lelong, Paris (until 21 July); Frac Haute Normandie (until 29 July) Born: 1926, Cleveland. Lives New York City Education: Art Institute, Chicago; Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris Selected solo shows, 2004: Retrospective, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela 2003: Baltic, Gateshead 1992: Museum of Modern Art, New York Selected group shows, 2007: “Wack!”, Lacma, Los Angeles 2000: “Open Ends”, MoMA, New York