Monday, June 11, 2007

Panic Attack: art in the punk years

"Wreckers of Civilisation" (Nicholas Fairbairn Tory MP, denouncing the COUM exhibition at the ICA 1976)

Punk kind of passed me by. The social, political and cultural event didn’t have much impact on me as I was around 7 years old and dancing around the living room listening to ABBA (ok, don’t hold that against me….). But having much older siblings who were into the punk scene I was able to witness the changes but memories are still hazy of that period.
So I was interested in the exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery which is celebrating punk and post-punk art (1977-1983). The blurb in the pamphlet talks about it being a tumultuous time with political and social upheavals.

A very insightful book littered with personal anecdotes to read in conjunction with this exhibition is "Left Shift" by John A. Walker.
The first pictures set the scene with the (in)famous iconic artwork of Jamie Reid for the Sex Pistols "God Save the Queen". One of my criticisms of the exhibition is that it’s kinda patchy and lacked coherence. Next to Reid’s work is John Stezaker’s conceptual art ('post-Duchampian art')based on collage and image. Art is this subjective animal and I have to say Stezaker's work never grabs me in anyway. His cut and paste postcards of 1950s London may have been transmitting some radical concept about the metropolis but it just smacked of dressed-up mediocrity but in a new style.

Conceptual art at its height challenged the nature of physical art as a commodity but now I would argue it challenges nothing and fits quite snugly in the bosom of the Establishment where value in terms of financial gain outweighs saying something important. A capitulation to comformity as opposed to radical opposition.
Victor Burgin's work intertwines Freud, Marx and Barthes and I was kinda transfixed by it with his juxaposing text and images (I much prefer his work in this period than his later work as he seems to have flipped over to postmodernism... ).
Though I was fascinated by his photography (UK76 and US77) as he explores urban and human alienation. One picture (Nuclear Power, 1977) is of an ordinary family with this text alongside that challenges the notion of the heterosexual nuclear family and the power dynamics.
What I did find powerful were the images of Stephen Willats, Martha Rosler and COUM transmissions. This is a mixture of video, performance and DIY art. Art that is easily accessible, goes beyond the boundaries, experiemental and is transgressive in its message but also has something to say without sticking rigidly to the usual format and medium. Even now I found their work refreshing and modern.

COUM transmissions - "Prostitution" caused controversy in 1976 and for the ICA 'cos of their performance art that included sexual acts, porn (can porn be subversive art?) and used tampons in their art work. Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti who later became Throbbing Gristle. What gave it the extra kick was photocopies of the newspapers of the day with their “shocked” “utterly shocked”, "moral decline" and “appalled” headlines. Brought a definite smirk to my face.
The issue of alienation is further explored by Stephen Willats in his excellent mixture of collage and DIY photography, "I Don't Want to be Like Anyone Else" (1976) and Martha Rosler's "Secrets from the Streets" (1980).
The lower floors were a mish-mash of work. It was fascinating to see women artists influenced by feminism, Hannah Wilke (So Help Me Hannah, 1979-1985), Barbara Kruger and Linder. The influence of feminism was prevalent in much of the work. Patriarchal norms and subverting the female form using performance art and video. Parallels can be made between the work of German Dadaist Hannah Hoch and Linder as both explored the position of women in society by using collage and photomontage as their medium (Hoch's The Beautiful Girl and Linder's Pretty Girl No. 1 are worth comparing as both depict the many fragmented and contradictory roles women play in this society)

The later post-punk kinda lacked any coherent message again the work of Tony Cragg, Tony Oursler, and graffiti artist of Jean-Michel Basquiat were bunched together without any real analysis. The influence of conceptual art and, for me, the artwork wasn’t saying much and not as clear as previous work. There was this kind of respectability and slickness in its presentation.
Photography of Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe (I like their work a lot) but again what was their significance and how were the pictures chosen? To be able to appreciate their work you need to be able to see a varied collection of work and I do think you really need to see the a lot more of Goldin's "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" I would be interested to know why these particular photographs were chosen. I can see the logic of including them as they include people who are seen to live on the margins of society, gritty realism, no overly stylised content (a kind of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder") and an exploration of sexuality and sex.

There is a short film directed by Derek Jarman (I saw Jubilee in my early teens and still have a penchant for it) with Jordan (not that Jordan) resplendent in a tutu dancing around what only can be described as a bomb site. A very hazy looking silent film which finishes with the Union Jack burning in the background.
Overall I was disappointed as there was no interpretation of punk instead we were presented with an elastic interpretation stretched beyond belief. Why Gilbert and George were there struck me as strange. On the plus side, I was pleased to see so many women artists.

Where was the graphic design, and DIY stencil art which adorned many punk fanzines and LPs? Where was the fashion or anti-fashion that questioned conformity and identity that was an important part of punk? More questions than answers but if you want to see some interesting art that has something to say then go to this as it makes a change from the stagnating conformity that passes for art nowadays.


AN said...

interesting post

Louisefeminista said...


AN said...

There is a savage review of this exhibition in the Morning Star today, which basically says that they have made a sanitised exhibition smelling of disinfectant missing out all the energy, rebellion and spirit, and basically assembling a load of (admittedly good) artists who had little in common except that they happened to all be around at the time.

Not having seen it, I can't judge, but it is possible that it is both an interesting exhibition, yet still fail to be relevant to punk itself.

Louisefeminista said...

My review not savage enough?

the words I left out of the review were indeed "clinical" and "santised"... Good artists, well, most of them and I did say so say that I couldn't understand why they were bunched together. And it lacked other forms of art that were prevalent in punk.

It interesting primarily for the likes of Coum Transmissions, Willats and so on. The Star also neglected to mention the number of feminist artists in this exhibition and who have made very good contributions to art.

Though unfortunately I lack the savvy and wit of the Morning Star reviewer and whose judgement is probably better than mine on art.

AN said...

No critism of you intended :o)

The difference was that the Morning Star just jumped straight to the sledging and was damning from the first word.

Your review is a lot more informative, and I think it is good you have links to the work itself.