INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Sunday Times APRIL 22, 2006 - by Waldemar Januszczak
UNDERGROUND AND OVERBLOWN
The latest show at the ICA reflects a decade of rebellion - but where's the rebel the ICA used to be?
Every now and then, I think about the ICA. It ought to be more often than that: much more often. But, while we art-loving contemporary-culture warriors might reasonably expect the ICA to be setting the artistic agenda for the nation on a relentless basis, the dear old place actually spends ninety-nine percent of its modern existence in a state of cultural hibernation. When was the last time the ICA pressed the national alarm button? When did we last hear of anything of any note going on here? The most recent half-decent fuss I remember was back in 2002, when its chairman, the clunky Ivan Massow, took against conceptual art and shrilly announced that Tracey Emin "couldn't think her way out of a paper bag". Massow resigned. The ICA went back to sleep.
It shouldn't be that way, of course. Everywhere needs somewhere the nay-sayers can gather and plot and spout. As Chairman Mao put it in his little red book, my copy of which was actually acquired in the ICA bookshop on my first visit there: "We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports." The ICA was once, and should always be, the site of unconfined cultural mayhem. It should be somewhere where Ivan Massow types fear to tread, a den of anti-Establishment thinking and action, a cultural home for anarchists and beheaders. But the only sans-culottes there these days are the ones in Prada shorts who've popped in from St James's Park across the road for a beer.
In 2005, Ekow Eshun was appointed director. I expected good things of him. But in my field, the ICA's most important field, nothing of any consequence has happened since he took over. Yet we now live in a world where contemporary art has become the most obscenely expensive of all luxury goods, where rich idiots are prepared to pay one-hundred-and-forty-million dollars (seventy-million pounds) for Jackson Pollock paintings, where Tate Modern can snap its fingers and get the go-ahead for outrageous multimillion-pound vanity extensions it clearly does not need. It's a situation in which the ICA ought to be playing the Morgan Tsvangirai role: leading the opposition, fomenting the dissent, asking the questions. Instead, it does nothing of note, as usual.
All of which is relevant for two reasons.
The first is that the ICA is celebrating its 60th birthday, and we are being asked to remember why it was founded in 1947 by the surrealist agitator Roland Penrose and the anarchist art critic Herbert Read. And, second, the show on at the moment claims to be looking back at the last time in Britain's cultural history that our artistic underground behaved as an underground should. The Secret Public: The Last Days Of The British Underground 1978-1988 certainly sounds a nicely timed reminder of angrier days. The thinking behind it is that there was a period between 1978 and 1988 - visualised for us as the end of punk at one end and the arrival of the YBAs at the other - during which a "dark flowering of creativity" took place in Britain. This came in a "covert form that sat outside the institutional canon of the time". In other words, there was a secret rebellion in the arts, and a vital counter-culture emerged, but you probably missed it because squares weren't invited.
As it happens, I didn't miss it. Sure, I'm a square, but my memory of the secret rebellion is that it wasn't secret at all. The artists and performers remembered and regathered here - Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark, Derek Jarman, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Stephen Willats, Victor Burgin - constituted not the alternative avant-garde but the avant-garde itself. Clark was everywhere. Jarman was equally ubiquitous. Bowery could hardly be avoided. This was a rebellion you couldn't help bumping into.
What we are actually remembering, or rather, misremembering, is what I would call the Boy George moment, a camp and noisy take-over of the alternative arts by a squad of flamboyant attention-seekers determined to flaunt their gender-bending locks and frocks. They partied. They got off their heads. They occasionally made vigourous art. But that didn't ever seem as important to most of them as looking good in the mirror. Their achievements were fragmentary and illusory, because the creators were fragmentary and illusory.
The display kicks off punchily, if confusingly, with a weird mix of art and music. A Brian Eno soundtrack of his usual blips and whirrs accompanies a curious toss-up of artists from many divergent generations. Peter Saville, the punk graphic genius who designed the New Order and Joy Division covers, finds himself sharing a show with Richard Hamilton, the veteran inventor of pop art, and Julian Opie, that fine late-1980s neo-pop sculptor who was, and is, a profoundly successful contemporary name and who has never had any revolutionary ambitions of this covert nature that I can discern. Is Opie here because he went to a party that some of the other exhibitors also attended? These are dots that can't be joined up.
Not that you should ever expect proper sense from an ICA show. This one is effortlessly all over the place. The three diseases that invariably afflict exhibitions here - lack of space, lack of rigour, lack of cojones - afflict this one severely. I thank it, though, for reminding me of the antics of the neo-naturists. I'd completely forgotten how Christine and Jennifer Binnie never needed any persuasion to drop their kecks and flash their bits because "neo-naturists love taking their clothes off for the sake of it". The Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry was once a member of the group, and I kept an eye out for him among the terrifying expanses of untopiaried pubic hair and madly bouncing megabreasts preserved here on flickering agit-film, but could never be sure I'd spotted him: surely he's not the one with the dodgy new-romantic side-less mullet?
Upstairs, Chaimowicz gives us a room-sized installation of rotating glitter balls, bubbling fountains and pieces of scattered lacy underwear, with "Tiranny [sic] Recalled" scrawled illogically on the wall. Which political camp does this political camp fall into? The show ends on Bowery posing and preening in a variety of ultra-tight frocks, in a notorious performance he mounted at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in 1988. At the time, d'Offay's was London's most expensive and exclusive gallery, so one thing we are definitely not watching here is an act of subversion.
The fact is that nothing went the distance with the Boy Georgists. Their natural time span was the good night out. And although this show argues that things started to go wrong in our culture after that lot left the stage, it could be argued - I would argue - that things actually started going wrong during their spell on the boards.