The first Taboo: ICA's A Journey Through London Subculture

While the show tails off for a bit after Britart, as it goes stratospherically Saatchi, it’s clear the aftermath has left a new generation of artists and designers plenty of room for self-expression despite a relentless tide of commercialisation.

It’s been 12 years since Michael Landy destroyed all his possessions, including many YBA works of art, in the old C&A store on Oxford Street. Now, at another disused venue down the road, you can see more clearly what Landy –who also features here – was getting at. While what came before and after sparks with creativity and subversion, the late 1990s were culturally burned out, if the ICA’s new show is anything to go by. I should know: 1997-2000 were the exact years I was a student in London. For a while, we were all dressed up with very few alternative places to go.
 
On the first floor of the former Selfridges Hotel, which now aptly resembles a warehouse space, this sprawling survey of the city’s subculture is made up of over 50 wooden vitrines, plus installation and video work. Like a 3D flow chart or family tree, it starts with post-punk in the early 1980s and meanders towards the present, connecting many events and tribes along the way. It covers art, design, fashion, music and nightlife, with each cabinet micro-curated by a different figure or group. Rather than conventional artwork, these contain found objects, club memorabilia, photos – like little visual biographies.
 
The overall curation is by Gregor Muir, director of the ICA, assisted by others including the DJ and scene legend Princess Julia. There is the sense that this is one particular journey – a canonical version of an underground, many of whose players have become “national treasures”. So, inevitably, there are weaker links in the chain and the occasional question over criteria (why include Zaha Hadid, for example, but not Donald Urquhart?) but the show doesn’t seek to be all-inclusive.
 
Perhaps because I wasn’t there, it’s the early material that excites me most: the 1980s eruption of flamboyant creatives that takes in Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman, John Maybury, Boy George, Bodymap, Kinky Gerlinky and others. The first cabinet, which shows Nicola Tyson’s 1983 photos of “mudlarking” on the Thames riverbank, sets the tone. With its broken china and clay pipes, it epitomises a “hard times” DIY aesthetic and is both art installation and something more traditional – a showcase, a cabinet of curiosities, a shrine.
 
 
From little acorns: a flow chart of the London Underground, from Leigh Bowery to Vogue Fabrics.
Image courtesy of the ICA
 
Three vitrines by the collective House of Beauty and Culture are stuffed with badges, champagne corks, tribal art and bones, like something from a voodoo tomb. The sense of memorial continues in a multicoloured, star-spangled celebration of the poetry-laden paintings of David Robilliard, who died of Aids in 1988, and in the DJ Jeffrey Hinton’s wig-stuffed case, with its acetate cut-outs of clubbers both living and lost.
 
Videos include those of Bodymap’s catwalk shows: joyous performance pieces choreographed by Michael Clark. Another film shows a costumed Bowery pounding a piano in an East End boozer while Clark and co prance amid beer-spitting skinheads. More affecting is Paul Oremland’s Andy the Furniture Maker, following a young carpenter and rent boy who was championed by Jarman, with its images of the Earls Court gay nightlife and scavenging in London wastelands.
 
As shown in Muir’s YBA display, with its invitation to the epochal “Freeze” show and photos of early Chapman sculptures, the explosion of the grass-roots art scene around Hoxton Square in the early 1990s was a vital time for British art. Alexander McQueen also had his studio there. Seeing the flyer for the square’s “Fete Worse Than Death” in 1994 makes me wistful. Even White Cube has been and gone from the square since then.
 
But the kids have Dalston now. While the show tails off for a bit after Britart, as it goes stratospherically Saatchi, it’s clear the aftermath has left a new generation of artists and designers plenty of room for self-expression despite a relentless tide of commercialisation. Much of the later work recaptures that early irreverence, such as the alt-drag star Jonny Woo’s display for his Radio Egypt night, with its glittery butt plug and tail; or White Cubicle, the George and Dragon pub’s gallery in its ladies’ loo, which turns its vitrine here into a latrine. What this show represents for a fresh crop of creatives is a kind of wonderfully deranged Who Do You Think You Are?.
Notes from the Eighties underground. Image: Peter Lindberg

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge