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Art In The Punk Years

Barbican Art Gallery, London
5 June - 9 September 2007
Reviewed by Cardinal Cox


Write Dope on Pnuk part 32

Five minutes before the media session was due to start, I said to two women sitting outside the gallery, “let’s rush them, they can’t stop us all”. This isn’t an exhibition of the associated art of the music; it isn’t album covers, fanzines, posters and t-shirts. Rather it is art produced at the time (mid nineteen seventies to eighties) that responded to the same pressures that the music did. Recession, social uncertainty, despair at the way things were done. There are a few overlaps with the music, but mostly it runs parallel.

First of the overlaps are the Jamie Reid collages of the Queen, used as the cover of the Pistols single 'God Save The Queen' and significantly these are the starting point for the exhibition. Elsewhere in the show there are montages created from London postcards by John Stezaker. Stephen Willats series 'I Don’t Want To Be Like Anyone Else' turns graphs into graphic art, flow chart art, offering options to an estate bound woman. David Lamelas’s 'The Violent Tapes Of 1975' are stills from an unmade action movie, capable of being re-arranged through various permutations, as the human mind searches desperately for an order. COUM Transmissions (who were to go on to become the anti-band Throbbing Gristle) re-created part of their 'Prostitution' show of the mid seventies. Amongst the spreads from the skin mags featuring Cosey Fanni Tutti are photo-shoots from 'Playbirds' and 'Oui'. Also included were sculptures from Genesis P-Orridge and newspaper cuttings documenting the outrage (including Tony Parsons in 'NME'). Derek Jarman’s short film 'Jordan’s Dance (later used in part in his feature 'Jubilee')' plays in a darkened alcove. Further along are photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe including portraits of such New York scene luminaries as Patti Smith – who was Mapplethorpe’s wife for a while – (used as the cover for her album 'Horses') Deborah Harry and the author William Burroughs.

Downstairs the selection includes photomontages from Linder (related to her Buzzcocks cover) and a lino print of Jordan. Possibly my favourite piece of the exhibition is Barbara Kruger’s 'Your Comfort Is My Silence'. This is a head and hand of some forties style G-man figure, finger raised to lips. The message seems to invert the wartime posters about loose lips sinking ships. Another link to the era’s music is the work from Raymond Pettibon (who had an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery ages ago) as he had done covers for such American bands as Black Flag. Someone else whose work I had seen at a previous show (this time, actually at the Barbican) was Mike Kelly of the band Poetics, who here had documents relating to a performance that had involved hypnotism.

Both Genesis and Cosey were present for the opening speeches by the curators. This was memorable for the point when one was talking about the moral panic that theirs (and others) work engendered, that at that point the Gilbert and George film behind them struck up with 'Rule Britannia' and a shot of a fluttering Union Flag.

The art then of an age that was soon to feed into the mainstream currents, just as Punk and its New York cousin Hip-Hop were to become standards of popular music.


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