Anarchism, Politics, Punk, Reviews

A Reality of Horror: The Horror Show!: a Twisted Tale of Modern Britain, Somerset House, October 27th 2022 through 19th February 2023

‘Horror movies don’t create fear, they release it’ – Wes Craven

Jeremy Millar’s Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (2011)

Mental health is political: political on multiple and intersecting dimensions. For R.D. Laing ‘insanity’ was ‘a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world’. Unsurprisingly an ever-intensifying pandemic of mental ill-health is a direct consequence of the entrenchment and intensification of a now half-century long political-economic project that substitutes the baubles of consumerism for social solidarity and psychological grounded-ness, only to reward the now atomised and isolated consumer with the horrors of penury and precarity. That devastates the biosphere of this planet upon which we all depend for the gross over-enrichment of a global handful who measure their wealth in billions. That project which having in 2008-9 imploded under the burden of its own greed and short-termism, now is reconstituting itself in the form of multiple explicit and implicit fascisms, like Terminator 2 (1991) reconstituting itself after being blown apart, of Frank’s resurrection in Hellraiser (1987). Thus, we, the peoples of the pagus (pace Bhabha), find ourselves – and this mental illness is collective, not individual — locked in a foie à deux with a thanatoid political-economic system, a reality of horror in which even the glitziest trappings of late capitalism’s consumer-reward system conceal piles of rotting corpses. Where the ‘hardworking’ (what is so great about being ‘hardworking’?) discover that Arbeit macht Armut, where dead refugee children wash up on English seaside holiday beaches and a portion of the population cheers. Where a morally depraved Home Secretary sells her ‘dream’ of mass deportations to Rwanda to a morally degenerate sector of the British electorate. A nightmare-reality of horror where, perversely, the noose or the speeding express train seem to offer a kind of solution.

The only way out is through, to break through the nightmare; but how, when resilience, an attribute so used and abused today, is utterly inadequate as a battering-ram? For Gramsci, culture is a field of struggle where the intellectual, the artist, the activist understand that a society cannot be changed until it has changed the way it perceives itself: therefore art, like mental health, becomes political; therefore, horror becomes politically and therapeutically a form of empowerment. Capitalism as castration, and the castration of capitalism and its underpinning order, are acted out symbolically through the monstrous-Queer and the empowering counter-gaze of non-conforming sexualities and libidos. Politically, horror renders the normal abject, collapsing hegemonic socio-political meaningfulness; therapeutically, artistic horror works as a kind of inoculation, creating within us risklessly something of an immunity to the real horrors of everyday living, enabling within us the genuine resilience needed to push on through the nightmare. Small wonder then, the creative chronology of The Horror Show! exhibition starts around the mid-‘70s, when those unlikely (and sometimes symbiotic) bedfellows, punk and neoliberalism were new, continuing through the ‘80s, the ‘90s, the ‘00s, the ‘10s to more-or-less the present moment: half a century of evermore horrible political-economics, but also fifty years of resistance, sometimes as folk monsters, sometimes as ghosts, other times as witches, to that horror.

Toxic Grafity No.5 (Spring 1980) was subtitled ‘A Reality of Horror!’ Even then I had an awareness of the ways in which horror lurks beneath consumer enjoyment, the everyday, the fun, the youthful, the pastoral, from May 1976 when I witnessed the deaths of two close friends (see the post under ‘Bikes’). Appropriately, perhaps, TG5 in on display in the ‘Monster’ section of the exhibition in a glass-case along with other DIY anarcho-punk material of that time. Above it, the original Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher (1984) snootily holds its nose in the air in distain at all this filth, all the more demonic for the grotesque puppet’s decontextualization from its TV series. ‘Monster’ seeks to delve:

‘ … into the economic and political turbulence of the 1970s and the high octane spectacle and social division of the 1980s. Against a backdrop of unrest and uprising, it charts the origin story and ascent of the individuals who will go on to disrupt, define and destroy British culture ….’

Yet while we artists and activists of the day were partially successful in changing the culture and thus the way society perceives itself, the political-economic monster at which we Quixotically tilted from strength to strength from 1979 until 2008, when it disemboweled itself. It refuses to rest quietly in its grave. The eternal consumer present, fuelled by low interest rates and house price hyper-inflation, has now collapsed into a new 1980s of social division. Now new unrest and uprising beckon: now we artists and activists of the day, now in late middle-age, find it is time to renew our efforts. One more heave. More monsters lurk in the exhibition, courtesy of the Bauhaus (Bela Lugosi’s Dead, 1982, provides an aural backdrop), Marc Almond, the Chapman brothers, Don Letts, London Leatherman, Jamie Reid, Ralph Steadman, Poly Styrene and many, many others. David Bowie as Diamond Dog is there (1974), as is the Traffic Warden from Hell from Threads (1984).

Aesthetically and conceptually, if not chronologically, the Chapman’s ‘Return of the Repressed3’ (1997) forms a bridge between ‘Monster’ and ‘Ghost’. ‘Ghost’ is the exhibition’s Second Act, with work spanning roughly the fall of Thatcher after the Poll Tax riots and mass civil disobedience in 1990, through Millennial anxiety to 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008-9, an event from which the neoliberal experiment in which we have all been lab rats has never recovered, taking in Reece Shearsmith’s severed head from Inside No.9 (2018), a photo essay of Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ (1993-4). Kerry Stewart’s ‘The Boy from the Chemist’s Is Here to See You’ (1993) is disturbing and haunting, clips from the BBC’s Ghostwatch (1992) flicker on screens, there is Graham Dolphin’s ‘Joy Division Door’ (2011) evoking a suicidal loss of control. David Shrigley’s taxidermised cat protests its death; Jeremy Millar’s ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man’ suggests the Channel crossings. And there is more. The sheer horror of a filmmaker condemned to blindness before an inevitable death: Derek Jarman’s final film Blue (1993) is poignant as always, recalling the human consequences of epi- and pan-demic. The Horror Show! was delayed for two years due to the Covid pandemic. AIDS is now a liveable, chronic condition; but only in the wealthy West. To the right of the screen is a door, I open it then to my left find a set-maker’s workshop with saws, blood-effect pain, the smell of varnish and freshly cut wood. Some viewers follow me in, ‘Is this art?’ I mention that it is, of the unintentional variety, assuming unintentional art is a thing!

The Third Act is ‘Witch’ presents more-or-less contemporary work, some of it commissioned specifically for this show. It presents a ‘digital coven’ where the monstrous-feminine and the monstrous-Queer suggest a new spirituality predicated upon social and ecological justice, and an anarchic autonomy of both the body-proper and the body-politic, while rejecting the ‘patriarchal occult’. Penny Slinger’s ‘Red Dakini’ (2018) suggests a digital Kali; Bert Gilbert’s ‘The Vesica’ (2019) presents a large Nazar, the ‘Evil Eye’ amulet of the eastern Mediterranean, topping lips that are at once facial and vaginal, evoking Ishtar and Ashtoreth the Bronze Age Levantine goddesses, each a goddess of both sex and war. Tai Shani’s ‘The Neon Hieroglyph’ offers a feminist mythology of psychedelics. Almost the final item, Gazelle Twin’s audio installation in a small room dominated by red and black hangings and ambient lighting presents an evocation, a hex. It reminds me strongly of the Poison Girls work from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, almost as if, where Vi Subversa (1935-2016) were still alive, this might be the kind of work she would be doing today, I think the strong resemblance is coincidental, a meting of souls. At least for me personally, this installation completes the exhibition, reconnecting the contemporary world of ‘Witch’ with the 1970s-‘80s world of ‘Monster’ in which I was a participant over forty years ago.

But herein lies a critique of the exhibition. Especially in ‘Monster’, I (now aged 63) noted what was missing. The cover of The Clash’s first album (1977) should have been there: it’s not ‘horror’ in the cinematic sense, but that ‘You lookin’ at me’ street gang pose blocking a dank innercity ally would have struck horror into the hearts of all of us who were in the dirty, violent London of that time. Malcolm Owen of the Ruts’ 1980 death from a heroin overdose was every bit as horrific as was Ian Curtis’. In their very different own ways, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division laid the foundations of what would soon become the Goth subculture, they should have had a bit more prominence, and should have featured in the show.

More radically sub-culturally, Crass’ ‘Reality Asylum’ (1978) is an extreme statement tearing apart patriarchal religion even by today’s standards, and its flip-side ‘Reality Asylum’ is prefigures much in ‘Witch’. Their ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’ (1981) and anti-Falklands War ‘How Does It Feel (to be the Mother of a Thousand Dead?’ (1982), and ‘Sheep Farming in the Falklands’ (1983) expose the horror of war, a kind of horror (I say this as a survivor of conflict-induced PTSD) somewhat missing from the exhibition. Then London-based NYC performance artist Annie Anxiety’s ‘Hello Horror’ (1981) would work well with the exhibition, ‘The car-crash thrill of smashing steel / good god / blowjob/ rigour mortis bop; children playing lynch-mob’. Conflict’s ‘Meat Is Murder’ (1985) exposes the horror of factory farming and human complicity in horrific animal suffering. Flux of Pink Indians ‘I Wanna Marry a Tube Disaster’ (1982) outs the shameful pleasures of consuming vicarious media rubber-necking of urban disaster. Horror? Then say no more than Throbbing Gristle’s experiments in the macabre, the fetishist, our darkest thanatoid desires: they should have featured in the exhibition. Above all, the Poison Girls oeuvre from the 1970s to the ‘90s bring together ‘Monster’, ‘Ghost’, and especially ‘Witch’, nearly squaring the circle (or should that be pentagram?); their omission was an error. It’s not as if these were simply records: Throbbing Gristle, Crass (something from Gee Vaucher surely should have featured?), and the Poison Girls, in effect DIY multimedia arts collectives, also produced significant visual and audio-visual output.

A weakness of the exhibition is that with its Central St. Martins, Goldsmiths, and ancient university graduates, Turner Prize winners and nominees, The Horror Show! can come over as a bit well-to-do middle-class mainstream and bourgeois-radical. Kinda alt mainstream radicalism? The autodidactic aspect of punk DIY is often underestimated. I’m not dissing those awesome academic institutions, went on, belatedly, to get a PhD in 2000, after dropping out of Sixth Form for punk in 1976, and spent a large part of my adult life as a higher education practitioner. So I’m not dissing that at all. But punk autodidacticism is underestimated. We weren’t all postcard punks, Sid Snot, nor Vyv Basterd. While I understand and respect the rationale for the exhibition’s 50-year time-frame, a nod to the work of William Blake (1757-1827) might have added a bit of deep historical, radical context.

That critique aside, the exhibition is of course haunted in a different sense: many of the artists, activists, filmmakers, performers, and writers are of course now dead, some recently, some now long-gone: Jordan (1955-2022) features prominently in ‘Monster’. A good few of those now lost to us were personal friends of mine. Marx would have seen the cultural as merely ‘superstructural’, and the political-economic struggle merely ‘infrastructural’, ephemeral. The neo-Marxist Gramsci, writing a century ago under Fascism disagreed. At times it seems, with seemingly endless ‘culture wars’, that today’s now mainstreamed far-right have learnt Gramsci’s lessons on culture better than the rest of us. But this is a superficial perception, a kind of fleeting horrific nightmare. To that can be added the radical insights of feminist and Queer psychoanalysis vis-à-vis Horror and oppositional subcultural artistic praxis. This important exhibitions reminds us of what we have achieved, reminds us that, The Reality of Horror notwithstanding, we are stronger than that and them. And, that we, political-economics being a box still to tick, have achieved aesthetically, artistically, culturally, morally, and philosophically, far, far more than today’s mainstreamed yet flailing and failing far-right could ever hope to achieve in their wildest, washed up bodies, refugee deporting nightmares. We are stronger than them.

Of course, the exhibition is not all doom and gloom, dark kink, nor po-faced horror; there are moments of great humour too: Harminder Judge’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (2016), Jamie Reid’s ‘Monster on a Nice Roof’ (1972), Strigley’s cat, and the severed head. As many of us who have cared for a loved one through their final illness might have found, dark humour, macabre humour, gallows humour makes bearable the unbearable for both the carer and the cared-for. Even dying can have its funny side. There were great laughs at this show: much of the time I had a huge grin on my face, and that was before I discovered the free bar at the private viewing!

Do see this very important event.

David Shrigley’s I’m Dead, 2007

[1] The Nazar is the blue and white ‘Evil Eye’ motif of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, used by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the region it nonetheless has deep pagan roots.

[2] The Shaam is, broadly, the old ‘Levant’, what’s now Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria,  and Mediterranean Turkey (the old Cilicia).