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Going underground: London subculture surfaces in Selfridges

The ICA has taken over Selfridges with a survey of London subculture over the past 30 years. It’s fascinating – until you reach the mid-Nineties and the YBAs, says Zoe Pilger

What has a vacuous slogan T-shirt by Henry Holland got to do with the magazine Marxism Today? This ad hoc exhibition of London subcultures from the Eighties to the present is part historical document, part Ideal Home Show for hipsters.

It is interesting, but too cool for school. Are subcultures supposed to be subversive or not? If not, then this exhibition succeeds unreservedly.

“I’m bored. I’m really going to try to do something.” This is how ICA director and curator Gregor Muir describes the starting-point for much of the art, fashion, music, club, restaurant, and design culture displayed in this off-site pop-up extravaganza. The space is amazing. It mimics the kind of disused warehouses in which generations of London avant-gardes began: exposed brick walls, trailing electrical wires, bare light-bulbs. But it is located in Selfridges, one of the capital’s most luxurious department stores, just off the garish consumer hell of Oxford Street.

There is an abundance of raw bricolage gone upmarket, estranged from its roots in once barren East London, and transplanted to the mainstream – with an edge. The exhibition is perhaps most absorbing to those who lived through Kinky Gerlinky. There is compelling memorabilia here, but it is an in-joke. Most fascinating is how the works illuminate a Britain transformed since the Eighties into a neo-liberal hologram of its former semi-socialist self.

Indeed, this faux authentic warehouse is divided in half. On the right, there are assemblages by subcultural figures from the Eighties and early Nineties, who could sign on the dole and enjoy free art education (Iain R Webb, David Robilliard). On the left, there are those who came of age in the post-YBA, post-Thatcherite world (Bethan Laura Wood, Tyrone Lebon, Eloise Hawser), wherein education costs more than several holidays on a luxury yacht and there’s no chance of signing on to make art unless you break both your own legs. This exhibition is really a tale of two generations: one subsidised by the state, and one diminished by it.

The show centres on a winding trail of nearly 60 glass vitrines – display cases that mimic those of a museum. Each is curated by a particular artist or group, ranging from DJ Princess Julia to the gallery Factual Nonsense to Frieze. Each, according to Muir, “describes that moment of breakthrough.” The participants were asked “to create a mood” or “personal archaeology” through objects. These “psychogeographies” are the result of a lot of people rooting around in their attics – in a good way. There is everything from a mangy old dildo to house keys to club flyers to fag butts to memories of Emin’s and Lucas’s shop and a lot of party photos of men dressed up as women with back-combed hair and alarming make-up.

Consumer kitsch sits easily alongside relics of the radical tradition of critical theory, which has so long been a vital part of the ICA’s identity and which is needed more than ever at a time when the welfare state is being dismantled. Cultural dissent is what the ICA does best.  Of course subculture is about fun,  but the “empty signifier”, to borrow a term from Eighties theoretical jargon, is massively overindulged here. The ICA bookshop on The Mall is stuffed with volumes of radical thought that seek to debunk and demystify precisely the kind of cutesy ephemera sold by Holland. So where is the critique?

The first vitrine is dedicated to the “mudlarking” movement of the early Eighties: the search for detritus along the banks of the Thames, which could then be transformed into art and fashion. A black-and-white photograph shows designers Judy Blame and John Moore pawing through stones on the riverbank under Blackfriars Bridge in 1983. Elsewhere, a jacket made out of an old postal sack is modelled. There are bits of broken pottery and the head of an Edwardian female figurine. This vitrine is one of the more engaging. It seems to meet the criteria of bricolage perfectly, and summarises the spirit of the exhibition in the most idealistic and likeable way.

Bricolage is potentially radical: it bypasses consumerism in favour of a DIY aesthetic of recycling and making do. You don’t need money to find stuff by the river. According to the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who first defined the term in his seminal book The Savage Mind (1962), the bricoleur “works with his hands and uses devious means.” Like the “naïve” or “raw” artist, “the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand.’” Bricolage became synonymous with Eighties post-modernism in all its permutations: fashion, music, art. It entails sticking apparently disparate parts together to form a new and surprising whole.

Bricolage is likewise entwined with the rise of the ICA in the Eighties as the institution which transcended both the disciplinary bounds of the museum and the commercial gallery to create a new hybrid of high and low culture. But what about now? Is co-option of creativity by commerce just a given these days?

The film director and founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah, has assembled one of the most striking and profound vitrines. It points to ideas, content, anger, rather than conceptualism-lite. Here is an early edition of Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), an issue of the journal Race & Class (1982), and Deleuze and Guattari’s On the Line (1983). The vitrine is testament to the fact that social conscience can be expressed through visual art and culture as much as protest.

Akomfrah’s island of subversion is surrounded on all sides, however, by vitrines that fetishise lifestyle. Here is the vitrine from St. John, complete with bones sucked dry of their marrow and a coffee-stained drawing in blue biro of a gorilla lying on its back with a huge erection. And here is a vitrine from Fashion East that includes a Henry Holland neon pink and blue T-shirt printed with the words: Ravish Me Like A Beast Fashion East. Elsewhere, there is Giles Deacon, Vogue Fabrics, Bistrotheque – the list goes on.

As you walk towards the present day, the content of the vitrines seems increasingly like branding exercises. What was the pivot of this historical transformation? Undoubtedly the YBAs. The latter occupy several vitrines, which contain stuff we have seen before: a picture of the Chapmans’ installation of severed body parts hanging from a tree; a Lucas sculpture of a cigarette clenched between teeth; a Hirst interview in the pilot issue of Frieze. Muir himself was part of the YBA scene and wrote a memoir about it, Lucky Kunst (2009).

The ICA is a special and rightly loved institution. It has always combined dissent with fashion, but I’m not convinced that the relationship should be such a comfortable one. Of course artists have to be entrepreneurial and savvy in order to succeed, but there is not enough friction between creativity and commerce here. Subculture art should be a reaction against, a refuge from, a genuine alternative to the emptiness of mass-consumer society – in short, the mainstream. It is that emptiness, after all, which drives the alienated youth of whatever era to make art in the first place.

ICA Off-Site: A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now, The Old Selfridges Hotel, London W1 (www.ica.org.uk) to 20 October