Taking the plunge

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The Independent Culture
If that's Mary Magdalene, it must be accordion night. Judith Palmer on Britain's burgeoning performance art club scene

A dog has just eaten a chunk of her pink-nippley installation Eruptions, but the 24-year-old sculptor Anne Hardy is still smiling; "It was made to be temporary." A "priest" in a broom cupboard barely avoids conflagration as his surplice dangles perilously over a candle while he's painting his naked, handcuffed colleague with treacle. Conditions aren't ideal, yet there isn't a fractious artistic temperament in sight, as 170 artists cram into every last nook of the Oval House in South London to create this month's eight-hour marathon Plunge Club, "Plunge into Ovalation".

Like a Dada-esque game of sardines, over 600 of us feel our way down darkened corridors to emerge in womb-like rubber caves dripping with stars, stalactites and dismembered dolls in jars. The loo isplastered with teen photo-love stories and overrun with sluttish schoolgirls weeping and shouting, "Oh bog off will you, Tracey". Bald, blue men in skirts perambulate trance-like through the caf while hymns are emitted from Ding Dong Twist's installation, a temple of kitsch entitled If Jesus came to your house:

"Would you be glad to have him stay for ever on and on,

Or would you sigh with great relief when he at last was gone?"

Space-walking from the ceiling above a vicious coil of springs Andrew James and Anthony O'Flaherty are suspended in graceful animation by a length of fuchsia fabric. Like most of the artists, theydevised this elegant piece specially for the occasion in answer to the Plunge Club's call for submissions in Time Out magazine, and had no means of knowing until today whether the fabric would hold their weight. "We just had to try it and hope."

Directing ceremonies with brass megaphones are Plunge progenitor Rene Eyre, and fellow Art Enforcer Bo Chapman, looking like chess-set bishops in pointy black hats and padded bottoms. "It's intended as a performance playground - a space forexperiment," grins Rene, looking out over the ritual chaos.

The audience's broad-minded good humour is an essential ingredient in the mix. "It was a bit of a shock walking in off the street into this," admits sculptor-photographer Ian, "but what a nice combination of people."

A12ft, ivy-covered fertility goddess with giant chrysanthemum bosoms looms over a thrashing sea of antlered druids and silver-sequinned dancers twirling firebrands overhead, as they undulate to the bassy tribal rhythms of the end-of-Plunge party. "Watch out," intones the flower-decked singer. "There are some fucking weird people about."

There's a new spirit of eclecticism at large in London's artistic fringes as dozens of underground arts clubs like the Plunge spring up in answer to the call for surprising socialising and collaborative experimentation. Fed up with having to choose a label and stick with it, artists are suddenly enjoying the opportunity to spread their wings and migrate between art forms. "It's a chance to let your professional hair down and try different things just for the crack," says Michael Barnett, artistic director of Arty Fantasy League and founder of occasional romp Salon de Bug.

Gideon Wagner has just been officiating at a Hasidic circumcision. Honest. In Arab robes, Michael Bolton-length perm, clutching Gail Tilsley key- ring and a packet of Gauloises, Gideon is a living contradiction, the embodiment of the new hybridism. After a career that's spanned waterbed salesman, law school, synagogue cantor, jingle writer and country and western singer, things are finally coming together in the opening of the Arty Fantasy League. "I wanted to start a club for the un-pigeonholeable," he explains, with a wide-boy shrug. "I want bagpipes, poets and Egyptian dancers. I want Jimmy Greaves to come, Allison Pearson, Spike Milligan, Victor Lewis Smith, Freddie Trueman. I like bringing people together. Randomly."

Taking over the Rheingold, a 1950s Bond Street Bierkeller, once a month is The Cupboard, a parlour pantechnicon of talent, blending art, entertainment and real life, bound loosely by themes such as "Pets and Prostitution" or "Relationships and Ships". Backstage, Shakespearian actors jostle for space with girls wrapped in clingfilm (will you walk a little faster said the mermaid to the snail, there's a naked Venetian close behind me and he's treading on my tail). Serving up the artistic smorgasbord is pantopragmatic host Adrian Palka, an endearing mix of Stephen Fry and Alan Partridge. "It's a bit of a social experiment for me, encouraging people to be tolerant," enthuses Palka, trying not to step on the stuffed cat, "enticing them into things they'd normally have walked away from."

Sophie Seashell's been irregularly employed as a Soho hostess and has stripped since she came to London from Paris 15 years ago as a bassist with a punk band. Half French, half Togolese, songwriter Sophie is consciously trying to recreate Thirties Berlin with a decadent new club, Nux Vomica, that mingles art, sex and silliness. "I was a bit bored," she laughs. "Other clubs were too nice. I wanted to push the preconceived barriers of modern morality - mix things up a bit." On other occasions, Sophie's been known to paint herself green and cavort as an Alice in Wonderland caterpillar, but on Good Friday she's setting up a weeping Mary Magdalene tableau. This is somehow going to fit into the evening's "accordion" theme, alongside Carmen Miranda impersonators, tango dancers and cult group the Tiger Lillies.

Accordions. Could a pattern be emerging? "I'd rejected them a long time ago," confesses Puzzle Club artistic director David Ellis. "I couldn't hear the sound of an accordion without these terrible associations. But what an extraordinary discovery. Now I'm organising a whole accordion evening as a spin-off." Conceived as a platform for his own writing and that of co-founder Hattie Naylor, Puzzle Club emerged instead as a visually arresting, modern-day music-hall on occasional Sundays at a Southwark theatre. "It's an evening to show off what you can do," says Ellis. "Enthusiasm is the most subversive thing. If you want to do it, do it." Bringing together opera designers, writers and composers for ambitious one-off collaborations, each Puzzle has an urgent sense of occasion. Although it has now outgrown its premises, Ellis has one dream yet to fulfil, "I'd like to find a plate- spinner. No patter, no tuxedo. Just spin the plates."

Society poet Sarah-Jane Lovett hosts a monthly salon upstairs at that media watering-hole, the Groucho. "We've come out of the closet and called it a soire." Amid the bongos and Cocktail Sobranis, an auburn-beehived doyenne introduces a polished mix of music, poetry and anecdote, plus vignettes about the clamour and glamour of Bohemia - "that's lifted straight out of life, darling" - and the Tesco Bombers, a rowdy combo belting out a saucy mock-calypso: "You're the naughty woman, and I'm the dirty man. I want to fry my sausage in your frying pan." The young deb audience forms an impenetrable coterie, but what I lose in warmth, I make up for on complimentary Twiglets.

Perchedon 8in Vivienne Westwood courts, Jibby Beane raises her dark glasses for a moment to fix me with an earnest baby-blue stare. "I don't want a posy, poncy place. We're not having any membership. None of that. The aim is to have a complete cross-section of people who are comfortable being there. Not just young things, all sorts of people: St Martin's art students and top collectors, anyone can go."

Model, gallery-owner and bonne viveuse, the absolutely fabulous Beane launches Jibby's Arts Club in St James's in May, hoping to bring togethermusic, poetry and fashion shows in an environment conducive to conversation and artistic interactivity. "David Bowie was only saying last night, `It's about time, Jibby. London needs it.' "

n Plunge Club, 0171-274 6914; Arty Fantasy League, 20 Apr, 0181-682 0691; The Cupboard, 26 Apr, 0171-498 7608; Nux Vomica, 14 Apr, 0171-821 9457; Puzzle Club, 17 Apr, 0171-622 0815; Jibby's Art Club, 4 May, 0171-723 5531; Lady Dies Laughing, 24 Apr, 0171-837 8981; Montepulciano, 16 Apr, 0171-278 3879; Club Research, 18 May, 0171-278 4565; The Big Chill, 16 Apr, 0171-281 8106; Cafe Loco, 13 May, 0141-221 9736; DLR, 24 May, 01273- 821588; Indigo, every Tues, 0171-734 2473; Wibbley Wobbley, 16 Apr, 0181- 692 0238