"What happens in the end?" I ask, returning shamefacedly to the video room after having giving up on the Bob Flanagan video. "He starts pissing blood," volunteers a visitor. Next video. Danny Devos is naked, a noose round his neck. Its rope goes over a pulley and he is tugging on the other end and shouting "I wanna be hurt" in a strangulated voice. At least, I think that's what's going on. A video like this can be confusing the first time round.
If I seem cynical, I'm not: I Wanna Be Injured is much better than it sounds. The problem is one it shares with much of the work in Cabinet Gallery's "Please Don't Hurt Me" exhibition: how to describe it without its appearing appalling or ridiculous, though some of it is both (and this can be exhilarating).
Next. A woman - attractive, ordinary-looking - cuts gingerly at the skin above her fingernail with a Stanley knife. She puts her finger in a bowl of milk, then into her mouth, then cuts some more. Eventually she takes off the nail with her teeth. This isValie Export, one of the original Viennese Actionists. She made this video in 1972. This is a good art-historical reference point, in case you're a little bemused. The most famous Actionist was Rudolph Schwarzkogler, falsely rumoured to have died after mutilating his genitals - a story inadvertently put about by the critic Robert (Shock of the New) Hughes, who didn't think much of blood-rituals and mocked-up photographs of violence.
Cabinet was opened nearly three years ago by Andrew Wheatley and Martin McGeown and has quickly moved front-stage in an area of contemporary art in which the work is often low-tech, "grungie", and concerned with confessions, identity, "real life", the body. Cabinet artists in particular are likely to be "marginalised obsessives", or to see themselves as such.
"When we started," McGeown says, "it was easier to distinguish ourselves from other galleries. We were moving away from conceptual jokes ..." "From art which just rehearses its own existence," Wheatley chips in, "...but now there's so many artists moving
away from that, into areas which are psychologically messy and morally questionable ...".
"Yes," says Wheatley, "it felt a bit lonely two or three years ago showing Simon Bill, but more and more people are waking up to the fact that his work is about what's at the centre of culture." Bill's drawings are word-filled, pop-gothic scrawls, the TV-culture diary entries of a deranged adolescent, a self-confessed victim of the 20th century.
Behind us as we talk is a veritable library of books. De Sade, Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, Georges Bataille ... "Bataille is pivotal because he brings philosophy to its knees by bringing it to eroticism and violence," says McGeown. What of the literary feeling of this show? "It's that tradition of the poete maudit. We actually coined the term `Pop Maudit' for the Simon Bill show. We don't show work which makes a worthy contribution to art. It's absolutely of no interest." Art about art? "Exactly. Art which is supposedly based on `critique'. "
He fishes out a book and reads a favourite bon mot: "There is nothing more deplorable to critique than the person." Then, lightening up a little, he finds Dreamers of Decadence, of 1971, about Symbolism. "This is something I bought in my teens and I still like to look at. All this ran parallel with Modernism ..."
"Please Don't Hurt Me" bills itself as an exhibition entirely about violence. It's the best show of contemporary art in London, and should be a benchmark for future curators. The video room is cosy with its sofa, table and scattered magazines. Between itand the kitchen (this was once a flat) is the main body of the exhibition, with pictures and sculptures. After the videos, they are mild. There is a brown paper package: Gregory Green's Suspicious Looking package No 1. Green makes bombs, but doesn't wire them up. He is a pacifist. Wheatley: "He once tested one of his devices and it worked; it scared the shit out of him." Raymond Pettibon's drawings are blackly humorous fragments from a sick America. In one, a man is about to shoot himself while his son pleads, "Dad, don't, she'd want you to." Then there are William Anthony's meticulous and childlike pastels (including Mayan priests running thorny vines through holes in their tongues one of their sacred rites), Richard Agerbeek's Skinheads (a photo wit h the protagonists of the title, pictured kicking a victim, painted on in grey). Clearly, the is-it-art? brigade aren't going to like this. Although I'm not so sure; most of it, as I say, is better than I can convey, stronger and funnier. And after all, this art has content.
Some pieces have fun with the idea of shock. "If not for the obscene turmoil over the book's morality, boredom would have been its main censor," quips Amsterdam artist Elise Tak's fake film poster, The Book Assassination. Others have fun with the barbarism genre itself. Part of the humour of Carsten Holler's Killing Children II is that it's extremely unlikely to work. A child's bicycle is fixed to explode on being ridden away: a match is fixed to the back wheel, then there's a sandpaper strike, a fuse, and a plastic petrol-can - red for effect - where the saddle bag should be.
Being shocking is not the subject of the show. It's not even certain that violence is; the show seems as much about failure and dissatisfaction. Its final, strange effect is to make the cruel world seem a less lonely place, and to deliver some welcome shots of adrenalin.
Perhaps the exhibition is best understood as a single artwork by its curator, Jack Jaeger. Jaeger is Dutch-American, middle-aged, gentle, with serious eyes. His exhibition was first shown in Rotterdam, but looks better here, messier, more dense. Music plays constantly. "We've got Jack's private record collection here. And he keeps bringing more bits and pieces. I think he was glad for a second chance."
Jaeger proves elusive. "He's very retiring," Wheatley tells me. I speak to a friend of his, Dominic van den Boogerd, editor of the Dutch art magazine Metropolis M and an aficionado of the more barbaric art. "He used to be a film cameraman in the 1960s. Since he met Lily [van der Stokker] he's been into contemporary art. The first show he curated was `The Red Light Show', about sex and pornography. He's very well-informed, a very peculiar curator, It's more of a hobby, for love of art, not to make money.It's very sincere I think. He has something in his past about German concentration camps. I think his parents were there but if you ask him he won't talk about it. So I'm not quite sure." McGeown: "I don't know. Jack talks about an illness - he had a total physical and mental collapse. It's something he went through and came out of." Sincere is right. It's an oddly gentle show in many ways.
I'm led to the kitchen. "We're really pleased with this," says Wheatley, pointing out Lily van der Stokker's Motherfucker - "acrylic paint on wall, dimensions variable" - looming above Gregory Green's bomb-factory installation. Van der Stokker's drawing is delicious, pink, purple, green and orange. It looks like a vicious version of a stick-on tattoo from a bubble-gum wrapper, made huge.
"All my other work," she says, "is about optimism and happiness. People like it when I go in the other direction, but I feel a bit ambiguous about it. The pointed shapes are the negative shapes of the flower-shapes I usually use in my wall paintings. In my other work, the words are `wonderful', `kissy kissy', `love' and `work'; it looks flowery and light. But for this one I wanted Hell's Angel imagery. As for the show, a lot of artists in it haven't shown in the United Kingdom. And it's a combination ofyounger and older artists. That's good I think."
What is the show's real theme? McGeown: "There isn't really one." It occurs to me that perhaps this exhibition is a long meditation on vulnerability. The use of the word violence, McGeown says, "was just a handy way to talk about it. Cary Leibovitz's work is about social inadequacy, about his uselessness as an artist, about wanting to be loved." Leibovitz's blue ceramic plate, A life of fear, is, in fact, beautifully made. Part of the text baked on to it reads: "I mean it's not fun being unhappy no matt er how much I like it".
As I leave, I take another look at the bomb factory in the kitchen and pause to watch Elke Krystufek on video, making herself vomit.
n `Please Don't Hurt Me': to Jan 28, Cabinet Gallery, 8 Clifton Mans, 429 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London SW9. 071-274 4252
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