The ICA has taken over the old Selfridges Hotel, filling the huge concrete space with more than fifty vitrines filled by artists, publishers and designers in a survey of some of the various London subcultures since the 1980s. Artefacts from Leigh Bowery, the BLITZ club, the YBAs and frieze are interspersed with less well-known artists and movements, with an emphasis on the interconnectedness and cross-pollination between groups over the last 35 years.
The ICA itself is obviously a part of this history, but the material of the exhibition focuses less on established institutions and instead on the non-codified spaces of squats, artist’s studios and anarchic club nights like Delirium and Kinky Gerlinky. As with any such survey, and particularly one of this size, certain exhibits are more memorable and spectacular than others, but for the most part the exhibition manages to wind it’s way through a complicated and difficult narrative. The curation clearly leans towards fashion, and the fashions of the time, focusing on designers, filmmakers, publishers and artists whose work included a strong visual identity and an engagement with the idea of ‘image’.
The most obvious criticism that could be levelled at exhibitions of this kind is that, as with any survey of sub- or countercultures, the act of bringing them within a gallery necessarily lessens their radical status. Although it may be a rather tired argument, there is an unavoidable sense of this throughout what the ICA has produced, bright and vibrant cultural movements literally confined into small boxes and roughly ordered by chronological timeline. Billboard size posters are intermittently placed throughout the space, highlighting, for example, the all-bass band Big Bottom or Michael Clark Company’s I Am Curious, Orange (1988). Video stations and occasional installations of clothing and furniture are also used to augment the vitrine boxes.
Surprisingly, despite the enormous size of these posters and the number of vitrines, the exhibition largely fails to fill or adequately occupy the space, leaving the experience a curiously empty one. The cavernous, echoing hotel feels rather poorly chosen, and begs an important question. Why hold the exhibition in the least derelict and most consumer driven area of London? Instead of poignant juxtaposition many of the vitrines fit rather too neatly into the context of the window displays that line Bond Street. A clear sense of the DIY, recycle, make do and mend ethos of the squat-dwelling, mudlarking and rebellious artists feels lacking.
At it’s best the material on display can provoke interesting parallels and synchronicities. The vitrine dedicated to St John, the restaurant frequented by the YBA crowd during the nineties, for example, may have at first felt like a surprising and anomalous choice. But when viewed in relation to the Bistrotechque material, further on down the line of the exhibition, the role of food and dining in the formation of a scene resolves itself as a perhaps overlooked aspect of cultural practice and lifestyle. The supper club/cabaret venue, known for it’s early support of Jonny Woo and other performers, here feels like a direct response to the potential of food and eating to be a countercultural act, as another potential environment to subvert standard industry practices and expectations of the culturally entrenched. Whilst this and other insights do appear throughout the timeline of materials, they are infrequent and unexplored.
Despite it’s stated aim of connecting the cutting edge of cultural activity through the eras, the inclusion of material such as Louise Gray’s topshop sponsored Fashion East runway show actually has the effect of making current work even further removed from the scratched-out fashion adventures of the eighties. Presented here in video form, the glossy, high glamour, journalistic feeding frenzy around the collection being paraded down a stylised catwalk could not be further from the improvised craft and street fashion of The House of Beauty and Culture. Viewing this work side by side, nothing feels more relevant than the comment that since the 1980s London has become an ‘optimised city’ from the film which precedes the main room of the exhibition. In the relentless drive of optimisation, artists like Louise Gray, whose work would have been determinedly counter to the mechanisms of the fashion industry is raised up, from graduation in 2007, into the glare of publicity and, here, canon.
Here is the crux of the exhibition, a sanitised narrative of the transition of the jagged and challenging into the everyday world of culture. What the ICA has done here is trace a certain aesthetic from the 1980s to now, chart it’s journey from a marginalised group of outsider practices to one of the foundations of cultural production in the city. What is missed is the idea that London still has frilly edges, unglamorous areas that might be filled with poor, inventive groups of creatives doing interesting things. It’s unlikely that they’ll be found Bond Street, however, and not within the fifty vitrines displayed here.