Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years

Artvehicle 19/Review

5th June 2007 — 9th September 2007

(1) From the ICA's Secret Public: Tales of the Underground, to the 'timeline of punk' in the foyer of the newly refurbished BFI, there has been a recent swathe of exhibitions and events focussed on punk. The cultural programmers never seem to miss a trick contextualising the anniversary of this, that or this again. It does seem timely that there should be a glut of shows presently centred round the low-fi aesthetic and energy of the punk movement of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. June 2007 being 30 years since the release of The Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen, it was fitting to start the trek through the Barbican's seemingly endless exhibition rooms with Jamie Reid's notorious collage of the lady herself (also celebrating 30 years in the job this June).

(2) Panic Attack! brings together artworks from this period of cultural energy from both the UK and the US. What we see here is a series of pairings in the upper gallery that do well to point up those buzz-words now synonymous with this shift in ideas and attitudes of the time; rebellion, appropriation and do-it-yourself.

(2.1) Reid's infamous newspaper tearaways for the Sex Pistols cover-art against Victor Burgin's image-text works (pictured) of cracked social landscapes offer thematically similar imagery. This technique of collage and the idea of appropriation is carried on with the juxtaposition of John Stezaker and Gordon Matt-Clark. It is fascinating (and suddenly obvious) to see the latter's inclusion here in this context, cutting and carving away at the abandoned post-industrial buildings of Manhattan. This almost aggressive appropriative sensibility towards materials, ideas and identity is exemplified later in Robert Mapplethorpe's images of the androgyny in music, famously captured in the cover image for Patti Smith's Horses and Deborah Harry.

(3) Documentation of COUM's notorious performances at the ICA in 76, alongside photocopies of the damning press-cuttings the work received, proves the parameters of sensationalism have perhaps changed somewhat (you only have to go to the circus attraction that is the White Cube in Madison Yard to see its current guise). Mind you, Paul McCarthy's performance Rocky, still has the power to shock and excite in equal measure - delightfully perverse.

(4) The sheer volume of work here is overwhelming and I did find myself skating over the work in the lower gallery, partly out of lethargy, partly out of, well, lethargy. However, HNan Goldin's images of NY subcultures are still fresh in that they could be right out of the pages of the 1980's revivalist party-scenes from the pages of Dazed - as could Cerith Wyn Evans' strobic film of self-indulgence, Epiphany (1984). Over 20 years later, it's hard to imagine the impact these images must have had on a predominantly conservative culture. It's here, in the decadence that signifies the economic recovery of the mid-1980s, that perhaps signalled the culmination of this period, where the works of artists such as Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, whose graffiti art explored the appropriation of space and ideas, were finally commoditised and appropriated in turn.

(5) I attended a lecture last night at the ICA by web 2.0 polemicist Andrew Keen, who proffered a finger-wagging critique of the deluge of trash-writing and amateur content the new era of online democratisation has yielded. I asked myself, 'is the current climate of online self-publishing / promotion comparable to the DIY culture of the punk years in that it is about reclamation; a fight for space, a fight to be heard by a jaded bunch of provocateurs?' Will it take another 30 years for us to look back at the swell of swill to recognise it's true worth - as a mirror of the nation's collective creative talents? Perhaps not.

(5.1) A line out of Victor Burgin's UK76, as pictured here: To appropriate Today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday. Utopians beware.


Barbican Art Gallery
Barbican Centre
Silk Street
London EC2Y 8D

Daily, 11am-8pm
Late night first Thurs, 11am-10pm

Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years —  Victor Burgin  UK76, 1976  Five from a series of 11 Courtesy the artist and Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

Victor Burgin
UK76, 1976
Five from a series of 11
Courtesy the artist and Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne