Gown Town


Left: Comedian Graham Norton. Right: Elle Macpherson. (Photos: Nick Harvey)

It’s difficult to work an evening gown in London unless you’re the queen. Without footmen, a scepter, and the odd lady-in-waiting, evening gowns look just plain wrong in this climate. It was therefore royally unfortunate that strapless, ankle-skimming frocks were de rigueur last Wednesday evening at “Figures of Speech,” the Institute of Contemporary Art’s annual fund-raising gala. Held at the drafty Royal Horticultural Society’s conference center in darkest Victoria, the multifaceted money-spinner involved an exhibition, dinner, and auction, punctuated by a series of five-minute presentations by special “celebrity” guests.

The first port of call was a champagne reception and stroll through “One Object, One Lifetime,” a design exhibition featuring products by Tom Dixon, Timorous Beasties, and several others commissioned by the ICA and sponsors Veuve Clicquot—the single proviso being that the bubbly brand’s signature color (yellow) had to be incorporated into each design. A dressed-up branding exercise no doubt, but an increasingly necessary symbiosis in the current jungle of public-funding cutbacks.

Corralled photographers were desultorily snapping away as VIP guests floated in, when suddenly a collective camera flash erupted so explosively, it looked as though a mass paparazzi electrocution were occurring. Nigella Lawson, the porcelain-skinned kitchen princess who gives welcome new meaning to the term zaftig, had arrived. Smiling beatifically for the cameras, she embraced fuzzy-faced ICA chairman Alan Yentob, who was clearly besotted. (According to a reliable journalistic source, Lawson later politely declined a photo op with the rather less round and fuzzy supermodel Elle Macpherson.) In stark contrast to ber-feminine Lawson was female impersonator Jodie Harsh, the self-styled “Real Queen of England,” who, thankfully, unlike the other ladies, wasn’t wearing a floor-length prom-style confection.

Comedian Harry Enfield leaned on the bar chatting with Yentob and Lawson, while officious PR people hovered nervously and smooth playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah and Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips mingled easily with patrons. Artist Gavin Turk was valiantly on hand, serving not only as representative of the visual-artist demographic, a group curiously missing from the event, but as one of the evening’s featured guests and generous donor of lot 4.

Left: Artist Gavin Turk. (Photo: Nick Harvey) Right: ICA chairman Alan Yentob and comedian Harry Enfield. (Photo: Lynne Gentle)

Comedian and TV personality Graham Norton, in rampant rare form as master of ceremonies, introduced the “Figures of Speech” speakers, who were invited to spend a maximum of five minutes talking about an object of great personal significance. While Kwei-Armah produced the voyage ticket that first brought his immigrating mother from the West Indies to the UK, Lawson spoke poignantly about the significance of a battered and bulbous Algerian couscoussiere, a family heirloom to which she likened her own famous figure, referring to both as “serviceable but beautiful . . .”

Sotheby’s auctioneer Adrian Biddell had no sooner begun ramping things up with a zealously spirited auction than Jerry Hall crashed in, playing the celebrity trump card of “Fashionably Late Arrival” wearing enormous dark glasses and looking every bit the drag queen she was always meant to be. Trailed closely by wild-eyed dealer Ivor Braka, the statuesque Texan took her (or someone else’s) seat to maximal dramatic effect.

The auction was a roaring and raucous success, raising over two hundred thousand dollars with which to feather the coffers of the ICA’s New Commissions Fund. Lot 12, “All Tomorrow’s Pictures,” a collection of eighty-five photographs by various artists (including Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman, and Peter Blake), raked in the chips for the ICA when it sold for an impressive sixty thousand dollars.

There were, alas, notable absences. We may never find out, for instance, what “significant object” Jude Law “holds most sacred” as he bailed at the witching hour on account of being unavoidably out of reach and unattainable, or some such celebrity-specific malady. And speaking of stellar thespians, Kevin Spacey was also in absentia, as were almost all of the peripherally placed Table 1, which seemed to serve primarily as a halfway house for those sneaking out for a smoke. But all in all, the evening was well attended and a terrific success, thus ensuring the ICA’s commissioning muscle for the coming year along with the hopes and dreams of a handful of lucky artists—despite Texans, absentees, and evening gowns.

Left: Chef Nigella Lawson. (Photo: Lynne Gentle) Right: Immodesty Blaize and Jodie Harsh. (Photo: Nick Harvey)