Cause Celebre


Left: Oliver Payne in the DJ booth at Umbaba. Middle: Ben Keyworth, who appeared in several early Relph and Payne videos. Right: The crowd at Umbaba.

Here’s a recent Faust fable: One day you’re an artist about whom a few people know a lot; a few days later you’re an artist about whom tons and tons of different people enthusiastically know very little. With a solo retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery—that charming former tea pavilion with the billionaire patrons, storied history, and Michelin-starred Walther Koenig bookshop—Oliver Payne and Nick Relph are back in England and weathering this transition as I write. Payne and Relph—twenty-something Englishmen who recently moved to Manhattan, where they show with Gavin Brown–—have made seven films in six years, the most recent of which, Sonic the Warhol, 2005, debuted at the Serpentine. Like most of their films (all of which are about a half hour long) Sonic the Warhol is about resistance, awareness, and brotherhood, and also rock, jokes, poetry, Pokémon, and nature. It’s abstruse and entertaining, asusual. I flew to London for the private view, a garden party held at dusk, in order to see how the newly minted top boys were doing.

The nasty part of the Faustian bargain goes like this: England is a very small country, and the arrival of press and prestige can spread hollow buzz and parochial rhetoric very efficiently, almost without trying. That is the imminent threat to Payne and Relph, who are now part of this world. While certainly not obscure before, at least among the gallery-going set, their renown seems poised on the brink of a qualitative leap: Breathless two-sentence preview picks in the liberal dailies and a blinkered, condescending feature in Rupert Murdoch’s Times alerted me to the possibility that they are soon to play a new, more substantial role in British culture. They are being talked about and put forward as a social and political gathering point, as in “I’ll meet you at Payne and Relph.” All this made for a super weird party. Among the 400-strong crowd lolling on the grass outside the gallery were various cliques straight from the office: Gelled chaps with loosened Windsor knots knocking back Kronenberg while pencil-skirted chicks kept tacit pace. Perhaps they worked for Bloomberg or Lavazza or one of the other companies whose logos elbowed for space on the searchlight-splashed sign at the entrance. Meanwhile, Payne and Relph were just kind of hanging out, often by themselves. The preponderance of idle Londoners at their party allowed the artists to continue as before, hatching new ideas and participating at a slight, smiling distance from the world. Payne was leaning against a wall alone, uncharacteristically drinking water (albeit from a wineglass) when I saw him for the first time. Gavin Brown walked past with his young son, who was wearing an Allan Houston Knicks jersey. Oliver nodded at them both and they nodded back. “The DJ booth at the afterparty is inside a giant cauldron,” he told me a few minutes later after not saying much. “Pretty crazy.”

Left: Wendy Yao, proprietor of L.A. boutique Ooga Booga. Center left: Artist Mark Leckey. Center right: Emily Speers-Mears. Right: Artist Nick Relph.

An hour later we found ourselves at a club called Umbaba. It was indeed pretty crazy, and tacky too—an upscale underground cavern off Carnaby Street bogusly styled as an imaginary African republic. It filled up slowly with more fashionable (but equally anonymous, to me at least) variants on the Kronenberg crews. The gifted London artist Mark Leckey stood out, in part because he looked like a hippie instead of the mod sharp I always had him pegged for. I stood on a banquette for a dance but quickly got back down. I saw something up there. Everywhere around there were people who had appeared in the duo’s films: Normal people––extended family––unchanged by the spotlight. Relph had spent much of the evening hanging out with one of the Timmins twins, a teenage punk in a Supreme baseball cap who has been a strong on-screen presence from the earliest films to the present. There was a fraternal sweetness between them as they chewed the fat. Who needed banquette bouncing?

William Pym