Subcultural Capital


Left: Gallerist Jose Freire with Sunn 0))) frontman Stephen O'Malley. Right: Gallerist Maureen Paley with Banks Violette. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

“Lot o' beards in tonight.” The barmaid at the Bethnal Green pub at which I'd arranged to meet my companions was bemused to find her regular Friday-night clientele augmented by a contingent of hirsute music fans eager for a performance, orchestrated by artist Banks Violette, by the doomy, LA-based art-metal band Sunn O))) at Maureen Paley’s gallery. Decamping at precisely 6 PM, we found a small crowd of similarly styled folk forming a line outside the gallery. We joined it, and within fifteen minutes the line had tripled in length and anticipation was building fast. We knew only that the performance was scheduled to commence some time between 6 and 8 PM. By 6:30 or so, current Turner Prize shortlistee Mark Titchner, having that afternoon found out about the imminent closure of Delfina studios, where he is a current resident, was already weary of the uncertainty.

Soon thereafter, we followed Team Gallery owner Jose Freire in through the back door, earning jealous glares from a line that now extended around the block. Freire, bubbling with excitement, led us to an upstairs room where Violette had constructed a “ghost” of the band's own, functional setup. Guitars and amps (Sunn amps, naturally) had been cast in the artist's now-signature blend of resin and salt and the walls lined with dense graphite drawings. Paley was delighted with the elegantly atmospheric effect: “Magic, magic, magic.”

Back downstairs, Freire assured me that I'd know when the performance was starting because “the building will shake like there's an earthquake. They did a sound check a few hours ago and you could hear the windows rattling.” Only then did I notice a small sign outside the entrance to the lower gallery: “No entry until after performance.” Sure enough, again according to Freire, “Banks said he was going to do a performance that would make the building come down but no one was going to see it.” I wondered fleetingly whether the fans waiting outside, patience eroding, were privy to this information.

Left: Gallerist Rodolphe Janssen and Phillips de Pury & Company consultant Olivier Vrankenne. Right: Artist Paul Noble with collector Vicky Hughes.

“Can we store Banks's robe in here?” asked Alissa Bennett, the artist's wife, of a gallery employee seated in the office, gesturing with a voluminous black cloak. “Yeah, it's my robe,” her husband chipped in. “It's very important.” Vital apparel stashed, the couple melted away and I got talking to Noah Garson, a plumbing supplier who provides the aluminum tubing that Violette uses in many of his sculptures. “Plumbing supplying is what it is,” he admitted. “But working with Banks makes it so much more interesting.” A beaming Wolfgang Tillmans edged past us, and finally, on the dot of 7 PM, an ominous bass rumble signaled the start of the concealed action. Finding myself, for once, in the right place at the right time, I couldn't resist peeking behind the white sheet veiling the performance space. “This is sedate,” commented Violette, reappearing immediately behind me. “It'll get very loud and ugly.” Draped in black and wreathed in dry ice, the band were an imposing sight—even without the salt-and-resin coffin in which the guest vocalist, Mayhem's Attila Csihar, was sealed. As a thin crack began to edge across the ceiling and a lightbulb popped above my head, I thought it prudent to join the crowd in the exterior courtyard.

There, artist Lorin Davies and I squeezed through the throng surrounding the bar, spotting gallerists Rudolph Janssen and Christabel Stewart (of Hotel) and artists Sue Webster, Savage Pencil, a.k.a. Edwin Pouncey, and Chris Cunningham. I also bumped into an old friend, Anthony Sylvester, who, I soon learned, now does promotional work for Sunn O))) and other bands. But despite his close association with the musicians, even Sylvester was finding that the evening had already raised some unusual questions: “If you're not here to not see the band, what's your experience of them, then?” Collector Vicky Hughes conceded that “I'd like to be a voyeur. I'd like to be in the room with the band,” and some others seemed similarly frustrated by their deliberate exclusion (though Davies rated it as the band's “best visual performance”). An hour or so later, I was about to raise the issue with artist Paul Noble when the sound juddered to a halt and London seemed, for a moment, quieter than it ever had before.

Left: Artist Gardar Eide Einarsson. Right: Valentina Salaris and Alissa Bennett.

Left: Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner. Right: Maureen Paley with Wolfgang Tillmans.

Left: Artist Dawn Mellor. Right: Artist Donald Urquhart.

Left: Fans of the artist. Right: Banks Violette.