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PRINT October 1995

LETTER FROM LONDON

Richard Shone

ONE OF THE STRIKING features of current British art is its predilection for imagery that is violent, life-and-death obsessed, grungy, or plain unpleasant. In several other countries such imagery has been prominent for centuries, but in Britain, where art, even at its most adventurous, has long been of front-parlor politeness, this is defiantly new. Here there is no tradition of writhing Crucifixions, erotically pierced St. Sebastians, or corpse-strewn battle paintings. In the two world wars, for example, the best state-commissioned works by British artists were mostly landscape inspired—we had no Goya or Guernica, no Otto Dix or George Grosz. Only Francis Bacon in this century has captured something of the physical violence of the age—though often in a palette more redolent of a smart Mayfair boudoir than the charnel house decor of our times.

In the current rash of body parts, crime scenes, and gore, there is an unmistakable subtext of drollery, of Hammer-House-of-Horror humor, a touch of Carry On Up the Morgue, which, in typically British fashion, deflects and represses the true violence of the images. And in the best pieces, such as Rachel Whiteread’s cast of a mortuary slab, Slab (Plug), 1994, or Damien Hirst’s recently shown Still, 1994, a vitrine of gleaming medical instruments, the macabre element is entirely subsumed by the authority and beauty of the works.

One of the most startling contributions to the current obsession with gore is Marc Quinn’s Gothic repertory: the infamous cast of his head made from his own blood, and the life-sized, strung-up skein of latex imprinted with his own naked body, like a dangling rubber glove. This inexorable investigation of tightrope mortality, of the life of breath and the breath of life, continued this summer with the showing of Quinn’s grimacing, fragmentary self-portrait casts in the Tate Gallery’s new space devoted to “Art Now.” And his work at White Cube Gallery, another body cast (product of some unlikely mating between Antony Gormley and the late Dame Elisabeth Frink), suggests that Bernini’s ecstatic St. Theresa has finally managed a sex change (using Hirst’s medical instruments, previously on show at White Cube?) and grown an erect penis.

Priapism hand in hand, so to speak, with violence is everywhere. In Jake and Dinos Chapman's edition sculpture of the severed head of an Italian art dealer, the nose has been given the full Cyrano de Bergerac treatment and become a dildo (giving new meaning to “blowing your nose”). This unruly member and an accompanying video of the head “in use” were on view by appointment at a new multiples gallery, Ridinghouse Editions; its inaugural party went with a bang and a whimper.

But while the Chapmans have a current monopoly on genuinely shocking images of violence and sexuality, other artists are going for more subtle, oblique effects. Earlier this year, Abigail Lane made a two-room installation at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. One room was wallpapered with a pattern of blood splashes and handprints taken from a scene-of-the-crime photo in the New York police files. A tape concealed in a cupboard endlessly repeated the sound of scratching on wood; the casts of a male head and two arms dangled on wires from the ceiling. These elements suggested an “absent presence,” the traces of formidable violence transmuted by the coolness of Lane’s minimalist staging. Meanwhile, over at Stephen Friedman’s impressive new gallery on Old Burlington Street, Anya Gallaccio looped a “daisy chain” (made from huge, bright, real gerberas) throughout one of the spaces, entangling and crisscrossing from ceiling to floor. The flowers’ slow dehydration and death was a mournful spectacle as their childhood beauty disintegrated.

All these artists are London based, and it is no accident that they, and some of their contemporaries, such as Michael Landy, with his street-trash imagery, and Mark Wallinger, with his early “down-and-out” references, reflect (without necessarily depicting) the city’s seamier side and its return, over the last 15 years or so, to almost Hogarthian and Dickensian scenes of dissipation, poverty, and squalor. Their references may not be as direct as the graphic pictures of London by current novelists such as Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Jan Sinclair, and Will Self, but there is no denying the capital’s penetrating influence.

It so happens that a few months ago Ackroyd and I were mugged at knifepoint near the writer’s home in Islington. Curiously, I was carrying a copy of the catalogue I had written for Abigail Lane’s ICA exhibition (the muggers wisely preferred my wallet to my prose), and the incident took place close to the childhood lodgings of Walter Sickert, a painter about whom I have written extensively. All these fortuitous connections set me thinking about the relations of art and crime against the background of London.

In early August 1888, the repeatedly stabbed body of a prostitute called Martha Turner was discovered in a house off Whitechapel Road in the East End district of London . Over the following three months the mutilated bodies of five more women were found, but the murderer, “Jack the Ripper,” never was. The crimes have been attributed to a variety of suspects from Queen Victoria’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence, to, in recent years, Sickert. Evidence for the latter’s involvement is easily refuted, but suspicion hangs about his name like a bad smell, particularly as his best-known painting, The Camden Town Murder, 1907–09, alludes to another horrific killing of a prostitute in 1907. Rarely has domestic crime been so menacingly evoked in British painting as in this compact little masterpiece. For the most part, however, connections between art and crime, squalor and dissipation, run underground, then suddenly erupt as you look more deeply into the context and history of particular works, figures, places, and institutions.

The Whitechapel Art Gallery, for example, opened in 1881 in a schoolhouse and moved to its present location in 1901. This distinctive Art Nouveau building was erected as part of a do-good plan to raise the standards of education in a district whose plight had come under urgent public scrutiny partly as a result of the Ripper murders. The gallery aimed to show contemporary art in tandem with the provision of educational facilities, a program sustained ever since.

Walking into the summer show you were immediately confronted with an image of the flagellation of Christ, his bound body surrounded by whipping tormentors. Luca Cambiaso’s drawing hung next to one of Jasper Johns’ “0 through 9” series, 1961, a violent juxtaposition that nonetheless highlighted their similarities. And on the opposite wall was Toulouse-Lautrec’s study of a prostitute in bed, drawn just a few years after the Ripper murders—a case eagerly followed by the artist and his friends in Paris.

These works were part of an engrossing exhibition of line drawings from ancient Egypt, China, and Japan to the present day, taking in almost all the great names of Western European art. The nearly 200 works from public and private collections that constituted “Drawing the Line” were chosen by the artist Michael Craig-Martin. He was incredibly fortunate in the loans he secured—Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Délacroix, Turner, Ingres, Degas, Matisse, and Picasso all crowded the walls alongside Philip Guston and Carl Andre, Marcel Duchamp and Franz Kline, Bruce Nauman, Louise Bourgeois, and Richard Long. Twosomes and threesomes flirted across the centuries, finding their common denominators in geometric precision or wild abandon, flowing or staccato line, mesmerizing repetition or the minute accumulation of disparate facts. The violence of the act of drawing, its hit-and-run immediacy, was one of the show’s strongest impressions. Coupled with the exhibition’s refreshing disregard of chronology, geography, and stylistic homogeneity, the shock of the familiar was triumphant.

If you go southwest of Whitechapel and cross the Thames at Southwark Bridge, on your right is Bankside, a much blitzed, patched, butchered, and forlorn stretch of London parallel to the river. In medieval London it was a place of entertainment, packed with taverns and brothels, until they were closed down in the 1540s by, surprisingly enough, Henry VIII. Later that century they reopened along with several theaters, bearbaiting pits, and pleasure gardens. In the early 1600s, bearbaiting had been run at Bankside by the actor Edward Alleyn. In 1626 Alleyn bequeathed his picture collection to Dulwich College, the school he founded in South East London. This collection would later become part of the first public art gallery in England, which is now renowned for its works by, among others, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Poussin.

Crime and “pleasure” went hand in hand at Bankside, and the nearby Clink Prison was filled with, according to one contemporary source, “the lowest vermin.” In the following centuries, dissipation gave way to industry, and one of the last monuments to the industrialization of this stretch of the Thames was completed as recently as 1963. Bankside Power Station covers eight acres of this former pleasure ground and is famous, appropriately enough, for its massive, phallic brick tower (325 feet high). Soon declared impotent and virtually disused since 1981, it is now proposed as the Tate Gallery’s new Museum of Modern Art, to open in the year 2000 after conversion by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. (See Richard Flood’s interview with Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, on page 33 in this issue.)

At present, the Tate’s old building on Millbank is chronically short of space. Although, ideally, a site ought to have been available nearer that gallery, the Bankside proposal will help regenerate a colorless area and give the new museum a clear identity. Its colossal size will allow for a comprehensive display of 20th-century art, as well as for the installation of prestigious exhibitions from the international circuit (in which London is frequently bypassed). The British collection, for the most part, will remain at Millbank.

The £100 million or more needed for the cost of the Bankside development will be met from the public and private sectors, but the proposal has been encouragingly listed for consideration by the Millennium Fund Commission, which supports projects with money from the National Lottery, the weekly lucky-numbers game instigated at the end of last year. Lottery hysteria grips the country each Saturday and produces huge revenues for good causes. The arts will get their cut (going against the grain of public preferences), and let’s hope the commission favors Bankside in its proposed shortlist (announced as this issue goes to press). The idea of a museum devoted to what a majority of the population despises—Modern art—built on the site of brothels and gaming houses, and funded by the national mania for gambling, has a wonderfully British ring to it.

What of the Tate Gallery on Millbank? Here, too, art has risen on the ashes of crime. The Tate was built on part of the site of the largest prison in Victorian London, the Millbank Penitentiary, which was surrounded by what Charles Dickens called “a melancholy waste.” The prison was closed in 1890, and in 1897, when the sugar refiner Sir Henry Tate funded a gallery for Modern British art, kick-starting the collection with his own, mainly execrable acquisitions, this was the site chosen by the government. Since then the Tate Gallery has assumed responsibility for the national historic collection; it has taken on the Turner Bequest and become the national home for Modern art; it has huge educational responsibilities; it hosts the Turner Prize, and it has a duty to show recent international art. Like a confused, elderly dowager, it doesn’t quite know which hat to wear for what occasion.

The Tate’s major summer show was “Rites of Passage” (Simon Watney, “Focus,” Artforum, September 1995). This was Stuart Morgan and Frances Morris’ personal anthology of the body as a vessel for fin-de-siècle disaffection. Works by Joseph Beuys, Robert Gober, Louise Bourgeois, and John Coplans formed the high spots, giving the exhibition a true metaphoric gravitas. Susan Hiller’s installation, An Entertainment, 1990—four video projectors and sound in a square room—is 26 minutes long, during which huge colored images from a traditional Punch-and-Judy puppet show are thrown against the walls; the soundtrack evokes a seaside audience as well as the murderous doings of Mr. Punch with his thrusting nose; entertainment cliches (“Oh yes, he is!” “Oh no, he isn’t!”) are menacingly intoned. Memories of Edvard Munch and James Ensor, Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture, 1987, and the cruel caricatures of Regency London all spring to mind in Hiller’s absorbing disquisition on ritual and myth, vicious comedy, violence, and death.

The brutality of what passes for entertainment still erupts in London life, and Hiller has unnervingly traced one of its histories. What she may not have known is that one of London’s last Punch-and-Judy booths was to be found a few hundred yards from Millbank, near Lupus Street, Pimlico. In 1869, it was shut down “by order” because of the “unbecoming display of ruffianly behavior” that its performances encouraged among spectators on summer evenings.

Richard Shone is a writer based in London and an associate editor of The Burlington Magazine.