PRINT January 2004

Wolfgang Tillmans on Donald Urquhart

“THE BEAUTIFUL BEND” WAS DONALD URQUHART'S first gallery show (at Magnani, in London, last year). “Gallery” is the key word here, as the artist has been in one show or another ever since he moved to London from his native Scotland in the early ’80s and became part of that decade’s high-camp club scene, which revolved around dressing up and could claim Leigh Bowery as one its central figures. In 1993 Urquhart and Sheila Tequila started their own “performance” club night (at Central Station) called the Beautiful Bend, where original artworks were painted directly onto the club’s walls as decoration. When Central Station’s owners got fed up with their space being repainted weekly, Urquhart began making ink drawings, which he photocopied and used as decoration illustrative of the club’s ever-changing themes. After a five-year break—during which, among other things, he toured with Nicola Bowery’s band Minty and wrote for the Modern Review and qx magazine—he restarted the Beautiful Bend in 1999 and kept it going until 2001. During that time I was a regular visitor to the club, and, amid the mayhem, I took great pleasure in studying the walls Urquhart had turned into one-off exhibitions of exquisite absurdity. One night was dubbed “The Plague Doctor,” and the artist linked depictions of gay sex with Dickensian imagery of medieval doctors wearing protective leather hoods and beaks filled with herbs—the better for breathing among festering sores and decomposing corpses. At the end of the night I snatched a copy of his Plague Fuck drawing and took it home. These photocopies taped onto the moldy walls transcended their environment; though perfect within it, they were, at the same time, self-assuredly autonomous.

It was a great joy to see the “mother drawings” of these “Plague Doctor” photocopies in Urquhart’s second outing at Magnani, “A Present from the Zoo,” an exhibition of the framed ink drawings on which all of the Beautiful Bend ephemera were based. Having survived the change of context, the work proved to be both of its time—a single night—and yet possessed of a broader, more lasting cultural relevance. The originals feature intricate details in jet black ink, fine outlines, and densely structured surfaces; such attention to texture and line is no doubt irrelevant to drawings made to be photocopied, but they were executed meticulously nonetheless.

The exhibition took its title—appropriately enough, given the importance Urquhart’s work attaches to giving and receiving—from chapter 10 of P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins, in which the nanny with magical powers takes the children to the zoo one night, where they find a world turned upside down, with humans inside the cages and animals strolling freely about. At the end of the night the king cobra gives Mary Poppins a present—his own skin. Next morning when the children bring up their visit to the zoo, Mary Poppins denies that the nocturnal trip ever took place, but the children notice that she is wearing a snakeskin belt inscribed “A present from the zoo.” This is also the source of Urquhart’s inspiration to give away secondhand clothes at the Beautiful Bend (“the zoo of my imagination”). He wanted all his club-goers to “have evidence of having been there. They could take an article of clothing away from it,” he explains, “so they’d wake up the next morning with an item they didn’t remember as being theirs.”

Urquhart also took part in “Bootleg,” a one-day event in Spitalfields Market, London, last summer; there he further explored the relationship between his original artwork and photocopies of it. He recently completed his third play, Noel Noir, which was produced by London’s Artangel in collaboration with young members of Cardboard Citizens, a homeless actors’ collective, and performed at the Horse Hospital in London last month.

London-based artist Wolfgang Tillmans was recently named a professor at Frankfurt’s Städelschule art academy.