PRINT December 2007

Catherine Wood

IT HAS BEEN A DECADE since the Tony Blair government came to power and boasted of “Cool Britannia,” and a decade as well since the Royal Academy of Art’s touchstone celebration of Young British Artists in “Sensation”—but it took two high-visibility “art moments” in 2007, signifying that we had finally exhausted the paradigms initiated by these parallel momentums, to give us a sense of just how much art’s terrain in London has shifted. In March, Blair himself stepped onto the stage underneath Carsten Höller’s Unilever commission at Tate Modern to make a parting speech about his government’s achievements in the cultural sphere. With the Turbine Hall’s iconic conflation of public piazza and “high culture” as his backdrop, the exiting prime minister reeled off a string of statistics about the newly mass audience for the arts in the UK, beginning with Tate Modern’s nearly five million visitors per year. (It was a significant occasion—though, as Jeremy Deller observed at the time, the talk would have been very much more memorable if Tony had whizzed out from one of Höller’s chutes to begin.) Then in June came the exclusive, hushed ritual of viewing Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull in a glass cabinet set in a spotlit, darkened upper room at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, in the West End. The object’s monetary value was theatrically emphasized all the more as audiences were ushered through the gallery in small groups by security men wearing radio microphones, black ties, and smart jackets.

It’s true that many more people visit British museums and galleries now than ever before; at the same time, there is (largely due to the Frieze Art Fair) a whole new contemporary art economy here, which has created the very possibility of the skull’s tabloid-thrilling £50 million sale. But what does it mean for the meaning of art that Hirst’s work is attached to such prices and is being promoted as a mainstream public event? Sitting at the meeting point between Blair’s notion of art “for the people” and the ultimate in financial exclusivity, the skull inadvertently draws attention to a suppressed continuum between mass access and select privilege, reinforcing a fundamentally undifferentiated idea of a homogeneous, consumerist “public body.” All manner of publicness and publicity is, in both these cases, celebrated as a good thing.

Consider in this context curators Michael Bracewell, Stefan Kalmár, and associate curator Ian White’s important and timely group show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in March, titled “The Secret Public,” which brought back to visibility a key group of artists from the postpunk 1980s, including Leigh Bowery, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Cerith Wyn Evans, Linder, Derek Jarman, and Trojan. The show’s emphasis on the period’s DIY aesthetic proposed an alternative genesis for YBA: It was, Kalmár, Bracewell, and White argued, not the successful gallery artists of the ’80s but rather an improvised underground culture that would inspire the irreverent nature of the next generation’s work and the entrepreneurial spirit of Hirst’s 1988 exhibition “Freeze.” Their show’s title was taken from a fanzine created by artist Linder and writer Jon Savage, who had themselves pilfered the coinage from Bob Dylan (when asked who listened to his music, he replied, “I don’t know who they are but they know each other—they are the secret public”). Here it was meant to underscore how the punk movement in Britain was collectively understood not just through gatherings at concerts and clubs but also through codes of style: nuances in the way people talked and dressed, with the subtleties tracked via low-budget fanzines and record sleeves. This scene was about cultural activity as a network of signals, truly visible only to those who wanted to participate in it.

The particular relevance of this show to London now has to do, on one level, with its reclarification of certain terms, challenging a notion of “democratic” access to the arts that has been misused by the Labour government to demonstrate its own power rather than to empower individuals (let’s not forget that Labour’s real cultural legacy was the god-awful Millennium Dome), all while gleefully capitalizing on the conflation of mass commerce and exclusivity. The ICA exhibition reminded us that under Thatcher, at least, this art from the ’80s suffered no pretense of governmental interest. More significantly, though, the concept of “secret publicness” acknowledges the importance for art of a “public” that is not an eager, unified body but is actively fractured. Thinking of “publics” in this way keeps open the possibility for an art scene built on pockets of self-organized activity that might, in turn, generate collective momentum for new ways of making and doing things.

Kalmár, Bracewell, and White’s show bore the subtitle “The Last Days of the British Underground,” but where their “secret publics” of the ’80s inhabited underground spaces, the same phenomenon in 2007 would have to be seen as more complexly entangled in the social fabric, also operating in and through mainstream and commercial channels. In this respect, perhaps the emblematic link between now and then is to be found in the persona and presence of Leigh Bowery, who perversely exaggerated his own visibility to the point of dazzling excess: a kind of over-identification with ’80s capitalism; a love of the image that was simultaneously code and camouflage. (Bowery’s made-up face burns brightly in the memory as a low-budget, high-impact prefiguration of the dead skull in the vitrine.) Instead of thinking of mainstream and underground in oppositional terms, then, or of art that is straightforwardly co-opted by the media, London’s secret publics today erupt within and are laced through the solid frameworks of public and commercial channels in tandem with a healthy number of excellent artist-run spaces that are now established on the map. Studio Voltaire, Between Bridges, and The Showroom are a few examples (though the loss this year of White’s important communal space, The Artists Cinema within the Frieze Art Fair, was a worrying step away from such mutually beneficial coexistence).

Indeed, the past year in London has seen, whatever art’s excess of success, flourishing networks of “secret publicness” variously manifested as quasiactivism, as representations of protocommunity, as code or language, and, via the simplest means, as small gatherings of people witnessing individual events. In March, Nina Jan Beier and Marie Jan Lund divided Tate Modern’s mass audience with All the People at Tate Modern (Clap in Time), which began with a simple action of rhythmic hand clapping—which people either identified with and joined, or else did not join and so watched. In October, a group of one thousand website-linked “mobile clubbers” gathered at 7 PM one Friday evening to dance to their iPods on top of Doris Salcedo’s newly installed Shibboleth. Both of these actions inhabited Tate Modern as a model of accessible public space in order to emphasize individual volition as something necessarily in tension with being part of a crowd. Emily Pethick’s group exhibition “Imagine Action,” at the Lisson Gallery, used the annual summer show opportunity afforded by the commercial gallery to explore attempts by artists such as Luca Frei and Ricardo Basbaum to conceive of new models of community, while artists Enrico David and David Thorpe made solo shows at the ICA and Camden Arts Centre, respectively, that, in different ways, refused to make their “worlds” readily available—instead offering the viewer complex, coded visual languages resisting easy consumption. Throughout the year, small crowds gathered and dispersed across the city for artistic events: seated in a theater for Pil and Galia Kollectiv’s Asparagus: A Horticultural Ballet in March; merging with passersby in the street for Mark Leckey’s spoken-word action staged in a van outside the NCP car park in Soho on a weekday evening in June; tuning in their radios at home late at night to listen to Janice Kerbel’s play Nick Silver Can’t Sleep; and gathering in circular formations around Tris Vonna-Michell for his three-part live storytelling event at Cubitt in October. The frenzied pace of art’s expansion continues to accelerate in the city, but only while making the importance of these local, temporary points of identification that much clearer.

Catherine Wood is curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern, London.