London

Ancillary Section, Hayward Annual

Hayward Gallery

Half in and half out of the Hayward Annual was a section with the noncommittal title “Ancillary,” masterminded, like the Performance section, by the indefatigable Helen Chadwick. “Ancillary” was Edge City, with people marching in patterns (Charlie Hooker), a couple in kitsch costumes reciting elliptical texts (Sylvia Ziranek) and women icing themselves like cakes (Bobby Baker). Reviewers intent on sculpture and painting ignored this opportunity to see the work of young artists—often under 25—working outside traditional media. Two I found particularly impressive.

Roberta Graham’s tape/slide presentations were in the spirit of such recent behaviorist-oriented art as Dennis Masi’s elaborate environments with stuffed animals, Kerry Trengrove’s recent dog-training installation at the Acme Gallery, audience-baiting New Wave bands or Dick Jewell’s Found Photos. Examining issues such as plastic surgery, photography and urban violence, Graham used her medium as a three-dimensional collage. Just as in popular music, where vociferous subcultures inflected late-’50s conventions with new relevance, visual artists are fighting to recover the sociological significance of, say, early Richard Hamilton, coolly organizing loaded material for a structural analysis.

At last year’s Whitechapel Open, Graham showed a panel of photographs of London doors in front of which murders had been committed, together with a Golden Bough quotation about thresholds and spirits returning to the place of their death. The same preoccupation turned up in Reflections on the Kray Brothers, a documentary slide/tape/performance of the legendary East London murderers that she first did in 1977 but presented at the Hayward this summer. The artist unpacked a bag and opened a box containing a Luger, two knives, a pair of gold cufflinks and two identity bracelets marked Ron and Reg, laid ceremonially on red satin. Slides showed actors reconstructing moments from the Krays’ life, with information culled from books, newspapers and interviews, places they went and close-ups of murder sites, the special objects recurring, the box before us bridging the distance between our world and the twin brothers’. Sober, polite, narcissistic, the Krays were ex-boxing champions who lived like lords, “a thoroughly evil pair of bastards,” as one interviewee put it. The plot was thickened by diagrams, quotations from Burmese folklore and Lotte Lenya singing “Mack the Knife,” all serving to make us think about topics more readily forgotten. The rift between dispassionate thought and its objects may be a feature of the slide/tape medium itself, associated with instruction. Graham sensed this and utilized it; at the climax of Short Cuts to Sharp Looks, 1979, Satie Gymnopedies accompanied the screams of a woman on an old-fashioned operating table. Projected Rituals (Standing in the Shadow of Love), 1978, the most ambitious work to date, used more personal imagery to bring about an exorcism of the camera. Yet the sequence contained much more than this—studies of the sexual aspects of fashion and female masochism in general. Ambiguity is not always an advantage. If Reflections on the Kray Brothers seems to me Graham’s best piece so far, it is because it combines rhetorical thrust with strong emotion.

Eleven P.M. in Leytonstone, closing time in a London suburb. A key sounds in a lock, a light goes on and a young man sits down at a desk in his den, lights a cigarette, opens a can of beer and gradually begins talking to himself. Lenny is writing a documentary about his life in Leytonstone. As we eavesdrop he begins a 45-minute monologue, trying, and failing, to collect his thoughts. Stuck in a dismal place with no prospect of escape, Lenny struggles to find a voice. By turns he is an after-dinner speaker (“Who better to talk about Leytonstone than Lenny. Take it away, Lenny. Thank you, my son. What can I say that hasn’t already been said . . .”), a satirist (“Geographically, Leytonstone is just a case of in one end and out the other. It’s not the end of the road like Whitechapel or the beginning of the end like Southgate. Leytonstone, if it’s anything, is the urethra of London.”), the narrator of a travelogue (“This, my friends, is one of the northern approaches to Leytonstone over here. To my mind the only advantage of living in high-rise flats is that one can, if it is one’s bent and one happens to have an air rifle, take potshots at the arses of old ladies below . . . I get a bus to see my friends in Leyton. Leyton is but a stone’s throw from Leytonstone, and Wanstead Flats are within flobbing distance. Which reminds me, there’s another thing you can do off the top of a block of flats.”) . . . Memories and confessions take over, imitations of pub conversation and Frank Sinatra singing “It Was Just One of Those Things.” As the documentary is forgotten only the impossibility of communicating remains. His stories become more grotesque, about the local mental hospital and the dirty kitchens in High Street cafes, drunken escapades and retarded people. Lenny is clever enough to know he is trapped but not clever enough to know how to escape. His speech lapses into obscenity and incoherent litanies. As he struggles for coherence, one last sentence emerges: “I believe that I have it in me to become a normal person like anybody else.” As Frank Sinatra sings “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” the camera shifts to the driver’s seat of a car traveling down a Leytonstone street. Ian Bourn wrote, shot and acted Lenny’s Documentary, best regarded as a video record of a remarkable private performance. Despite apparent improvisation, the lines were learned; before turning to video, Bourn wrote poetry and fiction. At his degree exhibition at the Royal College of Art earlier this year two Ian Bourns were evident, one a tangled Borgesian, writing about writing about writing, the other a neorealist, dispelling the “narcissism” of which critics complain and making fresh, unselfconscious narrative video. His most recent work showed that the neo-realism persisted. From the Junkyard, 1979, featured an unrecognizably different Bourn as Billy, a young junk dealer, talking to his uncle Bert on a quiet day. Again a strange, sculptural set was used, and while Lenny’s speech was punctuated with captions showing the time that elapsed (“5 Minutes Later,” “Ten Minutes Later”), the junkyard dialogue was interrupted with exterior shots of a bleak area with punk and reggae posters covering the walls.

Bert fears for Billy, whose friends he considers crooks. Though Billy lacks his uncle’s social ease, he respects his talk about “the old days.” Bert’s nostalgia has made him a National Front supporter and Billy’s refusal to march with him may stem from self-absorption, loss of face or moral disapproval. Music symbolizes the rift between generations. Though he thinks his uncle’s songs peculiar, Billy likes hearing them, dimly perceiving a more cohesive social order which underlies them. Perhaps some of Bert’s love of the past rubs off on Billy as his uncle sings “The Winkle Song” or plays records which are lying about; the tune which begins the tape—Dreaming by Billy Reid and his London Accordion Band—has become a leitmotiv by the end, accompanying him as he walks down the street at the end with his girlfriend Christine.

Lenny’s Documentary and From the Junkyard are concerned with the state of Britain now, especially the loss of sensitivity and direction in young people. The crucial issue, as Bourn sees it, is caring. Billy is unable to distinguish his uncle’s valid criticisms from his bigotry. His only answer is a fantasy life and an uneasy shrug. (“Leave me alone, let me wander,” sings the pianoaccordion band, “A roving vagabond am I.”) Lenny cares desperately, and like some late ’70s Prufrock, is unable to take action. Maxim Gorky described the audience crying with recognition at a Chekhov play and said it that watching it was like being sawn in half with a blunt saw. Video may turn out to be a digression in Bourn’s writing career. Meanwhile, it was possible to turn up at the Hayward Gallery and feel just a little of Gorky’s reaction.

Stuart Morgan