One afternoon in Margaret Thatcher’s England, I had lunch with Malcolm McLaren at an Italian restaurant in the heart of London’s financial district. He was effusive but twitchy. The Sex Pistols, his proteges as well as his principal passport to the media, had slipped beyond his control. They were proving to be fundamentally musical, much to McLaren’s disgust, as well as career-driven, to his dismay. Forced to resort again to his considerable powers of reinvention, McLaren now needed to show the press that his former role as manager/Svengali had been pure invention and that, as a pure artist, his next aesthetic intervention might appear just about anywhere. But just what fresh outrages were possible?
I liked him. It wasn’t because of his genius for BS. It was because of the transparency of his genius for BS. Anything but BS—a little confession, maybe, or maybe a long stretch of flat-out honesty—would have seemed far less sincere. Yet BS can be tiring and as our relatively sober lunch progressed I found myself listening in on a nearby conversation between two middle-aged gents. Both well-tailored bureaucrats from a nearby ministry, they drank away the afternoon while pouring out hatred for everything and everyone that was…well, not them: the non-white, the poor, the new, the old and the vulnerable. This was negativity scaled huge. Compared to Maggie’s ministers of mean, the Pistols’ McLaren-designed rage—a conflation of fashion and punk’s raging anti-aesthetic—felt like a video game.
Understanding the thinking behind McLaren’s cultural manipulations is one way to have approached “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967,” which appeared in Montreal last fall. The exhibition’s popular success—which was due more to its sociological resonances than to the art, which ranged from awful to marginally okay, with a few memorable pieces here and there—was to reveal the degree to which the very idea of rock, as well as its practice, came so thoroughly to be aestheticized by McLaren and the others who emerged following the music’s formative years.
In the 1950s and 1960s, putting art and rock together mostly meant Joan Miró on the cover of Dave Brubeck’s Time Further Out. It meant the budding Ealing Art College student Pete Townshend translating the Austrian artist Gustav Metzger’s ideas of autodestructivity—ideas the young rocker picked up at a school lecture—into one of his guitar-busting signature finales for The Who. “Sympathy,” however, tried to bore deeper, into some core understanding of “artists who had music in their DNA,” in the words of Dominic Molon, a curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (the show’s point of origin), during a phone conversation we had during its stay at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, its only Canadian stop. In fact, some one-third of the artists included were, in fact, in bands themselves, as I was reminded by François LeTourneux, who assisted the MACM’s chief curator, Paulette Gagnon, in mounting the show of some 130 works, slightly fewer pieces than were in Chicago due to space restrictions. It appeared in similarly reduced circumstances at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. (Another hassle confronted along the way, I discovered, was the avoidance of the word “devil” in marketing the show to the more fundamentalist sectors of the American Midwest.)
“Sympathy” certainly provided a deeper resonance when it served up some of England’s Throbbing Gristle, the Fluxus-inspired art-rage commune without which Tracey Emin would not exist; the Destroy All Monsters collective, which included Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, Niagara and the hugely idiosyncratic Jim Shaw; and Vancouver’s UJ3RK5, which included Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace in an artists’ band that looked so much like the real deal that it actually scored a mainstream record contract. Had the show stopped with these three groups/movements—plus Germany’s Luxus, with Eric Mitchell, Christine Hahn and Martin Kippenberger—it would have been as purposefully focused as Madonna’s lust for publicity.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The very prospect of visiting “Sympathy” brought two ideas to mind. “It’s about time for this survey” was first. It was quickly followed by “Yeah, but what new can be said about music and art?” We’ve had Whistler’s Nocturnes, van Gogh channelling Wagner and the atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg’s paintings in galleries. In “Sympathy,” Tony Oursler’s Synesthesia series of art/music celebrity videos (David Byrne, Lydia Lunch) brought to mind the 19th-century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s colour-coded orchestrations. Oursler, a member of the Los Angeles band the Poetics, was one of the exhibition’s poster boys for music-inflected art-making. His Sound Digressions in Seven Colors (2006) was the show’s jam session to remember. The seven-channel video installation—each screen showing one of the sculptor’s experimental-music pals in colour-coded performance, red here, blue there—was formally arranged to suggest individual musicians jamming across genres, time and space: a band as bands of moving pictures, the rock video triumphantly occupying its subjects’ space.
Another presence felt throughout the show was Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1968 film Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One was the director’s preferred title) more thoroughly informed the exhibition than did the original Rolling Stones song. Aïda Ruilova’s Untitled (2002), a 58-second video in which a young woman is shown balanced languidly, yet precariously, on a platform fastened to the end of a movie crane, recalls the original woman-in-white shot that ends the movie. Godard’s conflicted attraction to/criticism of his subjects—surely this Marxist must have wondered about all of Mick’s offshore accounts—framed the critical response and the tainted love many artists in “Sympathy” had to and for pop music. Throbbing Gristle’s P-Orridge refused “to look like or play[ing] like anything that’s acceptable as a band.”
But this past-referencing criticism was also mediated by self-criticism. A passionate need to feel authentic experience—in all rock’s original Little Richard, Tutti Frutti intensity—is a longing felt throughout “Sympathy,” whose artists, admittedly, occasionally felt that they were “only representatives of intensity, portrayers of intensity,” as writes the German critic Diedrich Diederichsen in the show’s accessible catalogue. So “One strived to give new legs to intense living, in new life-styles, new ways of being an outsider.”
One central tenet of punk’s critical aesthetic was to set rock’s utopian dream on its head in order to create a visual dystopia of negative mythologies. Ironic self-consciousness replaced airhead hippie selflessness. Going hyper replaced hype. The Ramones’ “one-two-three-four” countdown came faster than 1960s rock ever rolled. Such a redeployment of iconic rock mannerisms, images and motifs—as well as rock technologies such as vinyl records—animates work by Christian Marclay, who is given a star turn in the show. Marclay’s David Bowie (1991), taken from the artist’s Body Mix series, visually trumps the singer’s ever-morphing persona—think Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke—with some (now corny-seeming) graphic mixology.
“Sympathy” also found its sense of direction with Andy Warhol, whose attachment to music was represented more thoroughly, if not more authentically, in the “Warhol Live” exhibition taking place uptown at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh was a lender to “Sympathy,” and the exhibition made known the degree to which New York punk was rooted in ideas exploding out of Warhol’s Factory. Ronald Nameth’s 22-minute colour film Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1967–2008), a noisy study of the studied indifference the Warhol-managed Velvets exuded during performance, helped point “Sympathy”’s way out of the disco/drug/celebrity-crammed Pop-art cul-de-sac, where it certainly would have lost its bearings and my interest.
The down-and-dirty trajectory taken by “Sympathy” opened up substantial questions about the current state of understanding around Pop art and Pop’s glam/sophisto/wealthy underpinnings. In “Sympathy,” Richard Hell, the punk rocker turned novelist, described the graffiti in CBGB’s, New York’s über-punk club, as “Fame as anonymity by another name.” Then there was Rirkrit Tiravanija’s bandless but certainly not empty Untitled 1996 (Rehearsal Studio No. 6 Silent Version), a cube of Plexiglas and gleaming metal partway suggestive of an operating room or high-tech holding cell, only with guitars and a drum kit waiting to be animated.
For organizational reasons, “Sympathy”—which was at one point to be called “Planet of Sound”—was divided along geographical lines. The U.K. came after New York, then there was Europe, “Los Angeles/the West Coast,” “the broader United States” and “the world,” where, apparently, not much happened. As a pre-Internet way of doing things—only a few years later the Web would have instantly connected all these centres—Molon’s master plan was reasonable. Yet it often gave the visitor the impression of being in one of those international food-caravan expos held in some huge convention hall, where two or three continents’ worth of hugely different international cuisines can be sampled by walking only a few metres.
One went looking for some themes that were unnecessarily glossed over: sexuality, for instance, if you excluded the wanted-poster feel of Richard Kern’s Kim Gordon with gun (1985), a whitetrash pin-up-queen portrait of the Sonic Youth singer/bassist/guitarist, and rock economics. And what about zines? Like many popreference shows, “Sympathy” surveyed far too much album-cover art, with the possible exception of Peter Saville’s work for New Order. “I really wanted to restrain it,” Molon told me. “I set a rule not to do it, but I broke my own rule.”
With punk, the acute awareness of being in a performance—of performing while performing—took precedence over the act of performing itself. Warhol’s “act” as band manager, looking as cool as Nico in those Velvets publicity stills, provided the template for McLaren’s act and for many others. Why else would Damien Hirst direct rock videos? In this sense, “Sympathy” owes even more to another Godard film, Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) from 1964, in which danger-simulating play-acting by a group of young people comes to envelop real danger and soon enough no one knows, as the film’s narrator says, “whether the world was becoming a dream or a dream becoming the world.”
In “Sympathy,” performance became interactive in a remarkable Douglas Gordon installation. In a work taken from the Scottish artist’s Bootleg series from the mid-1990s, the spectator was drawn into the illusion of sharing a crowd, a stage and a high with the Stones, the Cramps and the Smiths—as well as an illicit thrill with the artist himself, for being tempted by the contraband imagery. Each screen projected purloined draggy, dreamy and foggy video footage—the Stones at Altamont, where four spectators died (one via homicide, three accidentally), in 1969—and was in a performance with and for the other screens, casting the singers into conflicting/complementary relations with one another: the Cramps’ Lux Interior riffing hard on Jagger’s aggressive sexuality; Morrissey of the Smiths mirroring Jagger’s lubricious androgyny.
“Sympathy” achieved its critical mass, however, with Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999), the Turner Prize– winning British artist’s 15-minute colour video projected (buried or submerged was more like it) in a pitch-black room. To the degree that it could be described as a documentary, it chronicles the club-crawling 1970s, 1980s and 1990s nightlife of “the casuals,” a subset of British football toughs who proudly sported designer labels on their clothes as a means of discombobulating any middle-class understanding of just who they might be. Armani mugging! Yet Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore offers pure aesthetic redemption for its poseurs. Using an original noise/sound/beats collage soundtrack to blank out any trace of club music, Leckey edits the dancers/clubbers into a new, idealized existence where ecstasy—any kind of ecstasy, your pick—never ends.
Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, too. In hindsight, I’m aware I’m overreacting to it, but I have no apologies for being so old school. It was by far the most visceral thing in the show. Hey, you could even dance to it if you tried. I gave it a 10 out of 10.
This is an article from the Spring 2009 issue of Canadian Art.