Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years, Barbican Artgallery, London. Till September 9.
The London punk nostalgics who currently preside over so much of our most complacent and quieting cultural and media activity must be quite exhausted. No sooner has the ICA's post-punk show Secret Public closed than the Barbican unveils Panic Attack!, a much larger-scale and more determinedly comprehensive and outward-looking survey of... -- well, now, look, we had better be careful. This is not, and it's evidently not intended to be, an exhibition of punk art. This is "art in the punk years", which turns out to mean pretty much anything made in London and the big American cities in the decade between 1974 and '84, as long as it is (say the curators) "punk in spirit".
Hum. OK. Well, you can probably tell I already have fifteen or eighteen problems with all this, circling in a holding pattern somewhere near the back of my head. So let's take it slow.
Secret Public, initially something of a disappointment, has endeared itself to me in the weeks since I visited. It seemed terribly small and parochial, compared with the rousing advance vision of its collated artists: an account of a smallish circle of friends, of flow and affection, of a rage tempered by what at this distance seems like rather a quaint concern for kindness and good manners, all superglued together with an effortfully studied narcissism which functioned to bridge the gap between the twin nihilisms of punk's vandalising esprit and the nascent Thatcherite erasure of social identification: a rich and complex mix, best encapsulated, perhaps, in the 'at home' footage of Leigh Bowery and Michael Clark in Charles Atlas's Hail the New Puritan (not included in Secret Public, though Because We Must was; but anyway excerpted on the DVD of Atlas's Legend of Leigh Bowery). Perhaps the best, or at any rate most exemplary, work in that exhibition then turns out to be stuff that seemed comparatively negligible -- indeed was I suspect deliberately positioned to seem so -- on first encounter: the glass display of artefacts relating to the Neo-Naturists, and corresponding slideshow and home movie reel. The very personal, decidedly unexalted nature of these works in the end stands steadfastly in its cheerful summary of the underwriting commitments of most of the starrier artists shown alongside: not (quite) life as art, or life imitating art, but art and life sort of as Whitman's (or, more appositely, Hockney's) "two boys together clinging".
In other words, despite the expansive glitz and monumental drabness that showed through Secret Public's fascinating surfaces as its tussling, tail-chasing yin and yang, that exhibition finally endorsed and quietly celebrated above all the DIY ethos that powered (and constantly titivated) punk and secured the more coherent and progressive agendas of post-punk.
Panic Attack!, conversely, is perhaps in the end not that interested in punk. Or perhaps it simply tacitly concedes the game at the end of Room 1 (Jamie Reed and Victor Burgin). On the scale -- and on the site -- that it's built for, the show just cannot find a plausible modus operandi that connects in any more than the most cursory and inattentive ways with punk. Two insuperable obstacles immediately inhibit its movements, and a third puts a lid on them.
Firstly, by concentrating its scrutiny almost entirely on established A-list artists, it can hardly represent, nor consider the political ramifications of, the urgency of that DIY imperative in punk; it may throw gestures of concern towards the sharpened demotic visual aesthetic of work like Linder's or Mark Morrisroe's or (yawn) Raymond Pettibon's, but it can't stop that work being presented with all the neutering prestige codes of the gallery mechanism: everything is nicely mounted, adequately spaced, solicitously glossed, of course it is, we're in the Barbican, but how then does this work have any chance of re-enacting (or, better, activating anew) the turbulent cultural dialogues out of which it arose? This work is elevated out of the vernacular and into the elysian realms of the gallery and in the instant of that separation it trades credibilities. For some reason the image that comes to mind is of three dozen spermatazoa that managed to find eggs and become people ahead of the rest of the competition; there's a Rory McLeod song where he sings something like: "All the spunk that was shot for nothing is the odds against you being here," and that's what makes the work in the show self-evidently important but also unrepresentative in a way that's crucial in considering punk as a force in art. Because punk, before and beneath its cartoon commodification, was and is exactly that: all the spunk that was shot for nothing.
Secondly, one of the greatly important qualities of punk (and, in a shifted way, post-punk) to arise out of its fierce praxis of tribalism and self-involvement was the importance of different creative forms to each other. There is very little, possibly no, punk or punk rock or no wave music in the show. (I can't be absolutely sure because I didn't stick around for all of the Tony Oursler video.) Apart from Jamie Reid's iconic safety-pinned Queen, there is no attempt to chart any activity in fashion or graphic design. No account is given of the refraction of punk through broadcast media, save for the display of sham newspaper outrage that forms part of the room given over to COUM Transmissions' more-than-seminal 1976 ICA show Prostitution. The curators of Panic Attack! might well argue that they're very clear about focusing on "art in the punk years", not on 'punk art(s)' with the breadth of brief that implies. But 'punk' as a descriptor simply doesn't make sense without the almost erotic pressure of cross-disciplinary encounter and influence. In the comparatively celibate context of Panic Attack!, the work is not merely elevated but left stranded, most obviously as partial and inconclusive evidence of something that happened and is now missing. I suppose this is the fate of all gallery art to some degree, but in relation to punk it feels basically mendacious: not least because it reinforces the impression of heavyweight commodity value at a near-fetishistic level. I'm suggesting that the 'punk art' object is necessarily and substantially a record of a performance, and one feels uneasy therefore about much of what is shown in Panic Attack! in exactly the same way that one frequently feels uncomfortable about the reverent and inflationary exhibition of artefacts and remnants associated with the performances of Beuys, say. This is, in other words, where sperm meets bank.
What finally puts the lid on all this is that so much of the work gathered in the show is likely to be familiar to most people who have had even half an eye on the fat end of the art wedge over the past few years. Panic Attack! is in many ways about a (more or less plausible) attempt to consolidate a canon in relation to work of this period, now that so much of it is twenty-five or thirty years old. Which is just one of those things, I guess; what's worse is that, perhaps because this cooling narrative is part of the curators' agenda, almost none of those more familiar works yields anything new or unexpected in this context. The juxtapositions are inert, the commentary is mostly amiably facile; perhaps most lethally, no one seems to be looking to either side of the the 74-84 timeframe, so we learn little and can infer less about where this work came from, about what punk meant to artists who had come of age or started to shape their practice say twenty or thirty years ahead of it, for example; nor is there any visible information about the politically ramifying evolution from punk into post-punk. Reagan and Thatcher are as good as invisible. The only suasive influence that's strongly acknowledged, in a dozen different ways, is the advent of AIDS: and it's important that that calamitous invasion starts to shade the second half of the exhibition, but in actuality it's only one piece of a largely absent jigsaw. (You would think from the show, by the way -- as you would have done from Secret Public -- that the apogee of punk art was largely choreographed by gay men. I dunno, maybe in New York it was; in London I suspect the first waves of punk threw up images that were ripe for queering but my guess is that grassroots punk as it lived and breathed especially in metropolitan centres away from the capital was not, on the whole, turning its destructive energies particularly assiduously on heteronormativity... The bendiness of glam seems to have been assimilated by American punk in a way that wasn't really the case in Britain until the turn of the decade; Adam and the Ants are about the straightest thing in Derek Jarman's 1978 Jubilee, for example -- no dandy highwaymen they. But I'm wandering off.)
So, let's say it one more time, and then move on. This is not a show about punk and if your interest is in punk then there may not be much here to float your boat. It's somewhat more convincing in dealing with early 80s post-punk, which always had more intellectual poise, more confidence, and, almost by definition, more visionary politics: all of which qualities lend themselves to the playful and socially fluid work in the second half of the show. But even so, the legacy of punk is so diffusely recorded in so many of these pieces, the connection never stops feeling unclaimed and ultimately bogus. What this is, emphatically and successfully, is a show about downtown. (You know, where all the lights are bright.) This is a show about how cities and artists contain each other, how creative communities are shaped not just through common interest or collaboration but through psychogeography; about specifically urban networks of affection and resistance and about the city as an advanced technology for generating social change at a micro level, street by street, gallery by gallery, bedroom by bedroom, fire escape by... you get the picture. Except in the listless ironies of Gilbert and George's World of Gilbert and George, there is no pastoral in this show. Pastoral has been replaced by sex; or, more exactly, by pre-orgasmic self-involvement and post-coital repose (including smoking, about which we should all feel a little nostalgic).
So that's the show to go and see when you go and see Panic Attack!: the downtown show, the sex-charged urban spiral show. -- Because you should, in the end, go and see it. Ignore the curatorial framing. Ignore the apparatus of gallery politesse. Ignore, if you can, the signs that warn you you might be offended by what's in the next room. (They, of course, are the dead giveaway, those signs: if nothing else -- and it did plenty else -- punk reconnected us, for a few years at least, to the basic contract of attentive living: that it is your duty as a citizen to be offended. Or to be offensive.) There's good, important work here, worth spending time with.
So, after such a negative account of the whole big blah, here are a few highlights.
Gordon Matta-Clark gets closest to what the curators call "punk in spirit". (If that's all you're aiming for, why confine yourself to "the punk years"? Some of the greatest punk-spirited work in the history of British arts is late 16th / early 17th Century. But I'm shadowboxing again.) His signature action Day's End (1975), documented on wonderfully dated-looking film, has him cutting up an abandoned New York warehouse, entirely without anyone's permission. It's the only film piece in the whole show that truly engrosses: the momentum of it, the commitment, the deeply sardonic insinuation, the terrific joyous sincerity, the lack of any posturing front. Or side. (Or floor, after a bit.) It taps into a macho fantasy, perhaps, but it's a complex one, of both escaping and reforming the city, making it confess those aspects of it that are mere thoughtless fictions and blithe complicities. In other words, yeah, it's about sex, pretty much. Really great sex.
Other films given full-screen displays include Derek Jarman's Super-8 Jordan's Dance, which anticipates (his first masterpiece) Jubilee and is vaguely beautiful though not compellingly so -- I think Jarman recognized what punk was without ever really, as it were, speaking it fluently himself; a workmanlike fantasy by flavour-of-the-year Cerith Wyn Evans, called Epiphany, from 1984, which strikes me as more of documentary than artistic interest; and G&G's World of Gilbert and George. This last is certainly fascinating and amusing, often rather tender, as is so much of their work of this period (late 70s, early 80s: World is from 1981), but it's ultimately defeated by its own stiltedness: it's like a smart-suited blueprint for Forced Entertainment (born 1984 ... died 1995).
There's a lot of good photography and photo-based work, of which easily the least interesting is Mapplethorpe's: yet again, his inventive early collage work, which ought to sit in perfect alignment with the curators' thesis, is passed over in favour of the usual steely late 70s (un)erotic portraits, some of which in this context look so irredeemably racist you wonder where Lynndie England is. Peter Hujar's work, with which Mapplethorpe's is paired, is so much more humane and sparky: the iconic portraits of Candy Darling and Divine are present, but so are a number of pictures I hadn't seen before which really show the gymnastic finesse of Hujar's heart-to-eye coordination. Mark Morrisroe's bulletin portraits of his friends and lovers live in an odd hiccup between immediacy and nostalgia, and I think may have done even as they were being taken; sexy, luminous, oddly silent. David Wojnarowicz's Arthur Rimbaud in New York sequence is here and still seems to me almost limitlessly redolent, at once subtle and loquacious, a perfect representation of the smart and seductive (and annoying) Wojnarowicz's body of work. But perhaps the photographer who most comes alive to me in this show is Nan Goldin. The serial quality of her Ballad of Sexual Dependency has always been obviously vital and suggestive, but here it's the radiance of the images, their discrete vertical strength, the (mostly) goodhearted struggle of their competing tendencies towards sacredness and profanity, at times the audacity of their colouring, that is moving and impressive; seeing them at this scale not only reveals the pitch of Goldin's aspirations for the work, but also allows the images to articulate their own substance rather than being supported all the time by the phantom value of half-hidden personal narratives.
(All of this work, furthermore, sits in interesting relation to the COUM Transmissions installation, and in particular the pages from pornographic magazines in which the COUM artist -- and of course, subsequently, Throbbing Gristle member -- Cosey Fanny Tutti is, in so very many ways, featured. The poverty of the syntax of pornography is clearly demonstrated, but ultimately there's a disquieting ambivalence about the work, which I suspect may be mine rather than theirs. I wonder if it's self-deluding to suggest that pornography has changed markedly in the 30 years since Prostitution, or rather the cultural situation of pornography; or to suppose that gay and straight pornography are anyway supported by considerably different economies of power and authority. At any rate, I had a strong impression also of this work being much more about class than sex. Adjacent photo-documentation of COUM performances, presumably influenced more than somewhat by the Wiener Aktionismus, is obscurely titillating but offers little context: of more interest to the TG archivist, perhaps, than the unprejudiced outsider.)
I could go on -- in praise (again) of Linder's photomontages and Martha Rosler's guerrilla video and Robert Longo's still gripping and impactful Men in the Cities (which, btw, was nearly the title of Longwave, by way of tribute); in abject despair at the bottomlessly dreary and topically superfluous Paul McCarthy, contemporary American art's most conspicuous wanker. But my point is, I trust, coming across: there is much here to see and enjoy and argue about: but the show itself, as a curated entity, has nothing to tell you.
Ultimately, the drama that Panic Attack! both implies and misplaces is the one visible in the work of Keith Haring (represented by a single extraordinary work on vinyl tarpaulin) and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the truly archetypal downtown artists. The move from the streets to the gallery, and perhaps especially Basquiat's transition from dissidence to prestige, from outlaw status to sanctuary, is the fraught narrative that comes bundled with the whole idea of punk and downtown capital-A art. It's at its strongest in Basquiat because his early 80s paintings in particular continue to replay this argument. The presentation of complex fields, half open, half private, in which impersonated (and unpersonated) voices clamour for airspace, images compete for white cube wallspace, names and moments crowd each other out in the jostle for permanence and a kind of onward significance, manages to be -- entirely without disingenuousness -- both a variety of autobiography and a hypervigilant critical intervention into the performance language of the art market at one and the same time: a brilliantly exemplary duck-rabbit of self-exposure. The dynamic character of a piece like Kings of Egypt III (1982) is a virtuoso choreography of exactly this parallax motion, and as such it completely contains and exemplifies the downtown/post-punk impulse, while at the same time exploding it with a resolute determination to take a broader, braver, more sober view -- a unique long-now enterprise of archaeology and etymology and anthropology in a party-hearty world that Basquiat also, most evidently, knew and loved. It is the most deeply moving and utterly convincing work in the exhibition, and I left inspired by it and feeling absolutely lost.
Lost perhaps because so much in the show is also lost, or absent. So many artists dead in their 20s or 30s; so many friends and lovers and colleagues fleetingly documented and never fully realized in our relations with them; so much great music turned down to zero; so much anger and optimism and, God knows, spunk, all propelling us towards lame curation and a packed-out gift shop and getting home in time to see a war criminal receive a standing ovation from the British House of Commons. In room 1 of Panic Attack! we are confronted by a famous Victor Burgin slogan: TODAY IS THE TOMORROW YOU WERE PROMISED YESTERDAY. What a regretful shadow it seems to cast forward.