Panic Attack! Art In The Punk Years At The Barbican London

By Caroline Lewis | 05 June 2007
Film still showing a ballerina standing on points before a bonfire

Derek Jarman, Jordan's Dance, 1977. Courtesy James Mackay, London

Caroline Lewis took a trip back to the politically-charged punk years at the Barbican's new show exploring the art that emerged in parallel to the music.

The emergence of the punk movement is a well-recounted story – economic depressions in Britain and America plus the abandoning of city centres left cultural wastegrounds ripe for the taking over by dispossessed youths and a new, cynical subculture.

In London, its pioneers were styled by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, the latter having picked up a thing or two from the bands and clubs of New York. However, there was more to the era than the music, the graphics and the clothes. A stream of art that rose in the 1970s and early 80s drew on the same rebellious themes; do-it-yourself, appropriation and urban decay, in particular critiquing the mass media machine and taking up gender politics.

The exhibition Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years, showing until September 9 2007, reviews the works of some key players from this time, taking in Jamie Reid’s ubiquitous Sex Pistols artwork to the graffiti of Keith Haring in the early 1980s. It’s presented in the 30th anniversary year of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, which marked a pinnacle of the punk years (defined by the curators as 1974-1984) as the Sex Pistol’s released their seditious version of God Save the Queen.

a photomontage showing a naked glamour model with oversized head and red lips superimposed

Linder, Untitled, 1977. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

While Johnny Rotten was snarling his anti-establishment lyrics, artists in London and New York were also railing against the mainstream, appropriating its methods and imposing their own voices on photography and film – both mediums that feature heavily in Panic Attack!

In his UK76 and US77 photographic series (1976 and 1977), for example, Victor Burgin overlays black and white photographs typifying Britain and the USA with passages that ape advertorial speak, etching out the gaps between grim working class reality and the fashionable lifestyles fed out by the media.

American artist Jenny Holzer also uses mimicking phraseology in her Inflammatory Essays (1979-1982), a series of posters designed for public spaces. “Words like ‘purge’ and ‘euthanasia’ deserve new connotations,” goes one. “They should be recognised as the rational public policies they are.” The aim is to highlight the rhetoric of manipulation.

Black and white photo of an urban landscape

Victor Burgin, UK76, 1976. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

Resistance to the codes enforced by society, against a backdrop of inner city poverty, is taken up elsewhere by British artist Stephen Willats in photographic portraits of a young woman on a council estate in Hayes, West London.

Flow chart-like diagrams on the black and white images contain text considering her roles – partner, worker, consumer – and how she wants to defend herself against being trapped in them. Desolate images of piles of rubbish and broken chairs added into the diagrams do not inspire optimism, though.

In the same room, a video by American artist Martha Rosler asks who decides what culture gets into magazines and what is required to exist on the streets. The video focuses on graffiti-laden Latino neighbourhoods of San Francisco while Rosler’s running commentary talks of the privilege it is to look on the culture of those without money and power from behind a window, and consider it ‘trash’.

Black and white poster with a woman in lingerie above the title prostitution

COUM Transmissions, press release/poster for Prostitution, 1976. Archive of Cosey Fanni Tutti, courtesy Cabinet, London

The rush to get out of deprived inner cities left space for artists and other marginal groups to move in. Derek Jarman had a studio at Butler’s Wharf, where rents were cheap due to its classification as a warehouse.

On show is his short Super-8 film Jordan’s Dance (1977), featuring the famous punk icon in a white tutu, ballet dancing around a bonfire in a barren urban land. A discarded Union Jack is placed dangerously close to the flames.

Another strangely compelling video work is Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy’s Rocky (1976). Like his feminist counterparts represented here (Cosey Fanni Tutti, Hannah Wilkes and Linder) he uses his naked body to parody popular gender stereotypes, this time looking at male machismo. He spars with himself, unclothed but for a mask and boxing gloves in a ridiculous show that points to the one-dimensional characteristics promoted in popular culture.

Photo of two people sitting and lying on a brass framed bed

Nan Goldin, Greer and Robert in the bed, NYC, 1982. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York © the artist

A 21-year-old Cosey Fanni Tutti, meanwhile, entered the porn industry to highlight the prostitution of mainstream art. She and her co-conspirators in the group COUM Transmissions courted such huge notoriety by displaying her magazine spreads at the ICA that they decided to include the press cuttings in the 1976 show. ‘We’ve boobed over cash hand-outs, says arts chief’ runs one headline – the Arts Council came under fire as much as COUM for giving them a grant.

Fellow COUM artist Genesis P-Orridge pushed the boundaries with feminine imagery, too, incorporating tampons into sculptures in the series Tampax Romana. It’s almost more uncomfortable looking at these grubby bars of cotton wool than the black and white pornography.

Film still showing a man in blue make-up

Cerith Wyn Evans, Epiphany, 1984. Courtesy the artist and Jay Jopling/White Cube, London. © the artist

More photography from the seedy side of life comes in the form of David Wojnarowicz’s series Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-1979). One shot features the Rimbaud-masked character with a needle in his arm. Nan Goldin’s 1984 self-portrait showing her bruised face and blood-shot eye, one month after being battered by her partner, also induces a wince.

The demi-mondes of the punk era gave way to the glamour of New Romanticism in the early 1980s, and this is where the exhibition ends, with Cerith Wyn Evans’ film, Epiphany (1984). Exemplary of this new scene is the film’s star, outlandish performer Leigh Bowery, in heavy makeup, the frame saturated with bright colours, a distinct departure from the austere black and white in the rest of the exhibition.

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