Royal Academy Sets Itself On A Collision Course With William S Burroughs

By Ben Miller | 16 December 2008
A picture of an exhibition with wooden flooring, three small television screens and a series of brightly lit portraits

The main gallery at the exhibition centres on the life and influence of William Burroughs. Photo Ben Miller, Culture24

Exhibition Review: Collision Course, GSK Contemporary II, Royal Academy of Arts, London until January 16 2009.

Nobody could accuse the Royal Academy of Arts of not offering variety. Over the next month visitors to their GSK Contemporary exhibition can watch sexually-charged films while lying on a beanbag, witness a mythopoetic guerrilla group perform a pagan ritual and enjoy “lesbian gore DJing”.

There’s a pop-up restaurant and bar where you can catch Hawkwind cover bands and cabaret, a site-specific painting based on the contents of a computer hard-drive, and three large illuminated onions – apparently symbolising globalised banking – suspended over the stairs.

A picture of William Burroughs outside in a hat and shirt

A self-portrait of Burroughs from circa 1959. © Estate of William S Burroughs

All of which creates the kind of weird and wonderful underworld synonymous with William Burroughs, the beat icon whose presence is depicted in the main gallery through films, art and structures.

A big screen projection of his relentlessly bleak, monotone visions provides the soundtrack, and monitors carry Burroughs shorts (with inevitable excerpts from Naked Lunch, which has already had a full screening at the show).

A picture of a range of small personal artefacts in a glass case

Damien Hirst's cabinet of Burroughs artefacts. Photo © Ben Miller / Culture 24

Art on offer includes previously unseen pieces by the tripping prophet of doom himself and a cabinet full of artefacts by Damien Hirst – typically psychedelic fare for Burroughs fans, then, but only hinting at the similarly stark material curator David Thorp has planned.

Given three galleries to play with, Thorp has nabbed work from the Frank Cohen Collection for a room full of “skeletal cartoon characters”, darting across a room in a kind of apocalyptic, pre-historic playground which also nods to the museum’s past life as the Museum of Mankind.

A picture of metal dogs standing in rows with red letters passing over their heads

Counting Down is the work of Indian artist T V Santosh, loaned from the Frank Cohen Collection

“These are serious times,” says Thorp, crossing a section overlooking metal dogs with LED display timers attached to their heads, counting down to Armageddon as words from Hiroshima victims roll by underneath their feet.

“They’re dogs of war with clocks on their back, ticking down to our ultimate finality, whatever that means,” he muses. “It could be personally, internationally, politically or socially, and it’s kind of focused by the Hiroshima statements. They’re marshalled up like a troop.”

Adding to the cheer, the framework of a burnt-out church (apparently a reference to a Hells Angels attack in Scandinavia on a church which was being used by a rival gang) is being prepared for the third room, and there’s a ramshackle, incoherent quality to the exhibition, tumbling through rooms and down the stairs in a whirlwind of experimentalism.

A picture of a skeletal church with tall wooden structuring

Banks Violette's installation of the burnt-out framework of a church is part of Dark Materials. Courtesy of Team Gallery and the Artist

On the ground floor, Malcolm McLaren’s Shallow plunders the cut-up techniques Burroughs is known for, toying with timings on layered, slowed-down clips of sex films and pop art in a mini-cinema.

It’s figurative eye candy, bristling with imagery over narrative, but it’s probably the slick soundtrack (from Love Will Tear Us Apart to She’s Not There) which puts the ultra-cool sheen on this slice of pop-erotica kitsch.

You could potter in and out of Shallow at any point and find something inexplicably watchable, which sums up the rest of the space, from eerily animated kitchens to a holographic 3D installation on the theme of strategic accidents.

A picture of a screen in a small, dark cinema

Sex Pistols founder Malcolm McLaren's Shallow. Photo © Ben Miller / Culture24

One room invites visitors to sit at desks piled with medical books and watch lamp-lit screens broadcasting Toadball TV, a gaggle of experimental film-makers under one umbrella.

“It is going to be a God-awful mess – I promise – but that’s the point,” says Adam Sutherland, the director of Grizedale Arts, a Lake District collective whose work forms part of the Toadball project.

“A mess of material, projects presented and viewed from multiple angles, kind of all represented at once.”

A picture of a desk cluttered with books with a small screen on it

Visitors are invited to don headphones and watch Toadball TV. Photo © Ben Miller / Culture24

Runs until January 16, 2009 (excluding Dec 24 & 25). Visit for details of all events.

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