Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK
The timing and subject matter of ‘Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years’ overlapped distinctly with Kunstverein Munich and the ICA London’s recent show ‘The Secret Public: The Last Days of the British Underground 1978–1988’. Both made much the same arguments: that the subcultures of their respective eras were a highly creative expression of an urgent, nihilistic disillusionment with politics and society. However, ‘The Secret Public’s lens remained more firmly focused on subcultural scenes, and although ‘Panic Attack!’ was book-ended by two works related to the music scene – Jamie Reid’s God Save the Queen (Single Cover) (1977), and Cerith Wyn Evans’ psychedelic film Epiphany (1984) (featuring performance artist Leigh Bowery in a sort of Vishnu-meets-NYPD club get-up) – it quickly became clear that ‘Panic Attack!’ took a much broader view. Its task was twofold, arguing that art was not just the window dresser but the genuine co-conspirator in all that was Punk, and placing them both steadily within a historical context.
Featuring the work of 34 artists, the show’s curators Mark Sladen and Ariella Yedgar held the viewer’s hand firmly through a numbered series of rooms, each prefaced by a lengthy wall text. Across a wide variety of approaches – including Victor Burgin’s considered photo-conceptualism, the body politics of Hannah Wilke, and the handheld film and commentary of Martha Rosler – a sober formality and pedagogy were ever present. However much this jarred with any pre-packaged idea of Punk, it was to the benefit of the viewer. The problems of the Barbican’s many-roomed
upper galleries were negotiated through intelligent pairings of artists, producing mutual historical or thematic contextualisations.
Despite all the reading demanded of the viewer, the work nevertheless spoke for itself, as with, for example, The World of Gilbert & George (1981). The film combines scenes of Gilbert & George’s curiously radical, exaggerated conformism, interviews with touchingly uncomfortable young ne’er-do-wells, and long panning shots of a dismal east London. This collage-like approach refracts the era’s textures and anxieties, communicating a sense of irrevocable schism between an ‘old’ England and its dissolute youth – a tangible evocation of the era’s discontents. In keeping with the show’s orderly fashion, the tendencies and thematics of Punk were given four groupings: ‘The Traumatized City’, ‘Performance and Transgression’. ‘Appropriation and Collage’ and ‘Subcultures’. Naturally, what can be included within these criteria is pretty broad, and the intensity and immediacy of Punk was scattered quite diffusely, surfacing to various degrees in the work. The texts on Jenny Holzer’s public fly posters ‘Inflammatory Essays’ (1979–82) perfectly encapsulate a juddering, incoherent sense of urgency shared with Punk. Based on various impassioned political ideologies, the ‘Essays’ had the potential to elicit the same reactionary ambient fear that the culturally conservative public must have felt in response to punks in public spaces. Paul McCarthy’s film Rocky (1976), featuring his dumbly grotesque, mindlessly violent boxer punching himself in the face, has parallels with the deliberate strategies of Punk to embody precisely what the dominant culture produced as hateful or dirty.
In the case of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End (1975), film documentation of his cutting apart a condemned Manhattan warehouse, there are enough shared concerns – a class critique of property, a destructive or defacing aesthetic, the embracing of abject spaces – to make Punk an interestingly tangential reference point for the work. But the stretch to Adrian Piper’s ‘The Mythic Being: I Am The Locus #1–5’ (1975) seemed a little too far. The rubbed-out photographs of herself, onto which Piper crayons in a macho urban black male, concern themselves with media-generated, gendered and racialized constructions that are too layered and considered to be compared to the tactics of Punk; and besides, it seems disingenuous to claim that Punk was seriously engaged in any form of race politics. The risk here was the implication of Punk as an overarching cross-disciplinary movement in itself, rather than as the kernel of cultural expression where the essence of the era’s concerns concentrated most fervently. Punk, like a hyperactive child at a birthday party, is here credited with an awful lot within a period busy also with Conceptualism and second wave Feminism, and as a result, the inclusion of one or two of the works such as Piper’s, and Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ series (1977–80), risked co-opting tenuously related ideas.
Despite this, it was a relief that the show took itself this seriously. There was absolutely no attempt to create an ersatz Punk experience; no mythologizing sense of ‘look what you missed’. The exhibition functioned by allowing the artists included to voice the immediacy, concerns and sensations of Punk. ‘Panic Attack!’ understood that, in the Punk era, listening to the music was the easy part.
Commissioned on the occasion of the Frieze Writer’s Prize 2007