South London Gallery and, Southampton City Art Gallery, London, UK
Border towns are places where the law takes on a shifting quality. Think of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Boundaries get blurred and unstable, cultural and social issues become entwined, repressed desires are unleashed, and the more important things happen in the darkness of the night. ‘Popocultural’ comes from a border land located somewhere between the mainstream and the margins, the unconscious and the conscious Acid House music, Disney, dream narratives, drugs, the Vatican, sexual fantasies, satanic cults and brass bands, all come together in network of cultural crossings.
An introductory model or index is provided by Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion (1984-85) video documentary. Here, images of the Shakers, a 19th-century utopian religious sect, are cut together with a sequence of film clips of punk and rock bands in concert. The montage effect is overlaid with a parallel voice-over telling the story of Shaker messiah Ann Lee and her escape from religious persecution in England, interspersed with footage of Patti Smith recounting her own experiences of oppression growing up in post-war America. Graham maps out the numerous correlations between the two historically disparate phenomena: most obviously their dependence on ritualistic performance and shared counter-culture ideology.
Less sociologically specific and more directly engaged with its subject is the work of Jeremy Deller. For ‘Popocultural’ he presented the kind of flow diagram that might be used to illustrate the ecosystem of a rain forest or a coral reef. In this case it charts the interdependence of acid House and brass bands. The various arrows connect some important, previously overlooked affinities such as pit bands, de-industrialisation, warehouse parties, the miners’ strike, civil unrest and Ecstasy. Deller has taken this idea to its full conclusion, recently getting Britain’s top brass band, The Williams Fairey Band, to perform a programme of classic Acid House anthems. The Acid Brass CD is being released later this year.
Jeffrey Vallance has for some years now operated in the twilight zone between recognised and unrecognised sites for art. Through the kind of disguised strategies adopted by double-agents, he has infiltrated a range of institutions, including the Royal family of Tonga, the Liberace Museum, the Vatican and even the FBI. In ‘Popocultural’ he introduced two sacred relics into the gallery: the Holy Lance and Veronica’s Veil. The Holy Lance, also known by a number of other names, is believed to be the instrument with which a Roman Centurion pierced the side of Christ on the cross. It has been linked to everything from King Arthur to the election of Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Berlin wall, and is thought to have divine powers and the ability to predict the destiny of the world. The Veil of Veronica was used to wipe the sweat from Christ’s brow and is believed to bear the imprint of his face. Vallance’s relics are copies based on the ‘originals’, but the ‘originals’ are themselves questionable, with at least seven versions of the Veil vying for authenticity. In the creation of his duplicates, Vallance closely followed historical precedents and procedures, attempting not to produce fakes, but comparable, truly sacred works of art.
While Vallance admits he started out sceptical but is beginning to develop a kind of faith in these objects, one has to wonder just how far John Cussans and Ranu Muckerjee are getting drawn into their investigations of the Narcosatanicos story. Ostensibly their criss-crossed reference plan is simply a visual description of the web-like interconnections that tie together a series of ritualistic human sacrifices and the narcotics trade in Matamoros, a city on the Mexican side of the Mexico-US border. But the accompanying shrines and displays of voodoo paraphernalia appear to be invested with the seriousness and commitment of converted initiates.
If there’s a possibility that Cussans and Muckerjee might be possessed, then Simon Bill almost definitely is. His mutant visions could easily be the by-product of some alien virus that has taken his body as its host. Even the paintings themselves appear to be infected, raised up slightly from their peg board surfaces like giant pustular weals. Jim Shaw’s dream drawings are filled with a catalogue of merged memory fragments and psycho-sexual anxieties that combine to form comic-book-style narratives that are at once both surreal and mundane. Ellen Cantor’s sensuous collages of overlaid details from fantasy sex scenarios have the fleeting quality of dreams, but perhaps owe more to perverse readings of Snow White and The Sound of Music. Unbelievably, Cantor was excluded from the Southampton leg of the tour due to censorship from the blue-rinse brigade.
I was half expecting the installation of ‘Popocultural’ to be as off-the-wall as some of the subject matter, but the curators, Martin McGowan and Andrew Wheatley, went for an understated look, successfully allowing the art to do the work and hold its own space, (unlike the similarly themed but irritatingly gimmicky and clumsily overcurated Belladonna at the ICA). Whilst the weird and the wacky seem to get more fashionable by the day, ‘Popocultural’ was a well-researched, well-considered exposition of some of the less visible structures on which contemporary culture is built.