A copy of Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (1956) was recorded among the items found in Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin hidden high in the Montana woods. Goodman, acknowledged as one of the most influential social critics of the 1960s, was adopted as ideological stepfather by the counter-cultural youth movement and made constant campus appearances. Kaczynski, a former mathematics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, rejected academia, preferring to attack it – technological progress he deemed disastrous for mankind – and was christened ‘the Unabomber’ as a result.
Goodman’s landmark study of youth in American society served as the title and backdrop for an exhibition that sought to examine present culture through the ‘filter of adolescence’. Curated by Alun Rowland and Matt Williams (and subtitled ‘Problems of Youth in the Organised System’) the show drew on artists from the UK, Europe and USA and examined the ‘parallel fluid universe’ of the teenager – a demographic that sprang from the ‘Rock around the Clock’ generation of the 1950s – the ideological and consumptive advent of youth – and that has either been ‘sold to’ or, in the words of Goodman disciple and leader of the Yippies Abbie Hoffman, ‘sold out’ ever since.
Olaf Breuning’s staged photograph We Only Move Wehen Something Changes!!! (2003) is suggestive of 18th-century history painting. As Sir Joshua Reynolds said of his craft, a history painter, whether he depicts kings or beggars, ‘paints man in general’. Man, or in this case youth, is depicted as a cluster of clown-nosed, bewigged pirates slumped against an immovable concrete structure daubed with a slogan that constitutes the title of the work: an image of lumpen youth resigned to its fate and the occasional mis-spelling.
Breuning provides what is arguably the centrepiece of the exhibition, the dual video projection Home (2003), in which one of the protagonists – ‘I’m not an intellectual but a little brain work never hurt anyone’ – all junkie thin, straggly hair and pale glowing eyes, tells tales of his friends’ antics. The work comprises a series of filmic vignettes in which the affirmative ‘I EXIST’ has been vomited on snowy ground, smiley pill-swallowing French students are carried off by winged ghosts, and hapless Death Metal teens cover each other in shaving foam and cheap lager. Meanwhile comic-book Hip-Hop gangsters head to an Amish village, where they strip a villager and chase their E.T.-masked victim through fields of cornrows. All are seen as passive consumers, spinning the spoon-fed fiction of pop, rock and film to bewildering consequence. But there are echoes too of Mike Kelley’s cover notes for Dan Graham’s Wild in The Streets (1994), in which he bemoans a generation seduced by the cult of youth ‘blind to the fact that our beliefs were a by-product of the capitalist commodity fetishism and planned obsolescence we were supposedly against’. On Breuning’s part there appears some frustration at the profligate sensibilities of the day.
A psychedelically charged frieze by one-person collective assume vivid astro focus depicts exotic birds, a Janis Joplin-style carnival singer and fluorescent geometrics – a feast of camp excess so achingly hip it hurts. Close by, in Cory Arcangel’s video Cat Rave (2004), a cat sits surrounded by spinning disco lights. The extremes of youth are recalled in Kaye Donachie’s drawings of scantily clad female Manson family members: the ‘flirty fishing’ of Manson’s ‘murd-molls’ drawing naive youth to the flame. Jochen Klein’s wistful adolescent figures caught in naked Arcadian repose accept the avaricious gaze of the consumer. Meanwhile in Dan Attoe’s painting Atonement (2004) a mini-dystopia of islands rises from the ocean, providing scant shelter for their inhabitants, who act out personal fantasies as romanticized isolation turns sour.
Charles Atlas’ film Hail the New Puritans (1987), a simulated day-in-the-life ‘docu-fantasy’ starring Michael Clarke, explores the metropolitan night and day of 1980s London. As the camera follows Clarke, we are privy to yesterday’s dole-dandyism, constituencies seemingly formed through shared aims both ideologically and stylistically. Leigh Bowery, Trojan and Mark E. Smith all figure in a film that powerfully suggests a different kind of mark-making; a resistance through performance and provocative posing. In the far corner of the room Andrew Mania’s drawings of beautiful boys explode in a dizzying money shot of scribbled patterns: youth as sullen commodity lifted from the pages of a Dennis Cooper novel.
How old are we? When was ‘youth’? In the main these are works about youth rather than by youth. Perhaps we consider it more at the point of irrevocable return, as the pathways back are lost in encroaching middle age. A tragic melodrama casts its shadow on Dexter Dalwood’s painting Ian Curtis, 18.5.80 (2001). A solitary speaker cabinet and dangling light bulb occupy the corner of a spartan room in a beguiling memorial to the Rimbaud of a generation.
Goodman eventually disavowed the student revolutionaries who adopted his text – Hoffman among them – describing them as a mob of ‘witless narcissists’ and bemoaning the metastising ‘ahistoricity’ of the young. ‘Growing up’ is depicted as a world of lurching extremes, of Oedipal relations, challenging parental cultures but occasionally stifled by their presence. From what at first glance appears like the celebratory representation of a Dada-acid-flower campus revolution we are invited to tease apart the threads of adolescent activity to examine the delinquent silhouette in all its awkward, dumbstruck fragility and splendour.