‘I don’t trust critics who say they care only for the highest and the best’, Pauline Kael once wrote. ‘It’s an inhuman position, and I don’t believe them.’ For ‘The Violet Crab’, artist Than Hussein Clark, let loose among the thousands of works in the treasure trove of British property developer and art collector David Roberts, assembled not just the highest and best, but the curious (a collage by Cuban cigar-roller and folk artist Felipe Jesus Consalvos), the ridiculous (a 1976 bar cast in bronze in the shape of hippo by Francois-Xavier Lallane) and the beautiful-despite-your-better-instincts (Charles Avery’s Tree no 2 for the Jadindagadendar, 2012, a five-metre-high willow tree made from aluminium, each leaf plated in sparkling silver). There were also works for which no adjectives easily suffice (Julian Opie’s Blue, c.1980, a pile of sloppily painted 3D letters spelling out the word ‘BLUE’, which also doubles, inexplicably, as a lamp). In the tradition, perhaps, of Andy Warhol’s 1970 exhibition ‘Raid the Icebox’ at the Rhode Island School of Design, Clark’s ambition seemed to be to merge the marginal and the central elements of this renowned collection, to show how selectively good taste is constructed – to put the concept of ‘quality’ into a pincer-grip and squeeze it for meaning.
The show repurposed DRAF’s internal layout as a nightspot – a ‘cloakroom’ at the entrance featured a spindly French oak and Bakelite coat-rack (2015) by Clark himself, bearing his very particular Joseph Hoffman-via-Palm-Beach decorative aesthetic. This was followed by a ‘bar’, including the aforementioned hippo, a low stage, ‘dressing room’ and ‘lounge’. ‘DZ Hosts The Violet Crab’ was a four-hour cabaret programme staged within this simulated space, materializing the themes of performance, artifice, glamour and deception present in the works of Marilyn Minter, Helmut Newton, Cindy Sherman and in Andre de Dienes’s 1950s photographs of pre-fame Marilyn Monroe on the surrounding walls.
There were three nights of performances, the first strictly via guest list, with tickets for two further nights available for purchase. Each guest’s entrance was announced by Pierre Huyghe’s Name Announcer (2011) – a man standing by the door in a dinner jacket and bow tie, like a footman in a fairy tale. I wondered if formally loaning this work (properly credited, in the programme, as courtesy of Huyghe’s dealers) was a joke about the fetishization of provenance and artistic pedigree – ‘This is not just a name announcer, it’s a Pierre Huyghe Name Announcer’ – but I couldn’t decide.
A bar was set up (awkwardly blocking the view of the hippo bar) on which glib, colourful cocktails were mixed by food design studio Arabeschi di Latte: a pink one was served with takeaway prawn crackers, while another vaguely alchemical concoction required lavender to be smoked under a bell jar. On the main stage, a makeshift scaffold had been erected from which a performer was being suspended by the intricate hemp knots of the Japanese bondage style, shibari. Who was the true performer – the star – in this act: Nina Russ, who tied the ropes, or Ayumi LaNoire, whose body managed to submit to them? This indeterminacy of protagonist was carried over into a later act, Borrowed Splendour (2007), devised by Zhana Ivanova, in which three members of the audience were invited on stage to follow banal directions issued by the artist from a nearby chair. (‘Eddie, begin to take your jacket off, then change your mind.’) It was overlong, but effective: the conceit of instructing someone in this context to ‘appear secretly pleased’ is pretty funny, as were the results it produced.
These performances at least cohered conceptually, not only with each other, but with the queer theatricality of the exhibition as environment. At such moments, the night approached the kind of Gesamtkunstwerk to which Clark’s work often aspires. But I can’t say that the evening succeeded overall: other performances had very little in common, as if the programme had been assembled by committee rather than with the singular sensibility that united the exhibition’s hang. Celia Hempton took to the stage in motorbike leathers and helmet to punch a vastly taller and unconcerned man; a performer read out an intriguing-seeming monologue by Christodoulos Panayiotou about Sergei Diaghilev’s travels, which I unfortunately couldn’t quite decipher as it took place during an interval scramble for more cocktails; Adam Christensen’s typically charismatic, rasping cover of Einstürzende Neubauten’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Sun’ (1999), re-arranged for accordion, almost stole the show. There was also the obligatory poetry reading, by Matthew Dickman; some dance; more singers … Quite a smorgasbord to digest, then.
Perhaps what made it hardest to take everything in was the occasional presence of Clark himself, dressed in an eccentric tasselled cap and gown. As well as acting as Master of Ceremonies, Clark sang with Berlin-based performer Anja Dietmann. Unlike any of the other acts, they seemed determined to make whoopee like it was Weimar all over again: a Kurt Weill-ish piano accompaniment tinkled; lyrics referenced ‘muscovite boxers’, men named ‘Karl’, lobsters and vodka; and the patter between songs was liberally sprinkled with ‘danke schöns’, talk of concerts in Ulan Bator and drinking champagne at the Ritz. Decadence is somewhat undone when it’s strived for – a bit like trying to ‘act natural’; in any case, the unavoidably contemporary flavour of most of the other acts made the achievement of convincing period mood impossible.
So much so that I wondered if this was, in fact, the point – to emphasize the artificiality of the proceedings, to keep the audience scuttling back and forth between different suspensions and renewals of disbelief, to remind us that we weren’t in fin-de-siècle Montmartre, nor even the ersatz 1930s of John Kander & Fred Ebb’s Cabaret (1966). A transparent plastic curtain divided the on-stage area and the dressing room, meaning not only that backstage preparations were a visible part of the night’s performance, but that the actors could watch the audience. Professional court artist Isobel Williams silently sketched members of the crowd (an experience I was surprised to find, once her pinched gaze turned to me, totally unsettling), while a vast, beautiful Enrico David canvas (Untitled, 2013) hung above the stage, depicting a screwed-up face, staring out at us like a sentinel. Watch or be watched – watch and be watched. If life is a cabaret, old chum, you’re part of the spectacle too.