BY Gregor Muir in Reviews | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25

The Mint Tea Rooms

BY Gregor Muir in Reviews | 11 SEP 95

First there was Taboo (1984-86), a West End nightclub personified by its notorious host, the late Leigh Bowery, then Anarchy, Ascension and Sacrosanct. In 1987, Acid House swung into town; a sweaty, stroboscopic pageant spearheaded by Shoom and Spectrum. Out went poppers, designer clothes and high-camp, superseded by Ecstasy, Smiley T-shirts and lads chanting 'mental, mental!'. Thereafter, London played court to every fluctuation of House music as it travelled from Chicago to Detroit, Sheffield to Brussels, before returning to the same Milanese recording studios that conceived Euro disco - an art form once popularised by Taboo DJ Jeffrey Hinton. While the spurious after-burn of Acid still haunts the sparse drum co-ordinates of New York Garage and Trance, club-land has moved to extricate itself from the rave scene in much the same way that it entered into it. Presently, there is a return to the Taboo aesthetic heralded by Smashing, frequented by the Britpop crowd and transvestites alike; The Waikiki Lounge, 'A delirious journey through the more absurd aspects of the 20th Century'; and The Mint Tea Rooms.

Originally located at The Water Rat's pub in Kings Cross, The Mint Tea Rooms was a 'mind-melting' revue-show conceived by The Offset whose directors are Matthew Glamorre, musician and co-founder of Smashing, Neil Kaczor, composer, and Richard Torry, co-founder of Minty. These evenings - whose highlights included Link Leisure & The Osmosis Clinic performing the lipo-inspired masterpiece Beauty is Skin Tight - soon became overcrowded and volatile, but inspirational nonetheless. It is understandable then, that such an attractive package should be invited back to the ICA where transitional anomalies are inevitable: a sober audience, formal seating and complex stage facilities. Entering a designated arts theatre and being handed a photocopied programme hardly evokes the original spirit: 'Our mission is not just to thrill and baffle; it is to celebrate collective creativity in an attempt to find progress towards new values of love, life and art. We know it sounds corny, but wonderful things are achieved when ego-torn individuals work together'.

The pyramid of balloons on centre-stage, assumed to be a decorative display until now, starts to move in annunciation of David Freeman's Bag Dance - a trippy performance involving three individuals, one of whom is on stilts. This primes the imagination for Donald Urquhart's tale of a struggling inventor at the Great Exhibition of 1851, whose designs for hooped skirts are over-shadowed by a monolithic electro-magnet on an adjacent stand. Supported by flashing lights, inspired sound effects and dry-ice, Urquhart conjures up an elaborate mental picture; a skill no doubt informed by his scripts for radio. The story ends in chaos as Queen Victoria is dragged away by a demented orang-utan and stuffed, cork-like, into the roof of the steam-filled Crystal Palace, which then takes off (Queen Victoria finally lands in a duck pond in Sidcup). Urquhart also reads his poem Shoes, a fastidious account of fashion footwear.

Add N to X, a three-piece synth band with a passion for analogue equipment, perform two tracks: A Very Uncomfortable Status and Aphine Repetition. The first leans toward the electronic abstraction pioneered by Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schultz, the second recalls the moody synth-pop of John Foxx and Gary Numan. Add N to X have improved since a recent performance at The Idler magazine party, but their stage presentation remains irksome: all those knobs and buttons, leads and jack-plugs. How does an all-synth band avoid comparison with Kraftwerk? Bludgeoned to death by a Moog, a sizeable chunk of the audience get up and leave. Oddly enough, so does a member of the band. This, combined with aggressive cigarette smoking and keyboard changeovers, makes for an angst-ridden set. Dumb really, but then Add N to X are openly engaged in a learning process - they even read books! Besides, who can resist them as the band least likely to appear on MTV's Unplugged.

In his opening reading, Aiden Shaw - star of over 40 porno films and author of two novels - Brutal and Shit - suggests that we embrace every facet of our lover's biology. That said and done, Shaw and Whatever burst into a deranged chorus-line: 'You can fuck me, and lick me, and punch me and piddle. It all means so little to me'. A sing-along number in Kings Cross, but at the ICA...

Between acts, video art is presented as a form of commercial break. Matthew Glamorre's A Smashing Night Out (1994) centres on a surreal fashion-shoot involving a Blue Lady painting - only it's a Señor dragged up as the infamous Señorina. Douglas Heart's untitled scratch-video loops footage of performing dolphins and a woman raised high above a fountain on a jet of water. Other notables include two film portraits: Sexton Ming by Alison Leary and Cerith Wyn Evans' eulogised vision of Leigh Bowery and Trojan (Taboo co-host). Clearly fascinated by a nearby monitor, Trojan stares out of frame while Bowery snarls sweet nothings in his ear.

Thanks to Allison Leary's film we already know something about Sexton Ming - the first time he donned women's clothing and the story of his mother leaving him outside the front door and telling him to go find his real parents. Glamorre makes an over-theatrical announcement: 'You've seen him on film, now here he is in the flesh. The one, the only, Sexton Mingggg!'. Ming trolls on stage in a bath-robe, cucumber face pack and wild, long hair. He looks like a surly warlock, resentful at having to appear at all. The band swing into a grunge-rock number; Ming sings... something. Suddenly, the performance takes on an Iggy Pop perspective. The music cranks up and enters the realm of death metal; Ming freaks out, runs up the aisle and screams at the audience. Our sensibilities are further assaulted by Alex Binney and Lezanne. Mummified in silver gaffer-tape, Lezanne is carried on stage and set down like a chrome chess piece. Neil Kaczor provides a sinister soundtrack as Binney frees her with a pair of scissors and extracts the needles from her eye-brows: it's a bleeder! Lezanne removes the frozen chickens sewn onto Binney's chest and back, then Binney smears her in white emulsion - lawdy, lawdy.

Direct from her appearance in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, Nicola Bowery stands naked under a plastic tent decorated with ethereal light bulbs. In one hand, she holds a can of Tango; a sight so normal that it looks outrageous. Minty play a tight set: Plastic Bag, Carol Ginger Baker, Jeremy, Manners Means; Handling Things Properly, and How Can They Call This Art? Presently, Minty are preparing to go on tour with Pulp, which is cool. They deserve to be indulged by thousands. As do Donald Urquhart and Sexton Ming who should transcend the gay fringe circuit which, until now, has been the sole destination for performers such as these. That the Mint Tea Rooms sprung from club culture does not necessarily make for good art, but in an attempt to bridge the two they continue to establish a platform for acts that would otherwise be lost to the world. And so the night wound itself up and took itself off to the bar. Not to say that this is where it belongs, but the next time someone has the bright idea of recontextualising the Mint Tea Rooms, they should consider the audience as people, not cultural train-spotters.

Gregor Muir is director of collection, international art, Tate. He lives in London, UK.