There’s a song by the band Silver Jews that contains the line: ‘Punk rock died when the first kid said / “Punk’s not dead. Punk’s not dead.”’ The man often credited with inventing Punk in the UK, Malcolm McLaren, died earlier this year. New York-based British artist Nick Relph’s exhibition was, in one sense, a tribute to McLaren’s enduring influence, and in another, an examination of the way that this short-lived countercultural movement has been mummified – or, worse, reanimated into a walking corpse – in the years since someone first insisted that ‘Punk’s not dead’.
The exhibition began with a number of false starts; it was hard to begin untangling it until one had reached its end. Entering the gallery, I was plunged into darkness; ushering me into the second space, the gallerist explained that your eyes needed time to adjust to see that the first room had actually been transformed into a camera obscura. Most visitors had also probably missed the fluorescent strip light fixed at an angle above the gallery’s entrance, burning quietly under the Californian sun – although some might have noticed that the small sign beside the door had been turned upside-down.
The fluorescent tube (titled Liquid Light, all works 2010) is a recreation of the artfully careless decoration outside McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s West London boutique Seditionaries (formerly Sex), the mercantile HQ of the Punk movement and purveyor of provocative fancy-wear. In the gallery’s main space, a series of framed c-type prints of items of clothing sold at the shop had been separated into cyan, magenta and yellow layers, which were then flipped or otherwise repositioned before being printed over each other again. It was as if the process of reproduction was coming into focus even as the images themselves were lost. Paradoxically, like many of the handmade garments they depicted, each of these prints was a unique work; photographs and photograms of fruit, which sat beside or over the clothing, iterated (albeit obliquely) the singularity of these still-life tableaux. Oddly, titles such as Liquid Life, Green Stuff, The Ultimate Meal or Solar Power seemed to evoke a distinctly un-Punk promise of health and nourishment.
Nearby, plinths cradling open books containing similar images of clothing from Seditionaries held bracketed light fixtures, with compact digital cameras and small white speakers (emanating regular beeps) directed towards the books’ pages. Apparently, these copystands are similar to those used illegally to reproduce books for digital distribution. It was clear that the crisp prints on the wall didn’t derive from these pocket cameras – the sculptures, titled Six One and One Six, were non-functioning dummies. While pretence and pretentiousness might be legitimate stances in the world of fashion, here it seemed that Relph was illustrating an empty and automatic gesture – the mimicry of something already lost through its archival preservation.
An example of what Relph might have had in mind featured in the video The Punk and Her Music, projected via three separate red, green and blue channels, each slightly misaligned. Comprising footage of the Seditionaries shop, a subtitled Japanese documentary on Punk, and images of 1970s London, the rough-cut collage frequently returned to an upside-down image of a present-day punk in Piccadilly Circus. The mohawked girl’s devotion to the Punk aesthetic might be seen as akin to the auto-copying of Six One and One Six. However Relph’s portrayal is not unsympathetic. She seems differently aware of our gaze than her ’70s predecessors: her bearing is less defiant – serene, but also perceptibly vulnerable.
The exhibition further coalesced in Relph’s carefully composed press release which combined detailed descriptions of three phenomena: psychological experiments that inverted subjects’ fields of vision with mirrors, and which discovered that after a few days of such treatment the brain reverts the image (though not, significantly, if the subject is bound in a fixed position); the Seditionaries shop, which was also decorated with a large, upside-down photograph of Piccadilly Circus; and a spit of land across Miyazu Bay in Japan which, when viewed upside-down (from between one’s legs) is traditionally thought to resemble a bridge ascending to heaven.
Relph has a gift for stitching together swatches of disparate but coordinating referential fabric; the danger is that the results become all pattern and no shape. The reference-heavy nature of this exhibition seemed to hint at something to be deciphered, but just what remained a perplexing mystery. For me, the highlight of the show was the camera obscura, which finally revealed its spectral image as a large, upside down, real-time projection of the street outside the gallery. Although it would not be half as evocative without the exhibition’s preamble, the simplicity of this work seemed to resonate with Relph’s preoccupations while maintaining its own powerful fascination.