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Issue 230

Penny Goring’s Art of Survival

The artist and poet invites us into her world of rage, vulnerability and humour at ICA, London

BY Ella Slater in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 04 JUL 22

‘Penny World’, the artist and poet Penny Goring’s first solo institutional exhibition, is her testimony to surviving a hellish existence through creation. This is a romantic idea, but one Goring fully embodies, having overcome personal trauma, poverty and mental illness through 30 years of compulsive artmaking. Entering Goring’s world feels like creeping into the depths of her brain; there is a sense that she produced this work to be viewed privately. 

Penny Goring, Dust Doll, 2019 Fabric Sculpture Photo: Tim Bowditch. Courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa, London
Penny Goring, Dust Doll, 2019, fabric sculpture. Courtesy: the artist and Arcadia Missa, London; photograph: Tim Bowditch

The main wall of the downstairs gallery is covered in Goring’s ‘Image Macros’ (2013–22), Microsoft Paint collages that initially existed online but are here blown up to wall-sized proportions. In Dethbone (2014), Goring stares frostily at the viewer with the ferocious words ‘I FUK DEATH WIV MY LOVE BONE’ on her chest. Through digital artworks, poetry and GIFs, Goring established herself in the alt-lit scene of the 2010s. Her Tumblr page contains streams of untameable language, cigarette-in-hand webcam selfies and biro drawings of contorted women bleeding, shitting and masturbating.

Goring’s sharp charisma penetrates all this work. For example, in Fear (2013), one of two lo-fi video poems, she erratically lists her phobias: ‘I fear hip replacement … I fear people.’ While in Please Make Me Love You (2014), she deadpans: ‘love you like my mum’s dead uncle … love you like god’s luxury omni-dick … love you like tenuous lol’. The humour functions more as a psychological antidote to her often painful and vulnerable subject matter. The introduction of the artist’s voice animates the work and is an excellent addition to the show. Curator Rosalie Doubal’s decision to include it only in these videos leaves me wanting more. 

Penny Goring
Penny Goring, Inflatable Dress of Despair (Heart), 1992, acrylic paint on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Arcadia Missa, London

There is no sense of time in this world. Goring draws on evergreen themes, such as systemic violence, lack of access to affordable therapy and the UK’s cost-of-living crisis. Her work parallels that of Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse: Bourgeois’s textile figurines, such as Single I (1996), are clear predecessors of Goring’s hand-sewn Spandex dolls; while in a 2017 interview with i-D, Goring quoted Hesse’s experimentations with loss as a touchstone. Blue Murder Doll (2022) appears resting with its severed head on its hip, scarred limbs outstretched; Grief Doll (2019) spills black stamens from its chest, forming a delicate, dark and velvety flower. Goring’s dolls are vulnerable and comforting despite their emotional burdens; they embody what Bourgeois described in Christiane Meyer-Thoss’s Designing for Free Fall (1992) as ‘the art of hanging in there’. 

An unmistakable sense of consideration runs through ‘Penny World’, down to the hand-drawn exhibition map-cum-poster. In Emotive title (Super virilent hyperdeath virus targeted at you know whose) (2017), a kneeling ‘Amelia’ – Goring’s alter-ego-cum-late-ex-lover – cries rainbow tears amidst a pool of shit, cradling a severed leg. The work undoubtedly depicts violence but also suggests empathy for the turmoil it illustrates.

Penny Goring
Penny Goring, I was a Visionary for Boudica, 2015, digital collage. Courtesy: the artist and Arcadia Missa, London

As the author Chris Kraus wrote in I Love Dick (1997): ‘The sheer fact of women talking, being paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.’ Goring knows this and exists in this lineage of irrepressible female artists and writers. It is why it has never been an option for her to compromise in the face of art-world acceptance or anyone else’s opinions but her own. ‘Penny World’ is undeniably a painful place, but it is unashamed in its emotion, irresistibly itself.

Penny Goring’s ‘Penny World’ is at ICA, London, until 18 September.

Main image: Penny Goring, Dim Jaw (detail), 1995, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Arcadia Missa, London


Ella Slater is a writer based in London, UK.