A major new project seeking to make connections between London’s creative past and present brings together 56 vitrines filled with memorabilia and ephemera from an eclectic mix of artists, designers, style icons, studio collectives, and other legendary subcultural figures. The exhibition, ICA Off-Site: A Journey Through London’s Subculture, at the Old Selfridges Hotel in London, presents a timeline of four decades of creativity in London, from the anarchic, post-punk artistic practices of the early eighties, through to now what is arguably a more commercially savvy alternative design scene.
Tracing a rich, interconnected history, the project covers art, design, craft, fashion, film, architecture, dance, club culture, restaurants and bars, and more, exploring a linage of creative activity that often defies disciplinary categorisation, re-contextualises artistic processes, and celebrates the customisation and reclamation of British creative practice.
The space, not dissimilar from the disused warehouses of art collectives in the east or south of the city, provided an apt setting for the project, with exposed brickwork, bare lighting and concrete pillars mimicking the raw DIY aesthetic at odds with the surrounding luxury of the department store. Sitting amongst various installations and video, each of the woodchip board, glass-topped vitrines has been curated by a particular person or group, who were asked to create a mood, or ‘personal archeology’ within.
To merely scratch the surface of what’s stashed inside them, you’ll find photographs of cult drag acts, polysexual parties and pre-fame icons; ‘mudlarking’ beach relics salvaged and repurposed; flyers from the underground club scene and ‘the second summer of love’; short-run hand-assembled publications; sections of signs from subcultural hotspots; items of clothing; newspaper cuttings; oily meat bones; and even a working ‘urinal’. There’s glamour, frivolity, kitsch, and nostalgia, but also a sense of the risk and the politics that often came with these vibrant and varied creative histories.
Gregor Muir, ICA director and curator, set up this “insane experiment” in order explore these creative languages, and the layering and connections that might be found in the unfolding narrative. “What’s happened the subcultures or alternative cultures?” Muir asks us to consider. “What’s happened to that space in-between the museum and the commercial gallery, which is in a way unofficial culture; a culture built on ephemera and broken objects, and fragments and flyers and stuff like that, which is often overlooked by the museum and isn’t easy to obtain through the commercial galleries.”
These kinds of ‘unofficial’ cultural practices are often reactionary in nature, with a DIY aesthetic, a process driven approach to design, with handcrafted or salvage methods of production – activity that led to the generation of art movements, design collectives, one-off cultural events and style icons. The residues and traces of all of this is attentively, and often unconventionally, represented inside the vitrines, in a joyful, messy bricolage of everyday objects and eccentric curiosities.
Familiar faces reappear throughout the timeline – Gilbert & George, Lee Bowery, Alexander McQueen, Princess Julia, Judy Blame – alongside magazines like Frieze, Imprint 93 and Blitz; design heroes such as Giles Deacon, Tom Dixon and Bethan Laura Wood; collectives like The House of Beauty and Culture and the YBAs; clubs including Kinky Gerlinky, Delirium, and BoomBox; restaurants such as St. John and Bistrotheque, and galleries including White Cubicle, Chisenhale and Studio Voltaire; along with a wealth of other creative movers and shakers.
The project asks some interesting questions – What is counterculture and does it still exist? Over four decades, what connections can be made between all of these different strands of creativity? Do the creative generations today have the same desire to make something from nothing? Is there still enough risk-taking? Visiting the exhibition we are invited to take the journey and find the answers for ourselves.
Exhibition on 13 Sept – 20 Oct, with a programme of special events. For more information visit www.ica.org.uk. Photographs: Mark Blower