The Secret Public

Linder, Untitled Photomontage, 1978, Courtesy the artist & Stuart Shave Modern Art
Fancy a trip down memory lane? The Secret Public, currently on show at the ICA in London, takes us on a journey into the art, design and music of late seventies and eighties Britain, revealing just how influential this period has been on our contemporary cultural landscape.

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Linder, Untitled Photomontage, 1978, Courtesy the artist & Stuart Shave Modern Art

Fancy a trip down memory lane? The Secret Public, currently on show at the ICA in London, takes us on a journey into the art, design and music of late seventies and eighties Britain, revealing just how influential this period has been on our contemporary cultural landscape.

The exhibition emphasises the convergence of art forms that occurred during the era, as art, fashion, film, dance, performance, graphic design and music all experienced a surge of creativity and experimentation, against the bleak backdrop of recession, civil disturbance and the advent of AIDS. Many of the artists here are now household names, with early works by Julian Opie and Peter Doig appearing alongside Peter Saville’s iconic Closer album cover for Joy Division and a sound installation by Brian Eno.

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Trojan, Policeman, 1985, Courtesy Nicola Bowery

Others seem to epitomise the era, perhaps in part due to their tragic early deaths. A film of Leigh Bowery performing at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1988 emphasises his ongoing importance to both fashion and art, while Derek Jarman’s 1994 film Glitterbug, his last work, is an intimate compilation of Super 8 footage shot between 1970 and 1986. Also on show are paintings and poster works by Trojan, Bowery’s flamboyant clubbing companion and a collaborator with Charles Atlas and Michael Clark, who died of a heroin overdose aged 20.

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Neo-Naturists, Performance documentation, 1979-84, Courtesy Christine & Jennifer Binnie

Politics is everywhere here, from the omnipresent figure of Margaret Thatcher, who appears both in person and through her policies throughout the exhibition, to discussion of the racial and sexual politics of the time, through films by Isaac Julien, Stuart Marshall and Neil Bartlett, and photomontages by Linder. There is also fascinating documentation of performances by the Neo-Naturists, a network of artists and musicians who, during a period of five years from 1979-84, collaborated with over 70 people, including Grayson Perry, Cerith Wyn Evans, and Helen Terry of Culture Club. Films of their performances, which include naked sunbathing as well as shows in nightclubs and public spaces, seem particularly sealed within another era.

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Jon Savage, Uninhabited London, 1977, Courtesy the artist

Nostalgia is in fact strongly evident throughout the show, and despite the obvious influence of the works on contemporary artists and designers, it is difficult not to fall into reminiscing. The exhibition notes boldly state that this was a period in British culture “before the rise of the consumer environment”, yet many of the most evocative memories are caused by branding and mainstream references – an ancient Coke can and cigarette packet on Stephen Willats‘ sculpture “Living Like a Goya” and the appearance of a Mr Man yoghurt pot in a Neo-Naturist film seem to conjure up the era as much as Wolfgang Tillmans‘ photos of 80s clubbers or John Savage’s bleak shots of urban late-70s London. Similarly, the music that appears in works throughout the space, which runs from Bowie and the Velvet Underground to New Order, serves to emphasise the sense of moving backwards in time.

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Princess Julia & Vaughan Toulouse, The Fridge, 1989, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne

There seems a tendency for every generation to fetishise the period a couple of decades prior to its own, to reflect with the benefit of hindsight that the now-gone era was somehow purer and more creative than the times we now inhabit. The exhibition notes for this show actively compound this habit, with the four curators (Stefan Kalmár, Michael Bracewell, Ian White and Daniel Pies) of the Secret Public dramatically stating that it “surveys perhaps the last period in British culture before the rise of the consumer environment and the flattening of subcultural manifestations and creative industries into a single, pasteurised range of commodified styles”. A depressing prospect indeed, and surely not an entirely accurate one? This bold position, as well as the subtitle of the exhibition – “The Last Days of British Underground” – ironically seems to undermine the power of some of the work here, sealing it in a gloopy sentimentalism of “when things were better”. Better instead to ignore such positioning and simply celebrate the work which, for the large part, still feels as fresh and exciting as it did twenty years ago.

The Secret Public will be on show at the ICA until May 6.

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