Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Bruce Lacey at the Camden Arts Centre


The second room in the chronological survey of Lacey’s life and work at the Camden Arts Centre began with cabinets displaying cuttings, programmes and mementoes from The Alberts period. These included posters and flyers for various Evenings of British Rubbish, which attained semi-legendary status for their dalliance with destructive chaos and self-dissolution in the name of art and slightly unnerving entertainment. In the absence of any filmed evidence (a lack which, whilst frustrating for those who weren’t there, tends only to enhance the legend as enlarged upon by those who were) photos from Alberts performance give some of idea of the debris strewn battle-zone to which they cheerfully reduced the stage. Lenny Bruce for one was deeply impressed by the impact they made upon the Establishment Club, the nightclub Peter Cook had set up in Soho in 1961 as a venue for satirical comedy, to which Lacey’s semi-namesake had been brought over from America to perform. There was a telegram on display from Bruce, sent from Honolulu in September 1962, giving words of encouragement for The Alberts’ debut show in New York, an appearance which he had arranged for them. Costumes were hung on the wall above the display cases, direct descendants of those childhood fancy dress outfits. There was foppish cavalier finery from the Three Musketeers, in which the Alberts had played a supporting role, and a red Edwardian military jacket with golden buttons and braids, which could easily have been sported by any of a number of Sergeant Pepper era bands infected with the psychedelic whimsy of the age.

Picnic in Space - The British moon landing
A native American fringed buckskin tunic and trousers contrasted dramatically with the spacesuit which floated above, as if suspended in the zero gravity of space. They demonstrated the twin poles of antique and futuristic impulses which were an odd characteristic of the decade, and which pulled Lacey in different and, on the surface, contradictory directions. The spacesuit came from the British Landing on the Moon performances which he first devised and put on in 1969 after watching the Apollo 11 landing. It involved a low gravity, slowed-down going through the British motions, with the lunar daytrippers planting a Union Jack and a garden gnome to make them feel at home, laying out a picnic from a whicker hamper, pouring tea and eating sandwiches which were all shrink-wrapped in plastic, and having a kick-around with a football. It was both a gentle mockery of British traditions, and a deflation of the nationalistic triumphalism which was one of the less noble aspects of the American moon landings through rendering the whole thing into nothing more than a homely outing. The enthusiasm for a ‘space-age’ aesthetic of synthetic and mass-manufactured food and materials which accompanied the progress towards the moon landings is also held up for ridicule, both in its juxtaposition with the enduring symbols of suburban normality, and in the absurdly futile attempts to eat a simple sarnie or enjoy a cuppa through sealed plastic.

Facing the Albert memorials were some of Lacey’s Electric Actors, anti-luvvie automata which were a foretaste of robots to come. One had a square wooden frame for a head, topped with a Napoleon hat, its neck a revolving brass mechanism which could spin to present one of two Janus-like faces: one offering the blank stare of time, an antique clock-face with wire spectacle rim eyes; the other a colourful Indian mask with extravagant moustaches and gaudy turban. The head rests on a battered loudspeaker cabinet torso, with shop dummy arms attached to broad shoulders made from bellows, presumably allowing for wheezing concertinaed gesticulations. The torso balances on decrepit, rickety stool legs. Another has a foolishly grinning, pink-cheeked Woosterish head with a woman’s cloche hat stuck onto the exposed innards of iron machineries. Whatever lies below the waist area is tightly contained within a pink corset, with a small bunch of flowers jauntily planted between the laces.

The educational meat grinder - School Days (detail)
In the main part of the room, we came upon Lacey’s robots and assemblages from the sixties, the work for which he is probably best known (certainly what I had known him for and had largely come along to see). I’m Not Chicken/The Drug Addict (1968) could be seen on a comment on the pharmaceutical appetites which fuelled the fevered experimentation of the period. It’s a medical operation model (predating Hirst by many a year) with guts exposed, tubes connecting its innards to a dispensing machine with the words purple hearts indicating the amphetamine sweeties with which it is stocked. The transparent tubes carry the pills directly into the Addict’s body as if they were corpuscles in an extension of his circulatory system. School Days is a grim assemblage which expressed Lacey’s loathing for what he saw as the processing and normalisation of young minds within many British schools. The burnt and blackened head of a shop dummy, joke shop glasses with enlarged eyes pasted onto the lenses suggesting the unblinking omniscience of an observer in a panopticon prison, presides with charred malevolence atop an old wooden cabinet. Inside are arrayed rows of steel meat grinders, with the disembodied heads of dolls perched on the rims of their bowls, ready to be pushed through and processed when the handles are turned. In a cubby space at the bottom, fingers, noses and ears are neatly sorted into compartmentalised and labelled jars. It’s a horrific piece, partaking of the darker and more violent currents of surrealism, which suggests an instinctively oppositional stance towards the fundamental tenets of society and the authorities which dictate and enforce them. The worn, dirt-encrusted and chipped condition of it all adds to the effect, giving the impression of a system grown rigid and fossilised with age.

Lacey and his wife Jill Bruce tried to provide an alternative to this vision of the indoctrinating moulding of a common worldview. In the 70s they toured schools in Camden with their Incredible Whatsit Machine, a flexible play sculpture which encouraged children to develop their own creative and imaginative relationship with their surroundings and the wider world beyond. Associated activities were introduced by Lacey and Bruce, including the making of an edible man, a giant jelly mould with transparently visible fruit innards, which the children disembowelled and devoured with cannibalistic fervour. It was a project similar (in a more mobile form) to the establishment of playgrounds for the local children out of the developer’s rubble-strewn dead zones surrounding the Theatre Royal in Stratford by Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles in the early 70s , and their creation of new patterns of collaboratively worked out play. Lacey and Bruce also created a magical space within a giant inflatable, which could be transported and blown up (and deflated) with relative ease. Inside were lights, music coming from surrounding speakers and a stage which anyone could get up and make a raucous, amplified racket from. Its promissory billing encapsulated an invitation to step out of the everyday world for a while: ‘Journey through a Black Hole to Another Planet’. Children would dress in colourful costumes before crossing the threshold, adding a sense of ritual, and encouraging them to leave their customary selves behind them. It sounds like a development of the Space Place built up by Maurice Agis and Peter Jones in 1964, another cocooning environment designed to stimulate the senses and encourage creativity, which has evolved into the Colourscape modular mazes which are inflated on Clapham Common and elsewhere on a regular basis and play host to all kinds of innovative music, as well as activities for school and pre-schoolchildren.

Creaky swinger - Boy Oh Boy Am I Living
Another work, The Bedsprings TWANG in OUR House, is a rather sinister assemblage, a rusty bed frame stood on its end with male and female dummy figures attached to its coiled mesh in a form of household crucifixion. The woman has targets for breasts, and a boxing glove, clock case and dismembered doll are embedded nearby, all of which gives off a disturbing atmosphere of claustrophobic tension and incipient domestic violence. It has some of the sour odour of despair also to be found in the spyhole installations of Ed Kienholz. In fact, Kienholz provides a good point of comparison with Lacey’s assemblages and automata in general, his work tending to lack the touches of humour and absurdity that leaven the dispiriting air of angry despair. Other pieces on display here were more amusing, if no less caustic. If Lacey were to be likened to any one of the Goons with whom he worked, it would definitely be Spike Milligan, whose humour was often underlaid with a fierce and occasionally misanthropic sense of moral anger and disgust, laughter tinged with a hint of desperation at the absurdity of the human condition. Superman from 1963, is a freakshow metallic man of the future, caged within scaffold boxes, with its skull contained in a weighing jar, false eyes probing about on the end of extended stalks, and wooden hands held rigidly outward in an imploring gesture. Boy Oh Boy Am I Living, from 1964, is again contained within a boxlike frame (shades of Francis Bacon), his big flushed head a round orange ball with false teeth, nose and eyes attached. To its solid tea urn torso is strapped a couple of artificial legs, bent at the knee, one of which swings back and forth, cutting a creaking, clockwork caper.

Man as automaton - Everybody's Nobody
Such repetitive movements, reducing the human to the mindlessly mechanical, are also acted out by Lacey in John Sewell’s 1960 film Everybody’s Nobody, in which he plays M.A.N., the servile Mobile Abstract Nonentity, a passive and programmable cybernetic entity which embodies the fears of dehumanisation within a technocratic and market-driven society. The Politician, from 1964, is notable for its wide, circular megaphone mouth, rimmed with pearly rows of even, gleaming teeth. If the politician is designed for loud oration, the miserly Old Money Bags (1964), now a part of the Leeds Museum and Art Galleries’ collection, is activated by shouting rude commands into its speaker grille. Its internal coin circulation system is transparently contained within a tailor’s dummy with cut-away abdomen. As Barry Miles explains in his history of the post-war counterculture in the capital, London Calling, ‘Lacey used to bellow “get to work, you bastard” and the cogwheels would spring into action, moving two-shilling pieces through the “heart” like white blood corpuscles’.

The Womaniser
In the centre of the room reclined The Womaniser (1966), a kinetic sculpture now owned by the Tate. A disturbingly perverse autoerotic figure, its torso takes the form a large bolster (a punch bag?) of orange plastic, which lies back on the peeling remains of a dentist’s chair. Tin false legs protrude from the bottom, with a small, syringe-plunger penis peeping perkily up between. Its transparent plastic head cast relaxes on the chair rest, the pink and beige material with which it is stuffed giving it a flayed look, with exposed eyeballs staring ahead with abstracted fixity also reflected in the small smile on its mouth (provided by a fold in the material). On the torso is laid another transparent plastic cast, this one of a triple set of breasts. Pink rubber gloves at the end of plastic tubes are poised over each one, and the occasional blast of condensed air causes them to inflate for a self-pleasuring fondle. It’s a mutant figure, no longer human but not yet wholly alien (although its eight limbs lend it a slightly arachnoid aspect), a monstrous evolution of the polymorphous desires which rose to the surface during the sixties, extrapolating from the present in the manner of HG Wells in The Time Machine, with his far future division of humanity into Morlocks and Eloi. The anatomy of the womaniser certainly suggests that it has reached a stage where it is no longer likely to rise from its couch for any prolonged period of time. Perhaps, given its title, it could also be seen as a Bosch-like purgatorial transmutation for a serial adulterer. Whilst the sculpture has an amusingly pervy comical element, it also points to a lingering element of traditional morality in Lacey’s character, a remnant of his upbringing in an ordinary (in the sense of being neither extravagantly bohemian or well-off) pre-war English household. And there, of course, in the corner was dear old R.O.S.A., almost a part of the Lacey family herself; static and lifeless but still exuding an aura of star power.

The grain of 8mm time - Castlerigg
The final room took us through Lacey and Jill Bruce’s retreat from the future in the 1970s and 80s, and their absorption in an intuitively developed sense of ritual rooted in an exploration of the granite bones of Britain. They travelled around the country visiting megalithic sites, as documented in their atmospheric super 8 films Castlerigg and Wales Stone Circles which, as the booklet notes for the bfi dvd attest, bear a certain relation to, whilst being quite different in approach from, Derek Jarman’s Journey to Avebury super 8 film. Having connected with the children of Camden in the early 70s, having gained funding from the council to take their play environments to various locales within the borough, they made their own family the subject of scrutiny in both theatrical and cinematic contexts. The Laceys at Home was a 1972 piece of performance art installed in (or rather outside) the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, in which the family went about the ordinary business of daily life in a three sided living room, as if they were human specimens in a zoo. The everyday and seemingly unremarkable was transformed into drama through the act of being observed. Lacey and his family (Jill, Kevin, Tiffany, Saffron and Fred) also turned the camera on themselves for the 1973 film The Lacey Rituals, each taking their turn behind the lens. Again, ordinary activities (taking a bath, eating a meal, shaving, putting on make-up, riding a bicycle etc.) were foregrounded, making us look at them anew from a Martian viewpoint. This focussing on the minutiae of domestic and familial life could be seen as Lacey’s assertion of the need for a settling into a more responsible way of life after the chaotic experimentation and social upheaval of the 60s. The desire for a simple life, which seemed to go alongside a more general ‘back to the garden’ migration from urban centres in search of a rural idyll, reflected the countercultural tenor of the times. The films and performance also expanded the radius of his self-fascination and use of elements of his life in his art (or use of his life as art). Such self-documentation, and the exposure of ‘ordinary’ life to an observing public, cannot help but invite comparisons with later trends in reality TV programming. Lacey’s films include a deliberate acknowledgement of their own artificiality, however, with unedited directions, clapperboard takes, countdowns to cuts and shots of the soundman dispelling any illusion of authenticity.

The Theatre of family life - The Laceys at Home
Another performance from this era, Stella Star and Her Amazing Galactic Adventures, put on by the Galactic Theatre (there’s a poster for it in the gallery) in 1974, had an accompanying film, included on the bfi dvd. This provides a bridging link between the futurism of the 60s and the search for a rural arcadia in the latter half of the 70s and the 80s. Its science fiction fable of the elemental Manichean struggle between the intergalactic adventuress Stella Star, the feminine force of light and life (Jill Bruce) and an embodied black hole, a voracious, predatory void of negative ‘dark matter’ and spirit (played by a black-robed Lacey) is played out (with more home-made dressing up) against the backdrop of an ancient British woodland. The space operatics are brought down to leaf-mouldy earth. Lacey and Bruce’s involvement with the free festival movement in the 80s saw them creating Pagan rituals, which avoided new age insipidity through the intense personal investment which they brought to them, an intensity which could give them the same slightly unnerving, unhinged quality which the Alberts’ performances possessed. They were rites which admitted the destructive aspect of the elements, and the presence of death within the Arcadian summer festival garden. The ritual room contains relics from these festival happenings. A central pentagram formed from wooden sticks was laid out on the floor, the sort of thing which would have acted as the focus for one of Lacey’s fire rituals. On the wall, more costumes were hung. Lacey has evidently always had a strong sense of the importance of costume, which goes hand in hand with the self-dramatising and –revealing aspects of his art. Changes in life are marked by changes in costume, old skins shed and new ones created. The costumes here are brightly coloured, tie-died capes, pegged out like flags which pledge allegiance to the late-flowering hippiedom of the 80s travellers. Occasionally, Lacey would cast aside costume altogether, stripping naked to perform rituals daubed in paint and mud, as in the heartfelt Awakening of the Earth Goddess, 8mm footage of which can be seen on the bfi dvd.

A film playing on a TV mounted at the corner of the room had Lacey and Bruce and other participants chanting the Om Nama Shivaya mantra, incorporating it into actions deriving from their own intuitive notions of the sacred, in the manner of new age syntheses – Indian mysticism blended with the romance of the Celtic twilight and the genius loci, or spirit of place, of the ancient English landscape. There’s something of the spirit of neo-romantic artists like Paul Nash and Cecil Collins to these imaginative dramas; an attempt to evoke, in an unsentimentalised, way, the power of the natural world and of a particular geographic locale, and to place humanity within rather than outside of it, an intrinsic and inseparable part of its cyclical processes. The super 8 films themselves possess a grain and have accrued a surface detainling of cracks and speckles which serves to enhance the feeling of antiquity in the landscapes they survey and the rituals they record. Such influences can also be found in the paintings hung in the room, which marked a return to the form he’d studied and practised at art college. These depart from tradition through being created on sackcloth stretched out within metal frames like rough hides, giving them more of an American Indian look and feel. The large circular mandalas Lacey has painted on their dusty backdrop represent a vision of life and matter on a micro and macroscopic scale. Some resemble cells or spores magnified under a microscope, some the colourfully banded surfaces of gas giant planets, and some planar representations of the galactic core. They seem to be reaching out to some grandly intuited sense of the unity of all creation, a quest which puts him in the visionary tradition of Blake and his descendants, and well beyond the radar of modern art trends. Cecil Collins’ Cells of Night, The Joy of the Worlds and The Great Happiness and others, with their similar interposition of cellular and astronomical forms, are further points of connection with the neo-romantics of the inter-war years, as are the symbolic lunar and solar landscapes of Paul Nash’s later Wittenham Clumps paintings from the forties. This connection with a mystical tradition of interior landscapes and symbolic natural forms suggests an attempt to regain a pre-war sense of completeness, perhaps even something of the lost idyll of childhood.

Replica sun machine - solar recorder
Physical records of Lacey’s observance of solar and seasonal cycles were present in the form of arced strips of paper with burnt lines extending in varying lengths along its curved surface. These recording strips were attached to a frame around a spherical glass filled with water, which acted as a refractive, light-focusing lens, tracking the sun’s progress across the sky and recording it, and the passage of clouds across its surface, on the paper. The device looked something like a scrying ball, used to write the unique solar script of each chosen day (the dates written down on the paper at the end). Lacey’s recording of the details of his own life seemed to have been absorbed into the creation of a more universal record, the observance of a wider pattern into which he would eventually disappear. In the meantime, he has landed in the county of Norfolk, in the rump of the British Isles, where he curates the vast archive of his own life and work in an old farmhouse, emerging for the occasional retrospective and working with community arts projects in the area. One such local appearance, at the Norwich Arts Centre in 2011, was commemorated in the most recent poster in the corridor gallery; a performance entitled Bruce Lacey: A Silly Bugger Artist’s Life at the Taxpayer’s Expense, some of which is captured on Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams’ documentary The Bruce Lacey Experience. The acknowledgement of the country’s cash-strapped state and its low opinion of the importance and active hostility to the public support of art and artists implicit in such a billing shows that Lacey’s sense of humour, at once anti-establishment and anxiously self-questioning, is still fully functional. Long may the silly bugger continue.

1 comment:

Alistair said...

Thanks for the picture of the poster. Been looking for this for years. The poster from the funniest night I've ever spent in a theatre anywhere. The year was 1965 and the 'full supporting cast' was Jill Bruce (Bruce Lacey's wife) and Leo McKern (of Rumpole of the Bailey fame). My sides ached and my shirt was damp from the tears that had rolled down my face. I blame at least some of my sense of the ridiculous on seeing that show at the tender age of 14. Not many in the audience on the night I went (the opening night). The ones who weren't missed something else.