Glam! The Performance Of Style (Tate Liverpool)

Feel the giddy heights of creative excess.  Something that is completely impermeable as a concept becomes physically tangible, visual and audible in Tate’s latest exhibition; the boundaries of taste and of reserve hiding quietly in the corner where they belong while Bowie and Bolan take the centre of stage.  All mediums, forms and ideas are merged into one, not to express a basic theme as would be the most obvious case but to express an ideal of glamour, of fame and as the exhibition suggests, the very performance of style.

The walls of the usually contemplative space are a mixture of vivacious pink and glitter ball sparkle, though do indulge the typical gallery state of white-wash existentialism later on.  The opening of the show is more of a museum than a gallery space.  Treating historic objects as artwork is looking to be a new way of thinking, especially with The Bluecoat’s upcoming exhibition.  The walls are a 1970s fetishist’s dream; album covers, programs, clothing, photographs and curios all present.  They seem hyper and energetic yet, put together in such a way, also seem sickly, highlighting that the very idea of pushing style to such excesses can produce a dripping, honey rich effect that seems almost alien in hindsight.


The balance between the historic (histrionic?) items and the perceived works of art is well maintained which allows the former to question the role of the latter rather brilliantly.  Even before entry to the exhibition, there were certain names that were bound to pop up and not just on the musical side.  The first of these is Derek Jarman, who even though more associated with punk, seems to have been miles ahead of just about every game in the movements of sub-culture.  Two short video works are presented, both pre-punk and pre-Jubilee (1978).  At Home With Duggie Fields (1974) and Miss Gaby – I’m Ready For My Close Up (1972) have the grainy aesthetic of Super-8 film that made him a perfect exponent of the punk movement when the youth eventually became tired of glitter and craved safety pins.  For now though, Jarman embraced the stylistic oeuvre of Glam; lipstick, close-ups, androgynous forms questioning sexual politics.  The show’s tone and perhaps even whole thinking could be attributed to the filmmaker who sums up the thematic material of Glam more quickly and accurately than any other artist on show.

Another name bound to appear when examining style and celebrity as a primary motive is Richard Hamilton who has a number of works on display.  The most interesting of which is the 1971 piece Soft Pink Landscape which hints at an ironic satire on the often commercial excess that occurs when style is allowed free reign over all other reserve.  The oil painting could easily be found hanging on the wall of a 1970s house, contrasting against the tacky wallpaper and zig-zag carpets.  Put against a white wall it highlights its own ironies rather nicely.  Hamilton’s work is situated next to the work of another 70s glam playboy; David Hockney.  Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970) is a work that one often sees on postcards and other mediums outside of the painting itself.  This hides the quite shocking difference in size to the original which adorns a whole wall due its sheer volume.  This brings out more of the detail often lost in reproduction and shows just what a talent Hockney really is – a testament to Britain’s greatest living painter.


One of the main pieces of the exhibition gives the impression that Glam is actually a living creature and the viewer is happily invited to walk around inside its frantic, haphazard mind.  Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s Celebration? Realife Revisited (1972-2000) is a room full of objects, light and sound designed very clearly to sum up an area of time as well as a cultural movement.  The room is lit with stage lights and disco balls, the floor covered with Glam paraphernalia and the room itself blaring out hits by The Who, at least when this viewer was wondering around.  Some of it seems obvious and doesn’t quite work.  For example, the inclusion of a bust of Chopin makes a point that has been made since The Beatles covered Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven and doesn’t really need to be argued again.  The musical qualities of the piece however do work and happily invades the rest of the space, giving the Hockney, Hamilton’s and other works a very apt and effective soundtrack.


The second half of the exhibition seems less coherent than the previous half though contains some excellent pieces of work.  A number of works by Allen Jones extrapolate the typical sexual exploits of the era while also examining the very problematic areas of it too.  Chair (1969) in particular is one of the most provocative pieces in the show though, against a cold, white backdrop, is clearly intended to question of the moral ambiguity that the pink areas of the exhibition steer well clear of.   This rather handily leads to the section labelled as The Glamour Factory; hinting at the Warhol dominance to come.  Four video works of his are put together and are the best the section has to offer.  Lou Reed (Coke) (1966) is the best of the four which shows the musician who seems to have been canonised as cliché these days but here appears to be simply honest; a rarity in a show that hides its darker thoughts behind a veneer of style and performance (a theme highlighted by the Nicolas Roeg film Performance (1970) of which there is a poster of early on the exhibition).


Most of exhibition is filled with wonderful photographic works from the era, typical of an exhibition based on a historic, cultural movement (the Nan Goldin photographs are the exhibition’s image).  There seems little point in describing them or assigning meaning; they are snap shots of the era, sometimes highlighting its ideals and issues in the same way as the pieces already mentioned.  The final piece worth mentioning however is not of this nature.  It is instead a complete shot in the dark, quite literally, compared with the rest of the show.  Jack Goldstein’s The Jump (1978) is a video piece showing the hop, skip and jump into nowhere.  It would seem a fitting end for an exhibition on a movement that had very definite limits in its goals and ambitions.  What’s more exciting is the 16mm projector used to show the film which seems beautiful, stark and wonderfully out of place; its harsh mechanisms, oil and toil being a complete contrast to just about everything else surrounding it.  The glamour kings and queens may have burnt out in their attainment to the ultimate in style but Glam!  The Performance of Style allows the viewer to bask in its entertaining excesses and fun frivolities all from the safe distance of hindsight.

Words and Pictures by Adam Scovell.


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