A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now

Going back and forth in time, uncovering the personal archives of artists, collectors, architects, film makers and designers.

Princess Julia

30 Sep 2013

Going back and forth in time, uncovering the personal archives of artists, collectors, architects, film makers and designers that have made London such vibrant and exciting city has lead us quite rightly slap bang in the present. This was the dream and this is what the ICA Off-Site project at The Old Selfridges Hotel is all about. A landscape series of over 50 vitrines, including interactive installation work, talks and film archive which trace 30 years of the inspiring lives living and working in this town through the decades. In a never ending quest to put ideas out there and explore some integral creative threads we have thrown up some surprises along the way. Body Map to Sibling, Michael Clark, John Maybury to the YBA (Young British Artists), Factual Nonsense, Bethan Wood, London 1980's and 90's Clubbing through to the more recent performance of Jonny Woo and The House of Egypt, the interactive party events of Dalston based club Vogue Fabrics through to Eddie Peake, Prem Sahib and George Henry Longly's collective vitrine to name just a few, there really hasn't been a show quite like this. Artist Nicola Tyson triggers the debate with her 'mud larking' excavations in the form of photographs from the early 1980s. She begins the conversation scavenging around on the the embankment of the River Thames where they unearthed clay pipes from the 18th century amongst the shifting debris of abandoned 'rubbish' and natural elements of the Thames of present decades and present a series of moments that conjure up a myriad of possibilities. Tyson explains:

'It was sometime in 1981 when I first ‘mudlarked’ under Blackfriars Bridge. The tide was out and my friends and I ventured down the slimy steps out of curiosity. It seemed ‘out of bounds’, exciting, possibly dangerous, and there was nothing to stop us, no cautionary signs even. That whole stretch of the embankment was deserted back then and very neglected. No Thames Walk or Tate Modern. We wandered and poked about on the expansive ‘beach’ of mud, pebbles and assorted debris, and I noticed everywhere scores of pale little ceramic tubes and realized they were bits of broken clay pipes. The Thames, or perhaps the Fleet River that emptied into it from the opposite bank, had deposited them there in great number, along with the shards of pottery, glass, discarded oyster shells, and many giant animal molars, the latter from abattoirs I suspected. The Thames had been London’s sewer for centuries, after all, and it was rather exciting to have unexpected access to it’s shifting ‘inter-tidal archaeology’ as it’s now called. Research revealed that a pipe was handed out free with each tankard of ale at public houses then - 200 years ago -so these fragments were the cigarette butts of 18 details, worn almost smooth by the fast moving murky waters.'

She continues her fascinating story...

'One day, sometime in 1983 I took Judy Blame, John Moore and Fiona Skinner down there, and this inspired Judy to develop a jewelry collection titled “Old Father Thames”—if I remember rightly— assembled from the hauls of subsequent ‘mudlarking’ forays he made. I’d have a huge collection of such ‘treasure’ if I hadn’t emigrated to NYC in 1989. My pipe and select pottery bits fill a couple of large jars that sit on a shelf in my upstate New York farmhouse, and make me homesick for London and mudlarking and Old Father Thames! It’s such an immense river with an equally immense history, or rather it has flowed through that history. I remember avidly reading Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor c1851, at the time, which documents —along with other grim ‘professions’—the miserable lives of the real mudlarks of the 19th century for anything they could sell. History—of those in power and of the ordinary person—is far more compelling and stranger to me than science fiction. It’s the bizarre costume, lifestyle, manners and sexual politics of the past—the extremes that were considered norms—that interests me, and that resonate within my work, and not aliens. Rivers are strange entities though, and the massive Thames, and all that fell into it —or was pushed—fills me with awe!'

Within the show itself artists, designers and collectors reveal elements of their creative lifes within installations that perhaps have never been explored in such detail and with such resonance to the world we inhabit today. The human desire to express oneself could be described as a compulsion, the urge to communicate, adorn, build monuments and record an existence that may be as revealing as it is mysterious. Within these walls lie a timeline, a legacy of London counterculture, the components of which consist of a raw energy conjured up by the limitless imaginations of those living in this city at any given time.

Installation shot of ICA Off-Site: A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now, 13 September 2013 - 20 October 2013, The Old Selfridges Hotel. Photo: Mark Blower

Installation shot of ICA Off-Site: A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now, 13 September 2013 - 20 October 2013, The Old Selfridges Hotel. Photo: Mark Blower

Our story begins on the cusp of a new kind of technological era, 'do it yourself'  being the main means of cutting and pasting together a vision or story of interlinking creative situations. Themes reemerge again and again, ideas of resurrecting the lost and found, references that trace universal sensibilities. It ends in the now and presents a future full of expectation. If we are describing methods of construct then the world is a very different place to 30 years ago but still it seems the spark remains the same. It's clear that the ongoing discussion of an existing subculture in the 2010s follows a route directly linked to traditional methods of expression. Stating the obvious, in order to go forward we must look back, the recycling of ideas comes round not as nostalgia but as something more innovative, the meshing of subconscious and conscious influences, inspirational moments reappear again and again via contemporary artists utilizing what is available to them, sensibilities connect in a constructive stream much in the way past reportage and art  took it's form. The translation takes on new meaning and presents further lines of inquistion.

What we wear, how we live and the things we surround ourselves with are all down to personal aesthetic and expression combined with a sense of conviction. Today the crossover of disciplines has never been more apparent with ideas bouncing off each other with explosive results. In the past things might have seemed naive and somewhat basic, but the stripped back elements of process have a place in modern society. Sibling knitwear design team take on notions of an art and musical nature and produce knitwear collections that on the catwalk may raise eyebrows to those who don't 'get it', while on the street their knitwear causes sighs of admiration. Joe Bates, one third of the Sibling collective says, 'Collections have often been directly inspired by a piece of art.' The catwalk it seems is the perfect platform for presenting a vision of extreme reality and creating a parade of courageous ideas. 'We dress people not bodies.' Joe says and explains, 'That may sound pedantic but it's a very important distinction. We want to enhance someone's life, hopefully make some one smile or feel braver or more attractive. That's far more interesting than pure form.'

Our artists jostle beside each other overlapping and crisscrossing into further realms of discovery, artist Julie Verhoeven explores personal endeavors within her practice, she questions as to where her work should be placed within such a timeline, 'I long for it to find its own shelf to sit on, and remain independent from both past and present . Failing so far, but the thought is there.' Fashion designer Louise Gray reveals a magpie quality to her work, her vitrine takes her eclectic nature into the equation, with a 'Collection of things I've made and things I like - things that push my buttons', her ideas lean towards her own self expression, 'Do it yourself - be yourself', she firmly states. Bethan Laura Wood is one such designer after her initial tuition under Jurgen Bey and Martino Gamper at the RCA  (and he's in it too) in 2009 has emerged with work that peers at the mundane and twists it into something fabulous, a link in the chain that is driving us toward the future. Her created articles an extension of a world we all inhabit, her personal style reflects and radiates into her work, the ripples of which can be seen in her furniture, accessories and lighting. The explosive effects of our trail blazers through the decades lapse into each other, it's something that we could only imagine with initial concept of this show. To see it unfold before our eyes on installation day and then to see you, our visitors getting the same sense of wonder as us peering into vitrines and discovering something new or seeing something familiar loaded with such resonance is proving to be a constant source of inspiration, the ICA Off Site project really does interlink past, present and future.

Words: Princess Julia

ICA Off-Site: A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now at The Old Selfridges Hotel runs until 20 October 2013.

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