William Kherbek reviews Jon Savage and Johan Kugelberg’s co-curated exhibition on punk graphics
Against all logic, punk rock has been a big story in 2012. As is to be expected given the differing birth dates various punk experts assign to the movement, there has been the usual valedictory set of anniversaries which anoint increasingly ephemeral figures as “icons” of the movement. More interestingly, however, for a movement that has died more often than Super Mario, punk rock is still managing to cause trouble for authority figures.
Punk is at the heart of two of the most troubling “real” news stories of the last year. First, there’s the demented prosecution of three members of the feminist, art-punk juggernaut Pussy Riot by the minions of state authority in Russia. Second — and a thousand shades darker than Pussy Riot’s florescent balaclavas — is the sad, venomous story of Wade Michael Page, the white supremacist American soldier turned hate-punk musician, who killed six and injured twelve during a neo-Nazi rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Who, walking down Camden High Street any given day,seeing all the period-piece punks who appear to have stumbled out of the Tardis direct from 1976, could have imagined as much? Punk, at its best and contemptible worst, changing the world more than thirty-five years from the first power-chords.
In this atmosphere of punk ferment, the Hayward Gallery has opened a show titled, Someday All the Adults Will Die: Punk Graphics 1971-1984, a dogged and impressively contextualised collection of visual accessories to the soundtrack of a generation’s lives. The curators, legendary punk-theorist Jon Savage and the writer and gallerist Johan Kugelberg, cannot help but be aware of the futility of the task of attempting to capture the impossible diversity of punk aesthetics in one exhibition, but despite the vastness of the project, they bring the kind of enthusiasm and commitment to the show that would be familiar to the various teenage zine-makers whose work adorns the Hayward’s walls.
“For a movement that has died more often than Super Mario,
punk rock is still managing to cause trouble for authority figures”
No doubt, tongues are clicking in the offices of various branches of the punk police suggesting that the last place punk should ever be is on the smooth, white walls of one of the highest profile galleries in London. I must admit, I have some sympathy with this position. I remember hearing about a show of Nirvana ephemera a few years ago in some hideous corporate entombment in Seattle which not only was titled, Nirvana: Taking Punk Rock to the Masses, but which actually had the cooperation of Krist Novoselic, the band’s eternally right-on bassist. Stroking one’s own furry little legacy is bad enough, but to do so with such bland contempt for the people who were moved by your music borders on the kind of detachment from reality that would qualify a person for political office.
But Kugelberg and Savage are not Nirvana LLP’s executors, they are clearly people with an undimmable passion for punk and the emotions it stirred and embodied. It’s true that seeing the stencils from Crass hung against the cleanliness of the Hayward’s project space jarred, and a bit of neat spray paint work using stencils uneasily summoned the spectre of Banksy (not as much, however, as the actual Banksy that unfortunately, but inevitably, appeared on the same wall).
Purists, of course, exist to object, and it is not for one exhibition to tell the whole story, but there are so many excellent direct connections to the moment of origin in the show that interested parties will remain more than interested. For me, the inclusion of some beautifully cracked John Holmstrom collages were a particular highlight. There was also a wonderful array of zines dating from punk’s various Year Zeros forward–including the first issue of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, which is something like punk rock’s New Yorker.
I don’t know if its a negative criticism to say I wished I’d been able to actually read through the zines, perhaps they exist to make you want to investigate more deeply, but I also felt a little strange about the final room of the show, a small chamber in which the singles arrayed along the east wall of the gallery’s main space were being played. The music was great — I’d forgotten how enjoyable the spirited Clash knock-offs, Carl Gustav and the 84s, sounded — and, welcomely, the songs bled through to the rest of the exhibition, but there was a serenity to the space that was completely at odds with the sounds. Maybe a crew of friends and beer would have humanised or punk-ified it all. Just a serving suggestion for those visiting the Hayward.
Someday All the Adults Will Die: Punk Graphics 1971-1984 at Hayward Gallery, London until 4 November. For more information visit southbankcentre.co.uk