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Afraid Of The Dark: Horror At Somerset House
Robert Barry , December 10th, 2022 11:07

From the outrageous to the grotesque, The Horror Show currently on view at Somerset House features melon-twisting work by Anne Bean, Laura Grace Ford, Jeremy Millar and others

The Horror Show! (c) Barnbrook; Somerset House

From Thursday 11th October to Saturday 15th 1988, Leigh Bowery was on display at the Antony D’Offay Gallery in London. Not his work, him. Bowery himself. Wearing a different costume each day, he sat in a glass box, surrounded by two-way mirrors, and looked at himself. Meanwhile, gallery-goers – lots of them, by the sounds of it – filed in and looked back at him, watching Bowery watch himself. Thanks to a film made by Dick Jewell (with additional camerawork by Cerith Wyn Evans), we get to watch them too.

Currently on display as part of Somerset House’s major group exhibition, The Horror Show, Jewell’s short What’s Your Reaction to the Show? asked the eponymous question to visitors of the D’Offay gallery that fateful autumn in 1988. Their responses ranged from the baffled (“I didn’t understand what it was all about,”) to the high-flown (“Goya-esque”), from the intrigued (“Highly interesting!”) to the appalled (“shocking!”). Several interviewees describe themselves as “fans” – even, in one case, a “psycho fan”. Several more comment on the crowds, the heat, and the number of “people with cameras”, taking pictures of themselves inn front of the work – a forerunner of today’s museum selfie culture.

One of Jewell’s subject’s suggests the show may be prophetic in another way: “Outrageousness,” he says, “is maybe a new form of art.”

Some idea of what the contours of such a new form might resemble can be gleaned from some of the exhibits in the adjoining rooms: Dennis Morris’s photo of the band Steel Pulse posing with twi lip-sticked women in Ku Klux Klan masks; Nurse With Wound’ appropriation of fetish wear in Steven Stapleton’s original artwork for the sleeve of Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of A Sewing Machine And An Umbrella; lots and lots of leftover bits and bobs from the brief spurt of punk rock in the late 70s, from photos of the Bromley Contingent sprawled on the floor of a graffit-strewn flat to Poly Styrene’s old Stahlheim military helmet.

There is a great deal of memorabilia on display in The Horror Show. Cabinets stuffed with flyers and mixtapes and old photos and even a letter scrawled by Mark E. Smith, preserved like holy relics touched by the anointed. Whatever ‘outrage’ such sanctified objects might once have possessed is surely neutered by the glass cabinets that house them. A lion tearing open your tent in the open savanna is scary. A lion in a cage at the zoo is not.

But there are other paths to our fear centres and more insidious horrors at work here. Consider the uncanny dread experienced by Jeremy Millar when he completed his startlingly photorealistic Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows) (2010), whiskers, warts and all. “I didn’t quite realise the implications of depicting myself in such a way, and the horror of seeing oneself as if dead,” he is quoted as saying on one of the exhibition’s wall panels. “I really thought that I must be dead, as there was my corpse, which meant that I wasn’t sure who was ‘me’ looking at it. It was terrifying.”

11. The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain at Somerset House, London 2022. Image by Stephen Chung for Somerset House

Back in 1994, Millar had proposed the installation of an ‘Institute of Cultural Anxiety’ at the ICA in London. Responding to the gallery’s open call for curated exhibitions, the British artist placed works by Bosh and Douglas Gordon beside fallen meteorites and the helmet of a speedracer who died trying to break a record. And in the midst of it all, an endless loop of Keir Dullea in 2001 meeting himself as an old man in an eerie, brightly lit room with incongruous neoclassical furniture. Another encounter with the self and with one’s own fragile mortality.

Anne Bean takes sensual delight in a grotesque, Cronenbergian body horror. In her (1981) short film Paussus, the artist explores a becoming-beetle, secreting a dark, viscous fluid from her mouth in extreme close-up, wiggling her blackened tongue and smearing the pitch about her face to a voiceover calmly explaining the lifecycle of the eponymous insect. The creature enjoys a relationship at once symbiotic and parasitic with the ant kingdom, ingratiating itself into their nexts and drugging them with a secretion that leaves them delirious but vulnerable, “inducing the greatest ecstasy while doing the greatest harm possible.” I know the feeling. A sickly, visceral delight.

For Laura Grace Ford, London itself is a haunted house. In the installation, An Undimmed Aura (2022), the Savage Messiah author re-imagines the city’s edgelands as a ghost story worthy of M.R. James, “a vast, barely-drawn world” captured in the images of bleak underpasses and shuttered pubs which paper the walls. The room throbs to a soundscape of twilight howls and thrums, electronics growling relentlessly like unquiet spirits, as a voice leads us down a “path lost to Google.” There is no better guide to the forgotten corners of the city, those streets still unsnapped by the developer’s brochure. Ford crafts a sharp-eyed science-fiction of the present, a glimpse behind the curtain at the horror of daily life.

Interviewed by Maggie Dunlap in 2020, the writer Charlie Fox defined the haunted house as “a psychedelic environment … where the ordinary rules of reality don’t apply.” The new art of outrage heralded on the steps of Anthony D’Offay Gallery may finally have birthed the grand guignol spectacle of the 90s YBA scene. But for all their mastery of mass media shock and awe, the likes of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst lacked any sense of that mind-bending quality (which Bowery himself had in spades). In amongst the nostalgia and the hauntological kitsch, Somerset House’s lavish group show threads a different path through recent art history, one which emphasises the weird, the uncanny, and the hallucinatory. The Horror Show is a trip.