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Exhibition: How To Improve The World

I went to the opening of this show but couldn't bear to put its full title in the header, since conjoining the first part to the second, which runs "60 Years of British Art", has an unfortunate whiff of colonialism about it (unintentional I'm sure, perhaps its meant to be 'ironic'). It also leads me to ask in contracted anagrammatic fashion 'who put the shit in British?' The exhibition actually celebrates 60 years of the Arts Council Collection, and obviously raises a number of interesting questions about collecting policies and patronage, However, since the opening was a PR triumph (in other words it was so packed you could hardly move), I'd have to go back and get a proper look at the work to deal intelligently with those issues.

Word had got around that there was a shed load of free booze on offer and people arrived expecting a good time, which with four bars offering a wide variety of free drinks they got (although in true Britisher style you had to queue for the gratis booze). The bar with the champagne was far too crowded to be doing with, so I went for cocktails on the sculpture court. I don't much like champagne anyway. I did try to get beer on the other outside court but became so fed up with queuing I gave up. However, I successfully grabbed a butterbean pie, which was very hot (straight from an oven, not spicy) and stodgy. I guess the choice of food was to emphasise the Britishness of the night, and it filled a hole but also ranked as among the least sophisticated grub I've seen doled out at an art opening.

There were various performances and speeches but I managed to miss all that; I guess they took place in the downstairs galleries whereas I was mainly upstairs. I did see a lot of people I know, but then the Hayward is a big place and it was mobbed. Among those I spoke to were Kodwo Eshun, Gustav Metzger and Adam Dant. Adam's wife Melissa told me I looked like a football hooligan and said she preferred my hair long and curly, not short and cropped as it was on the night. The comment was indicative of how long it was since I'd last seen Melissa, since I only get the urge to grow my hair out into a white Afro about once every five years (takes too much effort to maintain, including washing every day, compared to a crop). I first met Adam about sixteen years ago when he played guitar with south coast feakbeat outfit The Fire Dept., so as our friendship predates his art world fame, its all rock and roll to me.

Of the people I didn't know who were hanging around it was the 2003 Turner Prize winner Garyson Perry who cut the sorriest figure: he was present as his transvestite alter-ego Claire. I can dig a good transvestite when they work really hard at being a woman (just look at some of those around Warhol's Factory who were truly inspirational). The trouble with Perry (opps, I meant Claire) is that he (I can't even bring myself to say she) looks like what he is; a bloke in a blonde wig and blue dress. Really darling you ought to give it up because you simply aren't "man enough to be a woman". That said, I do understand why he does it this way; Perry was allegedly part of the long defunct neo-Naturist art group and although I went to some stuff they did in Chelsea (west London) around 1984 and can remember the likes of Jennifer Binnie doing her thing, I have no recollection of him. Which to me explains why he's taken on his Claire persona; he does being a chick so badly you're bound to remember him - and there's something very sadly British about 'heroic failure' of this type as a route to fame.

Moving on, the deejaying on the terrace bar was pretty odd. Leaving aside a load of dreadful indie rock, it went from Status Quo's "Pictures Of Matchstick Men" (from their early pop-psychedelic incarnation of the sixties) via late seventies obscurities like "New Wave Love" by The Dole to "Do Anything You Wanna Do" by The Hot Rods and then back to glam with a risqué spinning of "Rock & Roll Part 1" by pop pervert Gary Glitter. But even more bizarrely at the end of the night as an expensive firework display went off outside the gallery, the deejay played the 1974 Eurovision song contest winner "Waterloo" by Abba. Appropriate and inappropriate at the same time - the Hayward is situated between Waterloo Bridge and Waterloo Station - and the lyrics are about (sexual) surrender ("so how could I ever refuse/I feel like I win when I loose"), so they acted as an unkind comment on much of the current British art establishment (which appears to be rolling over and submitting to the political establishment). Public funding for the arts in the UK (most notably in the form of the Arts Council) is shrinking quite dramatically in real terms, although I don't think we're going to witness the apocalypse some of those who belong to the chattering classes have been jabbering about recently. "Waterloo Sunset" by The Kinks would have been perhaps a tad too melancholy and too British for the last record of the night...

Thomas Hirschhorn (discussion)

Marine Hugonnier (review of 2008 London show)

Chicks On Speed (feminist art/music/fashion collective)

Saturday Nite In Shoreditch (an east London art scene social crawl)


Stewart Home in Melbourne 2004

Stewart Home tells it how it is...