At the Royal College of Art, I performed at student shows sawing women in half, dancing with a dummy woman that disintegrated. The staff called this “silly bugger activity”. I left with a first class degree and a silver medal.
If you thought true surrealism died with that epitome of eccentricity Salvador Dali then think again. Bruce Lacey is a serious contender as his modern day equivalent. Co-curated by Jeremy Deller and Prof. David Mellor, the exhibition at Camden Arts Centre takes us on a rollercoaster through Lacey’s life and work, elements which regularly intertwine.
Indicating all the while the influence Lacey has clearly had on Deller’s work, the show is streaked with humour and uses Lacey’s real life experiences and artefacts as the medium to build an enchanting portrait. Lacey’s own commentary serves to bring us that much closer to the artist himself. You feel at times as if you know him. You want to know him. The stark contrast between the dry academic text of colossal Tate exhibitions and the colloquial storytelling soliloquised here, is palpable. I can’t see Damien Hirst being up for this. But that’s why it is so absorbing. You don’t feel as if you’re just looking; you’re experiencing, interacting. Quite literally in the case of the machines. As with the Deller exhibition, walking around the show I felt a genuine connection with the person. Some artists are able to do that. Some cant. Some don’t want to. Humour plays a big part in developing this feeling, as does text. Writing, especially about yourself, can create the illusion with the reader of an emotional bond. You are sharing yourself with them. Something about the visual artefact is inherently more detached.
Lacey has spent his life sharing and interacting. As a performance artist, a definition which came to him accidentally as he tried to choose between performing or art, his visual artefacts are rarely just that. As a student of the Royal Academy his paintings were brooding and muted. Technically capable but lacking in the vivacity he clearly embodies. A nearby film playing in the exhibition explains how he took up knife throwing and cabaret style performance whilst at the RA. Now that’s more like it.
You wonder if his childhood could really have had such a dramatic effect as it seems. He describes with gusto his memories as a child of play-acting, magic shows and amateur family cabaret then recreates it both with his own children and adult themed in his later work. His uncle, a pilot, inspired him to enter the army as an electrics engineer, a short career which allowed him to later recreate large-scale adult versions of the robot figures he played with as a child. The wooden robot is displayed poignantly, alongside a toy Indian, again a recurring theme in his work and in his 80s rituals. Are these links real or fabricated? As with this type of biographical art it is hard to know what is technically true and what may have been added to create a narrative. There are no rules here, no disclaimer stating ‘no actors were used’. This is art. And art can be whatever it wants to be. It ultimately forces you to stop trying to define it and to just go with it. Experience the experience.
Engaging with his machines is certainly an experience. I was very lucky to visit the exhibition at a time when the machines were turned on and it would have been a great loss had they not been. Juxtaposed with the machines, some of which seemed to watch you with their grinning, painted and unseeing eyes, is an array of memorabilia. Again, unlike many background exhibition documentation, this selection is absorbing. Without even reading it, in fact even by just casting a glance across the face of the case, with it’s explicit imagery and technicolor palette, you grow to know more of the man. By this point you are expecting more monty python-esque antics and even as you start to examine the machines you are looking for the joke. Sometimes there is one. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be. Like me, you might now be slightly perplexed. Until you read his commentary and realise there isn’t meant to be a joke, at least not implicitly. In his own words he describes them as the “equivalent of witches sticking pins in statues of people”. Ah, here is the legendary dark side of the comedian.
The machines are a fascinating combination of science, art, humour and politics. The Politician ’64 instructs you to press a button and place your hand into a great gaping, toothy mouth from whence you soon feel hot air being blown onto your skin and you get the joke. But pieces such as Clock Face, ’62 unsettle our equilibrium and tap into our latent fear of the machine. The irony is not lost on me. We worship the machine. Technology has almost developed into a new religion in modern times. But essentially we fear it’s capabilities, as we probably should. The terror of Arnie and the T300 still linger in the memories of our consciousness. What if they got too clever? Came alive? With their logical detachment and emotional void? Scary stuff. But perhaps that’s the point? This was, after all, around the time of major technological advancement, our first visit to the moon, a subject which Lacey and his wife Jill Bruce parodied in their 1969 performance The British Landing on the Moon.
Since his introduction to art as a recovering TB patient, Lacey has considered his work as his psychotherapy, his method of coping with and expressing his feelings about life and humanity. He says of his machines “I hated Pop Art as it was the very opposite of what I was concerned with – the state of the world around me: war, famine, spare-part surgery. It was satisfying to make these things using consumer objects and technology – to criticise the very society that had made them.” Though his machines sometimes seem to criticise life, his performances are funny and engaging, his thesis at the RA cleverly detailing the merits of humour in all aspects of life. His later 80’s rituals are a complete celebration of nature, moving away from the modernisation which so frustrated him and inspiring him to return to paint, resulting in some beautiful mural-style hangings.
It is often difficult to separate Lacey’s life and work, indeed perhaps we are not meant to. Although he notes the start of his technical art production as1946, you sense that he was instinctively cultivating his performance art from a young age. It is as if Lacey himself is the artwork, the pieces created by him secondary works, which serve to build up a portrait of a whole; a man who never lived the straight line, and is all the more fascinating for it.
All works are copyright Bruce Lacey