Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) begins with a description of a Soho stationery shop run by Adolf Verloc, an anarchist and agent provocateur. His shop-front, we are told, ‘contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls […] ancient French comic publications […] a dingy blue china bowl […] a few books with titles hinting at impropriety [and] a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers [such as] the Torch [and] the Gong – rousing titles.’ This curious display was the organizing principle for ‘Hyperborean Manners’, a group exhibition of mostly printed matter by 20 artists, artists’ groups, theorists and activists, curated by Rob Tufnell. The show took its name from Verloc’s description of the comportment of his handler, the foreign diplomat Mr Vladimir – in Greek mythology ‘Hyperborean’ refers to the people who lived in a land of sunshine beyond the north wind, though the word was employed in the 19th century to describe either frozen zones populated by barbarians or (conversely) communities of forward-looking thinkers. Accordingly, savagery and intellectual idealism (and the tragicomic overlapping of the two) were the show’s abiding themes, along with the notion of collecting as a necessarily anarchic enterprise. Any group of objects, after all, will contain commonalities and contradictions – they will both prop up an argument and whip its legs clean away.
Hung salon-style or arranged in vitrines, many of the works in ‘Hyperborean Manners’ functioned as stand-ins for the items in Verloc’s window: Anton Beeke’s 1970 photographic series ‘Untitled Alphabet’, in which naked young women spell out the letters A–Z, related to images of ‘undressed dancing girls’; Bernard Leach’s lithograph Fish Vase (1974) to a ‘blue china bowl’; and the pneumatic, tungsten-nippled protagonist of John Kent’s The New Varoomshka Bumper Colouring Book Annual (1975) to the euphemistic category of ‘French cartoons’. Books and pamphlets with titles that were ‘rousing’, or ‘hinted at impropriety’ abounded, from a publication by self-taught artist (and self-proclaimed International Brigadier and one-time henchman of Al Capone) Jack Bilbo, Famous Nudes By Famous Artists (1946), to first editions of art critic and ICA-founder Herbert Read’s tracts Anarchy and Order (1954) and To Hell with Culture (1963). In among this material, an untitled 1969 poster published by the British Situationist group King Mob arranged Andy Capp-like silhouettes of working-class men boozing and taking pot-shots at policemen around a 19th-century Luddite proclamation that ‘Labring Peple Cant Stand it NO LONGER [sic]’, while Humphrey Spender’s photograph (Jarrow Crusade Arriving in London, 1936/2009) and Wolfgang Suchitzky’s 1962 shot of Bertrand Russell at a CND rally in Trafalgar Square seemed, in this text-heavy show, to call for action, rather than more fine or not-so-fine words. Here and there, works by contemporary artists punctuated this historical stuff, literally so in Mike Cooter’s suite of five prints The Last Page (2008), which presents facsimiles of the afterword of the second edition of the autobiography of the eccentric Massachusetts businessman Timothy Dexter who, in answer to complaints that the first edition contained no commas or full-stops, provided 13 lines of them, so readers could ‘peper and solt [sic]’ the text ‘as they plese [sic]’. A different grammar was in operation in David Musgrave’s Large Plane (2006), where a series of folds, tears and dabs of Sellotape on a drawing of a huge-headed stick figure were nothing more than effects conjured by the artist’s pencil. This work’s inclusion seemed to purposefully question just what the pleasures of much of the earlier material might be. When we look at, say, Jamie Reid’s sticker Last Days (1972), in which the agitator and Sex Pistols collaborator welcomes the ‘pending collapse of monopoly capitalism’, is what seduces its attractive fading and foxing, or its attractively distant and (perhaps) irredeemable political dreams?
Thoughtfully selected and beautifully installed, ‘Hyperborean Manners’ was not an exercise in rummaging around the back of the leftist wardrobe in order to borrow a bit of radical chic. Rather, it continually questioned what and how the highly charged historical artefacts it brought together might now mean. Conrad writes that, sometimes in Verloc’s shop, ‘one of the faded, yellow dancing girls would get sold to an amateur, as though she had been alive and young’. It’s precisely this possibility that ‘Hyperborean Manners’ courted and (almost, but not quite, contradictorily) critiqued.
First published in Issue 129