The Horror Show! review – the bands, TV shows and artists who exposed Britain’s sinister psyche | Art

RThe severed head of eece Shearsmith rests on a purple cushion, eyes open, mouth gaping. The actor and writer’s bonce is a prop in 2018’s Halloween Inside No 9 special in which he and Steve Pemberton play each other in a live-action show that goes eerily awry, as malevolent ghosts invade a television studio. It is exhibited here not as a joke or a curiosity, but as a relic of idealism. Fans of dark comedy Inside No 9 will know that its creators have a genuine passion for horror, fully shared by this witch’s cauldron of an exhibition.

The Chemist’s Boy is Here to See You by Kerry Stewart, 1993. Photo: Courtesy of Kerry Stewart

It’s not a London Dungeon shop of horrors, which doesn’t mean there isn’t fear. Kerry Stewart’s 1993 installation The Boy From the Chemist Is Here to See You certainly gave me goosebumps. It consists of a door with a frosted glass panel through which the refracted face of a child is seen, effectively a charity box figure, its painted painted features adding to the unease.

This unholy marriage of concept art and supernatural terror is strong evidence of The Horror Show’s claim that the gothic subculture is the real splinter virus of the modern British imagination. The story told here begins with the hypnotic singing of Bela Lugosi’s Dead by the gothic pioneers of the Bauhaus, arguing with every echoing beat that punk has always been gothic and that gothic is its natural evolution.

The show manages to say something new about the well-worn story of Britain’s 1970s youth rebellion: instead of the now-cliched images of artist Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols, it includes his painting of a green monster owl-like giant materializing on top of a suburban home. Monster on a Nice Roof dreams of impossible creatures coming to destroy normality. Another one of those monsters from beyond materializes when you encounter one of 6ft 3in performance artist Leigh Bowery’s costumes, her green leather mask, fake breasts and cape towering over you .

The Monster on a Pretty Roof by Jamie Reid, 1972.
The Monster on a Pretty Roof by Jamie Reid, 1972. Photography: Jamie Reid. Courtesy of John Marchant Gallery

The devil is in the details, as they say, and it’s the curators’ enthusiasm – artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, and Somerset House’s Claire Catterall – for the mysteries of pop culture that makes their thesis so rich. and knotty as a forest. Who knew Mark E Smith of the Fall was a fan of the late Victorian horror writer Arthur Machen, author of The Great God Pan? They do, and they prove it with letters from Smith to the Arthur Machen Society. Another echo of classic horror literature is the sequence of artwork created by Richard Wells for Mark Gatiss’ recent BBC dramatization of MR James’s The Mezzotint: as you study the antiquated engravings of a country house, at first glance identical, a ghostly figure begins to make its way across the lawn towards you.

There is a romanticism at the heart of this exhibition, a quest for a dream of eldritch Britain that is always a little out of reach. Director Nic Roeg has a case of his own: he includes his copy of the Daphne du Maurier stories that inspired his masterpiece Don’t Look Now. Elsewhere there are black-and-white shots from Robin Hardy’s folk horror directorial The Wicker Man and Christopher Lee’s personal screenplay.

The Return of the Repressed3 by Jake and Dinos Chapman.
The Return of the Repressed3 by Jake and Dinos Chapman. Photography: Jake and Dinos Chapman

You can’t blame an exhibit called The Horror Show for wallowing in nostalgia. Horror isn’t healthy and it’s not meant to be. Joy Division nostalgia is a good example. Ian Curtis, lead singer of the terrifyingly handsome Manchester band, had already died by suicide when we teenagers of the 1980s passed around their records like holy relics. Yet Curtis haunts this exhibition – and even, it seems, modern British art. Kevin Cummins’ photograph of a snowy Manchester highway, ethereally slipping from gloomy reality into ghostly nothingness, is from his filming of the band in January 1979. Graham Dolphin’s 2012 sculpture Door (Joy Division Version) takes you tears up a decade later: it appears to be a doorway preserved from a long-demolished squat, painted a sepulchral pale gray, covered in graffiti – ‘RIP IAN’, ‘IAN C’.

Self-Portrait Drowned (The Willows), 2011, by Jeremy Millar.
Self-Portrait Drowned (The Willows), 2011, by Jeremy Millar. Photography: Jeremy Millar. Courtesy of the artist.

This ghostly doorway is shown opposite photographs of Rachel Whiteread’s house, the most enduring but also elusive monument of modern British art: this concrete cast of a demolished house was itself demolished, a masterpiece that survives only as a ghost. We are provocatively invited to compare Whiteread and Joy Division as artists.

Trojan & Mark at Taboo, London, 1986, by Derek Ridgers.
Trojan & Mark at Taboo, London, 1986, by Derek Ridgers. Photography: Derek Ridgers/Courtesy of Derek Ridgers Publishing

There is another Brittany, this exhibition convinces you, which exists only as a canvas of imagination, a phantom kingdom which defies the reality of everyday life like a phantom channel taking over your TV. One Tory obsession is the infamous BBC Ghostwatch from 1992, which appeared to be a live broadcast interrupted by supernatural powers. This is shown in strange fragments. You can see why viewers freaked out – and why Inside No 9 recreated it.

I’m starting to think that all contemporary art exhibitions should be curated by artists. Pollard and Forsyth don’t get caught up in the laborious rationalities that often overwhelm shows. You have to think like an artist to be able to connect so many gothic strands, strike a funny yet serious pose, and leave us unsure whether to laugh, scream, or cry.

A great comedy moment is Bollo the Gorilla’s mask from The Mighty Boosh. This connects well with Angus Fairhurst’s Pietà, a photo of himself cradled naked and seemingly dead in the arms of a stuffed gorilla. Fairhurst, who died in 2008, is another of the exhibit’s ghosts, walking in the shadows here, whispering about the resilient power of art.

The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain is at Somerset House, London, from October 27 to February 19.

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