Glam! – The Performance of Style
Tate Liverpool; 8 February-12 May 2013
Curated by Darren Pih
Tate Liverpool exhibition attempts to explore glam culture and style, going beyond the well-known legacy of the music. Dave Jennings recommends a visit.
Tate Liverpool continues in a fine tradition of challenging exhibitions as it plays host to this show which attempts to do what is virtually impossible – define something as amorphous as ‘Glam’. How do you attempt to appeal to fans of the music of that most maligned of era’s as well as cater for those whose interest will undoubtedly be more focused on the artistic legacy? The answer is with great difficulty, but it’s to the credit of the curator that the exhibition largely succeeds in at least broadening understanding of the scope of the period, even if you can argue with the prevalence of the chosen subject matter.
The main pre-condition of the exhibition is that it is not an exercise in nostalgia but rather Glam is used ‘as a prism through which to view artistic developments in Europe and North America’. Therefore, don’t attend expecting to see a Bolan guitar or the original manuscript of ‘Take Me Back ‘ome’ (if it indeed exists). Musically, images of Bowie and Roxy Music dominate the first part of the show as perhaps can be expected considering the visual impact of both and the legacy of their music. The music fan will be engaged on entry as a wall of album covers and magazine articles from the likes of Sweet, Slade and even The Osmonds catch the eye. The 1967 classic ‘Something Else by The Kinks’ is also up there for reasons not entirely clear and leads to suspicions that some exhibits may have been rather forced to fit an agenda, rather than setting one as should be the case.
The photographs of Osmonds fans in Manchester in 1973, serves as a decent scene setter. However, the John McManus 16mm film, ‘Roxette’, which shows a group of friends from Salford preparing to attend a Roxy Music concert at Manchester Opera House is so much more effective in demonstrating the impact of Glam on the time than many of the more contrived pieces on offer. We see excitement build as make-up is prepared and individuals are picked up before excitedly arriving outside the gig. A captured moment in time that will resonate with many and one that speaks more for the millions of ordinary people for whom Glam surely meant something, than any number of photo shoots of transgender minor celebrities/hangers on.
This is possibly the crux of the whole show, how far are we seeing an individual’s vision of a period and its artistic influence as opposed to a representation of a largely music-based phenomenon that undoubtedly deserves a full critical re-appraisal? However, the Hockney piece ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ does give us a cultural reference point and is probably the centre-piece of the exhibition, but again you question if this is truly a strand of Glam or a snapshot of contemporary celebrity lifestyle. ‘Celebration? Realife 1972’, the mirror-ball installation with Bowie music failed to move us at all and seemed to bewilder more people than it fascinated whereas a photograph of celebrity wrestler Adrian Street, in full outrageous’ glam-style’ costume, at the pit-head with his miner father, says so much more about the true impact of the movement (if that’s what it was) on society at the time.
Through ‘Artifice and Eroticism’, to’ Glamscape USA’ and ‘Masquerade’ which further highlights the celebrity, hedonistic lifestyles which seem to dominate the show and maybe lead to the aims of it being a little obscured. A lot of this sits uncomfortably alongside the reality that most devotees of Glam in this country would be viewing their idols on black and white TV, if they had one at all. More Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy shots alongside the New York Dolls is juxtaposed with varying stages of ‘erotica’ and the omnipresent drag queens and sees the exhibition strangely peter out. A personal view would be that a stronger projection of the social context of the Glam period, in Britain particularly, would have given the exhibits added emphasis. We can’t judge a period from today’s perspective, but this was a particularly grim period in Post-War British history and Glam was an important form of escape for many.
Maybe it’s a good thing that you leave ‘Glam! The Performance of Style’ with a feeling of dissatisfaction and questions unanswered. That could be the whole point of the exhibition as how exactly can you attempt to define the artistic legacy of a music and fashion based era that never attempted to encourage norms or values among its followers. A visit is strongly recommended as any attempt to re-evaluate this era is welcome and could hopefully see further music and fashion–based exhibitions in future.
All words by Dave Jennings. More work by Dave Jennings on Louder Than War can be found here.