Glamism: the era of glam rock examined

There is a bright winter sun on my face as I approach the Albert Dock on a February afternoon.  Tate Liverpool, which stands on the banks of the river Mersey, was the first Tate gallery outside of London when it opened in 1988.  Having this international brand within its midst is a vital part of the Liverpool art ecology and expectations for its exhibitions are high.  The shows are often thematic, although they have had monographic exhibitions here; generally the usual western canonical art suspects. What Tate Liverpool does with its new show Glam! The Performance of Style, is quite different; it is attempting to reposition the popular music style of the 1970s ~ glam ~ as an art movement.

Alight the lift on the 4th floor and enter gallery to the left. At first it feels like you might have taken a wrong turn and instead of a contemporary art gallery, you have entered a museum.  Borrowing a different kind of display methodology isn’t a good or bad thing; in fact it seems appropriate for an exhibition dealing with homage, artifice and appropriation. Tate coyly describes this presentation of books, posters, ephemera and stage costume as a ‘glamscape’ – in keeping with contemporary art’s recent obsession with the ‘scape’ suffix. But before it can get down to the business of assessing the era critically, the exhibition needs to introduce us to the style.

Glam rock developed simultaneously in the UK and the US before being exported all over the world by musicians such as David Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed.  It was characterised by flamboyancy, explorations of gender and identity, glitter, flared trousers, hedonism, drama, glamour ~ the word abbreviated to christen the style ~ and an interdisciplinary approach.  Glam was a medium to explore the points where music, art and life crossed over, diverged and blurred.  The performance art of the ‘Nice Style Pose Band’ helps us to understand this idea; they look like a musical group but they are in fact just a group of art students appropriating the haircuts, costumes and props of glam without the music. From here we can see how Tate is able include artists Gilbert & George in the exhibition; if ‘glam’ is essentially concerned with ‘performance’ as the exhibition strap line suggests, maybe the term can describe ‘living sculptures?’

The exhibition is so vast and visually rich it is easy to be distracted from the critical discourse.  Many video and audio tracks play at once, with a familiar song occasionally breaking the surface of the noise.  In front of your eyes cherries, lipsticks, afros and leopard-print crash and clash into each other.  Tate could easily have included work by contemporary visual artists, such as Grayson Perry or Mark Titchner who it could be said are influenced by glam, but it deliberately doesn’t do this. The exhibition applies its microscope only to work produced in the 1970s, leaving it to the viewer to consider glam’s legacy. For me this includes reassessing the music I listened to as a teenager in the 1990s (such as Marilyn Manson and Rachel Stamp) and seeing the face of glam, thick with makeup, staring straight back.

In its attempt to reframe glam as an artistic ‘ism,’ the exhibition could have made more of the parallels with ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’, the British ‘anti-modern’ art movement. The leaders of the 19th-century group were the drug-taking, bohemian ‘rock stars’ of their day who ~ like the champions of glam ~ looked to the past and the future for references instead of dealing with the ‘now’.  In spite of this rejection of the present, both glam and Pre-Raphaelitism need to be considered in their historical context.  Tate explains that in 1973 the UK plunged into recession, glam providing a distraction from unemployment and hardship, while in the US, men used alternative lifestyles to help them escape the draft into the US army who were fighting a war in Vietnam. Like any art movement, glam is inextricably linked to time, place and social change. In David Parkinson’s photograph ‘Mr Freedom Seaside Shoot’ 1971 we can see a wide generation gap developing between young people and their parents.  Nearby, photographer Martin Parr turns his documentary lens on music fans who have customised their clothing with hearts and photographs of their idols; the images look humorous to the modern eye, but demonstrate the intensity of feeling that glam inspired.

It is possible to skim across the surface of this show, drinking in nostalgic sips and not taking it terribly seriously. But as I travel onwards through this story, I begin to feel troubled by the gender equality or lack of.  The boys seem to be having fun, but the women artists ~ including Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke ~ seem to be dealing sadly with the burden of their own existence.  Too many of the women in this exhibition are not cultural producers at all, they are visual material; breasts on display, appearing as geishas, prostitutes or adorned with a red phallus in the photograph ‘Polka Dot Pin Up’ 1972-3 by Karl Stoecker.  Margaret Harrison, is a lone voice critiquing the pornification of the female form: she makes her sexy ladies ridiculous, by having them straddle over-sized bananas and lemons.

Tate have commissioned many prominent writers  including Michael Bracewell, Mike Kelley and the curator of the exhibition, Darren Pih, to help convince us that visual artworks including Richard Hamilton’s skilled painting ‘Soft Pink Landscape’ 1971-2, Jack Goldstein’s electrifying film ‘The Jump’ 1978 and Jack Smith’s complex photographs belong within the critical framework of glam.  But as I stand in ‘Celebration?’ 1972-2000, Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation, with specs of light from a disco ball lapping at my feet like water, I think: there is so much style in this exhibition; can there possibly be any substance?  Whether or not you leave the gallery wholeheartedly convinced that glam is an art movement, the exhibition certainly helps to promote the idea that art history and history are essentially one and the same.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

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