There is a pattern of condescension towards popular culture by the self-appointed stewards of so-called ‘high culture’, which regulates not only the art-world but also the dominant social order itself. Many of its self-reproducing discourses coalesce around a denial of the social, which can often lapse into either elitism or cultural conservatism. Matthew Arnold’s (1869) Culture and Anarchy typifies this tradition. Its titular ‘anarchy’ not only signifies the debasement of culture proper but also the threat to bourgeois hegemony of an organised industrial proletariat, beginning to invent their own cultural forms and demand political representation. Cultural work then is never purely aesthetic, nor neutral, and always political.
The exhibition Ecstatic Rituals tackles this inheritance head on, celebrating the organic folk culture of the East Riding of Yorkshire as a riposte to 2017’s state-sanctioned place-branding exercise – ‘Hull: City of Culture’. This small exhibition of fourteen works by six artists, in the gallery project space, takes the Hull Fair as its starting point. Now one of Europe’s largest travelling funfairs, its origins as a carnival event date back to 1273. Curatorially, the exhibition attempts a Bakhtinian ‘carnivalesque’ of political-theatrical art, bringing folk traditions as diverse as love-locks, medieval public punishment, and Blackpool raves into critical juxtaposition with more sanitised images of civic life.
The most ‘carnivalesque’ work on show is certainly that of Faye Spencer, whose ‘Meat Party’ (2014-19) watercolours present contorted and naked bodies, conjoined Chapman Brothers style in an orgiastic wall of flesh. As a companion piece, Spencer has installed two plinths across the gallery decorated with similarly grotesque bodies from which demons can be summoned in the form of two waving inflatable tube men; the kind hired to dramatise the openings of local shopping centres or pre-match sports entertainment. Sporting unsettling May Fool makeup, their names ‘Flatus’ and ‘Bellows’ also suggest an excellently Rabelaisian pun on farting.
Equally Bakhtinian, in the revolutionary sense, is Tom Ireland’s five work installation ‘The Triumph of Freedom’ (2015/2019) which revisits 1989, the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Thatcher’s ‘age of no alternatives’. Exploring the intersections of culture, economics, and managed regional decline, the work feels very timely. It is difficult to watch the nauseating neo-liberal triumphalism of the 1989 Tory party conference today and not draw parallels with the contemporary political conjuncture. As the ‘anarchy’ of alienated working-class youth, whose political significance is often ignored, the euphoric and collective release of rave culture is evoked brilliantly through videos of sweaty warehouses and the eye-popping fluoro of the fly-posters on the wall.
This is all great fun. At the same time, unless I am mistaken, there is no actual community art in this exhibition, raising an important issue with such shows. Unlike Jeremy Deller’s The ‘Battle of Orgreave’ (2001), ‘Folk Archive’ (2000-present), or rave documentary ‘Everybody is in the Place’ (2019), in Ecstatic Rituals the community is only indexed. For example, in the collaborative fabrication processes of Eggleton and Steans’ beautifully sanded medieval stocks, simultaneously disciplinary and modernist, or the ravers in Ireland’s videos, or the Hull-specific symbolism of turnips and floats in Anna FC Smith’s papier-mâché and ceramic work ‘Stuf Thi Ship With Vitayll (All This World About)’ (2019). However, the simulacra of social practice is not the same as social practice. Given this, it is difficult to imagine how a show which doesn’t explicitly involve actors outside the art-world’s apparatus can escape complicity with the cultural elitism it seeks to parody, and whose techniques of cultural appropriation it reproduces.
Ecstatic Rituals is at Humber St Gallery, Hull, from 7 September – 20 October 2019.
Richard Hudson-Miles is an artist and writer based in West Yorkshire.