Horror and Creative Rebellion Collide In Somerset House's Latest Exhibition

by Christina Donoghue on 27 October 2022

Creative rebellion provides the backbone of Somerset House's latest exhibition, challenging our definition of horror and how we interact with it, packing work by David Bowie, Noel Fielding, Leigh Bowery, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Gareth Pugh all in one.

Creative rebellion provides the backbone of Somerset House's latest exhibition, challenging our definition of horror and how we interact with it, packing work by David Bowie, Noel Fielding, Leigh Bowery, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Gareth Pugh all in one.

Somerset House's horror show is every bit strange, silly and even somewhat shaky at times, but the one thing it promises to do it does not is scare. The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain charts the long history of horror and its part to play in disrupting the status quo, citing anyone and everyone whose designs have subverted over the years. From David Bowie to Leigh Bowery to Jake and Dinos Chapman and Noel Fielding and the Mighty Boosh; all these creatives are included under the guise of 'horror', and even though there's one thing that draws them all together (their ability to disarm, provoke and question) none of them have ever belonged to the genre of horror nor are their works seen in a new light.

The show aims to trace how modern horror has shaped British culture since the 1970s, celebrating 'our greatest cultural provocateurs and visionaries' and how the last five decades of - to put it politely - utter turmoil, have led to a 'creative rebellion' in Britain. There's no denying the latter, from the explosiveness of glam rock which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, to more modern artists who have never frayed from their efforts to dismantle 'the pillars of power' to quote curator Jane Pollard, yet the connecting theme of horror feels like an overwhelming afterthought at times, not that the curators don't already know this.

The Bromley Contingent by Ray Stevenson, 1978

Adamant the exhibition itself is not about the horror genre, senior curator Clare Catterall told the press at the opening that 'instead, this is about how British artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers and even authors have used horror as a tool for making sense of the world around us. This is about a reaction, not the cause.' In a private interview with joint curators alongside Catterall, Jane Pollard Iain Forsyth, Pollard said: 'When power structures or the kind of foundations that society is built on, when the rules and big pillars of power start to fail you, leaving you with bills you can't pay or a mortgage you can't afford, you look elsewhere, and sometimes, just sometimes, those needs of elsewhere transform into a magical alternative'.

You may think, 'what a perfect political shit storm we find ourselves in to give way to exhibitions like this' yet the truth of the matter is that Pollard and Forsyth, with Clare Catterall, have been working on this exhibition way before the pandemic even began, back in 2019. Intrigued by the brilliant timing of the show happening today, in the throes of a post-Brexit and pandemic era, all while we've been served three prime ministers in the space of three months, I asked Forsyth and Pollard if the pandemic has changed either their outlook on horror or the proposed show as a whole. 'It gave us a deep understanding of being in those sort of sharp moments, the type the previous generation faced with Thatcher, and so it was a very sharp end to be at when everything caved in', Forsyth admitted. 'When it first happened, nobody knew anything about it, life was put on permanent hold, and we had no idea whether we would really be able to gather with people in the same room ever again' Forsyth continued before Pollard chimed in. 'That's it, that unknowing meant we came back with a vengeance which amped up the sense of community and resilience.' Elaborating on the new added pressure to get this exhibition underway and do the artists involved a service, Pollard added, 'because we all kept in touch throughout the pandemic, the obvious joy that was felt when we all came back was contagious. Even now, you can feel it in the galleries and in the workplace; people have gone above and beyond for this show because at one point, we weren't sure if it was ever going to come to fruition. Everybody is so grateful that…' she pauses, 'I felt like we need this now more than ever'.

Monster On a Nice Roof, 1972

The problem isn't the objects on display, which as Forsyth and Pollard proudly tell me, 'come from the back of people's wardrobes rather than museum collections'; it's instead the mishmash curation that tries to lump everything into a category of horror. Their room of club kids also poses questions of 'what was so horrorful about the fabulousness of Leigh Bowery'; the problem starts to unravel when you realise that the reason behind Bowery's inclusion is literal, not metaphorical. 'We categorised the 70s and 80s into the theme of 'Monster' because it reflects this idea of people monstering themselves, like Leigh Bowery distorting himself and doing - to a certain point of view - quite grotesque things to himself,' Forsyth clarified. Although this statement didn't clarify anything for me, it just opened up a canon of even more questions.

If you're looking for a fun Halloween activity, then Somerset House's exhibition on horror will serve you a healthy dose of seasonal goodness. However, be wary of trying to find a deeper meaning or begin your journey of reevaluating the horror genre; you may be disappointed.

Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, 2011



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