At Tate Britain, Waldemar Januszczak finds Brit Art alive and well — and revelling grotesquely in the Fall
To find out why this crazy mouthful has been chosen as the title of this unusually grotesque show, you might wish to chew a handful of Quaaludes, drop an E, smoke some ketamine, wash it down with a bottle of tequila, a Jack Daniel’s chaser and a Cointreau, for instance, and then say: “In the Garden of Eden.” This, apparently, is the kind of title-seeking effort that led the front man of the noisy 1960s rock outfit Iron Butterfly to christen the band’s new album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. It was the best he could manage.
The story could be apocryphal, but it matters not, because even if it isn’t true, it damn well ought to be. Certainly, the three artists responsible for the madhouse of art that has now arrived at Tate Britain have borrowed the name on the assumption that this exotic verbal corruption is the consequence of squalor, decadence and excess. This isn’t a show about the Garden of Eden, or its moods. This is a show about the reasons for us getting thrown out of the garden, and the terrible, distasteful, distressing and ultimately fatal consequences of this eviction.
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida sounds like a Buddhist chant, don’t you think, or some cryptic Hindu advice from the Hare Krishna sect? But you would have your work cut out coming up with a less mystical display. The show contains, in no particular order of non-mystical presence, a giant block of Spam, a one-armed gorilla, a bucket representing the Virgin Mary’s vagina, a masturbating bomb, the pubic hair of Adam and Eve, a bloke on a toilet and the inside of a lorry-driver’s cab, plastered with pornographic cuttings from the tabloids. So it’s fair to say that this is not a traditionally religious experience or an obviously theological one.
Nor is it a coherent show, following any kind of logical paradisiacal route through its argument. How can it be? It has Hirst and Lucas in it. No. This is instead a manic open-plan duel, coming at you from all angles at once, between two of our most notorious Brit Artists, and Fairhurst, less notorious but a member of the same generation, disputing the theme of man’s inherent baseness. Religion comes into it. Paradise comes into it. But most of the show confronts the grimness of what we have become, to the accompaniment of loud peels of demented Brit Art laughter.
The horseplay begins with a huge glass tank from Hirst that’s as tall as a small church. It’s called The Pursuit of Oblivion, and it has floating in it a weighty assortment of familiar Hirstian symbols. There’s a dead cow in there, flayed and hanged; the cow’s head; a butcher’s table; knives; hourglasses; skulls; sausages; and an umbrella. The composition, if that is not too proper a word for this chaotic assemblage, is based on a mysterious Bacon painting from 1946, featuring just such an umbrella and just such a cow’s corpse. Bacon, I remember, used to claim that the weird black umbrella began as a painting of a crow that went wrong. But he liked it. So he left it. Thus, the same kinds of accidental creative forces that turned In the Garden of Eden into In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida worked on Bacon to change a crow into an umbrella.
It is no accident that Bacon came up with his grim butcher’s shop at the exact end of the second world war. His painting sought to evoke that old chestnut: the horror of human existence. Hirst, too, is constantly reminding us of the terrifying briefness of life. In The Pursuit of Oblivion, he does it on a symphonic scale, and perhaps a touch too obviously. Real tropical fish swim around the weightily symbolic fragments, like sharks exploring a wreck, and their elusive beauty constantly compares itself with the immobile dead meat and the skulls.
Hirst has put a mighty effort into this exhibition. He has 14 new pieces on show, and the eviction-from-paradise theme is, of course, right up his street, because so much of his art is about mortality. For me, the most successful of his many contributions were the simplest. Among these is the genuine corpse of a six-legged calf suspended in formaldehyde, entitled, so very accusingly, In His Infinite Wisdom. And a superb life-size tableau called Adam and Eve Exposed, which features two bodies on hospital tables, a man and a woman, each of whom has a fig-leaf-shaped hole cut into their sheet, exposing their worryingly real-looking genitals. Examine these two bodies carefully and you will see them breathing. Hilarious. Heretical. Hirst at his best.
The other heavyweight exhibitor is, of course, the Boadicea of the Holloway Road, Sarah Lucas, whose energetic man-bashing is pursued here with quite extra- ordinary savagery. Lucas is an utterly fearless artist. She has a piece here called Mary, which consists of two light bulbs where the virgin’s breasts should be and a red bucket where her womb is. Alongside Mary hangs a full-size crucified Jesus made entirely of cigarettes. He’s attached to a giant cross of St George, of the sort that football hooligans wave at England games.
Thus, Lucas’s theological interest in the paradise legend is confined chiefly, you feel, to the light it throws on the behaviour of us blokes, who haven’t changed since Adam’s first poke. All we are interested in is sex. And going to war. Her art makes this point over and over again as it rubs your nose in a set of perfectly evoked working-class textures. The Stinker, which is apparently slang for a sex tourist, consists of a giant phallus, made of cigarettes, raping an adolescent pair of female tights. Spam Zeppelin is a penis-coloured zeppelin, suspended from the roof, that has sprouted an arm. This arm is going up and down in a gesture all drivers will recognise from their own motoring experiences in the so-called developed world. You can complain that Lucas’s art is shrill, unsophisticated, man-bashing. Or you can look around you and agree that she recognises the modern British male’s regression into his own prehistory so very clearly. I belong to the second camp.
The third musketeer — Angus Fairhurst, the sensible one — is, alas, blown out of the water by the big guns trained on the show by Hirst and Lucas. His best piece features a large black gorilla examining its own reflection in some water, Narcissus-style. I recognised the big, vain simian immediately. He’s every guy who ever walked this earth.
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is an uneven event, with some pieces working far better than others. It is not particularly progressive, either. Hirst and Lucas have both shown precisely this sort of work before. But the show has fire in its guts, lots of it, and that’s rare at the Tate.