Banksy is not the only artist to give short shrift to the festive season. God bless ’em, one and all, says Waldemar Januszczak
Personally, all I see when I look at Christmas is a fantasy celebration of a fantasy anniversary kept alive entirely by mercenary imperatives. But I recognise, of course, that Christmas is a state of mind, so, this year, instead of moping around grumbling about the commercialisation of it all, I thought I would at least have a stab at thinking about it in a different way by hurrying along to an exhibition of the work of Noble and Webster that has opened at the Freud Museum. A hurried perusal of the press release for their show, called Polymorphous Perverse, had flashed the words “young children” and “mechanical toys” past my subconscious. So I vaguely imagined it would be something like a visit to Hamleys, except more arty. Silly me.
The Freud Museum, if you haven’t been there, is a spooky house on the edges of Hampstead in which Freud lived. From the outside, it looks like everywhere else on the street. Red-brick. Suburban. But this ordinary exterior hides an eerie interior, with Freud’s couch in it, his desk, the things he collected, all displayed in a murky twilight that encourages you to imagine things. Occasionally, modern artists are invited to show their work here, scattered among the Freudian artefacts. Tracey Emin has had a go, and the Chapmans. It’s a brilliant use of a space that would otherwise function only as a waxworks museum or a theme park on the Freud theme.
Of course, not every artist is a suitable exhibitor hereabouts. You need to be interested in the dark workings of the human mind. Noble and Webster certainly qualify. A real-life couple who have turned themselves into an artistic double act, Tim Noble and Sue Webster have made the mind’s basement their preferred terrain. Anyone who has encountered their book The Joy of Sex, on sale in the Freud Museum shop, would have them down as a particularly filthy pair of scoundrels. Is that really what goes on in the hotel room when these two are in occupation? Downstairs, in Freud’s library, a marvellous room that is kept exactly as he left it, with dark books looming above you and his large desk littered with mysterious fragments of ancient art, Noble and Webster have added a black sculpture of their own, made entirely of penises and hands.
It’s called Black Narcissus. The penises are apparently modelled on Noble’s. The hands stroking them are Webster’s. At first sight, the sculpture looks formless and cluttered, like a large bunch of coal-black bananas. Then you notice the silhouette created by its shadow on the wall. It’s a perfect double profile of Noble and Webster. Freudians may wish to analyse at length the disturbing psychological implications of this penis + hands = Noble + Webster equation, but I am content to enjoy the immediate visual magic of the transformation.
Upstairs, in the room devoted to Freud’s daughter Anna, who followed in her father’s footsteps, then specialised in the psychoanalysis of children, the visiting Brit Artists have been particularly naughty. Their contribution has been prompted by Freud’s work on the minds of children. Children, said Freud, are by nature “polymorphously perverse”, which means, as far as I can understand it, that they do things naturally that adults consider perverse. They play with themselves. They mess about with their poo. Later on, they are taught to stop doing all this. But the urges remain. And sometimes they spill out in perverted adult behaviour. The Freud Museum has just hosted a conference on the subject, called Understanding Perversion. A valuable contribution to the festive season if ever there was one. Unfortunately, I missed it.
Noble and Webster tackle the topic with a busy table-top installation inspired by the clutter on Freud’s desk downstairs. Where Freud’s desk overflows with primitive artefacts and fragments of ancient statues, their desk overflows with amputated Barbie limbs, an electric saw cutting up a bird, dripping body juices, blood gushing this way and that, and two obscene dolls in the centre of the table, going at it like the clappers. If the human mind really is a disgusting mess — and surely none of us can doubt it — then this excellent Christmas sculpture captures the rhythms of that mess superbly.
It moves, too. Every now and then, something whirrs into action and a saw begins cutting up a bird’s head, or some model babies begin chugging along a conveyor belt, to be murdered at the other end by a polymorphously perverse pervert who has grown up. We are watching a kinetic model of the human mind, understood as a doll’s house of horrors, and built for us by two artists who should know. Freudians will probably find it superficial, but this evocative description of the sexual poo inside us all worked for me.
With my enthusiasm for Christmas fired afresh by Noble and Webster, and armed with a deeper understanding of the real meaning of the festival for the younger mind, I set off with a lighter step on a quick circuit of other alternative Christmas shows brought to us by naughty modern artists. On Oxford Street, at the Tottenham Court Road end, where a huge tonnage of seasonal tat is currently being flogged to the undiscerning shopper, Banksy has once again opened Santa’s Ghetto. He does it every year. He finds a vacant space in this prime shopping stretch and fills it with scabrous and accusatory artistic wares, some of which are for sale.
In the window, a scruffy, life-sized Santa holds up a sign saying “It’s cancelled”. Ho, ho, ho. His belt, I notice, has had its letters rearranged; it now spells “Satan”. The other window displays a photomontage, by Peter Kennard, of Tony Blair taking a self-portrait on his mobile phone, while behind him, unnoticed, Iraq goes up in flames. Some may think it un-Christmassy. But surely that depends on where you are. In Baghdad, for instance, it sums up the situation at yuletide perfectly.
Banksy’s shop has lots of stuff for sale, made by his fellow street artists. Most of it, alas, is every bit as tatty as the tat it accuses. With my inner child still screaming for nourishment, I headed next to galleryland, in London’s East End, where every former factory and warehouse seems to have been turned into an art space.
At that stimulating venue known only as Fred, my eye was caught by some polymorphously perverse toy monkeys painted by Peter Jones. It’s probably best not to probe too deeply into the reasons why Jones collects old stuffed monkeys, then paints them carefully in a strict photorealist technique. His portraiture rescues the monkeys from their toyish oblivion and gives them a tan-gible set of personalities. He treats them as individuals and portrays them as if they were alive. Does anyone have the number of a good shrink?