Somerset House art exhibition revisits the past 50 years through a horror lens
Whether you’re a fan of the horror genre or not, the ideas it contains have had a major influence on the past 50 years of creative rebellion. At least that’s the theory exposed by a new exhibition organized by London’s Somerset House.
Co-curated by BAFTA-nominated filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, and Somerset House Senior Curator Claire Catterale, Horror Show!: A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain looks beyond horror as a genre and as a genre. interpreted rather as a reaction to troubling times.
In this way, the last five decades of British history are recast as a story of cultural metamorphosis, told by some of our most provocative artists. From 1970s punk to modern-day sorcery, the aim is to shed light on how the anarchic alchemy of horror – its subversion, its transgression and its supernatural – helps us make sense of the world.
Featuring over 200 works of art and objects of cultural significance, this historic spectacle tells a story of turbulence, unease and creative revolution at the heart of Britain’s cultural psyche in three acts: Monster, Ghost and Witch.
Each act interprets a specific era through a classic horror archetype lens in a series of thematically linked works. These are accompanied by a soundtrack featuring Bauhaus, Barry Adamson and Mica Levi.
Act One: Monster
Artwork featured in the first act, Monster, includes Monster on a Nice Roof (1972) by punk artist Jamie Reid, which paints a visionary picture of the dark skies gathering over Britain as that the collapse of his empire is coming to an end. Elsewhere, Chila Burman’s If There is No Struggle, There is no Progress: Uprising (1981) and Helen Chadwick’s Allegory of Misrule (1986) refigure social discontent and anxiety as horror as the socio-political and the monstrous collide.
Also appearing are Guy Peellaert’s David Bowie, Diamond Dogs (1974) and Derek Ridgers’ nocturnal photography. There are also modern works, including Pam Hogg’s New Exterminating Angel (2021) and works by Gareth Pugh and the late Leigh Bowery. Additionally, Noel Fielding’s Post-Viral Fatigue (2022) shows how horror imagery resonates in the age of Covid, and a recently commissioned mural by Matilda Moors sees the walls dramatically scratched by a monstrous hand.
Act Two: Ghost
The second act of the series, Ghost, marks the transition from the 1980s to the 90s and the early 2000s. It traces an unsettling path to the global financial crisis of 2008, the dawn of a digital age of faceless audiences and invisible cyberwars.
Derek Jarman’s final feature film and magnum opus, Blue (1993), evokes the artist’s final days, marrying comforting connection and disconnection from the world, warmth and coldness, as he poetically recounts his approach to death. Meanwhile, a stunning sound installation by Nick Ryan shines a light on the eerie frequencies of an era that saw the rise of trance music and sampling machines, turning visitors into spectators, spectacle and ghosts in the machine.
Elsewhere, works by Jeremy Millar and Gavin Turk destabilize, with a paradoxical clash of ghostly presence and absence. While Cornelia Parker’s map, burned by a heated meteorite fragment, tells a story of the apocalypse at the end of the millennium.
Act Three: Witch
The exhibition’s third and final act, Witch, focuses on the period from the financial crash of 2008 to the present day. It celebrates the emergence of a young generation and a hyper-connected community, embracing a new era of inclusion and equality.
Linder’s The Goddess Who has Sky as Hair (2019) and Zadie Xa’s Three Thousand and Thirty High Priestess of Pluto (2016) renounce the patriarchal occultism and druidism of old in favor of a new sorcery rooted in the ecology and bodily autonomy.
Also on display are recently commissioned works by Somerset House Studios artists Tyreis Holder, Col Self, Linda Stupart and Carl Gen, and The Neon Hieroglyph (2021) by Turner Prize winner Tai Shani, inspired by the story of the flying witches on the Italian island of Alicudi. . The sculpture, seen for the first time in the UK, can be seen alongside a specially commissioned audio installation by Gazelle Twin.
Monster, Ghost and Witch culminate in immersive installations, combining new commissioning, large-scale sculpting, fashion and sound installation, with each chapter signed by neon text by Tim Etchells.
It all adds up to an intoxicating deep dive into the counterculture, mystical and weird, with the signature three-act design courtesy of architects Sam Jacob Studio and Grammy-winning design studio Barnbrook.
The Horror Show: A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain runs at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA from 27 October to 19 February 2023 (closed Mondays). Tickets are £16.50 / £12.00 off. The exhibition will be accompanied by a program of conferences and events, the full details of which will be announced shortly. For more information visit the Somerset House website.