The horror show! review – the bands, TV shows and artists who revealed Britain’s left psyche

Reece Shearsmith’s severed head lies on a purple pillow, eyes open, mouth wide open. The actor and writer’s bonce is a prop from 2018’s Inside No 9 Halloween special in which he and Steve Pemberton play themselves in a live broadcast that goes strangely wrong as malevolent ghosts invade a television studio. It is exhibited here not as a joke, or out of curiosity, but as a relic of idealism. Fans of the black comedy Inside No 9 will know that its creators have a true passion for horror, fully shared by this witch cauldron of an exhibit.

This isn’t a London Dungeon horror shop, which isn’t to say there’s no fear. Kerry Stewart’s 1993 installation The Boy From the Chemist Is Here to See You definitely gave me the creeps. It consists of a door with a frosted glass panel through which the refracted face of a child is seen, actually a charity box figure, whose frozen painted features add discomfort.

This unholy marriage of conceptual art and supernatural terror is good evidence for The Horror Show’s claim that the gothic subculture is the true dissident virus of modern British imagination. The story told here begins with the hypnotic singing of Dead by Bela Lugosi by the goth pioneers Bauhaus, which makes arguments at every echoing pace that punk has always been gothic, and has its natural evolution.

The show manages to say something new about the well-worn history of the 1970s British youth rebellion: instead of the now-cliched images of artist Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols, it includes his painting of a giant green owl-like monster materializes on top of a suburban house. Monster on a Nice Roof dreams of impossible creatures that come to destroy normality. Another similar monster from the afterlife materializes when you encounter one of the 6 ‘3 inch performance artist Leigh Bowery costumes, her green leather gimp mask, fake breasts and cape towering above you.

The devil is in the details, as they say, and it is the enthusiasm of the curators – artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, along with Claire Catterall of Somerset House – for the arcana of pop culture that makes their theses as rich and intricate as a forest. Who knew Mark E Smith of the Fall was a fan of the late Victorian horror writer Arthur Machen, author of The Great God Pan? They do, and they prove it in letters from Smith to the Arthur Machen Society. Another echo of classic horror literature is the sequence of artwork created by Richard Wells for Mark Gatiss’s recent BBC dramatization of MR James’s Mezzotint: While studying antiquated prints of a country house, at first glance identical, a ghostly figure begins to make its way across the lawn towards you.

There is a romance at the heart of this exhibition, the quest for a dream of a mysterious Britain that is always slightly out of reach. Director Nic Roeg has a case for himself: it includes his copy of the Daphne du Maurier short stories that inspired his masterpiece Don’t Look Now. Elsewhere, there are black and white footage of Robin Hardy’s popular horror making The Wicker Man and Christopher Lee’s personal screenplay.

You can’t blame an exhibition called The Horror Show for wallowing in nostalgia. Horror is not healthy nor should it be. Nostalgia for Joy Division is a case in point. Ian Curtis, lead singer of the terrifying Manchester band, had already committed suicide by the time we teens of the 1980s distributed their records as holy relics. Yet Curtis haunts this show – and even, he suggests, modern British art. Kevin Cummins’ photograph of a snow-capped Manchester motorway, gliding ethereally from grim reality into ghostly nowhere, comes from his group shoot in January 1979. Graham Dolphin’s 2012 sculpture, Door (Joy Division Version) tears you apart a decade later: it appears to be a door preserved from some long-demolished squat, painted a pale sepulchral gray, covered in graffiti – “RIP IAN”, “IAN C”.

This ghostly door is shown in front of photographs of Rachel Whiteread’s house, the most enduring but also the most elusive monument of British modern art: this concrete cast of a demolished house has itself been demolished, a masterpiece that survives only as a ghost. We are provocatively invited to compare Whiteread and Joy Division as artists.

There is another Great Britain, this exhibition convinces you, that it exists only as a web of imagination, a ghost kingdom that challenges the reality of everyday life like a ghost channel that takes over your TV. An obsession of the curators is the infamous 1992 BBC Ghostwatch broadcast, which appeared to be a live broadcast interrupted by supernatural powers. This is shown in disturbing snippets. You can understand why viewers went crazy and why Inside No 9 recreated it.

I’m starting to think that all contemporary art exhibitions should be curated by artists. Pollard and Forsyth are not caught up in the laborious rationalities that often crush the shows. You have to think like an artist to be able to connect so many gothic strands, take a fun and serious pose at the same time and leave us unsure whether we should laugh or scream or cry.

A good comic moment is the Bollo the gorilla mask from The Mighty Boosh. It connects well with Angus Fairhurst’s Pieta, an image of himself cradled naked and seemingly dead in the arms of a stuffed gorilla. Fairhurst, who died in 2008, is another of the show’s ghosts, walking in the shadows here, whispering the power of art to resist.

• The horror show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain is at Somerset House, London, from 27 October to 19 February.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *