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Creative Destroyer to Artists Meeting Place or Art Meeting Place to AMP

by John Sharkey

 

 

In 1998 John Mullen, a lecturer at Swansea University, edited a collection of stories and reminiscences with the above title by colleagues, lovers and friends of RD Laing. Author of "The Divided Self" and other seminal works of the late 20th Century. Asked to contribute but on reflection decided no to add to a retroversion of the man who had (among many other memorable attributes) kick-started a different way of considering mental trauma. Reading it brought back the only time I visited him at Kingsley Hall. This was a disused chapel off Mile-End Road in London. It had once been a home to Gandhi. From the mid-sixties onwards the Hall became the focus of a social experiment run by Laing that allowed those in extremis to have a glimpse of life beyond the asylum. Its walls were smeared with excrement and covered with unholy multi coloured psychedelic paintings. In terms of so-called ordinary behaviour, it was difficult to tell the staff from the 'patients', hangers-on or even visitors like Gustav Metzger and myself.

On a warm summer evening in 1966 we were anxious to have Laing's participation in a forthcoming international gathering (Destruction in Art Symposium - DIAS). I had come directly to the East End from the ICA in Dover Street where I worked as a gallery manager and Gustav as he usually did had the look of a down-at-heel refugee. Yet we both felt overdressed and almost overwhelmed by the mayhem that went around us. In the backyard of the Hall we sat at a small table opposite Ronnie Laing and his colleague Joe Berke. Without any anxiety I wondered if the mug of tea I sipped had been laced with LSD. Perhaps it was just contact high!

Metzger talked earnestly about the central role of the artist in society. The metaphor he used was that the work they produced was a sort of antennae, forging and foretelling, the forces that were bubbling beneath the placid surface of that time. Artists worldwide had shifted into actual destructive modes in producing art forms and events such as Wolf Vostell of Germany; WErner Schrieb, Otto Muhl and Gunther Brus in Austria; Ralph Ortiz from the US tearing chickens apart or smashing pianos; and the Welsh artist Ivor Davies whose explosives would later blow a hole in a London hotel. Such actual destructuve art works, he said, were a worrying development that ought to be addressed before it influenced society and should be given a proper directed role by the artists themselves who produced the work, rather than possible suppression of artistic freedoms. Gustav Metzger's own 'Manifesto of Destruction in Art' was to become a crucial document. His lecture / performance at a London art college had such an effect on one student that Pete Townsend then incorporated his own version of smashing old guitars in performance with the Who.

For some of us then it was time of intense creativity and social disordering. There had been Fluxus in Darmstaat; Situationists in france; Provos and their White Bicycles in Amsterdam; King Mob in London.

Laing had sat with legs curled up in his chair saying nothing and seemingly lost in his own contemplation. Anyway he was far too busy to cope with the Dialectics of Liberation Congress to be held in the Roundhouse later in August. In his soft Glaswegian accent, he invited us to sort out our own desctructive urges by staying on at Kingsley Hall. And went upstairs. Joe Berke became voluble and promised to give a talk at the DIAS meeting. It turned out to be a profound exposition on the deeply felt but little understood surges with a creative artist who had become unbalanced in the turmoil of her personal and social catharsis. He later created a stage play out of it. Wrung out and washed out with so much unresolved drama around me, I felt and was an outsider, standing in the wings of an absurd theatre. And later with a feeling of failure in not recognising that the visit to Kingley Hall was but a mirror of our own mad grandiose venture. We were doing our upmost without finance or backing to make DIAS a reality when the destructive aspects of the artists we were inviting to London cut accross our own moral ethics. There was a demonstration outside Better Books in Charing X Road against the killing of chickens. Even more extreme was an unholy act of animal crucifixion in a fleet St Church by Merman Nitsch with the bloody sheep's entrails being passed around among the other artists and audience. A year later both Metzger and myself were prosecuted at the Old Bailey over Nitsch's action. That sorted out my desctructive urges!

Some of the Black Panthers from the West Coast of the US were in London and they would be the star turn at the Liberation Congress. It was the radical political event of that time, tightly organised. We knew it eclipsed our attempts to get DIAs together. Yet in it own way the Desctruction in Art three-day symposium with discussions, events; presentations and especially the many outdoors performances that followed it throughout London during the month of September was equally on track and well attended. Yoko Ono's cut piece was premiered in DIAS. She then exhibited her Grapefruit show at the Indica Gallery. DIAS eventually had its own orbit, like a comet reappearing, and whose tail was recently illuminated in what I believe were live artistic recreations and performances re-enactments at the Whitechapel gallery and ICA. Living in west Wales and without the box, I heard there was even a series of art programmes devoted to the sixties shown a year or so ago on TV.

The gradual demise and final closure of the fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden by 1974 resulted in a large number of empty buildings, squats, punks, and the London Free School set up by Hoppy -John Hopkins, Ronnie Laing and others. There was uncertainty abou the area where I lived at that time. The only propsal seemingly on the table was to completely erase the market buildings and the homes of the workers and theatre people, whose history began in the 18th Century with coffe houses, street markets and public theatres. The GLC at that time were all for redevelopment. So on Friday afternoons when Shirley Porter and Chair held their meetings, many of us led by Jim Monehan of the Housing Association, marched with our 'Save Covent Garden' banners to demonstrate outside the GLC. THe tide was turning and at the time many of us though it was due to our political activity. However media and advertising groups began to buy into the property market and the main development that occurred was to the interior of the buildings. That was the background and the backdrop for Artists Meeting Place.

Thirty years ago is a long time track and a few lifetimes in the past, so my memory of exhibitions and discussions there is hazy. Adrian Searle in a recent piece in the Guardian (7/9/06) trying to shoehorn the current readership into his own past when he began to review for the paper, pointed out that the changes of the past three decades had been enormous 'There was no cheap flights and there was no internet, there were far fewer galleries. New York felt a long way away, Europe even further. The art world, besides being smaller, was predominently male and white'. What I do remember about AMP was the change from an artists' space to Art Meeting Place.

After a year or so a few of us seeing what was going on in Covent Garden in terms of buildings at giveaway prices, began to recognise the potential of this space for artists. A shift from a street frontage to a whole building as an exhibition area run by us for ourselves and not by some establishment committee or Hampstead art group. It could expand on what was already occuring there. However an entrenched group amongst the artists with leftwing tendencies maintained that property was theft and so stalled any movement or even discussion in that direction. When the most vocal member who had taken on the role of secretary eventually admitted under duress that he had spent all the funds, it was clear that their idealistic orthodoxy would swamp any individual aspirations for art. Not art for art's sake, but for a fuller creative role for those outside of what was rapidly defining itself as a market economy. It was at that point that I pulled out of AMP.

John Sharkey

 

 

john Sharkey (Photomat by Susan Hiller)

 

John Sharkey, Susan Hiller 1972

 

From John Blandy:

This piece was written for a London Calling programme for a series of
events to be held at AMP.

''ART MEETING PLACE was started in May '74 by the Artists Meeting Group to provide an open resource for artists run by artists. Over the last two years, a method of organisation, based on weekly open meetings, has evolved and is still evolving. During this period several hundred individuals and groups have used facilities at AMP for exhibitions, performances, meetings and other activities. "

In Musics No 2 ( June / July 1975 )

"Art Meeting Place is an open resource for artists, musicians, film-makers, poets etc, which is controlled by its users. Anyone may apply to use the space for exhibitions, performances and meetings. AMP NEWS is produced every three weeks to publicise these events (free to callers, subscriptions 50p for six issues ). AMP hopes to move to larger premises in the near future so that the range of facilities can be enlarged and extended. Open meetings are held at AMP every Thursday at 8 pm."

Artists who exhibited at the gallery included:
Michael Druks
Bruno Demattio
Anthony Howell and the theatre of mistakes
Susan Hiller
David Coxhead
John Blandy
John Latham
Paul Sibbering
Annabel Nicolson
Tom Puckey
Dirk Larsen
Keith and Marie
Bill Lundberg
COUM
David Medalla
Steve Pusey
John Dugger
Collective Actions
Amikam Toren
Paul Burwell
David Toop
David Mclagan