Review, THE BRUCE LACEY EXPERIENCE at The Exchange, Penzance, Sept 29th to jan 5th

A survey exhibition of work by Bruce Lacey, a seminal and thoroughly British artist, curated by Jeremy Deller and David Alan Mellor.

Review by Mac Dunlop

Went to see the Bruce Lacey Experience, at The Exchange in Penzance last night, complete with a special screening of short films, and a guided tour of the retrospective exhibition by Jeremy Deller.

The series of short films seemed to have an ‘entropic’ evolution as they ran chronologically over time. They evolved from a kind of order – slapstick, absurd, humour where Lacey first worked in collaboration with others– into a chaotic blend of home movie and using up the end of reel film for the sake of it. I began to think that someone like Lacey, for all the innovative/experimental practice, is perhaps more a maker as ‘cypher’, as opposed to maker as ‘originator’. This isn’t necessarily a criticism; cyphers have a role to play, as do actors, and the concept of art as a whole can be regarded as a theatrical device in the presence of which we ‘suspend our disbelief’ in order to read, interpret,and convey. With Lacey though, there came a point where I felt I was  in the presence of an actor in search of a script, or a prop maker waiting for the problem that requires a solution, an idea to focus their energy upon.

Lacey’s slapstick in the early shorts we watched illustrates a consume skill, a natural timing, an unsung Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers – both Lacey contemporaries – this is beautifully illustrated in in the exquisitely paced “One man band”, and it is easy to see how influential Lacey’s humour and comedy was on the wider zeitgeist – popularized in such films as The Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour“. However when Lacey himself moves behind the camera to become the film maker, everything is stripped bare (quite literally for instance, in the fau-instructional short “how to bath”). It is raw, kitchen sink documentary style that shows post war Britain and the landscape of bombed out London carrying on into the 1980’s.  At the same time with Lacey, we aren’t in a kind of cinematic auture’s minimalist presence, the film isn’t distilled, it is a kind of storyboard sketch for a seemingly never completed work, a one liner, something discarded along the way to something else, an artifact of an aborted trajectory, an unanchored thought suspended behind a cloud.  A performer looking for direction.

On the other hand, the exhibition gives us a chance to focus on Lacey’s work with his second partner Jill Bruce, (aka Jill Smith) performance work that is rather more striking, durational, of ritual and in many ways more complete. Because it is performance we can only retrospectively be in the presence of documentation, and these on show seem to be in some way timeless, we’re presented with artifacts that allude to some unique anthropological mysteries, to shamanistic narratives, these are objects we wouldn’t be surprised to find in the British Museum, or Oxfords Pitt River’s collection.  These  convey and ground the essence of performance as ritual, whether happening, live art or otherwise, they caricaturize and invoke in equal measure. In other ways, they allude to Lacey the maker/actor, his attention to detail, his whole physical commitment, to play the part, to become less the person, and more a body in space and time – again it’s a reminder of  his ability to construct and innovate within a context.

Deller told us that famously, during the sixties Lacey worked in the prop department of the BBC, where he made ingenious stage devices for performers such as Tommy Cooper,  where he finds reason to focus his mercurial talents. That his victorian inventor fashion sense of the time may well have been the inspiration for the early Doctor Who, (one thing noticable in this exhibition, is the lack of a more comprehensive display of Lacey’s robots and automata, and whether they are lost or unavailable their absence is a disapointment).

In the family/home movie films we watched, Lacey’s stance behind the camera appears at first benign: the children make breakfast, operate the clapboard, show us how to make toast and coffee, and the film can be read in the context of ‘verite’ film/documentation style of the time, Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’ for example, where the audience is equally aware of the scene behind the camera as well as the scene in front. But with Lacey there is a feeling of impatience from behind the lens too,  the real interest in the film is the children themselves and how they respond to direction and retakes – and here there is a certain sense of empathy with them, are they doing as they wish? Are they tired, bored, and just being told what to do? It lies uneasily on the surface of the celluloid. There is also a sense that even in the midst of making this film, Lacey is already onto his next idea, and he wants to get this out of the way so that he can get on with something else.

Lacey’s children are in fact, writ large in this exhibition. When Deller begins his guided tour he first points to a large overhanging sculpture suspended from the ceiling. From hoops, plastic pipe and wicker is shaped a giant phallus, with ping pong balls representing sperm. From the penis aperture sprouts a white pipe that spreads across the ceiling to which are attached various baby dolls, the white pipe ends on the wall above a glass cabinet, spreading a few ping pong balls out in every direction. There is a sense of disappointment though, as the narrative to this work seems to begin and end more or less with what I have just described. Lacey has nine children, by two partners, and now in his eighties – he seems to be saying – these are far more important than any of the art, which is right of course, but then again, as viewers come to see his work would we not already know that to be the case? I wonder, is he reminding us that his children are everything and his art ephemeral, or is he perhaps reminding himself?

At the end of Deller’s talk, when questioned whether Lacey – considering his interest in all things electronic and technological – has been delving into the modern technological potentials of the digital age, Deller suggests that Lacey has avoided the internet, fearing he could be swallowed whole by it, his interest and curiosity being so self-addictive. Then a woman who described herself as a ‘third year art student’ commented that seeing all these completely different stages, styles and avenues of interest in Lacey’s work was in stark contrast to her course leader’s advice that artists must ‘consolidate’ their practice. (“Think of your Ouvre in the Louvre” as one cynic would have it). To this Deller suggests that Lacey’s trajectory and career  would not necessarily be possible nowadays. Which is to perhaps to ‘close it down’, both in terms of judgement and potential, after all to be an artist it is necessary to at least try to think of, if not to envisage the impossible. Things may well have been different in the past, perhaps there is more social conservatism, even censorship and surveillance than there used to be, but that is no reason to assume an artist’s career in the future would be more limited, any less experimental, or diverse. With Lacey, the mercurial curiosity of his career is in fact a pointer in the direction of the contemporary ‘flexible portfolio’ more familiar to the current generation.
However, THE BRUCE LACEY EXPERIENCE is for all of this a very interesting and thought provoking retrospective, and Lacey’s work is worth investigating further.  You get the feeling though, with Lacey still active and at large, having got this collaboration with Deller and Mellor out of the way, he himself has probably moved on, and – I imagine somewhat impatiently – left it behind.

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