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 Harminder Judge, “Self Portrait (after Kali & Gene)” (2009)
Harminder Judge, “Self Portrait (after Kali & Gene)” (2009), Digital c-type print© Harminder Judge.

The Horror Show! reveals the darkest corners of Britain’s cultural psyche

From punk and rave to psychogeography and cult television, The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain is the new exhibition tracing a thread through five turbulent decades of creative resistance

The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain tells an unwieldy but captivating story of creative resistance spanning five decades. Composed of over 200 artworks and culturally significant objects, the new exhibition at Somerset House traces the turbulent cultural and social landscape of life in the UK from the 1970s to the present day, acting as a dark mirror reflecting back the shadowy recesses of the British psyche. “Ultimately, it’s an idiosyncratic story of British resilience and creative rebellion,” say co-curators Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. “It’s a way of seeing the last 50 years through the lens of horror.”

From glam rock, punk, and Blitz kids, to psychogeographers, Extinction Rebellion, and cult television shows, the exhibition traces a disquietening motif of the macabre, carnivalesque, and uncanny, pulling together art, artefacts and ephemera which have sprung from some species of real-life horror. “The show offers myriad interconnections and threads to all sorts of communal experiences which have broken open a space to challenge the status quo and propose a different take on how things might be,” explains co-curator Claire Catterall. “As this exhibition shows, artists, musicians and cultural shapeshifters have consistently used ideas rooted in horror – in subversion, transgression, the supernatural, myth and magic – to disrupt the status quo. Especially at times of deep and unnerving turbulence, horror allows us to tear things apart in order to build them anew.”

“Artists, musicians and cultural shapeshifters have consistently used ideas rooted in horror – in subversion, transgression, the supernatural, myth and magic – to disrupt the status quo” – Claire Catterall

This “twisted tale” is told in three acts – Monsters, Ghosts, and Witches. Monster depicts the “truculent” 1970s and 80s – a time of deep political and social unrest, blackouts, labour strikes, the ‘Winter of Discontent”, social division, and the reign of Thatcher. Guy Peellaert’s artwork for David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974) is displayed alongside a portrait of punk icon Jordan Mooney and, nearby, Derek Ridgers’ portraits of nightlife depict the spectacular transformations and explorations of identity taking place in bedrooms and nightclubs and streets across the country.  

“There are threads that run through the whole show, such as the act of monstering oneself to challenge others… think for example of the creative, bodily contortions of Leigh Bowery,” say Forsyth and Pollard. “There are also figures who reappear across the decades, such as Linder Sterling who creates a radical visual language that’s adopted by bands in our Monster era. But the work persists and she emerges as a key influence and creator in our Witch section too. Or there’s Derek Jarman, who feels woven into the very fabric of the show.”

Catterall continues to talk us through the exhibition: “Ghost describes the haunted landscape of the 1990s and 2000s, the birth of the internet and the digital era; and Witch is the creature of the accelerated and hyper-mediated topography of the post-financial crash years, 2007 to today,” she explains. “While the Monsters of the 70s and 80s were rightfully angry and confrontational, and the Ghosts of the 90s and 00s looked to explore the glitches and dissonance in the digital ether, the Witches of today draw off the horrors of their forebears and the injustices of all oppressed groups to offer a powerful reckoning which acts as a spell to conjure a different future.” 

Among this constellation of unsettling artwork in the Ghost section of the show, Gavin Turk’s haunted portrait of Sid Vicious, “Ghost Pop” (2012) and Jeremy Millar’s disturbing and alarmingly realistic “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows)” (2011) both capture a spectrality and absence. 

Beginning in the 1980s and reaching up until the present day, the final section of the exhibition seems more celebratory. Catterall says: “To end the show on the Witch seemed rightfully full of hope and optimism.” Here, the assembled artworks look toward a “global coven” formed by the hyper-connected younger generation and the redemptive possibilities and spirituality of wicca. Here, works such as Linder’s “The Goddess Who Has Sky as Hair” (2019) and Juno Calypso’s “A Dream in Green” (2015) seem talismanic of a potent, transformative force. 

Forsyth & Jane Pollard conclude by reflecting on the value of horror: “It trains us how to handle fear. We’re able to confront the things that frighten us in a safe, controlled environment. In that way, horror also offers respite from the very real horrors happening in the world right now. As a stream of complacent and immoral leaders drag the country ever further down into the cesspool, it’s easy to see how the need for horror is more critical now than ever. Horror shows us what resilience looks like; it’s incendiary and invigorating.”

The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain is running at Somerset House until February 19 2023