God Save The Queen:
Kunst, Kraak, Punk (Art, Squat, Punk) 1977-1984:
Central Museum of the Netherlands,
Utrecht, Netherlands 3 March to 10 June 2012
Picking my way around the medieval city of Utrecht, eventually coming upon the Centraal Museum in an otherwise anonymous street, I found myself transported back to a distant and dangerous time in the Netherlands’ history.
‘God Save The Queen’ sang John Lydon, before he became an ambassador for British butter, but this roar of discontent from the UK’s youth of the 1970’s thundered just as strongly in another constitutional monarchy, just across the Channel. Over several floors and rooms of this sizeable museum, the Dutch punk experience is meticulously presented, taking in not only the incendiary music of the period, but also its close cousins in graffiti art, fanzine journalism, style, guerrilla media, squatting, rioting and the general mischief that characterised the angst of this period.
Entering through a bleak corridor, one wall of glass painted out white, the other covered in graffiti, we start at the most logical place: the present. In an age when punk is completely familiar to the man on the Sloterdijk tram, it seems hard to believe it began as an incestuous little scene which spread like a particularly virulent disease across the globe. The leather jackets on display here, splashed with paint, bristling with studs and festooned with badges differ from their 1970’s counterparts only in the names of the bands they celebrate. There is no attempt to re-create a slogan-covered wall from 1977; rather, the graffiti is provided by visitors to the exhibition, encouraged even, by providing pens for you to add your own salty comments to this public notice board.
Original film of some very young looking Dutch punks, in a declamatory mood on TV, is alternated with footage of rioting in Amsterdam from 1980. By ‘rioting’, I do not mean shouting slogans at disinterested police. I mean prising up cobblestones for missiles, burning property, hand-to-hand fighting, and tanks in the streets, sort of rioting. Chilling, compelling and thought provoking, all in the space of a short film clip. Sparked off by the parlous state of the Dutch economy, poor employment prospects and the lack of affordable accommodation (sounding familiar?) that Dutch youth felt sufficiently abandoned by their government to take such action, and with such force, is a sad indictment of the country’s rulers. Those of you who have visited Amsterdam will have probably run across the brightly painted, squatted buildings in Spuistraat that bear testament to these heady and iconic times.
Posters, fanzines, film and what not from this volatile period are well represented here, all refreshingly pre-digital of course, with hand-written text seemingly the norm, peppered with highly polemical cartoons that speak of the urgency their makers felt. The ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic of punk was particularly strong here, with demonstrations, gigs and club nights all springing from a culture that had more time and enthusiasm than money to achieve it.
Recalling the Anti-Fascist movement in the UK, and comparing/contrasting it with the Dutch equivalent here chronicled, I felt just a little queasy at the thought that, whilst UK far-righters had only a slim chance of electoral success, the risk in a country like the Netherlands, with proportional representation, was considerably higher. I was also struck by the fact that Dutch punk considered organised religion to be an equally malign force in the world, with the ‘Rock against Religion’ movement’s fiery campaign against a still-powerful institution.
Artwork included selections from the magnificently named Gallerie Anus, Jean-Michel Basquiat and some of Keith Haring’s synapse-frying ‘men and movement’ pieces, equally familiar to many of the hip hop generation as well as that of the punks. Most intriguing were the snippets of videotaped moments from Rabotnik TV, a gloriously messy pirate TV station in Amsterdam in the early 80’s, which together with its predecessor, Radio Rabotnik, carried punk’s ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic to its limits.
Although the walls covered in 7’’ singles and LP’s yielded few surprises, they did provoke nostalgia for an age when music was made by inspired individuals and enthusiastic bands, rather than focus groups and committees employed by vast slick soul-less corporations.
An inspired setting for live footage of the Sex Pistols, on a screen high on the wall, surrounded by crash barriers, and an impressive collection of posters, fanzines, badges and so on, evoke an era far better than any number of talking heads, filled to the gills with complimentary prosecco on a late night TV show, ever will.
Perhaps the last word on this exhibition should belong to someone who was a million miles away from punk, and whose quote mysteriously appears on the graffiti wall;
‘Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t kid yourself’.
Frank Zappa R.I.P.