The 1960s and 1970s were different from today in many ways and not the difference that can be experienced in a 60s or 70s night at a disco. Popular music does evoke these decades and the clothes and fashions are generally recognisable, often in a caricatured form such as party shops might hire out.
One difference between then and now was the impact of new fashions on people. Then, in the 60s and 70s, the arrival of mini-dresses or sack-dresses in the shops and on models would be headline news, and people could be shocked. The same shock accompanied the sight of long hair for men or, in fact anything obviously new and different. In art, any work that was not figurative had that power to shock. There was conformity in dressing, in the sense that different groups of people could be identified by what they wore – hence, blue collar or white collar workers. Office workers wore suits and ties and the women wore skirts and not trousers. Art students wore jeans and jumpers.
It is against this background that Gilbert and George made a considerable impact just by wearing suits to Art College and later, in the art world.
Nice Style, the World’s First Pose Band, had the suits and they had the humour. Nice Style was four men dressed smartly in dark suits and white shirts. In performance they were to be seen striking poses, making forceful entrances and exits, climbing around objects like sculptures – and in fact, being sculptures. They were preposterous and subtly, very funny. Bruce McLean led the group.
At St. Martin’s I remember Bruce filling most of a studio with his wooden sculptures. He made them quickly and created a kind of forest of them. There was competition for studio space, so students working on just one sculpture would occupy the edges of the studio. Bruce supplied a humorous commentary on all our ways of working, including little songs about, for instance, Tetrasil, (a much used plastic filler.)
On a cold night last December a large audience had gathered outside the Henry Moore Institute looking up at the natural stage-like area at the top of the entrance steps where the performers were. These men were the original Nice Style plus one younger new member. Behind them, projected directly onto the wall of the building was a black and white film of an original Nice Style performance from 30 years ago.
Performances presented in front of projected images are a bit of a cliché and the screen can carry most of the interest with the performer becoming more like a story teller. However, at this event the projected film provided information and the wonder of travelling back in time. The juxtaposition of the performers seen with the film of their very much younger selves worked well and did create an artwork with power. The performers endeavoured to match their actions to the athleticism of their younger selves in the film, and inevitably there were comic moments – played up, commented upon and sometimes ignored. There was a commentary throughout which added humour. There were actions matching the film and non matching actions. The time gap between then and now had a subtle and gross expression. Even haziness in the film gave the feeling of peering into the past. The scale was right – scale being important also for sculpture – with the projected figures and their objects just right for the live action figures and their objects. And from the commentator –‘come on Bruce, a bit faster now in shooting your cuffs, and, come on out of the door now!’ The door, being a free standing opening door used for compelling entrances and exits.
Passersby stopped to watch. An absorbed audience shuffled forward. We were led to imagine that the plinth in the centre of the stage area would eventually become a sculpture of sorts when a man stood on it. But how smart it was not to fulfil that expectation.
Shirley Cameron, 2012.