The Bruce Lacey Experience
Camden Arts Centre
Arkwright Road London NW3 6DG
Until 16 September 2012
Bruce Lacey's work might seem an odd choice to exhibit during the Olympics, but it makes sense. The 85-year-old artist has had a Zelig-like career which has seen him work with iconic British figures such as Spike Milligan and Ken Russell. He has also experimented over the past five decades with robotic assemblages, magic, painting and sculpture. Curated by fellow maverick Jeremy Deller, the exhibition gives an endearing insight into his life and also captures the spirit of the times he was working in and against.
Walking onto the second floor, the walls are mounted with framed posters of Lacey's extensive appearances and performances throughout the 1960s and 1970s. There's an air of nostalgia, which is accentuated by the first room where we see artefacts from Lacey's childhood and adult-sized play costumes recreated from that period. A video, narrated by Lacey, shows footage of his family. His mother and his grandfather have near-identical faces to him, as though he came about through binary fission. A sculpture featuring baby dolls and a penis made from primary coloured tubing is suspended from the ceiling like a nursery mobile. The airy light-filled surroundings make it seem benign and playful rather than sinister. The recreated adult-sized play costumes and Lacey's own childhood robot toy (the first type to be sold in the United Kingdom, before World War Two) make the connection between the child and the adult, showing us that Lacey's fascination with assembling and performance began early on.
There's a swift transition to the other three main rooms, where we see his later work. During art school, Lacey developed a fascination with old Pagan rituals, styled on Native American and Aboriginal ceremonies. However, he wanted magic to be rooted in the British landscape, and so he travelled around the countryside conducting rituals, some captured on video. Seeing him scrambling up rocks, covered in blue dye and rooting through sticks shaped like a vulva makes it impossible to take him seriously. His earlier performances—as different as they are—in a comedy troupe called British Rubbish had exactly the same strain of individualistic anti-nationalistic humour, acknowledging British decline at the same time the country's Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told potential voters: 'You've never had it so good'.
Lacey’s robotic assemblages are the real highlight—the mechanics are crudely visible so they resemble fairground automata, decked with human remains. The Politician has false teeth attached to its rusty levers, and a box for a body with 'INSERT A PENNY’ written on it. A kitchen cupboard meant to represent a classroom has baby dolls lined up inside whose lower halves are levers for pushing out sausages. His female robot R.O.S.A.Bosom makes the same point about the social formation of identity, going on to be the first and last robot to win Alternative Miss World in 1985.
Lacey's work railed against the prospect that consumerism would become the main expression of identity, as suggested by the boom years of the 1960s. In the gallery text, he recalls his fears about the loss of individuality and critical thought at the time. But the exhibition also revels in a tourist-friendly nostalgia about the imaginative possibilities of the decade. In a side room, there is a video of the octogenarian Lacey, in the Norfolk farmhouse where he lives surrounded by his life's work. We see him working on his new project Vox Humana Explora, which involves him tunelessly singing covers of Queen and other British bands. It's good to see that his fears about the future were unrealised, and he remains as characterful, unique and playful as ever.
Zakia Uddin is an East London-based writer who has previously written for Time Out, Londonist, Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, and The Wire.view all articles from this author