“It is the artist who must have his finger on the pulse to safeguard us all. For if he doesn’t, no one else will.”
Bruce Lacey’s 1964 mission statement sits on a wall in the Camden Arts Centre. The room it’s in is dotted with chaos creatures that look like Scrapheap Challenge-esque poor-relations of Box from Logan’s Run. The improbable constructs are made of decommissioned jet engines, industrial lamps, rubber gloves, oversized metallic lips. If these fantastical creatures are measuring a pulse then it’s surely the thumping beat of pure, old fashioned, first-generation psychedelia.
Stepping into The Bruce Lacey Experience, I couldn’t honestly say I knew that much about the artist. The few images that I’d seen in magazines – free-floating spacemen, hand built robots and the odd shot of an octogenarian in Red Indian headdress indulging in shamanic rituals – weren’t giving a great deal away.
Over the three rooms of handpicked career highlights, the gallery space has all but been consumed by Lacey’s world. It’s fully immersive and quietly hypnotic. Heading from posters for early ’60s vaudeville happenings at the Marquee through a room filled with aforementioned robots, each standing like post apocalyptic sentry guards and into a space dedicated to the artist’s ’70s acid fried Earth Rituals it’s sits as a mindboggling whole. You stand as witness to a lunatic snapshot of the point where culture shifted and the beatniks became the hippies.
Coming of age during the post-war period, Lacey was very much a part of the generation of British Dadaists that spawned everyone from the Goons and the Bonzos to Ken Russell. Surrealism and deranged humour seemed to come naturally to Lacey and his peers, all of whom had spent formative years fighting fascism or serving the flag under National Service. It’s hardly surprising that the austerity years after the war produced such a rich vein of madness, such was the reactionary kick against the hell that had just occurred.
Viewed as a whole, Lacey’s work not only reflects the post-1945 world that spewed out the Goons, it also foreshadows the pioneer spirit that’s since been embodied by arch drudes like Julian Cope and Hawkwind. It defines a space somewhere between gallery and free festival; a wild-eyed place instilled with a energized optimism that’s thankfully entirely divorced from the kerching! world of unmade beds and diamond studded skulls. Acceptance for Lacey wasn’t a Turner Prize or a Turbine Hall commission, it was winning the Alternative Miss World competition in 1985 with a robot called Rosa Bosom. Acceptance is this show – a weird-world of contraptions, experiments and impulse artworks.
It’s in straightened times like these that we need people like Bruce Lacey. Far more than we realise; as the real world becomes grayer, tougher, it’s him and people like him who fly the freak flag for us and offer a bit of acid-fried hope.
Long may his finger remain on the pulse.
For more information on the exhibition which runs until Sept 16th, click here. The BFI’s absolutely brilliant collection of the artists films and a documentary on the artist by Jeremy Deller – The Lacey Rituals – is available here.