John Foxx: DNA Exhibition

The Horse Hospital, London - 27-31 July 2009

"A small, sticky rubber man falling for eternity"

John Foxx: DNA posterThe cognoscenti have always known and understood the influence that original Ultravox! singer and subsequent solo artist John Foxx has had on the creative industries. A modern incarnation of the renaissance man, Foxx has taken many routes in order to express his full creativity, notching up parallel careers in photography, lecturing and writing on top of that which he is most famous for: music composition and performance. In the latter field, over a period spanning more than 35 years, the quiet man of introspective urban electronic music and lush ambient soundscapes he has worked with a wide variety of other musicians demonstrating his influence and appeal as well as the esteem in which he is held.

Which brings us to the celebratory DNA exhibition, an art exhibition whose contributions include such luminary names as film director Alex (Dark City) Proyas, Gary Numan, Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes and other less familiar artists. This week long event was curated at the suitably outre Horse Hospital (yes, it used to be a hospital for horses), which lies, also suitably, in the heart of central London's Russell Square district. It's always in the most seemingly normal surroundings that the most un-normal things occur.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get to the event during the week but (thanks to a timely 24 hour reminder from the official Metamatic website) managed to grab a couple of hours on the last day when a closing wrap party was taking place, complete with DJ/VJ's Dennis Da Silva and Roger Spy, at which the grey one himself was present. This meant I didn't get the opportunity to watch Proyas' (1980) film Groping, as it was only screening twice a day at fixed times) which was a shame. The gallery itself was a modestly-sized space in an underground and windowless room build from large sturdy stones. The assembled collection was an eclectic one with paintings, sculpture, photographs, machinery, films and, in the case of Gary Numan, an OSCar analogue synth representing some of the seminal sounds created by Foxx for his landmark debut album Metamatic.

In spite of the diverse range of media utilised, what quickly became apparent is that there is undeniably a distinctly John Foxx-ian 'style'. In fact, it's almost a genre in its own right. There have always been points of contact between Foxx's work and J.G. Ballard's novels which explore the repressed shadowy side of life in the suburbs and cities and, walking slowly from exhibit to exhibit, that connection became stronger at every turn. Links to other creative points like the Futurist movement and the writings of Franz Kafka all coalesced in this dark, cool underground space and the resulting melange did indeed have a distinctly John Foxx shade of slightly peculiar grey about it all.

John Foxx: 2009The symbolism of Tombola by Adrian Lee wasn't lost on anyone. A small, sticky rubber man falling for eternity inside a clear glass tombola, which was powered to rotate continuously, instantly made the connection between Foxx's lyrical descriptions of individuals inhibiting desolate cities (or, perhaps, over-crowed cities in which the individual identity is lost) and Kafka's novels about the futility of individuals trying to fight the beauracratic systems of oppressive governments.

Of Karborn's three photo montages, Pray Louder appeared to share a genetic link to some of Foxx's own photo montage work. Rob L's triptych (one of two in the exhibition) entitled Movement 1 - 3 selected lyrics from Ultravox!'s My Sex and embroidered them in wool onto three equal-sized cotton canvasses. The unlikely juxtaposition of materials and source material made for a curiously intriguing contribution. Falling into the 'machine construction' category was No Numbers by Andrew Back - which also took it's inspiration from a Foxx-era Ultravox! track - here it is the haunting Mr No. High in concept but equally engaging in delivery, Back took the music from applied some techno geek majick and the tune was transformed, real time, into a sequence of numbers that the viewer is encouraged to write down on a notepad provided. Many had.

Moving on, and Ian Eme's black and white still photographs from his film experiments were inspired by his growing up within crashing distance of the famous motorway confluence affectionately known as 'spaghetti junction'. In his Flightpath Tegel the concrete landscape of John Foxx's music and J.G. Ballard's memorable novel Concrete Island intersect. For the first time in the exhibition you actually felt like you were seeing a piece of Foxx's music transmuted into another form.

Foxx himself had contributed several pieces. It was one of his favoured photo montage technique pieces, the iconic Tower Bridge Angel, used as the sleeve artwork for the new spoekn-word album The Quiet Man that for me at least most immediately represents the John Foxx vernacular. A dreamy, slightly mournful image of Foxx's grey-suited quiet man standing beneath a vast angel sculpture over-looking a re-imagined London Bridge - otherwise devoid of life, is part war memorial, part homage to the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire and part 1930s surrealism. But I suspect for most it will have been the actual grey suit that Foxx purchased in a charity shop in the mid 1970s, that subsequently gave rise to a never-ceasing obsession with what its new owner imagined might have been a living entity with an existence and life of its own, that will have been the holy grail at which they will have paid homage. Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran fan has long had a passion for art and of his two abstract photographic pieces I Want To Be A Machine (again the title appropriated from an early Ultravox! song) with its bursts of colour trails looking like something found inside the CERN particle accelerator was particularly easy on the eye.

A few minutes with the man himself, snatched between his signing autographs and posing for photos with fans, solicited the observations that he found the music in the gallery too loud (it was) and the PA system lacked bass (it did). Relaxed, approachable, generous and at ease with his influence on the world, but seemingly always striving to achieve ever more, John Foxx may be an elder statesman of electronic music of rare quality, but as his recent appearance reading excerpts from his long-gestating novel The Quiet Man at Apple's flagship store in London, only goes to prove that for this artist, his fans and followers around the globe, the best may still be yet to come. 7/10

Rob Dyer

See also:

John Foxx: Cathedral Oceans (installation)