Kathy Acker review – a voyage to hell with the pirates of desire
Source:The Guardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2019-05-04 Size:
There was something piratical about Kathy Acker. This New York poet, ……

Free spirit … portrait of Kathy Acker, San Francisco, 1991. Photograph: Kathy Brew

There was something piratical about Kathy Acker. This New York poet, novelist, self-styled plagiarist and social visionary, who died as a result of cancer in 1997, gleefully sailed the seven seas of literature stealing what she wanted and leaving nuggets of savage rhetoric in her wake. That’s the impression I got from this sprawling, many-voiced, Babylonian beast of an exhibition. It begins with a TV clip of Acker on Channel 4 telling the story of the real-life 18th century pirate Mary Read. Acker celebrates Read’s gender freedom as she put on male clothes to become a pirate - then evaded the noose because she was pregnant. At the end of the show, another video shows Acker performing with the Mekons, who are all dressed as pirates in a playground-style pirate ship.

I say “begins”, “end”, but I’ve actually got no idea if I followed this exhibition’s intended route – and to impose a narrative on Acker would be a betrayal. “Do you think I write so that you can name me?” asked the philosopher Michel Foucault, whose books, covered in her annotations, are on show in vitrines. Acker turned the post-structuralist ideas of Foucault and other French academics into blistering, erotic, prophetic language. She put postmodernism on the mean streets.

Some of Kathy Acker’s key works … displayed with her scribbled comments.

Not that she was born on the mean streets. An autobiographical piece printed on a wall tells how she grew up as a rich kid, crushed by a noxious combination of privilege and lovelessness. Yet just as you think you have her pinned down, she tells how she was imprisoned in Charenton asylum during the French Revolution for her unspeakable crimes. Her life has merged with that of the Marquis de Sade.

Identity is fluid here not just across gender and media, but through time. The ghost of the maudit (“damned”) French 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud haunts one of the most vivid rooms. Rimbaud in New York, a series of photoworks by Acker’s contemporary David Wojnarowicz, shows Wojnarowicz in a Rimbaud mask exploring Manhattan lowlife – including shooting up in an alley. Near this, Acker reads a text on Rimbaud in a clip from a documentary about the art of Robert Mapplethorpe. The combination of her words, Mapplethorpe’s shockingly beautiful images, and an underlay of loose guitar from Patti Smith’s Horses is hypnotic.

Reba Maybury’s The Goddess and the Worm

Yet I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker is not just a nostalgia-fest for fans of the New York avant garde. It includes wild and wonderful works by young artists whose subversive instincts mirror hers. “Political dominatrix” Reba Maybury shows a comic strip called The Goddess and the Worm, in which she is drawn as a powerful erotic mistress who makes a male earthworm’s life a living hell, much to his satisfaction. This relates to Acker’s copy of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, displayed in a vitrine. But it’s much funnier.

The artistic discovery here though is Glasgow’s Jamie Crewe, whose drawings and animation create a sexuality beyond limits in florid yet precise fantasies of transhuman copulation. Or as the artist describes themselves: “Jamie Crewe is a beautiful bronze figure with a polished cocotte’s head”, a “demonic half-person.” What Crewe certainly can be said to be is an artist who draws like the Victorian genius Aubrey Beardsley, if Beardsley had access to video art, club culture and the liberating legacy of Kathy Acker.

After this voyage in hell with pirates of desire the streets of London seemed more thronged that ever with freedom, possibility, estrangement and human glory. Acker never made it to the millennium but she emerges here as a heroic Blakean prophet of all that’s creative and liberating in our century.

I, I, I, I, I, I, I Kathy Acker is at the ICA, London, until 4 August.

[Editor] 张艳

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