Deep in irony, a tribute to Punk Rock at the National Museum: Punkulture - Images From A Music Revolution is at Te Papa until the end of May. Let us examine this collision of cultures.
Not long after visiting Punkulture for myself I read a review of the same in Wellingtons local entertainment guide, The Package. The writer described what sounded like a fictitious opening scenario used as metaphor for the exhibitions short-comings: It read "What do you get when you cross a room full of suits, people with styrofoam mohawks on their heads... and "Anarchy In The UK" playing softly on a loop in the background?"
On contacting the reviews writer (Kerry Lee) I found that this was in fact a faithful account of Punkultures opening.
Surreal! He had, however, omitted the bit about the pair of costume-hire punks that greeted guests on arrival, escorting them up to the exhibition space, all the while sounding every contrived Punk Rock cliché they could muster, all in bad Cockney. Drama students? Shame on you.
The exhibition is sponsored by Ericsson, the mobile phone company. Ericssons attempts to hijack any remaining currency attached to Punk as word and phenomenon come as no surprise. They go to show just how little currency Punk has left. Punk has been milked by every artist looking to shorthand notions of "fuck you" integrity, and been stereotyped by middle culture to signpost anything weird (especially in advertising). What remains of Punk is banal cartoon character, all crazy hair and expletives, withering on the time line of post war youth culture and its endless reactionary spasms.
So what do we get for our taxes? Moving through in real time: a videowall of bargain bin album covers. A jukebox playing such gems as the first album by The Police!? Endless lovely photographs in punked-up wooden frames. A conversation with Joe Strummer piped-in over a leopard print couch. Some punk fashion through the windows of a life-like London tube train with hiss n rumble sound effects.
There is also a corner of the exhibition dedicated to Punk Rock in New Zealand. In this same corner an old telly plays out time capsule footage from Punks heyday. This is at least appropriate in that New Zealand experienced Punk late and via the small screen.
In March 77, current affairs programme Eyewitness had Dylan Taite reporting from London on the burgeoning Punk phenomenon. Dunedin resident Chris Knox shaved a proto-mohawk into his head and formed The Enemy. Punk had arrived in New Zealand.
The world was a big place back then. There was no internet. Copies of the New Musical Express arrived from England after a three-month voyage on some creaking old container ship. This and other elements of the contextual landscape are not outlined for young people born into a world of fibre optics and globalisation. In fact, young punters used to the excesses of Marilyn Manson and Eminem will be wondering what all the fuss was about.
The curators of this show would have done well to give us something less generic. This is as bland and non-specific as it gets. No Punk as microcosm nor, conversely, an examination of Punks mutations, mentors, descendants.
Te Papa did not commission Punkulture. The exhibition had toured out of England for several years and even been retired before Te Papa requested it be sent here. Its like some English PR company decided to do punk while high on the "Cool Britannia" of their countrys own pop cultural renaissance. Otago is the next and last stop on Punkultures marathon world tour.
Te Papa attempts to bring the glorious dead of our proud histories back to life. With Punkulture, the task is beyondthem. Any survey of such burning moments as Punk, Fluxus or Dada should present the ideas that ignited minds and the context of this blossoming. Old dusty artefacts of transient phenomena at war with their times, in themselves, tell us next to nothing. Here, punk is irrelevant. Youd do better to look for those responding to the now.
So forget Punk. For me its more alive in the Dogma film makers lo-fi purist aesthetic, its success and middle-finger to Hollywoods billion dollar movie industry. In Jarvis Cockers British Music Awards stage invasion, shaking his skinny white arse all over Michael Jacksons "I am Jesus, suffer the little children unto me". Or something as successful as Pitch Black still unsigned to a major label because they cant be fucked with conversations on how to turn a seven minute electro-dub movement into a four-minute single-and-video package. Undermining the language of power. Borrowing Punk styles dont count for shit, whether youre Fred Durst in stadium rock or Tony de Lautour at Hamish McKay. Hell, even Mel C can flip-the-bird and cover Anarchy In The UK.
Bryce Galloway is an artist from Wellington. When asked by his English teacher what R.P.M. stood for, he answered, and he wasnt trying to be funny, "Revelations per minute?" More Protestant than Punk really.