God Save the Queen – Centraal Museum Utrecht

But most of all it is the fact that – whatever the show’s flaws – this stuff is on show in one place and recognised as being worth showing as an alternative – or warning - to what’s happening now, culturally. And this is a good thing and a good thing that is lasting, I hope. 



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 A dreaded sunny day found Incendiary entering the Nicolaïkerk church to celebrate God Save The Queen, the major celebration of Dutch punk and squat culture running at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. Given the recent clearances of the Occupy London demo outside St Pauls the mere act of stepping inside any church in the name of free expression felt a wee bit incongruous but never mind, to paraphrase LP Hartley they do things differently here. We risked frying alive along with a very mixed audience some 400 strong - some museum types, perma-smiling funds people, bemused kids and lots of the Lost Generation, who still carried a certain style and attitude that is lacking from their younger compatriots.  Once flowers have been handed out to the organisers and once a spoof talk from Dominee Gremdaat (his hits laid on with all the panache of a drunk brickie with a trowel full of cement) was out of the way, we were allowed to enter the exhibition.

The entrance to God Save The Queen is a real set up: you are guided through a long tunnel; one side replete with a quick and fairly basic timeline of punk in NL, the other displaying some of the customised fashions of the period – including some brilliantly altered jackets, shoes and tees. (This bit was easily missable among the huge crush of visitors, but if there’s one thing you should make a point of seeing then it’s these hand-doctored garments, some of the most human and vital of the exhibits). Once through the tunnel we are presented with a wealth of material that is almost impossible to comprehend on first visit.

For this is a big, sprawling exhibition – punk is a state of mind, a moving inter-generational feast and something that can’t be captured in a single showing, however many rooms you devote to it as a general subject. Not only that, the sheer audacity of its brief – even when concentrating on the manifestation of punk in its supposed golden (certainly most public) era  - means that in some ways the exhibition is too much and not enough; (where were the Rondos for example??*)… Let’s take two issues: the squat stuff on display, which admittedly is brilliant – a great array of papers, Sniffing Glue, Coekrandt, Dr Rat’s art, the fanzines… but just like other elements of the exhibition, the squat theme could well have been expanded into a show on its own, certainly given last year’s clamp down and all the activities that have been happening (it’s a very rich subject indeed - in Leiden alone you had Bar en Boos, Linkse Kerk, Euro Dusnie, Sub 071...) What we had to see seemed all too little, or too brief. The same could be said for the Rabotnik TV display, despite the interactive elements the feeling that it needed a bit more prominence instead of being cooped up in a sort of alcove.

It’s also difficult to marry the museum’s attempts to engage the younger generations with various activities, (analogue Facebook, badge making, drumming along to Pretty Vacant…), whilst worthy attempts in themselves they sort of missed the point and felt like the sort of slightly lame appeals to join in some quaint retro fun without the smells and boho squalor, not to say the stimulants… “look what mum and dad did, weird eh?”… I hope it doesn’t reinforce the sort of arms-length emotional reactions that are now the norm.  Frankly I’d have shocked the little bastards a little more into realising how much they are missing out / how lucky they are pissing about on Playstation.

But I really do not want to moan in this review: the brilliance of some of the art is there for all to see in its hit-miss / anti-academic exuberance. In some ways seeing this chaotic, colourful work against the anaemic white walls of the exhibition was a strange experience – reminding me of shot-peppered and mud stained regimental battle flags on a whitewashed church –reinforcing the image that creation in its raw state is a complex and often messy business; and that this art was art not made for galleries. The more academic end –seen with some brilliant Robert Longo and Keith Haring pieces, was well represented – as was the less hell heeled stuff; the Neue Wilden, Spray Army, the tragic Dr Rat (seen on a TV clip and through a couple of posters) and  the magnificent murals of Hugo Kaagman, “Holland’s Anselm Kiefer”. Possibly the highlight was the selection from Max Natkiel’s Paradiso Still Lives collection - how battered and wrenched the young people looked in these photos from 1980-1982, how wired/shagged off drugs – could people their age (some of the kids in the pic were about 13) comprehend this kind of lifestyle now?

So what to make of punk in a museum? Well, despite all the naysayers both in some press and in private conversation (even whilst in the museum opening I heard a lot of objections –some based on a knowledge born of formidable first-hand experience), and despite seeing friend of Incendiary Arnold de Boer play his marvellous songs almost like an exhibit to a transient crowd; I have to say I that more than anything the experience was a positive one. You could see the show as a sort of punk Kringloop where the old guard dropped off their battered stuff for the young and impressionable to take home and treasure. And there were quite a number of young underground bands by the opening, Gul Night Out (singer Jacco succeeded in terrorising the ULTRAs at the post opening drinks get together), Ravage Ravage, Wooden Constructions and April all were visible and lapping up the contents. Even some metrosexual-Utrecht hipster types were seen mooching about in a state of awe at what could be done without the use of an app.  But most of all it is the fact that – whatever the show’s flaws – this stuff is on show in one place and recognised as being worth showing as an alternative – or warning - to what’s happening now, culturally. And this is a good thing and a good thing that is lasting, I hope.  


*PS I later found out that The Rondos were represented, I just missed them...