'Wreckers of civilisation': Hull embraces its frenzied sexual past

Our critic hits the city of culture to find its best visual art – from a giant blade pointing to Primark to type-your-own street signs and a band of sexual outlaws

A small, gilded panel of Christ, flanked by saints Paul and Peter, has just gone on display in the Ferens Gallery in Hull. This quiet, static image, painted around 1320 by Pietro Lorenzetti of Siena, was acquired by the newly refurbished gallery in 2013. There they stand, cut off at the waist. The painting is a quiet little thing, the centrepiece of a display of early Renaissance works, both borrowed and from the gallery’s collection. It is a great room. On the opposite wall is a small alabaster carved relief of the Resurrection of Christ, a so-called “Nottingham Alabaster” carved in about 1450. It has lost most of its polychrome finish, and is as bare as naked flesh. What a lively, grim little object it is; how fragile it makes us seem.

Outside, a gleaming white rotor blade for a wind-turbine is propped at an angle across Queen Victoria Square, the sharp end pointing vaguely towards Primark. The blade, manufactured in Hull by Siemens, was installed with much fanfare and ado last month, marking the start of Hull’s year as UK city of culture. We go from the early renaissance to the ready-made in a few easy steps.

Conceived by artist Nayan Kulkarni, the blade itself is impressive enough – though claims that this is somehow on a par with Richard Serra’s monumental Tilted Arc (which cut across Manhattan’s Foley Federal Plaza until, after much protest, it was removed in 1989), or Marcel Duchamp’s appropriated objects must be treated with caution.

The fat, cylindrical end of the blade is housed in a horrible grey MDF structure, while the tip is supported by a giant clamp on a tripod. Underneath lie oblong boxes, big enough to sit on, though each bears a sign telling us not to climb or stand on the benches, though that is exactly what you want to do, to get a raised view of the slanted, soaring blade. An elegant, lovely piece of engineering, it is somehow diminished by being shorn of its function. It is only big.

Duchamp, visiting the Paris Aviation Show in 1919 with sculptor Constantin Brancusi and coming face-to-face with an aircraft propeller, supposedly remarked: “Who could do anything better than this! Look, could you do that?” Another version of the story has Brancusi exclaiming: “Now that’s what I call sculpture!” Bigging it up in the square is not enough.

No rude words … The City Speaks by Michael Pinsky.
No rude words … The City Speaks by Michael Pinsky. Photograph: Michael Pinsky

Down at the docks, a small lectern stands on the quay. You can climb up and give a sort of improvised lecture, typing messages that appear, as if by magic, in lights on the side of the enormous Tidal Surge Barrier a few hundred yards away. A commission by Michael Pinsky, The City Speaks is programmed with a limited vocabulary, so as not to recognise rude words. I don’t know if references to Brexit are allowed, or personal comments about our politicians, as our own European surge barrier goes into operation.

The streets of Hull were once a bit less well-mannered. “Coum are fab and kinky, Coum are in the police files, Coum are plotting your overthrow, Coum are messiahs, Coum are wise, Coum are stupid, Coum are an orgy, Coum have a frightening view of reality.” So reads a list of 1001 Ways to COUM. It goes on, at great length, across a wall of the new “pop up” Humber Street Gallery in the heart of Hull docks – in the same building that, in the early 1970s, was the home of COUM Transmissions, founded by Hull University dropout Genesis P-Orridge in 1969 and soon joined by Cosey Fanni Tutti and a gaggle of pseudonymous misfits (Spydee, Foxtrot Echo) whose names are as silly as the things they did.

COUM enlivened the local arts scene with renegade performances, happenings, concerts and outrages. They were never just a band. In one dark space at Humber Street Gallery, these individual members of COUM are presented as video portraits, reminiscing about the good old days as artistic and sexual outlaws.

Swinging … COUM perform Bollocks in the Breeze in 1974.
Swinging … COUM perform Bollocks in the Breeze in 1974. Photograph: COUM

Maybe you had to be there – when COUM supported Hawkwind in 1971; when they celebrated Britain joining the European Community in 1972; when they performed in Amsterdam in 1974; or when their Prostitution exhibition at London’s ICA in 1976 led Tory MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn to call them “wreckers of civilisation”, an epiphet Coum probably enjoyed.

The show ends just as COUM transmogrified into the industrial band Throbbing Gristle. For all the ramshackle performances, the art remains obscure: a sort of mad, post-hippy, proto-punk moment, just before what was called “underground” culture became mainstream. It all has the feel of nostalgia. COUM was barely an art movement at all, and an unoriginal one at that. It was more a way of life. The music, which still has a cultish following, may have been more significant.

By the end of the list of the group’s undoubted qualities – “Coum are odious”, “Coum use squeaky Durex”, “Coum decompose the impossible” – I am flagging. COUM are coming, again, and again. Or not coming, in the case of Genesis P-Orridge, desperately masturbating in fuzzy, degraded video footage from a 1974 performance. Even with the help of a vibrator in his bottom he isn’t quite getting there, wherever there was. Here he is again, bleeding and staunching himself. I missed the bit where he tries to insert his penis into a bottle.

I could have done with more performance material. Instead, 22 vitrines crowd the galleries, all stuffed with fliers, statements, notes, lists, drawings and grainy photographs. There’s more on the walls, none of this tide of paper and oddments annotated or given any sort of context. Explanations, we are told, will come later.

Postcards and manifestos, handwritten performance prop lists, leaflets and contact sheets, an old tambourine and a PVC strap costume, a black leather diamante eye-patch and g-string, angry notes – these all comes from Cosey’s private collection and from Tate Archives, which purchased P-Orridge’s collection some years ago. Unless you are a hardcore fan, these relics are an undoubted slog.

P-Orridge, born Neil Megson, went on to transform himself into his wife, Jacqueline Breyer, and goes by the name of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. The pair underwent bouts of surgery in an attempt to fuse themselves, physically and psychically, into a dual being, each resembling the other. Breyer died in 2007, aged 37, from stomach cancer.

This April, Faber & Faber publish Cosey’s autobiography, Art Sex Music. The story of COUM, and its later manifestations, have proceeded with various members. The story is more interesting sociologically than it is artistically, a sort of Spinal Tap with sex and gender issues, bad blood and amateur-hour performance art, augmented with Botox and breast implants, as well as ideas from Fluxus and Viennese actionism.

Bit of a bind … a harness used by COUM at Humber Street Gallery.
Bit of a bind … a harness used by COUM at Humber Street Gallery. Photograph: Thomas Arran

Whatever they did may well have been anarchic, subversive and even shocking, but the shock has evaporated. You can access videos of people doing weird things to themselves and to each other with a few taps of your smartphone – and watch it all in HD. Wandering the streets of Hull in a gas mask and a clown’s outfit wouldn’t raise an eyebrow nowadays. People would probably ask if you were doing it for charity.What the exhibition lacks is precisely what made COUM interesting – that is to say, what they actually did. Much went unrecorded or was lost. You had to have been there. Sadly, being here now is not enough.


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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