April 7, 2015
The ICA‘s recent Fox Reading Room exhibition, ‘First Happenings: Adrian Henri in the 60s and 70s’, got me thinking about the notion of failure in art.
Henri (1932-2000), a painter, poet, musician and pioneer of the ‘happenings movement’ in the UK, staged his first event, ‘City’, at Hope Hall in Liverpool in 1962. Inspired by the earlier work of Allan Kaprow, whose ‘Environments’ and ‘Happenings’ in the late 50s had kicked off the movement, Henri’s events were a mixture of poetry, rock’n'roll and assemblage and his intended audience was to be part of the action (La Monte Young had employed a similar feature in Composition 1960). He explained his motivations as ‘enriching the old fixed art-forms, movements which are largely “subterranean”, independent and unknown to modern literary, artistic and theatrical establishment’.
All good so far and the ICA’s exhibition of original prints, hand-made posters and various objects furthered the impression that this was an entirely successful and energetic start to the happening scene in the UK. However, in and amongst the ephemera was a newspaper review that made me think that perhaps the idea might have been greater than the reality; journalist Arthur Hopcraft suggesting that ‘there was no activity to show that the audience really understood [it]‘.
I appreciate this is a single journalist’s opinion but it has made me wonder how often events like these fail to live up to their billing and yet find historical value later apportioned to them by the cultural historian. Did it matter that the audience was not fully complicit in the artist’s intentions? Perhaps not. However, I think it is important these failures/shortcomings are accurately documented and made explicit in such exhibitions for it might help to make them more accessible. For there’s nothing more accessible than the notion of failure – we’ve all been there right?
Adrian Henri, Total Art, Environments and Happenings (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974)