And what an experience!
I had come across the name Bruce Lacey through the Fairport Convention 7″ single ‘Mr Lacey’ from their ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ LP. It has whirring mechanical sounds in the background and all I knew of him was that he made mechanical humanoid contraptions in the 60’s. I had no idea that he was still active, now well into his 80’s, and had lived a wild and varied life of sheer and utter lunacy.
The exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre traces the life and work of a true eccentric. It is divided into three rooms and three aspects of the life and work of Bruce Lacey. The first room is centred on his childhood (hugely significant, as he never really grew up) and feature some of his toys (he seems to have always been a compulsive hoarder, with a fascination for aircraft), fancy dress costumes from the many parties his parents put on, right up to a range of his paintings from art college.
He was born in London and experienced the Blitz first hand – in fact there is a wrecked model fighter plane in the exhibition which was damaged by a real V2 rocket which landed near his home. After the war he was conscripted and trained as an electrical engineer in the Navy which led to him being hospitalised with Tuberculosis in the late 1940’s.
In hospital he began drawing the ward and when he left he went to art college and began painting and performing – it wasn’t until he came across the term Performance Artist that the confusion over whether to be an artist or a performer (like the music hall acts he’d seen regularly with his father while growing up) was finally resolved.
The second gallery was filled with posters of performances, fairs, music, happenings and rituals. He was a long time collaborator with The Alberts, an absurdist Trad. Jazz band similar to the Bonzo Dog Band, minus a hit single (they did release one single ‘The Morse Code Melody’, but I don’t believe it charted). The Alberts actually prefigured and partly inspired Viv Stanshall to form the Bonzo Dog Band. Often credited as The Alberts with Professor Bruce Lacey, their performances were often billed as An Evening Of British Rubbish and making jibes at colonialism and the British view, as was common in the comedy of the time.
In a small room off the second gallery (which may have been a blocked off corridor of the old Victorian library building where the Camden Arts Centre is based) was projected a film all about Bruce Lacey and his work/life – I say life/work because much of his work involved just being Bruce Lacey. For instance – The Lacey’s At Home (an installation at the Serpentine Gallery in 1972) involved the whole family doing ordinary things in an ordinary room, visible to the public through a missing wall. Another example is The Lacey Rituals (1973) where he filmed his family doing ordinary, everyday things like shaving, eating and washing. By nature they are very voyeuristic, yet it is fascinating to see how someone so ‘off-the-wall’ lived their life – I was struck by the clutter strewn about the home (as I said previously he is an inveterate hoarder of quirky, interesting things). In the film he spoke about his life and the different stages of his development as an artist, the things which influenced and stuck with him. At one point he said something which really struck me because I knew exactly what he meant and had been aware of it for some time – he hated pop music because it was too perfect, the guitars were perfectly in tune and balanced with everything else, the vocals were immaculate and fitted perfectly with the rhythm track – so much so that it was boring, it had no interest. Perfect things need shaking up, setting off kilter, otherwise it’s just bland and meaningless. This chimes perfectly with my theory that although perfection should generally be aimed for in art, if it is achieved it becomes worthless and dull.
In 1967 Bruce Lacey and his wife at the time, Jill Bruce, came upon Silbury Hill which had a revelatory effect on them both but which laid dormant until 1976 when they felt the technological assemblages and robotics seemed redundant and Mother Earth far more important in their lives. The third gallery began with artifacts from his Paganistic performance/rituals/rites which he regularly performed at the Albion Fairs in East Anglia among other paces and which drew on the mysticism surrounding Ley lines, stone circles and the zodiac. There was also a fascinating glass sphere, mounted on a wooden frame which acted as a lens and traced the trajectory of the sun by burning a line on paper. there was also huge hippy-style paintings on the walls.
The other main part of the third gallery presented a number of his automaton and mechanical assemblages which are very Dada-esque. These included R.O.S.A.B.O.S.O.M. or Radio Operated Simulated Actress Battery Or Standby Operated Mains (1965), which went on to win the Alternative Miss World competition in 1985’s and was also his best man at one of his marriages. Hanging from the ceiling in this gallery was the mock-space suit he wore for a performance and film of The British Landing on the Moon (1969) where he lays out a blanket, arranges gnomes and has a picnic on the lunar surface.
This exhibition really brought home to me the dichotomy of the whole 60’s and 70’s era – while we were involved in the space race, reaching out into the unknown and using the cutting edge of technology, there was also a mass return to the earth, to the countryside and folk preoccupations, a greater awareness of nature and our part in the wider world. Why were they both so strong at this time? Were they alternate reactions and ways of comprehending our stage in the industrial, or emerging post-industrial, revolution process, or was it mere coincidence?
Involved with the post-Goons work of Peter Sellars, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine, providing ideas and props for early TV comedy shows including ‘The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d’, ‘It’s A Square World’, ‘Son of Fred’, and ‘It’s The Cathode-Ray Tube Show’. He was also George Harrison’s gardener in Help! and featured in early films by Ken Russel and Richard Lester.
Always on the edge of being ‘know’ Bruce Lacey has spent his life (a full 65 years) being the perennial outsider, doing his own thing, revelling in the counterculture yet wanting everyone to join in – persuading people not to lose sight of their imagination and their inner-child.
Links worth a look:-
The Bruce Lacey Experience was on at The Camden Arts Centre between 7 July 2012 – 16 September 2012. It will tour to The Exchange in Penzance in late September 2012. This exhibition coincides with the release of The Lacey Rituals: Films by Bruce Lacey and Friends, a DVD of restored films by the BFI, including the Bruce Lacey Experience documentary.