Celebrating Kathy Acker at the ICA’s I,I,I,I,I,I Kathy Acker
We have written here before about the work of Kathy Acker but with the exhibition at ICA this summer we can write again.
In her famous essay The Erotic as Power, Audre Lorde claims that ‘Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world’. Kathy Acker with her explicit exploration and deployment of the erotic does exactly this. Contentious and carnal, Kathy Acker’s work has been a source of power for many and repulsion for some… but that fine line is where all the fun happens! Constantly deconstructing, reshaping, and destroying again,Acker is a notorious figure when it comes to art that’s subverting, decentralising and disruptive.
Having found artistic refuge in the ICA during her years in London, it would be hard to name a better home to host the largest exhibition of Acker’s work in England to date. Taking a more or less recollective journey through Acker’s artistic life, the exhibition titled I,I,I,I,I,I, Kathy Acker is a display of just how much of an impact Acker had and still has on art – which ever form it takes on. With a range of multisensory pieces, presented in a semi-cohesive maze, the exhibition sees Acker’s anthology take centre stage like the nucleus of an atom. Encircling the fragments of work is a series of pieces from a network of artists who have been inspired by Acker or have entered the same sphere of strangeness, like the electrons to her nucleus if you will.
With the collection filling eight rooms in total, each sub-section is centred around a key text from Acker’s library. And thanks to her experimental methodologies, each text has a rich history of influence and technique. Almost mirroring the development of her style, each room pulls you further into her world destabilisation until you are neck deep or in over your head. The first welcome you receive to the exhibition is from video footage taken from Acker’s telling of the 18th century pirate Mary Read, and her interest in the figure’s gender freedom. This introduction is a visualisation of shape-shifting that is to come from Acker’s prolific departmentalisation of the self and investigate how identity can be manipulated.
Starting with her first published work The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973), there’s a lot of stuff on show in each room. Everything from scrawled over books, crossed out philosophers’ names, crude ‘dream maps’ blown up on the walls, video footage of performance art on grainy television sets, to a Vivienne Westwood Jacket. One notable piece was the Blue Tapes, a piece curated by herself and poet Alan Sondheim in 1974. Having only recently been more frequently circulated a showable piece, Blue Tape was a video taken by the two artists documenting their love-affair. In the video, the viewer gets a glimpse of a young Acker and Sondheim embodying the difference between love and sex. Focusing on the sexual part, a usual trope, the video footage shows.the couple performing oral sex on one subject while the other talks. Drawing the lines between erotic and love, Acker and Sondheim here provide a visual presentation of their abrupt coupling and how sex is an independent force than interdependent on love.
The erotic for Acker was a powerful way to explore identity and power, in an interview with ICA, shown on another grainy screen, Acker claims that her work uses sex to look at ‘the problem of power, of what we think of power, of what we think the nexus are between political power, personal power and sex.’ This certainly falls into her exhibiting of the self and the multiple “I’s” that circulate her work. The exhibition centres these themes and offers a chance for the viewer to really delve into her methodologies. Even for those unfamiliar to her work, the ICA gives every viewer the opportunity to get to grips with Acker’s methods of dissecting, “plagiarism”, and deconstruction in order to understand her examination of meaning and identity.
Taking you all the way to her latest works, before her death in 1997, the exhibition takes an extensive look at her dismantling of the capitalist, patriarchal hegemony following her alignment to feminism as she grew older. Finding herself drawn to French feminism, her later pieces centre Kristeva’s theory of the “abject”, in doing so Acker bought a new life to the philosophy. Bringing the “filth” of humanity from spit to menstrual blood to the forefront of her writing Acker forces her reader to look at the look at the natural excrement that we repress in order to oppose the enforced cleanliness set out by oppressive social norms.
The ICA explores all these components nicely, by amalgamating Acker’s work with other artists and more contemporary figures. Artists such as Genesis P-Orridge, Reb Maybury, Candice Lin, Johanna Hedva, and many more, are spread over the space like part Acker’s army as well as being provocative artists. On top of that the ICA have put together a programme of events that see literary critics, artists, Acker’s plays and even tarot card readers be part of the celebration of Ackerism.
From beginning to end and everything in between, the exhibition not only honours Acker’s work as ground-breaking literacy but also brings forth idea that perhaps her work has never been more relevant than it is today. As we move into strange socio-political territory, work like Acker’s and the other artists included in the exhibition may be one of the avenues to push against repressive regimes. But whether this is the intention or not, one thing for sure the I,I,I,I,I,I, Kathy Acker heralds Acker for the savant that she was. Long live Kathy Acker.
The exhibition running until the 4th of August and is a must see (and free on a Tuesday), along with a range of live events to check out too.
Find more info here: https://www.ica.art/exhibitions/i-i-i-i-i-i-i-kathy-acker
Words by Aimee Williams-Maynard