Billy Childish Kicked My Ass in London

March 23, 2010

Last week in London I saw a lovely show by Billy Childish.

The idea that cult figure Childish has a lovely show tells you more about me than about his work: I am touched by raw pain, especially when it’s sprinkled with dry, knowing winks of belligerence.

His show is at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The building itself (for an American) is deeply romantic. Well, romantic in a way that had I been an art student wearing crinoline, and been able to study in a building with stairs that went round and round, and up and up, all the way to a top floor with light flooding around one, that would have been wonderful. Wonderful, in a sort of imperialist kind of way: the building is blocks from the Queen and perhaps once “appropriate” art was in there.

That is why I just loved the first picture you see when you enter the hall to the Childish show (“Unknowable but Certain”) that states, quite clearly, “Your credentials mean nothing to me”.

Yet, I didn’t see that poster till I was on my way out.

What I was taking note of was my friend Vic Keegan who is a painter/poet/technology writer for the Guardian who was kind enough to take me to the show. Vic and I had lunch earlier and were talking about pelicans, Apps, painting and London. Not in that order. So, after this insanely great vegetarian lunch in the park, we walked over to the Institute.

Let’s be clear – I really did not know who Billy Childish was. And, I love moments like that – not just because they reveal that I have fantastic gaps in knowledge (or, is it that I don’t make enough fantastic gaps in time to have vast knowledge?) – but, mainly, I love NOT to be in awe.

Awe bums me out. If you are in awe you are done for. That is why when I had a chance to meet Lou Reed at an event I stayed very far away from him. I would not enter the same room.  I did not like the feeling in me when I saw him – that he was hazy, not a real person, somehow a stick figure of a song that I made out to when I was in my teens. Also, he scared me because he was wearing a black and yellow sweater and looked like a hornet…but that’s a different story.

No, I don’t like awe –  it gets in the way of love. And, I really loved the Childish show. I loved it with no context, I only knew that there were paintings that spoke to me.

A man collapsed in the snow.


Wondering, had he just fallen down, or was he about to get up?

Ah, and did I mention that I was sneaking pictures? You are not supposed to do that. I was snapped at by an earnest student for taking a picture of the guy in the snow. Something in me didn’t care.

The part of me that did not care soon learned why I did not care when I went upstairs and saw more of the work. A body of work that has embedded in it the idea of, “Your credentials mean nothing to me”.

Poems were attached to walls, and records were placed up like a montage of sounds you can’t hear, and there was a reverence that seemed odd next to all of this open, liquid, anti-culture, anti-formal, juicy pain.

His poem, The Humility of Love was imprinted side by side with his other poems. Each one exposed, and a bit scary – though direct and fierce.

It took this backwards American to realize I was reading punk poetry. Viewing punk paintings. Listening to the awe of punk breaking around me. Punk, like Baudelaire punk: pained, and free like him.

Which is missing in the world. Which is missing from much of life these days: raw, ripped, fucked up, open expression. Messy, not Tweets. Messy, not metrics. Voice, not narrative.

Your credentials mean nothing to me! He was screaming it, and this kicked my ass, and I shook my head like you do when you wake up after a long snooze in class.  That scream, that voice of Whitman and Dr. Seuss (“Yop!” screams his character to awaken) stayed with me as I walked out of the show, and has stuck with me though the time zones and the plane ride and the jet lag.

Yes, right, credentials make a mess of the mess of discovery. And, it is discovery that is the most exciting part of art and media making – and ok, life.

Your credentials mean nothing to me. Your title means nothing. Your fancy school. Your fancy ideas. The question is, what the hell do you want to say?

Excellent, that’s what a punk ass artist does to you: makes you realize you forgot to ask the right question – and that, although you think you have them all, your credentials mean nothing in the long run.

One Response to “Billy Childish Kicked My Ass in London”

  1. hi mate and thanks for your contribute to lady gaga. i wish i had a blog like this!

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