‘The Bruce Lacey Experience’ at Camden Arts Centre
Review by Gloriana Riggioni
Calling someone a ‘British eccentric’ tends to imply a propensity to quixotic schemes and delusional intransigence, or at the very least a degree of affectation and pomp à la Oscar Wilde. Given that this is the preferred adjective the media appears to have adopted for the elusive task of qualifying Mr Lacey, it seems a small disclaimer might be in order. ‘Eccentric’ does NOT do the man justice, just as it never did Dalí or da Vinci. What these men have in common, which differs so much from the humdrum of average humanity, is a sheer insatiable appetite for the experience of living. In this sense, even the term ‘artist’ must be allocated only in the broadest, most subservient way: what we call art is to them simply another vehicle of exploration, and the work a mere by-product of the way they carry out their lives.
‘I am finding my own way and people, if they want to, can follow’, explains the 85 year old, in characteristically brash and humorous tones. ‘I am shitting on the way, which are my artworks, and the critics are coming along picking up my shit and saying ‘ooh this is fantastic texture, ooh what a beautiful colour…‘It’s all crap for me, I’m a simple person.’ (1)
‘The Bruce Lacey Experience’ at Camden Arts Centre is an outline, in four parts, of the visual depositions that are the result of a long, incredibly productive and thoroughly inspired life.
The first room is full of memorabilia from his early life, including the ‘kitchen sink’ paintings of his days as a student at the RCA. There are war relics, photographs of a naval ship (where he contracted tuberculosis in 1947) and nightmarish cartoons of hospital wards. A foreshadow of his later work comes in the form of a macabre-looking 1953 drawing of the disembodied head of a ventriloquist’s puppet; mechanisms all on show, yet retaining an uncanny trace of the puppet’s assumed personality.
Obscuring all of this, and filling the room with characteristic absurdity, is a massive overhanging penis made with hula-hoops and ribbons. Countless white ping-pong balls hover in the testicles, turning into little dolls which then become bigger dolls as they travel up the shaft and out in an explosion of spiralling white piping towards the wall. There they spread into ten strings with more ping-pong balls which conclude in a series of personal and rather heart-warming snapshots of his offspring. The piece is playful, paternal and very cheeky- the doings of a mischievous Grandpa.
Moving to the ‘Assemblage Room’ the impression is of walking into what you might expect an exhibition of retro-ware by Wallace & Gromit to look like… if you add a bit of a Freudian twist. Levers, buttons and wires galore, a series of mechanical contraptions made with parts of household appliances, cars, medical equipment, bits of manikin and god knows what else, populate the room with their distinct personalities. ‘After leaving art school I became a performer, but I hated actors and I hated show business… so I started making robot actors.’ (2) Footage of his performances with the robots is on show around the space, and as they come to life it becomes clear that the various characters represent his own inner desires and traumas. ‘The objects I make are hate objects, fear objects and love objects; they are my totems and fetishes.’ (3) Surrealist in every sense of the word, they employ overt sexual gestures and graphic genital substitutions in a collusion of pleasure and torture that almost invites psychoanalytic interpretation.
It wasn’t until he found himself seeking connection with the Earth and developing pagan-style rituals that Lacey moved back to physical performance; and this is the theme of the third room. The ‘Ritual Area’ is populated largely by the props he uses in his shamanic endeavours. A series of framed circular batiks allude to the planets and what appear to be cells; microscopic and macroscopic renderings of nature in echoing images which imply the balance of all things. Of particular note is an example of his preoccupation in this period with measuring atmospheric phenomena. His ‘Homemade Sunshine Recorder’ concentrates sunlight through a crystal ball which then burns a trace on a strip of card placed behind it, turning the variable intensity of light in a day into a graphic image.
Screening In the fourth space is the new film by Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams: The Bruce Lacey Experience which is out on DVD on July 23rd. ‘I create a fantasy’, he explains in it, ‘not to keep it in mind but to act it out’... or as the exhibition clearly illustrates, to live by it.
 From a Q+A after the screeningof ‘Bruce Lacey Experience’, BFI Southbank, 5 July, 2012.  Ibid. Fromthe literature on display at the exhibition, written 1964.