When you recall the London New Romantic Club scene of the 1980s you immediately think of Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet and Boy George, all perfectly coiffured and dressed to impress. Yet out of this self-conscious and contrived environment grew a free-spirited female trio whose aim was to challenge mainstream ideas of what it was to be a woman in the field of performative art making.
In October 1981 Christine Binnie declared the birth of the Neo Naturists in their manifesto. Made in the traditional avant-garde form of a public declaration, it set out the motives and intentions of the movement but its revolutionary aims were perhaps not so revolutionary. Established in the wake of punk and against a backdrop of social, political and economic change (a consequence of the ensconced Thatcherite government) the Neo Naturists made a return to the hippy-hedonism of the 1960s, their alternative counter-culture values were decidedly Zen rather than radical.
Studio Voltaire currently plays host to their expressive oeuvre in the most comprehensive exhibition of their work to date. Until now they have remained a little-known, alternative phenomenon, enjoyed by Londoners frequenting its clique underground pubs, clubs, galleries and squats. Formed by Christine Binnie, Jennifer Binnie and Wilma Johnson and often accompanied by a troupe of diverse collaborators including Boy George, Cerith Wyn Evans, Derek Jarman, Bruce Lacey, Peter Doig and Grayson Perry to name a few, the groups’ actions were the antithesis of the self-conscious Blitz Kids who typified New Romanticism and whose zeal increasingly encroached on the mainstream. The Neo Naturists set themselves up as a reaction to the androgyny prominent throughout the culture they inhabited. Fashion dictated that thin, perfectly made-up men and women ruled. Their response was to hit the clubs baring all ‘… red and shiny and smiling, and a bit too fat.’ The reason for nakedness was to celebrate the human form in stark contrast to the highly consumerable, sexually commodified female body, with a hint of self-confessed showing off. Being naked in this environment was being different from everyone else.
Starting out as a life modelling exercise at Central St Martins, Christine and Wilma were soon painting directly on to each other’s bodies. This later evolved into public performances making their private acts communal. They famously posed naked with the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and almost got arrested at Centre Point, London. Their often unrehearsed performances and use of hastily fabricated or found props communicated a message which set them apart from movements to which they would be aligned – their work purposefully did not carry any heavy significance or meaning. The performances were characteristically feminine, with rituals of cooking and eating, a maternal provision for others, fashioned to resonate with the quintessential British summer fete or bring-and-buy-sale. Originally taking place amid clubbers, the live actions soon happened in galleries and at festivals. While seemingly more at home in these surroundings, their message was at odds with performance and feminist practice of the time. They bought with them the residues of the subcultures from which they developed – a sense of not quite fitting in, but being okay with it.
The exhibition at Studio Voltaire amasses huge amounts of documentation including printed ephemera, newspaper cuttings, Polaroids, slide projections, video footage and early experimental home movies, providing a comprehensive introduction to the group’s activities and communicating a real sense of their ethos. Imprints made by the artists painted bodies are smeared across the walls, while The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ – the soundtrack to the early 80s – rings out from a monitor showing Jennifer Binnie and Grayson Perry hanging out in an inner city café smoking cigarettes and eating chips. The aesthetic, best described as analogue, further places the work within a very particular context and the DIY nature of the installation mirrors the energy of the group. It is an enjoyable and fascinating exhibition and it raises questions about how effective archival material can be at communicating a practice which is so alive, experimental and immediate.