Penny World is anarchic and sly and ridiculous and disturbing. And it's all done on the cheap. Drawings in felt tip pen; old clothes stained with food dye. A Louise Bourgeois-esque golden Plague Doll might look weighty, but is made of fabric rather than bronze: ‘I couldn’t afford that,’ Goring told the Guardian. ‘I like to think that I’m slyly poking fun at the big boys and grand gestures, because she could be monumental but she’s gold Spandex.’ In other words, while the controversial contemporary art ‘big boys’ performatively poke fun at the art market that nevertheless rewards them with riches, Plague Doll and Penny World poke fun at them.
A Masterpiece to Pay the Rent
If there are two things the art world has always loved, it’s money and a stunt. From Banksy shredding artworks at auction in 2018 to Damien Hirst’s convoluted ‘Currency’, artists have artists have often sought to 'challenge the concept of value through money and art', as the latter described the aim of his project. Now an exhibition at the ICA promises to do just that, albeit in a radically different way. In Penny World — the first solo exhibition of artist and poet Penny Goring in a public institution, and a 30-year-survey of her work — the entangled concepts of monetary value and artistic value are needled, not through destruction in the face of affluence, but creativity in the face of austerity.
"anarchic and sly and ridiculous and disturbing"
Many of the works on display in Penny Worldare violent and fetishistic — dolls with no heads are covered in breast-like boils and protrusions; girls’ heads are arranged on spikes, their hair defying gravity, upright as if in shock; girls’ bodies are severed at the midriff and the thigh, while others hold disembodied limbs. As much as Goring’s work is about making art despite and against austerity — about artistic work and unpaid creative labour — it is also clearly obsessive, revolving around fixation and compulsive coping strategies. It is art made from financial and psychological necessity — like therapeutic or involuntary action; like transcribing nightmares, visions and dreams.
Yet, despite seeming to flow directly from a haunted dreamworld, the threat of violence is real. ‘I have always lived under the rule of men and money,’ Goring says in an artist statement accompanying the show, ‘and, right now, I am angry at the ways it hobbles my life and my body.’
"Penny World exists somewhere between DisneyLand and PoundLand; between make-believe and the demands of an austere every day"
Goring’s fantasy realm is also, always a real-world site of struggle. Even the title plays with and proclaims this paradox: Penny World exists somewhere between DisneyLand and PoundLand; between make-believe and the demands of an austere every day. Other paradoxes ripple through her work too, like nervous laughter. It seems this is how Penny’s world is conceived – how Goring sees reality. ‘I find the future we are in to be terrifying,’ she says. ‘Also, ridiculous, in the way of a murderous clown.’
Perhaps this is why Goring’s work is now, finally, receiving public, institutional attention. What better way to speak to the era of Trump and Boris Johnson than by evoking terrifying, yet ridiculous, murderous clowns? Of course, the ICA doesn’t spell it out in quite this way, but it is keen to connect Goring’s work with the economic, socio-political realities of the contemporary moment – ‘in the context of the UK’s cost-of-living crisis’ – proclaiming that ‘her practice has been shaped by restrictive housing conditions, lack of funds and inadequate therapeutic support.’
But, what does it really mean to ‘assert the power of creativity in the face of austerity’, as another part of the exhibition blurb puts it? Using household materials and scribbling in felt-tip pen. While they gesture to psychological rupture and emotional upheaval, Goring’s works are also, of course, domestic and childish – by financial necessity, they manifest all the traits that have long dogged femininity. It seems, poverty of means brought about by ‘the rule of men and money’ forcing the artist to inhabit and embrace a stereotypically feminine aesthetic and art practice. Perhaps this, ultimately, is the condition that ‘restrictive housing conditions, lack of funds and inadequate therapeutic support’ elicits — that of being a child trapped in the house. Vulnerable to external forces; finding moments of escape and autonomy in flights of fancy.
"finding moments of escape and autonomy in flights of fancy"
Goring’s exhibition calls to mind another solo show at the ICA – 2018’s I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent, which presented the work of American artist Julie Becker for the first time. As in Penny World, Becker’s work seemed to yearn to create a complete, alternative reality. It, too, spun around restrictive housing conditions, lack of funds and inadequate therapeutic support, and it too compulsively displayed the condition of being a child trapped in the house.
Compiled over several years while Becker was living in a run-down single room occupancy hotel, her monumental work Researchers, Residents, A Place to Rest included a scale model of a rooming house, voluminous written files on imaginary inhabitants, discarded refrigerator boxes (‘the last refuge of the homeless,’ Becker remarked in a 1997 interview, but also ‘temporary places for children to play in’), and the diaries of two fictional children: Eloise, heroine of Kay Thompson’s children’s books, who lived in New York’s Plaza Hotel, and Danny Torrance of The Shining. Domestic and childish; ridiculous and terrifying.
While writing this I – like everyone I know – have been intermittently reading the latest updates on the UK’s energy price cap. Each time I check the figure rises, and each time it rises a small bit of my brain detaches, liquifies, and seeps out of my skull. What I mean is, it is hard to think about anything else, hard to think at all, when the material conditions of your life – your liveability; your ability to survive – is called into question. What I mean is, precarity is a thief. And yes, creativity may be a kind of treatment, may alleviate some of the symptoms of precariousness, may make life more liveable and valuable, but it can also be impossible. It can be, and often is, the first thing to go.
The idea of art as a means of survival is a romantic one, and one Goring fully embodies, having overcome poverty and personal trauma through three decades of compulsive creativity. After years of precarious living she can now support herself and her daughter through making art and writing poetry. Yet, there is an undeniable risk of idealising the impoverished artist as a tortured, sensitive outsider, and of making austerity an aesthetic.
Julie Becker took her own life in 2016, after a prolonged struggle with drugs and mental illness, two years before her work would be shown at the ICA. In a text accompanying the exhibition, author Chris Kraus sketched out a life indelibly marked by precarity and fragility, and described how sparsely attended Becker’s death rites were. It's hard to escape the thought that, while Goring’s story speaks to the fantasy of artmaking through austerity, Becker’s speaks to the reality. Posthumously sketched by Kraus, Becker is transformed into an evocative, tragic, tormented ghost by another, more successful and financially secure artist – her story of making art within and against restrictive housing conditions told, finally, by a landlord. Now there’s a comment on the boundaries of art and currency. Now there’s a stunt.
By Eloise Hendy