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Sweet Harmony: Rave | Today review

  • Art
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Dave Swindells 'Trip Street Party' (1988) Photograph © Dave Swindells, 1988. Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery, London

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A highlight of ‘Sweet Harmony: Rave | Today’ is Vinca Petersen’s ‘A Life of Subversive Joy’: a great jostling timeline of dates, personal photographs and flyers alongside details of raves she ran and attended scrawled directly on to the gallery wall (‘1st August. Arrived at rave in Plumpton at 7am. Lost it on “blue sperm”!!? Really good!’). Next to it sits a bouncy castle entitled ‘Laughter Aid’ – since 2003, Petersen has taken it, along with more practical supplies, to Eastern European and West African orphanages in order to spread that joy.

But you can’t go on the bouncy castle. It’s cordoned off. Which typifies the problem with putting a show about unfettered freedom and counter-cultural alternatives to commercialised nightlife on in the Saatchi Gallery. They may hold up raving as a valid, potentially political artistic act, but curtained off against white gallery walls, rave culture is drained of its radical spirit.

‘Sweet Harmony’ is billed as an immersive experience, yet there’s barely even any repetitive beats – unless you pop headphones on at a Spotify station (a sponsor) or crate-dig in a Vinyl Hunter shop in the middle of the gallery. Yes, the records are for sale.

Despite the sterile setting, ‘Sweet Harmony’ should still provide a heady rush to ravers. Most of the works are large-scale photographs, often suitably blurry or flared, documenting underground scenes since the late ’80s – not to mention the experience of getting absolutely off your tits. But it also captures something of the utopian idealism of the second summer of love; it’s hard not to feel a wave of nostalgia, whether you were there or not.

There’s something terribly sweet and innocent, for instance, about Ted Polhemus’s pictures, taken in daylight, of kids in floppy hats and baggy, flower-patched denim. Derek Ridgers’s black-and-white shots have, despite their grainy and gritty patina, a beatific, quasi-religious quality: a moment of bliss, caught on camera. Dave Swindells, former Time Out nightlife editor, contrasts the laser focus of DJs crouched over decks with off-the-cuff portraits of clubbers, eyes closed, arms raised.

Some photographers bring us into more recent moments, be that Ewen Spencer’s glossy, luminous pictures of male MCs (and scantily-clad women) in the UK garage scene or the moodier chiaroscuro of Shaun Bloodworth’s documentation of early grime raves. Anna-Lena Krause’s 2016 post-club portraits are about the only ones consciously posed. Her subjects all look achingly hip, but there’s something sad, almost, about their self-awareness in contrast to the carefree chaos elsewhere.

Two installations reflect how ravers used to cluster in petrol stations waiting for details of where the party was. Conrad Shawcross has put a spinning, upside-down car on a ceiling blasting Mylo’s specially commissioned tune, while Colin Nightingale and Stephen Dobbie illuminate a plastic petrol pump to a soundtrack of traffic and muffled beats. They’re fine as far as they go – but they don’t exactly transport you.

Written by
Holly Williams


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