‘Smack your face!’ ‘Boo!’ ‘Bawbag’ ‘Do better, you mop!’ ‘I’m a nitwit and a bumhole’ (the last said by some talking arse cheeks wearing a suit and crowned with a Trumpian toupée of shit). I doubt the Foundling Museum – a charming, moving institution devoted to orphaned and abandoned children and philanthropy – has ever claimed it’s hosting the rudest and shoutiest art show in London, but it is right now.
‘The Covid Letters’ is an inspired/infantile initiative from brand-mocking clothing label Sports Banger. I don’t know if you remember, but back in March everyone in the country got a letter from Downing Street explaining lockdown. I mean, I didn’t, but I’ve had Deliveroo riders literally in tears trying to find my house. Anyway, Jonny Banger was so incensed by this state-sponsored round robin that he decided to do something about it. He invited children under 16 to directly ‘decorate’ the official missive in any (non-digital) way they saw fit. And being small children, the way a lot of them saw fit was bumhole-related.
The results are pretty extraordinary and are now on display at the Foundling Museum after an invite from Turner-Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. Two-thirds of ‘The Covid Letters’ is a shitfest. There’s turds, ordure, stercoraceous emissions, effluence and poo emojis everywhere. It looks like Bobby Sands running a playgroup. ‘I wipt my bum on this,’ says Eliza, aged 8, in an unladylike but frank expression of political disaffection, above a big smear of brown felt tip. Kit, 3, seems to have just stuck his arse in some blue paint then sat on the envelope. But then he is from Bristol. It’s all fucking hilarious and quite disturbing en masse.
But as Deller comments, ‘Artists strive to be naughty and funny in their work, but children just are.’ His point is that millions of kids have been profoundly affected by 2020’s lockdown to an extent that we may not understand for years, but their voices have been nowhere. They can’t even clap for the NHS any more. ‘There’s a poo in a top hat,’ Deller says in an accompanying video. ‘I just hope it’s Jacob Rees-Mogg.’
‘The Covid Letters’ might be a bit route-one in approach, but you can’t deny its authenticity. And it’s not all grossness. There’s a lovely wall of abstract responses: a letter with a lot of googly eyes, ones with glitter, ones with slashes and bursts of colour. Other pieces are celebratory: ‘Thank you NHS for saving my brother’ reads one.
You can feel the ghostly parental hand hovering over others. I don’t know about you, but in my tender years (pre-30, basically), I never expressed any political sentiment as sophisticated as ‘NHS not Trident’. But hey. The letters continue through the rest of the Foundling Museum, shrill spikes of infant dissatisfaction among the sere portraits of eighteenth-century benefactors and the solemn long-case clocks.
I’ve enjoyed Cold War Steve’s reactions to the nightmare of this year, but there is a purity to ‘The Covid Letters’ that is refreshing. Okay, kids called things like ‘Otis’, ‘Echo’ and ‘Felix’ are probably just parroting stuff that their mums and dads are yelling at ‘Channel 4 News’ over a nice glass of albariño, but so what? That’s fundamentally what we’re all doing. That and watching stuff being shat on.
‘The Covid Letters’ is at the Foundling Museum, Sat Oct 24-Jan 17 2021. £10.50 (included in museum entry).
And check out the great Michael Clark show at the Barbican.