Opening to the public last month, LAMB Arts' latest exhibition courtesy of Brazilian-French art duo Assume Vivid Astro Focus (AVAF), uses phallic like and intricately-cut sculptures to convey a poignant message, one that has roots in a variety of themes (mainly the 60s and 70s gay scene) all bound by their purpose in looking to subvert and provoke.
Although the AVAF duo have been collaboratively working since the early 2000s - a period in which their work takes great inspiration - this is the first exhibition they've paired together for in six years. Normally creating works that borrow from 90s and 00s underground subculture in Berlin and New York, Bona to Vada Your Dolly Old Eek is no different thanks to a carefully curated atmosphere that's meant to emulate the gritty world of underground clubs and private sex rooms. If one thing's for sure, the atmosphere is entirely immersive as it is suggestive.
The British slang Polari takes centre stage in the exhibition, influencing each work on display. Its origins are rooted in the idea of Polari being a secret underground language used to communicate homosexual desires. As references are humorously weaved through each and every artwork, some subtle, some, not so much, each piece successfully hones in on a subculture that came with Polari, the underground world of homosexuality; all of which was expressed through a language that wasn't inherently 'learnt' but more or less passed down from generation to generation, inevitably changing and evolving as the decades passed.
Polari - derived from the Italian verb Palare (meaning To Speak) - is a language that can be traced back to the Mediterranean. With linguistic roots in Parlyaree - a slang used among street workers in the 18th century in the Mediterranean, its eventual travel to Britain saw it borrow from Cockney rhyming slang, French Yiddish, American airforce slang and even backwards slang (yes, backwards slang really is when words are pronounced as if they were spelt backwards). The most common phrase used in Polari was famously 'Bona to vada your dolly old eek', hence the now not-so-inconspicuous title and centre piece of the exhibit; serving as the only apparent reference throughout.
The reason for this widely understood translation working as the show's title highlights the exhibition's not-so-subtle references to gay sex culture in the mid to latter half of the 20th century. But What about its translation? 'Bona to vada your dolly old eek' directly translates to 'Good to see your pretty face', which then became adopted by Polari users as a general greeting taking on other translations and variations like 'ahh, nice to see you'. Essentially, the AVAF duo made up of Christophe Hamaide-Pierson and Eli Sudbrack are greeting their viewers at the door, creating a more personal and relaxed atmosphere that not only extends to their work but the intimately-curated space as a whole.
Split off into small narrow corridors that lead to separate rooms; the private chambers created take pride in their allusion to sex rooms, which can be viewed from the outside and from within, thanks to various small, circular cut-outs and windows for the audience to peer through. Once inside, each room falls home to a flash, neon-coloured sculpture that is bizarrely fabulous in its own right. Imagine if Hieronymus Bosch was an artist in the 2000s; now imagine if Bosch created intricate and detailed sculptures; this is the aesthetic that runs from room to room, piece to piece. Without giving too much away, the unexpected psychedelic appearance of a hand poking out from underneath or the random glimpse of a sculpture's shadow appearing on the floor binds a coherent theme that's aesthetically intriguing, witty and subversive all at once.
There's a hilariously camp theme that runs throughout, made evident by the artist's choice in Orla Kiely-inspired wallpaper. This purposeful act falls at the forefront of playfully challenging the negative connotations of what's deemed 'kitsch' and 'camp' while also evocative of the 60s and 70s glamour, again, naturally fitting into the context in which the exhibition takes its inspiration. Coming full circle, the use of windows and circular cut-outs featured throughout also offer a metaphorical interpretation of the Polari language - one that was used in secret, communicating ideals that were punishable by prison at the time. Yet, the language itself was heard by everyone, even those who didn't understand. Polari was always there, trickling through the entertainment industry, theatre and even the merchant navy in the 40s while successfully remaining primarily disconnected from the mainstream. Although the mirrors offer an aesthetic that fits like a glove, its presence undeniably represents more than what first meets the eye.
The exhibition's overarching theme is a clear one, challenging public ideals of what was once considered 'forbidden' and what was not. Cardboard cut-outs look childlike from afar, in colour and appearance, until upon a closer look, their suggestive phallic nature gives way to sexually-charged ideas that are certainly not 'child-friendly'. Yet, as is ever with art that challenges, provokes and subverts, the context falls in line with modern art that's been shunned many times over in recent years for simply appearing aggressively crude. This exhibition isn't crude; in fact, it's far from it. However, through its sickly-sweet Orla Kiely-style wallpaper (a purposeful choice rather than one that's lacked in taste), its brightly-coloured papier-mâché sculptures, intricately cut designs, phallic-like objects and private rooms that echo sex chambers, one must understand there's more to the innocent tone than at first glance, all concealed in not only a clever but profoundly artistic way.