As the 30th anniversary of punk is marked later on this summer by a big era retrospective at the Barbican, and the ICA’s current Secret Public exhibition examines the underground graphics and art of the early 1980s, it’s clear that baby boomer nostalgia’s never been bigger.
It’s understandable; a culture-savvy 40-something generation gnawed by fear for their children, their planet and their very lives as they travel to work can find easy escapism in recollecting a time when the scariest thing on TV was Johnny Rotten snarling at Bill Grundy rather than Iranians burning flags outside the UK embassy, ice caps melting in front of our eyes and rubbish England managers leading rubbish English football teams (OK, some things don’t change).
So serious nostalgia hounds might want to check out another exhibition that will take them down memory lane, Vintage Rock/ a T-Shirt Exhibition, at London’s Orange Dot gallery. Here, hanging amid blown-up photocopies of 1970s posters and American yearbook spreads of teenagers, will be an array of T-shirts drawn from two recent books, Vintage Rock T-Shirts by Johan Kugelberg, and Sex & Seditionaries by PunkPistol, both of which will be on sale at the show as signed and numbered limited editions. The former features the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Elton John and Led Zeppelin, while the latter will consist of the Destroy jackets, Fuck Punk, Gene Vincent and Anarchy T-shirts that blew such old fogies out of the water. Many of the T-shirts will be on sale in an evolving show that will change as items are rotated or sold.
If the idea of two such different milieus being represented together seems odd, an opportunistic desire to please both UK and US audiences, show curator Monty O is quick to refute the suggestion. ‘The vintage stuff is very American, it’s true, but 80 per cent of the bands were British and part of a youth culture that was very much the progenitor of the punk movement; you couldn’t have had one without the other. British rock and punk have the same voice, they’re just using them differently,’ he insists. ‘Plus, I liked the idea of the clash between rock, which was safe, and punk, which wasn’t; it creates an interesting dialogue, one that’s as much about youth culture as it is about the UK having the edge over the US,’ he adds.
The irony of such a violent, anti-establishment counter culture as punk was now being part of a nostalgia trip that sees it hung on gallery walls and sold for up to £1000 an item, as it will be at the show, is not lost on Monty. ‘Of course, people might come to see and buy vintage T-shirts just because they’re vintage, but I hope they’ll come along to see the show – which is designed in such a way as to be something that’s more installation than T-shirts hanging on a wall and creates a literal background to the era – in the same spirit that they keep old T-shirts; as relics of a past that can bring back memories like a song or a photograph does, something that’s hard to let go off. I’ve bought a T-shirt from the show already, a T.Rex one, and I bought it because I missed buying it first time round and have always still wanted it. I hope that people buy things, if they do buy things at the show, in the same spirit.’
Vintage Rock: a T-Shirt Exhibition will be at the Orange Dot gallery, 2 Sutton Lane, London EC1 until 8 May