Princess Julia, DJ and writer, on the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London
GB Tell me why you chose the ICA?
PJ Well, I learnt that the Institute of Contemporary Arts celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. How fantastic is that. I think it’s true to say it’s managed to keep to its original ethos, “…to position itself at the forefront of art and culture.” You might say a building is just walls and it’s the people who use a structure that make it come alive. I would agree with that but I would also say that a building also can inspire people to adjust their ideas to accommodate and create something unique whether it’s a club, your home perhaps, or in the case of the ICA (situated at number 12 the Mall since 1968), in an atmosphere where anything can happen. Originally the ICA started life in 1946 in Academy Hall, Oxford Street, before taking up a more permanent residence at 17-18 Dover Street, Mayfair, in 1950.
GB Is the building in itself beautiful? In spite of or because of being at odds with its use? It’s about as traditional as London gets and is home to such cutting edge art?
PJ The ICA is housed is an exceptional building, Nash House, in an exceptional area that’s steeped in tradition and the high drama architecture of the Georgian period. I think that’s why, even before you enter its cavernous space there’s something rather grand about it. A series of classical Doric pillars pave the way to its entrance if you’re travelling from Trafalgar Square, giving you the sense of being in the epicentre of old London Town. If you’re coming up from Buckingham Palace, with the splendour of the Mall before you and St James’s Park to your right, there’s a thrilling sense of travelling through history.
Upon entering, a new story unfolds; a modernist interior unravels itself before you housing a bookshop to your right and reception directly ahead with screening rooms set to the upper left. As you continue to the right the latest contemporary art show envelopes you. It’s a space that, despite being housed in antiquity, begs the contemporary artist to consider its possibilities. Further into the building the secreted away Reading Room (under the stairs) houses various mini shows in detail. It’s like a little discovery when you might have stumbled into Julie Verhoeven’s world of padded vaginas or glimpsed the Star Trek wallpaper of Leigh Bowery’s council flat circa 80s. Pass through the bar and restaurant and out to the back and another world of possibilities opening up through the swing doors of the theatre room. I’ve seen numerous fashion shows and installations here from Fashion East to Sibling. Parties, music gigs, happenings and shows of every variety make the space come alive. Okay, now we must venture forth and up the decorated steps winding their way up to the rooms of traditional style and which house further exhibition space, two more floors to be exact with picturesque views across the mall. If you’re lucky you might be invited to a brunch reception or even a wander to the upper sanctum of the director, Gregor Muir himself, who sits at the core of activities.
GB What’s your first memory of the ICA?
PJ I must have wandered through its doors before but I remember quite vividly a show called ‘Synchronisation of the Senses’ The New Romantics: A Summary. It consisted of film screenings celebrating the experimental super 8 film work of a cluster of friends in October 1985. John Maybury, Holly Warburton, Cerith Wyn Evans to name just a few. This series of film screenings was a catch up from an initial show in 1981 ‘New Romantic Cinema. Or A Certain Sensibility’ which of course I attended also. My image was the poster in fact, a photograph from Holly Warburton.
GB What’s the most visually beautiful show that you’ve seen there?
PJ It seems I take a memory away with me every time I visit. Peering up close at those Tom Of Finland paintings and drawings introduced me to a whole new aspect to his work.
GB It seems that beauty became something of a dirty word in art. Do you think it’s shallow or elitist to create beauty?
PJ Has it? Oh I know what you mean… the old debate over whether something can be considered credible art on the notion of its beauty alone. Well, we all love beautiful things but personally I do like things to make me think, reflect or cause a reaction. I can like things purely on the premise of their beauty but artists have licence to pursue further trains of thought and it would be a shame to waste an opportunity to make an artistic statement without considering the whys and wherefores. They’re my faves really, artists who convey their thoughts through various mediums, creating a visual something that perhaps might be quite scary or confrontational and give it an aspect of beauty.
So on that note I don’t think it’s shallow or elitist to create something of beauty as long as it triggers some sort of emotion within the viewer.
GB Do you think that it’s still possible for art or fashion to be shocking – when we have so much available to see every day?
PJ Perhaps the thing to be is thought provoking rather than shocking. To be able to look at things from a different angle in a way you hadn’t thought of before. I don’t like things that try too hard. Even though we might be bombarded with imagery of all sorts via the internet, TV etc there’s something to be said for experiencing things in the real world – perhaps that’s a modern day notion of shock. To experience art in real life, it’s like having an intimate moment.
GB Does it even matter if we’ve seen it all before?
PJ I don’t like to think I’ve seen it all before and I’ve seen quite a few sights over the years. I don’t think it matters because each person puts their own spin on the ideas they are endeavouring to convey. Being inspired by stuff and giving it a shake up makes creativity a new and arresting situation.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
PJ It’s hard not to think of all the clichés but I guess they exist to state the obvious and I don’t really want to state the obvious because you already know them. Let’s just use the one cliché ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. So perhaps I might say something is the epitome of beauty whilst you might think I’ve got the worst taste ever. In fact I’m a lover of bad taste. So everything gets a bit twisted in my world. I enjoy a bit of subversion, I like things to stretch my imagination. And that in itself is a notion of beauty.