The Horror Show! at Somerset House in London showcases art spanning 50 years of real-life horror.
The Horror Show!, Somerset House’s new exhibition telling the story of the past 50 years through a ghoulish and disturbing art form, was originally conceived in 2019.
Unfortunately, as its curators note, a real-life horror show then got in the way.
Back after Covid, and conveniently timed for Halloween, it opens this week, and invites one obvious question: with so much actual horror going on all around us, why would anyone want to go to a London gallery to see more?
“You literally open the paper and you’ve got all the horror you can eat,” agrees the artist and film-maker Iain Forsyth, who co-curated the show with his creative collaborator Jane Pollard.
As a genre, however, “I think [horror] gives you a way through the darkness,” he says.
“It has always been something that people turn to at the worst of times, not the best of times. And for a lot of artists and creators, it gives you a way to see through to the other side.”
Like a scary movie or fairground ride, they say, you can experience “thrills and spills and screams and tears” in a contained way, “but you can get off again at the end”.
The exhibition focuses on the period from the early 1970s to the present day, and opens with one artefact that Forsyth and Pollard recall as particularly terrifying: a Spitting Image model of Margaret Thatcher, on loan from the programme’s archive at Cambridge University and on display here for the first time.
Thatcher “cast an incredibly dark shadow over that whole decade, and I think a lot of art in that decade responded to that”, says Claire Catterall, senior curator for Somerset House.
“A lot of the work we have in the show is the kind of direct response to her moral and political philosophy.”
The puppet opens a section of the show entitled Monster, alongside works by Leigh Bowery, Monster Chetwynd, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.
Why this time period?
The 20th century experienced plenty of horrors before the 70s, after all.
Forsyth and Pollard, who both turn 50 during the span of the exhibition, said they had conceived it to cover their own lifetimes.
They trace a path from 80s angst and political rebellion in a time of the cold war, through premillennial anxiety in the 90s (in a section entitled Ghost, featuring work from Derek Jarman to David Shrigley) to what they cast as a sort of “coven” of globally connected gen Z activists.
It closes with an audio installation by the electronic composer Gazelle Twin, voiced by the actor Maxine Peake, in a section that Catterall says she hopes people will find “healing and uplifting”.
“There is an imperative within that art to change things, to break things open. And to suggest ways of an alternative future.”
Forsyth agrees that there can be a kind of imaginative optimism in scary times.
“The more that power structures begin to fail, the more artists and others look for creative solutions to them, and begin to imagine new ways, other ways.”
Somerset House, London, from 27 October until 19 February 2023