Bruce Conner: Mabuhay Gardens
June 4, 2008 - August 3, 2008
If rock ’n’ roll rose out of a culture of opposition, then the mid-seventies was a bad patch for rock ’n’ roll. Corporate rock smothered the airwaves, while beat-heavy disco swept through the club scene, leaving platform shoes and polyester in its wake. In the midst of this malaise, punk, that dark, rousing outburst, was finding its first expression in a marginalized scene that embodied the ardent anarchy indigenous to youth culture. Not a ready commodity, punk was anti-music flung at the mawkish mainstream.
In San Francisco, a failing Filipino supper club, the Mabuhay Gardens, became the unlikely haven for the punk scene. The thatched booths and tiki lamps bordered a stage where angst-ridden anthems ricocheted off the dilapidated walls. Into this demimonde of three-chord chaos came artist Bruce Conner, a proto-punk provocateur who scavenged cultural waste to construct his assemblages and found-footage films. Drawn to the unvarnished kineticism of this dusky scene, Conner became a habitué of the Fab Mab, as it came to be known.
In late 1977, at Devo’s San Francisco premiere, Conner met V. Vale, now the publisher of RE/Search magazine. Vale was about to inaugurate his ’zine Search & Destroy, and asked Conner for a contribution. Out of this conversation came a photographic project, with Conner frequenting the Mabuhay over the next year to capture the brash spontaneity of what would be an incandescent but short-lived moment. Some of these photographs would be first published in Vale’s seminal rag.
Conner approached this artistic undertaking like a combat photographer, wearing knee pads as paltry protection against the pogo pit. The photographs on view in this exhibition possess a visceral vigor, having been shot in the midst of the melee. But it’s not this energy alone, this transposition of the boisterous bands and thrashing crowds into frozen composition, that draws us toward them.
Though the style of punk—a defiant shabbiness seen in the torn T’s, leather jackets, and lawn-mower haircuts—is something to behold, it’s the dramatic “silence,” as critic Greil Marcus has described it, of an unfulfilled outcry that simmers beneath Conner’s images. And this music—whether created by the Avengers, Negative Trend, Crime, the Sleepers, UXA, or the Mutants—was an outcry, a protest against the squares who rule the everyday, against a culture that rewards careless consumption, against a government that was recklessly corrupt.
Conner’s photographs capture the obligatory genre poses: Frankie Fix of Crime looking zombie-like with his flying-A guitar, or Will Shatter of Negative Trend emerging from a hazy mist caused by a smoke bomb thrown on stage. But more often, the shots are interstitial, taken when the fury has subsided and what remains is a dissipating silence, the still before the next maelstrom. In this suspended space, we sense an exhaustion not of the music but of the motivating defiance. We see the provocations and, yes, the promise that punk, that raw and unadorned music, would somehow return us to the simplicity of that original trinity, E, A, and D.
The fifty-three photographs in this exhibition—twenty-six of them printed in 1985, the rest in 2004—were recently acquired by the Berkeley Art Museum. Posters, flyers, and ’zines from the period will also be on display in the gallery.
We wish to acknowledge Greil Marcus’s original catalog essay for NRW—Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft in Düsseldorf, Germany, as an inspiration for this article.
We are grateful to Joe Rees, Henry Rosenthal, Liz Keim, and Marian and V. Vale of RE/Search for lending ephemera on view in the exhibition.