This morning on my way to college – a trip that usually takes well over an hour by bus – suddenly there came on my pod player one Sex Pistols song. As soon as I heard the first line “I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist” I went to the menu and pressed “repeat track.” I kept this song on for the whole day.
By time I arrived at my studio, I took the player off my head and plugged it into my speakers and got on with my painting.
I’d heard of punk rock for the first time about ten years ago, on a sunny day in beautiful Alexandria. My English friend put the Sex Pistols on and although I regarded myself most of my life as a hard rock fan, I had never heard anything like that. No single punk rock track had ever entered the Egyptian market. And for a guy that always thought British music meant Pink Floyd, Sabbath, Motorhead, I freaked out. It was terrible.
And so for the first years I lived in England I didn’t miss an occasion to express my dislike of British punk music, especially the Sex Pistols.
Today, after less than 9 years here, as a British citizen and a student at a British art college, and right now, after half a day of the Sex Pistols looping on the speakers echoing in my room as I paint, I admitted to myself that, now, I LOVE the Sex Pistols. Now, and only now, their music makes sense to me.
I have had conversations with my partner – who used to be a punk, and who is an artist and also studied in London – about the fact that British art schools often have produced radical bands and radical musicians. Just living in Britain itself wasn’t really enough for me to understand. Only by studying art here I started to get the point.
The British art environment is so emotionally disengaged. I sometimes feel when I enter this building, that I am inside a Victorian hospital going either to visit a sick friend who is about to die, or because I myself am about to die (and I like this building, architecturally speaking). But I feel a sense that all around me are emotionally disengaged, from each other and from the art that we’re all supposed to be making. I don’t understand how people here really feel about things. My judgement often fails me.
But now I understand – making this kind of music was the answer of people who couldn’t do this noise with art.
But I don’t really understand why. What is it? Why can’t they make this noise though art? I understand that the art students-turned-musicians wanted to take their work to the working class. I want to take my work to the working class too. But why does it have to be music to go to the working class? I could not find the answer so I stopped thinking and went back to painting.
For a couple more hours I painted, with “Anarchy in the UK” still on loop. I took Rotten’s sentence for my answer: “I don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.”
All I knew is that I wanted to produce a painting that captures the Johnny Rotten energy. I dealt with this painting differently than I usually do: I splashed dirt on it; I spat on it; I hammered it with dry old brushes and I mopped it with the broom that the cleaner left in the corner of the studio.
If I want to be as loud as Johnny Rotten, the performance of my painting has to have the same spirit of the Johnny Rotten performance: it’s got to be physical, aggressive, loud and carrying within it total disregard for what’s thought of as acceptable, especially for the London audience.
7:30 pm and there seemed to be nobody left in the building. The middle aged always angry security guard came to lock up the studios. He walked in to my space as Johnny Rotten was still screaming. He looked at my painting. “I love that, man” he said. And he pointed at the speakers with a big smile. “This is the sort of stuff I grew up listening to,” he said. He looked at me and he said “Good man” with a big smile. “I’m here to lock up seeing as what you’re doing I’ll leave you here for a bit and lock up the rest. I’ll lock up when you leave.”
Just before leaving the room he looked into the corridor and pointed as though he wanted me to come and look. His smile was gone and the angry, middle aged look was back on his face.I left my painting and went to see what he was pointing out. I found two of the students putting an enormous cardboard box in the middle of the corridor. It was full of garbage and they were arranging it.
“Do you think that’s enough, or should we put more rubbish?” one of them asked. Her friend said warmly, “No, it’s fantastic like this.”
The security guard and I looked at one another wordlessly. It’s as if we both felt for the confusion of the cleaner who will come in the morning and find this box of rubbish in the corridor.
It was time for me to leave. I switched Johnny Rotten off. I left the building without washing my brushes.
On the bus home I felt like I could do with a less angry song to help me on my trip home, and that’s when I discovered that, in my shock – at the cardboard box full of rubbish placed in the middle of the art college corridor – I had forgotten my headphones in the studio.
God save the Queen.
“Anarchy in the UK” (detail); 180 x 300 cm. Acrylic on paper. 2010