The Velvet Underground | NY Extravaganza

The Velvet Underground | NY Extravaganza

La Philharmonie de Paris

Those who continue to maintain that you can’t judge a book by its cover are no doubt equally delusional when it comes to the qualitative trade-off between an exhibition and its accompanying gift-shop. This writer is surely not alone when it comes to the sequential process of attending any contemporary exhibition, that of: gift shop, exhibition, gift-shop (again). Put simply, an artist has a fundamental duty to ensure that the total aesthetic presentation of his/her offering is in keeping with the creative vision from which it originated. Put even more simply: make your product look great, you idle sods.

The life of an artist may well be a litany of personal compromises, but here are a few I’d venture are worth digging your stiletto heels in about:

  • Getting pressurised by your publisher into signing-off on a dog’s egg of a dust-jacket.
  • Being rushed into agreeing the proofs of a range of t-shirt designs that would make Warhol weep into his turtle-neck.
  • Receiving big-money sponsorship overtures from a corporate multinational that funds weaponry designed to remove the skin from small children.

You get the picture.

John Cale - Welsh. Velvet.
John Cale – Welsh. Velvet.

For me, the reference to Warhol is an especially relevant one having recently attended The Velvet Underground – New York Extravaganza. A multimedia exploration of a band whose terrific self-obsessed arrogance could only have emerged from the dirty downtown sidewalks of the city that spawned it – a long-lost New York City of hookers, panhandlers and institutionalised heroin use – a humid dog day afternoon of high crime and low rents, almost four decades in advance of the day that it erected that neon sign at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel that says ‘Piss off, all poor people’ in mile-high letters. This particular exhibition gift-shop – you will be pleased to learn – is very much at the top of its game, setting the tone and timbre for what will soon be revealed via booming speakers and stark monochrome visuals:

‘Excuse me, monsieur. I was wondering if you stocked a “Fuck God in the Ass” tote-bag? I’ve been searching for one all over the 19th arrondissement’

‘Yes, of course we do madame. Would you care for one in red or white?’

It’s an exhibition that has attracted very little coverage on this side of La Manche, something made all the more surprising by the ambition and depth that it progressively reveals at increasingly immersive turns. Its relative anonymity in these parts is such that it would almost certainly have passed me by were it not for the huge advertising hoardings that greet passengers upon arrival at the Gare du Nord rail terminus. Though ostensibly in Paris to watch a football match my fully paid-up membership of the preening, perfumed metropolitan élite demands that I divert proceedings to La Cité de la Musique in the north-east of the city .

New York Extravaganza is a study of a time and a place as much as it is about a band and its music and as such pop culture images of Adam West’s Batman co-exist with the provocative street poetry of Ed Sanders – ‘promoting pornography through the concept of the street-frig’ – and now via the medium of the cotton tote-bag (a relative pre-Brexit snip at €12). Yet once you break through the initial imposing visual wall of Dylan, Kent State and Eldridge Cleaver it is a distinctly Welsh voice that commences the initial process of sensory engagement, flickering black and white images of 1940s valleys pit-life acting as a jarring juxtaposition to a sonic code of rock’n’roll decadence. Though the 1960s remains the highpoint of Anglophile fanaticism, when it comes to members of The Velvet Underground the final score is, and will always be: Wales 1 England 0.

lesprit-rock-du-velvet-underground-souffle-sur-la-philarmonie-de-paris_1 (1)La Philharmonie de Paris should be principally congratulated for its insistence on telling the VU story in its totality, the post-Lou Reed years notably escaping the scrutiny of the airbrush of history, and perhaps most gratifyingly for refusing to become involved in a pedestrian exercise in heritage rock. An achievement sharply evidenced by the hordes of young people who mill about its curios and installations in bowl-headed fascination, the antithesis of a consumptive Mojo culture of nostalgic reverence that litters the shelves of newsagents like cultural tumbleweed. It’s nevertheless somewhat fitting that the standard issue uniform of the cerebral artistic Parisian youth remains altogether evocative of the street-smart stylings of Reed and Cale as they bumped shoulders and hips with Candy and Joe.

As a dozen or so of them crowd into a triangular tunnel space that projects flashing images and visual provocation onto its ceiling panels as ‘White Light/White Heat’ pursues its relentless march I am reminded that the notion of The Velvet Underground as a mere ‘band’ remains as incongruous as it ever was. We are in the realm of the art construct, one that Paris has lovingly thrown its arms around.

The Velvet Underground – New York Extravaganza runs until 21 August.