Artist George Henry Longly, the British Snake Charmer Who Throws a Really Good Party
The London artist behind Anal House Meltdown is putting snakes into orbit in his New York exhibition at Red Bull Studios. Yes, snakes ... on a spaceship.
The first time that the British artist George Henry Longly stepped into Red Bull Studios New York, the space where he’d eventually be installing his first-ever New York solo show, whose only real resemblance to a typical gallery is its white walls, he slightly panicked: “I was like, ‘God, this is a crazy space, how the hell am I going to do a show in here?’” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Okay we need to step through the doors and have a total context shift.’”
Luckily, Longly had just the scenery change in mind: He wanted to take visitors to space. Years ago, in a thrift store he’d come across a copy of “A House in Space,” a “kind of gossipy read” from the 70′s by the journalist Henry S. F. Cooper on what life was like on Skylab, the first U.S. space station. “Really, these guys were like the first reality stars. Everything was documented and accessible to the whole world, and everything was accounted for and pinned down,” Longly said. “I think when that happens, you start to ask questions about what happens on their down time. Quite simply, you think about eating and bodily needs and other things that are going on.”
“We All Love Your Life,” is all about that access and Longly’s fascination with it. The exhibition is up from now until July 31; the closing party will take place in the shape of the first New York edition of one of Longly’s infamous London nights, known as Anal House Meltdown. Launched in 2011 during London’s Frieze Art Fair with his friends and artist partners-in-crime Eddie Peake and Prem Sahib, the party has since grown into a regular dance-performance event series, earning a cult following with London’s young, gay art scene. While “it’s going to be really fun” is the only detail set in stone so far, it’s part of Longly’s attempt to make full use of the space at Red Bull Studios, where he’s also planning to put on film screenings, a performance by Justin Vivian Bond, and a photo shoot for a publication he’s planning.
For now, though, it’s home to his exhibition, which starts upstairs with a car wash-like sheet of hanging plastic leading into a space where both the walls and the floors are painted a deep, cobalt blue. It’s meant to be a bedroom of sorts for a fictional character who hangs off the wall amidst an array of handles, an abstracted version of a marble Dionysus from the British Museum who’s under the gaze of a webcam, even when asleep. Like the microphone hanging in a neighboring space, a kitchen that Longly imagined as the communication center with ground control, it’s fully functioning, though turned off for the show. The idea is about our constant performance, and how readily intimacy can be achieved through a screen.
“I want to make work about now,” Longly said. Indeed, in the age of not only reality TV, but platforms like Facebook Live and Periscope, where even suicide has been livestreamed, these ideas could hardly be more relevant. Hanging nearby are mirrors upon which the text from the astronauts’ communication logs are superimposed (“enough of this lollygagging, we gotta get to work”). “They were living an experience, but they also had something to do there and were constantly being worked harder and harder and harder,” he said of the astronauts. “So it’s a real contemporary issue. It’s the same thing.”
It’s in the dark basement, though, where Longly’s more evergreen ideas come to light: A modular staircase from the international space era – traffic-cone orange, and a Red Bull-appropriate mix of red, white, and blue – leads to the lower level, illuminated mostly by a video Longly made in his London studio with the help of a notorious local snake collector named Snakey Sue. The pair unleashed eight of the serpents from her sanctuary in Essex into his work space, which slither around his Mac and Apple keyboard in what’s meant to be a representation of the analytical thought process.
Surprisingly, the video is soothing – much more so, anyway, than Longly’s 2007 video of a snake eating another one alive. It’s a motif he’s returned to, he said, mostly out of pure interest; and from the way he describes them, they could even themselves be astronauts or reality stars: “They’re always licking at the air, finding their prey, looking for sex – these really chill, super beautiful forms that move through space in a really interesting way,” he said.
Eventually, a pop montage blares, and the lights kick off and switch to a hooded black cape eerily hanging near the back wall – the performative counterpart to a spacesuit that Longly designed with James Long upstairs. Longly, it turns out, is no stranger to fashion: He went to Central Saint Martins, studying art but spending most of his time in the fashion department, where he was fascinated by the pace and creative output. “It became like a model for looking at creative production, seeing how it happens in that industry,” he said. Indeed, his 2013 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery was actually a fashion show, complete with cut-up clothes by another corporate sponsor, COS.
“A fashion show is like a really short intense piece of theater, drama, dance, choreography, and I think that’s a really interesting model you can explore,” he said. While he’s hoping to try his hand at producing shows in the future, for now Anal House Meltdown is where he finds his share of dance and theater: “Essentially,” he said, gesturing around the space, “this’ll be a big ol’ party.”
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