Fatboy Slim was the soundtrack for many lives throughout the 90s and 00s. Some tracks have become so ingrained as to have separated from the artist entirely, attaching themselves to our own memories. Well attuned to art's impact on culture, predominantly through music, Norman Cook is now taking a more holistic and collaborative approach to his output.
This approach looks like the Smile High Club, a group exhibition hosted at Underdog's interesting new gallery space in the Lisbon neighbourhood of Marvila, featuring artists as chosen by, and curated under the watchful eye of Fatboy Slim.
These artists come together to interact with one of the most enduring, overlooked and culturally significant symbols of the last few decades - the simple smiley. That's two eyes, an upturned smiling mouth contained within a circle (and usually yellow). It's value, as both symbol of joy or ironic logo, has been wielded by bands and artists as a way to transmit happiness, acceptance and love. Yet it's also a symbol that has been re-worked and edited to make social and political statements to the negative. It's provocative potential comes from its deceptive simplicity.
Few places have as much of an attachment to this humble icon as dance and electronic culture, where the symbol gained notoriety in 90s rave culture as a symbol of ecstasy - as both feeling and drug. It has become integral to the Fatboy Slim aesthetic with Cook regularly incorporating the smiley into his live visual displays. Beyond the music, Cook has a giant smiley mural on the roof of his house, as his only tattoo and as the lead driver in his memorabilia collection built over years on his extensive travels.
Of its significance, Cook states:
"I became aware of the smiley in 1977 on the cover of the first 12’’ single, Psycho Killer by the Talking Heads. Once on my radar, I loved how such a simple image appeared in so many unexpected places in popular culture, both historically and thematically. As I grew up through punk rock into club culture, it endured in my experience and imagination. Born in the sixties and growing up in the seventies, it has followed me around all my life so it was no surprise to later learn that the smiley was born in 1963, the exact year I came into the world."
So it is this motif that will inspire and define the creative works and processes of the artists on display that includes, Andrea Harz, Carrie Reichardt, Chemical X, James Joyce, Jimmy Cauty, Joseph Ford, Mark Vessey, Pedrita Studio, Ron English, RYCA and The London Police.
Cook mentioned a few years back that he wanted to move sideways and not up, that is, do things that are more interesting, rather than just bigger. The pursuit of 'bigger' is by all accounts an endless one. But interesting is something that's imbued with a sense of worth and as something that can ultimately be fulfilling. So the last few years have given Cook time to play with these ideas, collaborating with Vhils at London's incarnation of Festival Iminente, for example, was the precursor to this event.
The art world always interests wealthy people, but rarely beyond the superficiality of owning a piece by a big named artist. With Cook it seems to be different though. His house is filled with pieces that genuinely make him happy - it's a family home and one whose art and various nick-nacks will shape the mood, of both Cook and his children. Interested people tend to also be interesting, and when children are at stake, perhaps the best thing a parent can ever offer is curiosity.
Through symbiosis of housed proximity, this childlike awe seems to follow Cook, whose journey into art both culminates with and simultaneously begins at this exhibition. As a curator, not a DJ, his activity draws on the his past experiences, shaped by various sounds, cultures and a mixture of highs (huge tours, chart topping singles) and the lows that every human will encounter, magnified by the prying eyes of the world's media.
Cook's perspective then, is very different to ours, yet the roster of artists are all particularly grounded names, ones whose surrealism, pop-art and ceramics (with a lot else in-between) encompass a full array of creative disciplines and artistic ideologies, yet have all remained dedicated to their craft. The Smile High Club is overwhelmingly a conceptual experience, but one that isn't highfalutin, rather inviting of all to come and experience it. It is a first for Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim, but there is no indicators it will be the last.
Opening to coincide with the new Underdogs premises on the 21st of June, it's a chance to see something a little different to your usual exhibition. It's the prologue to a new chapter in a very storied life.
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