Bona to Vada Your Dolly Bold Eek: Assume Vivid Astro Focus | LAMB

As an aficionado of Round the Horne, I was tempted into this show by its title. It’s in polari, a secret language used by gay men in the years after the Second World War, and translates into something like “nice to see you”! Polari was actually on the way out by the time (closeted) comedians Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick (aka Julian and Sandy) spoke the language on BBC radio, in the mid-1960s. The YouTube clips are still very funny.

So, what’s the link between grim old London in the 1960s, a much less grim Mayfair gallery in 2022, and Assume Vivid Astro Focus (avaf), a collaborative art project by Paris-based Christophe Hamaide-Pierson and Eli Sudbrack, from Brazil? This show is based around large installations of wooden partitions covered in aggressively patterned wallpaper. Each partition is punctured by a hole, through which a sinuous model hand presents us with a brightly coloured painting. The paintings, of flowers and psychedelic shapes, are on cardboard.

avaf - installation view

The show came together when a single member of avaf visited the gallery last September, and noticed its odd shape - a long room that gets narrower as you walk towards the back - and the single circular window in a (permanent) partition towards the front of the space. The show’s built around these features.

Adding these temporary partitions, each with a matching circular hole, and which seem to cluster and converge as the walls narrow in on you, gives the room a slightly trippy feel. In their bright zaniness, the clashing wallpaper and cardboard paintings gave me a vibe of the animated shorts that peppered episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which started running on the BBC a year after Around the Horne finished. And two years after male homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK.

But more likely that’s me projecting a whole lot of Brit-specific cultural context on a very international duo. Avaf after all have worked all over the world. Maybe I should instead highlight the traces of the go-ahead grooviness of Victor Vasarely, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in this work, and not get hung up on gloomy Britishness.

I can’t shake, though, the feeling I get from the installation of something wacky and strange hiding in plain sight; a feeling that would be shared by the typical polari speaker. Behind these very respectable Mayfair doors is a riot of midcentury zaniness and colour that’s invisible from the street. An echo of swinging Carnaby Street, or the notorious “meat rack” towards Piccadilly Circus, where the rent boys hung out, half a century ago. Both locations are very close to the gallery. Go back to the small circular windows within each partition, through which you can see everything, but behind which you’re almost totally obscured. A peep-hole, if you’ve got something to hide.

Maybe it’s a similar feeling to the ambient naughtiness of Julian and Sandy’s polari-infused innuendos, propping up the counter at Bona Books, or starting a political party to “keep Britain bona”, the actors giving their mass, straight, BBC audience a couple of cheeky laughs before a long dark night of contemplating… something illegal. That’s certainly what Kenneth Williams, an avid diarist, was up to at the time.

Whether or not that’s what our globe-trotting artists were aiming at seems besides the point. I’m grateful to them for a thought provoking show.

Bona to Vada Your Dolly Bold Eek: Assume Vivid Astro Focus is at LAMB (London). 11 February - 01 April 2022