Roar writer Keir Holmes reviews “The Art of Chaos”, a new London exhibition by Illuminati Neon which celebrates the Punk subculture that emerged in 1970s Britain.
At an interview I conducted before visiting Illuminati Neon’s “The Art of Chaos” exhibition, the artist told me about the origin of his name. “It means I’m the dark evil lord of the universe”. After a brief pause, he laughed and clarified: “No, it means I light things up”. Indeed, the neon lights of the exhibit illuminate the room in a manner more reminiscent of a rave than an art show. This use of neon creates a lively atmosphere that is entirely appropriate for what is, first and foremost, a celebration of the Punk subculture and its legacy in Britain.
Illuminati Neon, otherwise known as Mark Sloper, has spent the vast majority of his life engulfed in this subculture. He explained to me that joining it was “completely a freak accident. I was in my little West Country Village in Cornwall and a Punk Band came to town. That was the original version of Adam and the Ants”. After befriending the members of this iconic band, the subculture led him from one artist to another. Since then, he has had a successful career directing documentaries that detail these artists’ careers.
His fascination with Punk and its icons is present in his artwork today. Many of the famous faces he has displayed don’t appear to bear any relation to the subculture, yet he has adorned each piece with lyrics from bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Smiths, or with phrases evoking the rebellious attitude that the public often associates with the movement. “The music is always in the back of my mind,” he told me. “So, I make a picture and, inevitably, it has a Punk feel about it.”
The links he makes between Punk and the celebrities unrelated to it at the exhibit are exemplified in his portrait of Princess Diana. Here, the artist has painted the iconic Princess of Wales with a spiked collar, chain necklace and nose piercing. Neon lights saying ‘Punk Princess’ are presented beneath Diana, creating a fun and comical image. This is made all the more entertaining by the decision to give her a shoulder tattoo reading ‘Vicious’, imagining a world in which Sid Vicious was her partner.
However, the tragedy of Diana’s passing undercuts this comical effect, as white neon lights encircle her head to create the image of a halo. The artist furthers this sense of tragedy by reusing her neon halo in a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, thereby creating a connection between the two figures. This link might recall Elton John’s song “Candle in the Wind”, originally written about Monroe, but later performed at Diana’s funeral. The links that Illuminati Neon makes between Diana and the Punk movement highlight her rebellion against harmful yet pervasive attitudes of her time. To the side of the piece, he has written that we should “celebrate her as a rebel, as a punk, as a bit of fun!”
Diana is not the only Royal who received this treatment. Illuminati Neon has given the Queen herself a Punk makeover in the piece “God Save the Queen”, taking the idea of juxtaposing contemporary figures against a Punk aesthetic to its extreme. By simultaneously referencing our National Anthem and a Sex Pistols song, the title of the piece fully realises this juxtaposition.
This is an updated version of one of his earlier works. When asked about this earlier piece, Illuminati Neon told me about how it attracted attention from the Queen. “The Queen’s lady-in-waiting saw all the neon and the pictures and she said, ‘Give me a print and I’ll present it to her Majesty,’ and I obviously thought that it was a bit of a wind-up, or a joke. I figured it was never going to happen, and I completely forgot about it. Three months later, she comes back to me and says, ‘The Queen thinks your pictures are a real hoot, but she doesn’t like the Phillip tattoo on her neck. She asked, if you’re going to do more of these pictures, could you please change the tattoo to her Royal Crest, so it pairs up and matches with her slippers and her bathrobes?’ I kid you not”. In the updated version, Illuminati Neon has indeed included Her Majesty’s suggestion.
These images primarily evoke a sense of anarchic fun. However, by showing contemporary figures alongside lyrics and phrases reminiscent of the glory days of Punk, Illuminati Neon also asserts the relevance of rebellion and nonconformity in modern Britain. In this way, we can see the exhibition as an entertaining look into the legacy of Punk in the UK.