I see the world’s most regrettable Scottish psychiatrist, RD Laing, is in the news again. Like a drunken bore who latches onto you in a Glasgow pub and will not be repelled, Laing keeps popping up on the fringes of the modern media experience with noisy little reminders of his appalling presence. The new show at the Serpentine Gallery, a dark selection of films and installations by the callow Scottish guru-stalker Luke Fowler, includes among its exhibits a tribute to Laing’s work at the infamous Kingsley Hall clinic, in London’s East End, where Laing was let loose in the 1960s to test out his glamorous new psychiatric theories about the nonmadness of mad people by prescribing LSD to schizophrenics. Kingsley Hall was wound up soon enough, but not before the entire building had been trashed.
Laing was incompetent and dangerous. But that only made him more charismatic. A year ago, the decomposing body of his son Adam was found in a tent in Formentera, next to an empty vodka bottle and a packet of pills. Adam’s girlfriend had left him and he could not cope with the rejection. That is how well he had been prepared for life by his famous father.
More recently, Adrian Laing, another of Laing’s abandoned children – he had 10, by four women – brought out an updated paperback biography of his dad that made for scary reading. Laing emerges from it as a spiteful alcoholic who beat his kids before leaving them, paying his first wife such tiny amounts of maintenance that little Adrian had to start taking odd jobs at the age of 13 to keep the family afloat. Adrian’s mother, who knew Laing best, summed him up superbly as “the square root of nothing”.
So, how could anyone as cruel and unbalanced as RD Laing become a countercultural hero? And why on earth would Fowler bother to make nostalgic, flickering film tributes to him?
As it happens, I can answer that. When I was at university, a spotty art-history student obsessed with 17th-century English portraiture, Laing was all the rage: the hippest mind guru in print. We all read him and fell under his spell. Laing’s trick was to line himself up with the kids against their parents, thereby ensuring himself a devoted audience of angry, resentful and befuddled authority-haters. I still have my well-thumbed copy of Knots, and learnt some of it by heart. “It is our duty to bring up our children to love, honour and obey us. If they don’t they must be punished, otherwise we would not be doing our duty” is a line I still quote now and then.
Laing’s showy, self-piteous, solipsistic Twitter psychology seemed to make so much sense in those days. He was the leader and we were his cultists. Years later, I discovered that his parents were even crazier than he was. Laing’s mother, a strict Presbyterian, insisted she was a virgin when he was born. Small wonder her angry little son grew up possessing such an enlarged messiah complex. In a sensible world, he would have been ignored, and no impressionable young minds would ever have fallen under his silly messianic spell. But the world is not sensible. And, judging by Fowler’s dreary, long-winded and confusing tribute to Kingsley Hall, the guru hunger still rages within us.
Fowler is the first winner of the Jarman award for avant-garde film-making, as well as a typical geekist. Geekism is the most popular trend in contemporary art. The Tate triennial was packed with examples. Geek artists assemble mountains of research on a person, subject or theme that fascinates them, and then make art out of it. Indeed, the art they choose to present usually consists of the research itself – photographs, interviews, letters, video recordings, diaries – laid out for our inspection in tediously legible clumps.
The movement’s origins must lie in the fondly remembered school pro ject or the obsessive late-night porings of the wacky hobbyist. Wherever it came from, there is far too much of it about just now. Although the geek artists may have had fun amassing their dull hoards of clippings, we unfortunate members of their audience have no fun at all wading though them.
Fowler has at least transformed his stalker’s stash of information about fashionable countercultural gurus of the 1960s into flickering films and gloomy installations. Another of his heroes is the avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew, whose Scratch Orchestra had a moment of improvisational fame in the Oz years, before a fatal political falling out between the Maoist left and the liberal-bourgeois right split the group in two.
Fowler’s film on this non-subject of a subject mixes some reasonably atmospheric footage of the Scratch Orchestra in action with a set of shakily apologetic personal testimonies. Backwards and forwards we go, in a flickering nocturnal rondo of half-remembered regrets, as an unimportant avant-garde squabble that you surely needed to have been part of to find in the smallest bit interesting is endlessly replayed.
The one thing you never get in geek art is what it desperately needs: a conclusion. The Kingsley Hall installation focuses on a schizophrenic patient called David Bell. Fowler has edited together an hour-long tape of Bell’s conversations with his psychiatrist, in which he adopts assorted schizophrenic personas as “he”, “she” and “boy”.
I found it almost impossible to understand anything that Bell was saying, so I have to take it on trust that he was unusually poetic and creative. There are also old newspaper cuttings across which Bell scrawled strange clusters of thoughts in spidery capital letters. And, in a slick and unexpected bit of exhibition-making that sits rather uneasily in all this authentic grimness, a re-creation of Bell’s room at Kingsley Hall has been achieved, complete with grubby brown settee and chairs.
So it’s all very forlorn, dark, convoluted, fractured and, above all, pointless. Laing was justifiably accused of romanticising mental illness; Fowler seems to be guilty of the same morbid weakness. He really should get out more.