• 22 August 2018

In January 2018, Sarah Victoria Turner collaborated with the artist Jeremy Deller to co-organise a series of four events under the title The Look of Music. Here she reflects on these memorable events.

What does music look like? What are the interrelations between the sounds of rock and pop music and the aesthetics and images they inspire? These were the provocatively and purposely broad questions that the artist Jeremy Deller posed to himself and five collaborators—the writer Jon Savage, the set and stage designer Es Devlin, the designers Scott King and Mark Farrow, and the musician Neil Tennant (one half of the Pet Shop Boys). In many ways, this series of events took up where last year’s Mellon Lectures given by Professor Tom Crow on the relationship between art, music, and style in 1950s and ’60s London, left off.

Continuing with the idea that popular music had an indelible effect in producing aesthetic styles and sensibilities, Deller opened the series with a lecture at the Barbican Centre on 10 January exploring the imagery of rock and pop music against the background of industrial decline in 1970s and ’80s Britain, referencing his own work such as the performance Acid Brass (1997). In the atmospheric surroundings of the Royal Academy’s Life Room, Jon Savage and Deller discussed the image of the male rock and pop star, from the sculpted body of Iggy Pop to the plastic dolls produced for fans of One Direction.

The process of creating spectacular environments for musical performance was the key theme of Deller’s conversation with Es Devlin, designer of numerous opera and theatre productions and becoming one of the most in-demand designers for major arena tours and performances, having worked with internationally renowned music stars such as Adele, Kanye West and Beyoncé. Projected images of her work on an 8 by 5 metre wall at 180, The Strand, helped recreate the absorbing atmospheres of these performances. Discussing how her designs often use animated images of these music stars’ bodies, Deller and Devlin discussed how the historic conventions of portraiture are manipulated by Devlin to create an interactive experience for the audience.

The series ended with a conversation between Scott King, Mark Farrow, and Neil Tennant focusing on the creation and communication of a “look” through record design. Farrow has designed nearly all of the Pet Shop Boys album and singles covers, creating what is now an iconic series of images of the British electronic music duo. In different ways, all these talks highlighted the way in which historical art is often remixed and reused by musicians and designers to create a “look” which feels new and contemporary yet is often deeply imbricated with the past.