Who is Stewart Home?

Iain Sinclair

Aline of brightly painted stone cottages, out there at the end of the world, beyond Allihies in West Cork. The cottages have been extensively tampered with, knocked through, until they form a single unit, set square to the prevailing on-shore winds. The occupier, New York-born to a childhood in John Cheever commuting country, now reinvented as a Vietnam-vintage Irish citizen, removes all the offending oil paintings from the wall: jewelled landscapes in oil; lively, naive renderings of the headland on which the cottages have been built. Expressionist weather systems have been brought indoors, a wall of light in the smokey darkness. These endearing celebrations of place glisten in the firelight, when the rock fields they represent are lost in the inevitable sea-fret, the mist drifting down from the hills.

But they have to go, these images. They have to be stacked away in the reserve collection, along with the Fontana, the emulsion-on-hardboard multi-head portraits on which a generation of uncatalogued white moulds are breeding. The manifestos have been composed. It’s the time of the Art Wars (1990-93), and Tony Lowes, Philosopher, asserts that ‘to save the starving we must give up art.’ Wittgenstein, apparently, was of the same mind. That’s what it says on the stickers: ‘Problems are solved not by giving new information, but by re-arranging what we have always known.’ Tony has already sent out the yellow cards announcing the ‘Give Up Art Exhibition’. Art, being proscribed, is good news for the provincial printers; a blizzard of exposition is immediately required. The walls of the cottage are bare, the shutters barred. The extended family, in their isolation, out on the frontier, are into the golden hour of The Searchers. There’s nothing to do but wait for nightfall, the first yelps of the raiding party.

Meanwhile, the nearest neighbours (the only neighbours), are actually, so it seems, encouraging their horses to splash-manure the close-cropped grass, right in front of the cottages – and the twin sons of the strikers, primed, are waiting their chance to scoop the mess, still steaming, onto a shovel, so that it can be deposited right back on the doorstep of the equestrian scab. Feelings run deep. Bad karma between old comrades in pharmacology: the silence of the lambent. Buddhist hit-squads on the loose. Incidents with outdated firearms, spectacular curses thrown away in a Force Nine gale. The innate violence of the geology has been absorbed into a brooding, vengeful meditation: the Lincoln County range wars restaged as a blood-feud between those who have been artful enough to give up art (essentially, Tony Lowes) and the others. All the others. The ones without a slash of dollars, the ones with paint on their hands, clay behind then fingernails: a loose confederation of marginalists, New Age Romantics dug in against all reason. It’s hard, the weather and the landscape are final statements, stronger than any of them. A shaft of light, breaking suddenly from a mattress of cloud, empties their heads of theory. If all art activity on the Cod’s Head peninsula ceased – thirty years having produced two fragmentary travel journals, a terse culling from Wittgenstein, a children’s book (‘appeals to emotion more than to intellect’, San Fiancisco BEEF), and a plastic fortune-telling device derived from Raymond Lull – who would notice? Who noticed when it was in spate? An art strike in West Cork is a fantastic notion. West Cork is an art strike. West Cork is weather. Neither, unfortunately for the postman facing a six-mile yomp over mud and pebbles, is the strike an absolute. The documentation of nonactivity is necessarily extensive: tapes, stickers, black rubber balloons with ‘short philosophical slogans imprinted on them’. Mail art is basically junk mail without the production values. But it keeps Lowes in touch with a network of global collaborators, a conspiracy of the unheard, and with one man in particular, the sharp-witted London activist Stewart Home.

Home, in stark contrast to the brothers on the Celtic fringe, was a dynamo of invention, recycling Dadaist provocation into fugues of inspired counter-terror, then moving on. A suspicion lingers in the scorch marks that Home’s major project is Stewart Home: keeping his intelligence alive, gelling his retaliation in first. Home’s The Art Strike Papers are the ones you’ll find in Compendium Bookshop. The man who composes the post-humous testament controls history. In the fraternal spirit of a self-confessed plagiarist, Home lets it be known that the whole thing was his theft in the first place, lifted from Gustav Metzger, who outlined the original proposal in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ‘Art into Society/Society into Art’ at the ICA in 1974.

But the oral tradition is still the favoured one in the far West. Mrs Christa Lowes is a formidable presence, a woman of power, part Native American, part Texas oil. She doesn’t have much truck with revisionism. The past, for her, was last night. And she regrets it. Asked for her opinion of Stewart Home, who she never met, she got it down to a single word: ‘Asshole!’

For a more rounded sense of the lad it’s a good idea to catch his stage act. Fists clenched, tense but unafraid, he launches himself out of the shadows and onto the platform. At 32, the former boot boy was a man among men. Or, that’s how Richard Allen might choose to break in a new face in one of his New English Library Skinhead shockers. It’s an Allen pulp hologram that Stewart Home is impersonating. But impersonation is too weak a term for this stranglehold on the mike. It is more like a willed act of occult possession: William Blake becoming Milton so that he can recompose the older poet’s faults. Home, over-age, is an envenomed revenger, fast as flame, burning up the feeble avatars of Allen’s formulaic prose – letting the ghosts through, the instigators of riot.

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The books discussed in this article include:

The Complete Richard Allen, Vols I-III (ST Publishing, £6.95 each, 1992, 1993, 1994,0 9518497 1 9, 0 9518497 5 1 and 0 9518497 7 8).
The Festival of Plagiarism by Stewart Home (Sabotage, 40 pp., £1.95, 1989, 0 9514417 0).
Pure Mania by Stewart Home (Polygon, 217 pp., £7.95, 1989, 0 7486 6035 6).
Defiant Pose by Stewart Home (Peter Owen, 167 pp., £13.95, 1991, 0 7206 0828 7).
Neoist Manifestos/The Art Strike Papers by Stewart Home (AK Press, 112 pp., £5.95, 1991, 1 873176 15 5).
No Pity by Stewart Home (AK Press, 144 pp., £5.95, 1993, 1 873176 46 5).
Red London by Stewart Home (AK Press, 160 pp., £5.95, 1994, 1 873176 12 0).
Public Enemies by Leo Regan (Deutsch, 112 pp., £12.99, 28 October 1993, 0 233 98830 0).