“To be alive now is to be constantly performing. You have to present yourself in some kind of practical way. I mean, you don’t have to but it’s what it is like to be alive now.”
George Henry Longly is standing in the middle of a makeshift kitchen looking up at a microphone hanging from the ceiling. Longly, a Londoner by way of the English countryside, is in New York City for the opening of his first solo American gallery show at the nightclub-level-of-hipness galleryspace Red Bull Studios New York in Chelsea.
In a few hours, red velvet ropes will set up outside the gallery’s door, VIPs will be checked-in on an iPad and an open bar will serve some sort of spicy tequila and lemonade concoction—all unfamiliar sights in the normally staid dry white wine gallery opening evenings in the neighborhood.
For now though, Longly—who the London Evening Standard described as an artist “carrying the tag of ‘one to watch’ for a few years but [who] looks like his time now”—is dressed in tracksuit pants and a sweatshirt bearing the title of his show: “We All Love Your Life.”
He is doing one final walk through before the doors officially open to the public.
The title of the show is meant to invoke space, or more specifically, the lives of astronauts in a space station, particularly the Skylab, NASA’s first space station, which orbited the globe from 1973-1979.
It is the kind of thing those of us stuck on earth might say looking up at a night sky and imagining what life must be like for those space travelers. Or it is the kind of thing any of us think as we scroll through social media, looking at our friends’ carefully manicured stream of photos of beach vacations and beautiful children and perfectly poured cocktails.
“They were overexposed. The astronauts were the first reality TV stars. It was the first time we had access to people constantly. They were always on film,” Longly says.
At one end of the gallery is an oblique replica of the Skylab. A corner is painted a deep NASA blue. Out of one wall comes a copy of Dionysus from the Elgin Marbles, surrounded by brackets and braces to help the Greek god move through zero gravity. A makeshift dreamcatcher hangs nearby.
But those starfarers were just like us in other ways too. For one thing, they were always working, and always expected to be working. If we go on vacation still tethered to our devices and never quite outstripping the reach our of workplace overloads, they too were constantly tethered to mission control.
“Well, enough of this lollygagging. We gotta get to work, YEAH DARN IT,” reads an inscribed mirror in the show, a transcription of some galactic communication. “What do you mean. Don’t we have two more hours of lollygagging? We blew our lollygagging time yesterday now we got to get to work.”
(“Lollygagging. This is not a word I know. It’s an American word, isn’t it,” Longly asks. “It is kind of like a daydreaming thing?”)
Longly became interested in notions of space when browsing through a London thrift store and coming across a 1976 book called
A House In Space by the New Yorker writer Henry S.F. Cooper, which chronicled the life of the Skylab crew.
The book is mostly concerned with how the astronauts lived: how they ate, slept, went to the bathroom, dealt with the constant surveillance from Ground Control.
“To me, it is about power relations, labor, issues of work,” says Longly. “If they didn’t get the balance right and they were working too hard, that would cause problems in communication. It is literally something that would happen here, but because it is happening up there—because it is a spaceship travelling around the earth at 17,000 miles per hour, not being on earth, not being far enough away from the earth to the whole thing—it is this crazy existential position they find themselves in. It is a world we live in, having too much information to process, being exposed all the time.”
Longly, 38, grew up in Somerset, three hours to the south and west of London. His dad owned a record store, and weekends were spent attending folk festivals around the country (hence the Dreamcatcher in the middle of the Space Station).
“My dad is very intelligent, very liberal, very cool, but an absolute fascist when it comes to liking what he thinks is good.” The folkie scene Longly Jr. didn’t reject entirely, but he did reject narrow-casting his interests. He went to art school at St. Martin’s in London, where he found himself drifting closer and closer to the fashion kids.
“They were dynamic and they had this frenetic creative output. They were much more interesting than the sleepy art kids in the back who were just busy messing around with ideas.”
The fashion world is one Longly has dipped into from time to time, and provides an idiom he borrows freely from—downstairs at Red Bull Studios is a ghostly cloak seemingly suspended in air, and presented without explanation—and he has hosted pop-up fashion shows, complete with catwalks and live models.
The multi-disciplinary approach is in part a reaction against his father’s insistence one form within one genre being the only thing worth anyone’s time, but it helps keep things moving for his gallery shows too.
At Red Bull Studios, Longly’s electronica trio, Anal House Meltdown (a band name he still mentions sheepishly) will perform, as will Justin Vivian Bond, whose cabaret performances have been drawing the crowds downtown for several years.
The music, Longly says, should have a similar effect on gallery goers as the art, only more immediate. His audience bops around if his music moves them to do so; their appreciation of the art form is rendered more visible. Plus, it means the show stays alive throughout its time in New York as opposed to sitting inert for the summer months while art fans come and go.
All of this can sound a bit heady, and reviews of Longly’s work tend to be sprinkled liberally with references to Adorno and Kierkegaard, which can be a bit disconcerting for a show that also features a video of snakes crawling around the artist’s studio and a three-minute mashup of Britney Spears, Brandy, and Selena Gomez—and a piece of “public art” placed in space’s municipal square which says, “Don’t be asshole, don’t be fool.”
“I thought public art is supposed to say something,” Longly says as an explanation of why he took that directive so literally.
At times, the talking about the work, and the ideas around the work can overwhelm the work itself. This is not something that Longly seems to mind all that much.
“I am very serious about what I do. You have to sail close to the wind, I think.”
“You also have to be shit to be good. Or something like that. If you take yourself too seriously or demand too much of people I think you are lost.”