Sweet Har­mo­ny: how rave was about way more than hedonism

Exploring the impact and the legacy of the Second Summer of Love, 30 years on, with the Saatchi Gallery’s acid house retrospective.

Rave is the cul­ture­quake that rever­ber­ates still. In film and doc­u­men­tary, in fash­ion, con­tem­po­rary art – and, of course, in music (New Rave, any­one?) – it’s dif­fi­cult to think of an artis­tic field in which it doesn’t rear its Day-Glo head one way or anoth­er. Rave was an instinc­tive, hedo­nis­tic response to a decade of Thatch­erism – a decade of the rich get­ting rich­er and the poor get­ting poor­er. Sound famil­iar? It’s lit­tle won­der that the chil­dren of aus­ter­i­ty Britain look back at the rave gen­er­a­tion with a mix­ture of respect, awe and envy. 

Sweet Har­mo­ny: Rave Today is the Saatchi’s mul­ti­me­dia deep-dive into the his­to­ry of the acid house rev­o­lu­tion. Fea­tur­ing the work of pho­tog­ra­ph­er and jour­nal­ist Dave Swindells, mul­ti­me­dia artist Vin­ca Petersen and pho­tog­ra­phers Seana Gavin, Ewen Spencer and Derek Ridgers, the exhi­bi­tion cov­ers the entire­ty of the Lon­don gallery’s space.

Pho­tographs by Ewen Spencer 

Tak­ing its title from one of the 90s most epic rave tunes, the 1992 anthem by Liq­uid, co-cura­tor Kobi Prem­peh explains: The exhi­bi­tion is a real cel­e­bra­tion of elec­tron­ic music as an art form.”

Through­out the exhi­bi­tion, the vis­i­tor is remind­ed that this move­ment was about con­sid­er­ably more than being off your head on ecsta­sy. This was about pur­su­ing a feel­ing which ordi­nary life wasn’t providing. 

Vinca Petersen

When I was young I sought that out,” Petersen recalls. And I found it in the explo­sion that was the rave scene. I found uni­ty and danc­ing and togeth­er­ness in a mas­sive way. I real­ly need­ed it at the time – and I didn’t let go.” The exhi­bi­tion includes a time­line by Petersen, detail­ing her expe­ri­ences from the ear­ly 90s onwards (with a few ref­er­ences to The Face, inar­guably the key chron­i­cler of those high times – see this per­son­al account by Sheryl Gar­ratt, for­mer Face edi­tor and a key con­trib­u­tor to the exhibition).

With the cur­rent health of British nightlife far from rosy, the present day is an impor­tant fea­ture in the exhi­bi­tion. You’ll notice through­out the show there’s a real cel­e­bra­tion of then and now, right through to the anti-Brex­it sound sys­tem march­es which hap­pened recent­ly,” says Prempeh. 

Pho­tographs by Dave Swindells

Equal­ly, Swindells reminds us that raves aren’t just a fix­ture of the late 20th century. 

I went out on Waltham­stow Marsh­es last sum­mer and I came across this rave and took some pic­tures of them,” he says. I love the fact that there [are] a lot of under­ground raves still going on around London.”

This, he adds, explains his enthu­si­asm for par­tic­i­pat­ing in Sweet Har­mo­ny.

Rave isn’t ready for the muse­um and the art gallery as some kind of his­tor­i­cal, curi­ous odd­i­ty. It’s a liv­ing, breath­ing enti­ty or phenomenon.”

Here, then, are the pol­i­tics, and the pow­er, of danc­ing. Rave on.

Sweet Har­mo­ny: Rave is open from today til 14th Sept at Saatchi Gallery.

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