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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