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An intimate portrait of squatters

Mark “Smiler” Cawson’s photographs are tragic, comic and wildly unpredictable

Immy Guest | November 18th 2015

Diane lies sprawled on a cardboard box on the floor, her limbs askew and her head lolling in an almost cartoonish position of defeat. Her smart black dress, high heels and handbag contrast with her body, with its bruises and scrapes, and her surroundings: a dirty pavement in some paint-splattered brick corner. As someone standing next to me as I looked at the picture remarked, “She looks like she’s had a good time”, but the photograph has a sombre story to tell. Its title is “Diane (two weeks before her overdose and death)”.

Such is the power of Mark “Smiler” Cawson’s collection of over 30 black-and-white photographs of squatters, now on show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. They were taken between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, part of which he spent as a squatter while he studied at the Hornsey College of Art. They give a rare personal insight into the daily lives of his subjects, from drug-addiction recovery parties to psychotic episodes.

The exhibition is not arranged chronologically or by location. Instead, you are left to ponder each image in isolation, and together they form an enigmatic and darkly intimate slideshow. Two of the strongest are portraits. One is Smiler’s self-portrait, taken after he was beaten up by a member of the National Front. He stares solemnly into the camera, looking, as his friend Neal Brown writes in his catalogue essay, as if he’s “beyond just physical pain”. The other shows a woman called Angela elegantly smoking a cigarette, her hand, swollen by drug-induced septicaemia, a stark contrast to her elegant and artful pose. 

“Hayley, Immac stockings” (1985) shows the lighter side of Cawson’s photography

But in spite of the pictures’ darkness, a sense of humour prevails. In “Hayley, Immac stockings” (1985), Hayley wears nothing but white hair-removal cream. In “Jane, with Sophia Loren” (1980), a picture of Sophia Loren acts in place of any other clothing. “Aaron with Leopard’s head” (1978) also plays on the clever positioning of props, although the mystery of what a real leopard’s head is doing in a squat is left hanging. The atmosphere in the photos feels wildly unpredictable; moving around the exhibition, you never know what mood the next image will encapsulate.

Smiler’s mixture of light and dark was reflected in a talk accompanying the exhibition. It was chaired by Neal Brown and on the panel were the painter Peter Doig, the punk guitarist Viv Albertine, Jimmy Cauty from the acid house band The KLF, and the artist Rut Blees Luxemberg. Cauty squatted in several different buildings, and at one point removed an entire floor from a house so that its outside walls began to bow. In the 1970s, Albertine often found herself spending a whole day crossing London on buses, just to go to Sid Vicious’s squat in Hampstead to tell him about a rehearsal on Friday.

“Angela” (1983), whose swollen hand contrasts with her elegant pose

Doig confirmed a common stereotype. “King’s Cross became a den of pimps and prostitutes, and obviously drugs as well…We had a studio for 14 years as a free space, and you were always nervous that it was going to get broken into, which it was. People just kicked the door down.” Brown added that “squatting allowed people to rehearse, to make big canvasses, to make a mess”. I thought of Smiler’s photograph of “Spotty Pete” (1991) passed out on a sofa in Camden wearing a flowery shirt. As Brown commented in his essay, “Looks like it might be from Liberty’s. But not quite flower power. Art historically pleasing if the pattern was William Morris, but I don’t think it is. If we’re lucky it’s a Burne-Jones detail. The drug is most likely heroin. Brown Persian heroin?”

The talk itself felt like a squatters’ meeting. The audience interrupted and heckled and reminisced. One man told us that he had never done drugs when he was squatting, at which point the woman next to me piped up: “It’s never too late to start.” At the end, an ex-squatter called Piers Corbyn invited everyone to a meeting in Paddington Arts Centre the following night about squatting past and present, and what he called the “communities of struggles and theatres of possibilities”.  It’s a phrase that captures Smiler’s work perfectly.

Smiler: Photographs of London by Mark Cawson Institute of Contemporary Art, London, until November 29th

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