Syd, psychedelia, If…. and the Olympics: an interview with Kevin Whitney

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Psychedelia,  a film made in 1969 and featuring Syd Barrett. The film has been sitting underneath Kevin Whitney’s bed for 40 years, but will be shown in June 2014 at the ICA ahead of its sale. Whitney was on the fringes of the psychedelic movement in the late-1960s and later became the first official artist of the Olympic movement. ‘In my work there are still hints of psychedelic imagery,’ he tells me. ‘But using beautiful athletes instead of mad freaks.’ 

Psychedelia can be seen at Room&Book: ICA Art Book Fair, ICA, 6-8 June. 

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‘I was at art school until 1970 and during I was making the film. I was inspired by psychedelic light shows, which I’d screen on the front of Chelsea Art School  at underground pop shows at the Roundhouse. Chelsea Art School was a modern building off the Kings Road. It was the only building built in the 20th century to be used as an art school. It’s now a hotel. It was very anarchic. Art is now geared towards corporate success and Saatchi but then that sort of thing was frowned upon, you weren’t supposed to make any money out of it. You did conceptual things, it was against the system. Now it’s the opposite and has no balls. We were very privileged to be around then. We took art into the streets.

Chelsea Art School on Manresa Road, built in 1963

Previously, I’d been at art school in Ipswich with Brian Eno. We smoked our first joint together at Christchurch Park in Ipswich. We did a thing where about 12 of us would get on a bus and we’d have these sheets of Perspex the size of a newspaper. We cut out the title of the paper and glued it to the Perspex and then sit next to people on the bus pretending to read the stories from this empty sheet of Perspex. Everybody thought we were bonkers.

UFO Club flyer

I never did light shows at the UFO Club. I went there but they had some Americans, Joe’s Lights, who got the contract and nobody else could do it. I knew them and admit I was influenced by their ideas but I also showed them some of my tricks. One was fabulous. You’d get two pieces of Perspex and put in some olive or vegetable oil, then drop some vegetable dye – bright blue, red or yellow – and then close the Perspex together. You’d put that in the projector, which had a very powerful light and would heat up the dye and send it shooting to the edges of the Perspex. It was like going through a timewarp. Joe’s Lights liked this and used it at the Roundhouse for the big Jefferson Airplane/Door show in 1968. [Editor note: I think that while Joe's Lights did the Roundhouse gig, the Boyle Family did projections at UFO.]

In 1968, I began making my film, Psychedelia. Syd was part of the scenario. Well, he was the scenario. Anybody that would agree I got to appear in the film, which was done at this basement on Old Church Street in Chelsea in a house owned by Antonia Chetwynd [regular visitors included Donald Cammell, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Anita Pallenberg]. One day I went to Wetherby Mansions to pick up Syd. I was going to take him to the art school to this red and green painted studio I had in the annexe where I was making the film.

Syd Barrett in Wetherby Mansions

On the way, Syd offered me half a Mandrax. It’s like a sleeping pill that makes you very randy. We took half each. Then we got to the art school and I realised my camera didn’t have a cassette in it and all the shops were closed. So I said we’d do it tomorrow in Old Church Street. In the evening I called Duggie Fields [Syd's flatmate, still resident at Wetherby Mansions] to check Syd had got back okay and Duggie told me he’d gone to Ibiza. He had a passport with him and he’d just gone to the airport and taken a flight to Ibiza.

When he got back we went to the basement and did the filming. I just had the camera with this psychedelic lighting. It was very amateur and everyone was very stoned. I’d sit people down and tell them to do whatever they wanted. Some took their tops off, some stared at the camera, talked, had a cup of tea… and I just filmed it because they were fabulous people. I filmed so many. In the scene I shot with Syd was Geoffrey Cleghorn, who was a friend of the Who and the Stones. I’d met him at art school in Ipswich and he’d followed when I moved to London and got involved in the whole scene. He’s an amazing guy. There was another chap called David Crowland. There’s a chap called Rupert [Webster], who was the very pretty boy in “If….”.

 

I screened it while playing Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. I also use them on the other film I made Red And Green, when they are actually on the soundtrack, the Syd film was silent though I would have been playing Velvet Underground in the basement when making it. I was obsessed with them. It was all very Warholesque.

 

I gave my camera to Derek Jarman, I was living with the artist Luciana Martinez and she said, ‘You’ve finished with films and Derek’s a lousy painter, so why not give him your camera.’ He’d just finished making The Devils with Ken Russell, doing the sets. I did that and the rest is history. I then got totally into paining, film was an art student fling. In 1982 I got involved with the Olympis and been there ever since.

“Female gymnast”, 1984

I knew Syd as well as anybody could know Syd. He definitely wasn’t on this planet but he was lovely, very charming, and he seemed to like my paintings. He liked to paint himself and because I was pretty good he warmed to me. Also, I don’t hold him in awe, I was the same with Bowie, they were friends and I’d talk to them like that. I’d ask to draw them but treat them as I would anybody. People can treat pop stars in a different way and they can get very isolated. Most people were too much in awe of Syd to ask to film him and I think that comes across in the film. He was a very troubled mind and this wasn’t a great time. He’d been eased out of the Floyd and Dave Gilmour had taken over. But people who knew him said he looks so happy.’

 

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