The punky master of outsider art was once a pariah, thrown out of Britain for his anarchist ways. Now, he’s a national treasure. Joe Rush relives 40 years of sticking it to the ‘straight world’
“They thought we were terrorists,” says Joe Rush, remembering the day not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall when he and a fellow anarchist took over a patch of no man’s land at the heart of the German capital. They filled it with military hardware: tanks and artillery and the like – along with a MiG-21 fighter jet that they pointed directly at the nearby Reichstag.
“The authorities were furious,” he says. And no wonder. The police feared that, just as the cold war was ending, another military face-off had begun. “They thought we were going to fire missiles into the Reichstag,” says Rush. “So we pointed the MiG into the ground to make it clear we weren’t.”
What the authorities didn’t realise is that Rush and his travelling band of outsider artists had come to Berlin not to make war but to create a peace garden. His Mutoid Waste Company (MWC) crafted a huge gateway out of Soviet assault vehicles and called it Tankhenge. This then provided the entrance to the garden, which was an outdoor exhibition of found objects, some worked up into sculptures by the team.
“We stole most of it,” says Rush, who gives the impression that there was military hardware just lying around Berlin at the time. “It was like we found the biggest salvage yard in the world.” The authorities lost interest in evicting MWC and turned instead to feuding over who was responsible for letting a bunch of British weirdos get their hands on a scarcely decommissioned cache of Soviet military might.
Rush, now 60, has dedicated his life to recycling, at whatever level. I Am a Mutoid, a new film by Letmiya Sztalryd airing on BBC Four on Sunday, profiles this genial outsider artist who most recently hit the headlines with Mount Recyclemore, a sculpture depicting the G7 leaders in recycled metal and electronic components, positioned to face them as they met in Cornwall this month. That work was created by Rush and collaborator Alex Wreckage (possibly not his real surname) to indict the mountains of defunct computers and outmoded mobile phones slowly choking the planet. Does he think Johnson, Biden and the others will take heed? “Probably not,” he says, “but this is a ground-up movement. Ordinary people around the world seemed touched and inspired by it. Maybe our leaders will eventually catch up.”
Rush’s career as a salvage artist began one midsummer’s morning in the early 1980s when he was in the bath. He decided to shave off his hair. Once shorn, he went out on to Portobello Road in London, but he felt self-conscious so he came back in and glued a rabbit pelt to his bald head, then went out again. Later, he gussied the rabbit fur into a kind of Mohican and became something of a local character, looking like a figure from 2000AD, the British weekly comic he’d loved as a kid that featured a dystopian Mega-City. “You learn a lot from looking funny. Some people get scared, some angry. Sometimes you have to fight. And sometimes you find people who don’t feel threatened.”
He became obsessed with wheels, keeping motorbike spare parts and drip trays for oil in his bedroom. His hands were rarely clean. In London in 1984, he and a bunch of ex-punks formed the MWC. They put on parades down Portobello Road looking like cyberpunk comic book heroes or extras from the Mad Max franchise. They drove mutated motorbikes and flat-bed trucks from which flames rose into the sky, to soundtracks of snarling guitar and dub reggae. These events were a cross between theatre, circus, installation art and – as often as not – really bad traffic jams. “I had no desire to be taken over by society,” says Rush, “or be part of the straight world. I didn’t want to have roots. I wanted to keep on the move.”
He was inspired by his late father, the artist and single parent Peter Rush who, in the late 1960s and 70s, decided the family should hit the road. Peter bought a caravan, painted it jauntily and set off from Romney Marsh in Kent. They got as far as Salisbury, where Peter was knocked over by a car and injured so badly that life on the road came to an end. The MWC was, in part, a reprise of that alternative lifestyle: a collective of artists, musicians and disaffected Britons who creatively reinvented themselves as a tribe of human mutants living on the road, in squats, and – in Rush’s case at one point – a decommissioned Korean war helicopter sitting in a junkyard.
If you don’t mutate, you’re dead. That’s why I’m drawn to being on the road. My life has been about reclaiming the nomadic spirit
They were treated as pariahs by the early 1980s club scene in London, refused admission for looking too weird or potentially troublesome. So they created their own culture, a party scene in squats and abandoned warehouses that predated and inspired late 1980s rave culture. “The Thatcher years were really hard on us,” says Rush. “We became part of the traveller community who experienced persecution.” The culmination of that persecution, Rush tells me, was the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. The Mutoid Waste Company joined about 140 vehicles known as the Peace Convoy, which headed to Stonehenge for a free festival. But English Heritage took out a last-minute injunction banning the festival and police arrested 537 people from the convoy after a bloody battle.
“That was it for us,” says Rush. “We were effectively driven out of the country.” He and his friends went into exile on the continent for a decade, only occasionally popping back. “In Europe, there wasn’t anything like a party scene or illegal warehouse parties. So we started putting on shows. We were mostly welcomed, unlike at home.” Why didn’t you just settle down? “That wouldn’t have been the mutoid way,” he laughs. But what is the mutoid way? “We’re mutating all the time. If you don’t mutate, you’re dead. That’s why we’re drawn to travellers and being on the road.”
Rush thinks humanity took a wrong turn when we became farmers and set aside the nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence that had characterised our species until then. “My life has been about reclaiming that nomadic spirit. All the festivals we’ve taken part in over the years are really just an echo of what happened when nomadic tribes came into the valleys in summer and partied.”
But he is not the refusenik outsider he used to be. “The key moment came when one of my sons got sick from Agent Orange or DDT or whatever it was left in Berlin’s no man’s land. He needed more serious treatment than dangleberries and herbal tea.” In 1995, after 10 years wandering Europe, he and the MWC returned to Britain, where his son got proper hospital treatment and Rush made his peace with straight society for the sake of his family.
Before Mount Recyclemore, he was probably best known for his long association with Glastonbury. In 1987, the mutoids were allocated a field at the festival site. There, the recyclers built Carhenge and surrounded it with what Rush calls “an apocalyptic Disneyland on acid”. There were sculptures, installations and dinosaurs assembled from scrap metal. Drums were omnipresent and festivalgoers at various levels of consciousness joined the mutoids in beating oil barrels, car wrecks and metal statues.
In later years, Rush’s pyrotechnical spectacles, animatronic robots, sculptures, stage shows and mutant parade of strange vehicles driven by even stranger humans have become key to Glastonbury’s ethos. Rush was behind such annual spectacles as Unfairground, Trash City, Joe Strummer’s Memorial Tree (made from exhaust pipes) and a giant mechanical phoenix that hung over the Pyramid Stage as the Rolling Stones headlined in 2013. Most recently, he built Glastonbury on Sea, a replica of a seaside pier which seemed to imagine the kind of architecture Somerset will need if sea levels rise thanks to the climate crisis.
In 2012, he was invited to art direct and perform the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games in London. The pariah had become a national treasure. “We’d been hounded out of Britain and now we were representing Britain. The whole thing blew our minds.” During the ceremony, Prince Edward arrived in a mashup of a 1930s gangster car and an Afghan armoured vehicle, and then the MWC drove into the stadium in salvaged, pimped-up rides and put on a show that was as visually compelling as Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympics earlier that summer.
Lockdown has given Rush the chance to concentrate on creating other things. Fossil-like works mostly, made from spanners and bike chains, as well as a sculpture consisting of all his dogs from over the years, their heads and bodies crafted from repurposed drills, carburettors and other detritus. It’s a touching memorial: pets reborn as trans-canine mutants.
Some of his work was recently on show at Fulham town hall in London, part of a show called Art in the Age of Now. Does this mean Rush is finally joining the art world, and moving from the street and field to the gallery? “I’ve never wanted to be part of the art world,” he says, “because that would involve cosying up to people I don’t really understand or like.”
While he is a contemporary of such YBAs as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, unlike them Rush never went to art school or had his oeuvre collected by Charles Saatchi. That said, he has worked with Banksy and Hirst. The latter gave him tips on how to make bronze versions of sculptures originally created from recycled aluminium.
When lockdown ends, he is hoping to return to his European travels – and put on exhibitions in museums. “I don’t want to be in galleries,” he says. “I want to be in museums like the V&A, Tate Modern and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.” What’s the distinction? “Private galleries own you and your art. I don’t want that. My principle has long been that if a child thinks a work of art is bollocks, it’s probably no good. Kids can see through nonsense. And I try to remain a child in that sense. Some people think you need to grow up. You don’t. You just need to learn how to keep playing. I’m lucky enough to be still doing that.”
Stuart Jeffries. Guardian. 24 Jun 2021