In 2015, Semi-Permanent and Carriageworks presented Stanley Donwood’s retrospective exhibition, The Panic Office. The exhibition was the first of its kind, combining the collective visual works of Donwood with a bespoke soundscape engineered by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke specifically for the exhibition. The track was played over three stereo sets, and is the longest recorded song in history, taking over three days to listen to in its entirety, changing as the audience moves through the exhibition.
Donwood has been Radiohead’s artist in residence since 1994 and has been referred to as the band’s sixth member, designing the group’s albums and all associated artwork. The exhibition showcases Donwood’s significant contribution to the Radiohead brand, including thousands of pieces of artwork from the Radiohead albums OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, as well as Donwood’s personal art including paintings, prints and drawings, and the art for Radiohead, Thom Yorke & Atoms For Peace that cover the past 25+ years
Semi-Permanent had the considerable task of bringing Donwood’s vision, a thirty-five metre Punk Iron Age fortress or the equivalent of a derelict UK factory district, to life in Sydney’s Carriageworks creative works venue. Featuring two thousand pieces of artwork and countless materials, much time and expense went into carefully crating Stanley’s fragile works over from the UK, only for the visionary artist to (quite literally) begin tearing into his work with reckless abandon. And by tearing into his work we mean this in the most literal sense, a process which if it weren’t for Stanley’s impeccable credentials could have easily been mistaken for the rowdy post-football-match vandalism with which Stanley’s countrymen are typically associated.
“I wanted to create a sort of punk version of an Iron Age stockaded fort, armoured with corrugated iron, pasted with agit-prop posters created by rival alchemical terrorist groups, heavily vandalised and surrounded with drifts of torn-up failed artwork. As I don’t know any alchemical terrorist groups (I doubt they exist, to be honest) I had to make the artwork myself. Similarly, the torn up failed artwork was also mine."
Our initial shock at seeing Stanley’s methods was (mostly) allayed by his assurances that he wanted The Panic Office to serve as a ‘shrine to failed art’, which he planned to pound into shape with all the care and delicacy of an Iron Age blacksmith.
“With the Panic Office in Sydney I wanted to create a sort of punk version of an Iron Age stockaded fort, armoured with corrugated iron, pasted with agit-prop posters created by rival alchemical terrorist groups, heavily vandalised and surrounded with drifts of torn-up failed artwork
Decay, ugliness and imperfection are clearly important themes for both Donwood and Yorke, a slightly morbid fascination which the two have often sought to capture in their respective works. The name ‘the Panic Office’ is itself a reference to the Radiohead song ‘Fitter, Happier’ off the band’s breakthrough 1997 album ‘OK Computer’ in which a now iconic computer voice gives a scathing critique of modern life and our cultish obsession with healthy living —‘Fred’ (as Donwood and Yorke have affectionately named the computer voice’s owner) returns in the Panic Office, popping up sporadically throughout the installation like a gloomy gallery owner.
The final product was nothing short of spectacular. Like Donwood and York’s previous collaborations Mithras Tauroctonos Subterranea, a labyrinth constructed in an underground train station in London, and PolyFauna, an experimental mobile app, The Panic Office is a visionary attempt to shatter the partition that separates still art and still life. We at Semi-Permanent are so proud to have helped make Stanley’s vision a reality, and for over 10,000 Australians to have been able to experience what is truly a first of its kind.
We are currently working on taking The Panic Office worldwide.