Public Enemy Number 1
The 1931 film, The Public Enemy, provided James Cagney with an astute vehicle by which to claim
stardom and notoriety, both as an actor and an alternative sex symbol. Wielding a sub machine gun,
smoking a cigar and wearing a Zoot suit, the film still was reproduced as a print by Andy Warhol in 1962,
simply entitled Cagney.
All the qualities of a gangster culture seemed to have found their place symbolically and symbiotically
in an underground stream of economy. A mixture of testosterone, gun power, neat dress, high lifestyle,
violent caricatures and devilish luck with the opposite sex - indeed a series of qualities that seem to be still
recognisably gangster whether describing James Cagney in 1931 or Snoop Dogg in 1993 or Shah Rukh
Khan in 2006.
All men, all hard, all guns ablaze at moving targets beyond the frame - the gangster cult has been part
of the visual culture for a long time - a partner in crimes of passion, a remarkable co-existence between
depiction and reality. The music and film world have portrayed gangster culture with all its alternative status as
a fertile ground for storytelling, often from meager beginnings to highly emotional endings on bridges and dark
alleyways, whilst the songs of Johnny Cash and, more recently gangsta culture, a part of rap music, have
given us emotive, if not entertaining, renderings of life on the streets and the worthiness of the game.
Hardly an era has passed when entertainers, movie makers, songwriters and even artists have not turned
to this most awkward, yet destructive, force in our society. It remains a bane of poor businesses, a tragedy
for risky ventures and part of the rich mix of immigrant life that is so initially dependent of illegal trade.
The goods frequently traded range from degrading human virtues including prostitution and the trafficking
of young women to drugs, arms, piracy, gambling and laundering money - often the very backgrounds
from which narratives for gangster lifestyles and personalities are portrayed.
The mechanisms, the body, the lifestyle, the fashion, the hoods, the blues, the arrogance, the class, the
male chauvinism and, of course, the sheer amount of violence - it all makes war into a foreign extension of
a local fight. Bloodletting, revenge and sordid virtues make this Public Enemy Number One - indeed, faces
of well-known thugs and bandits are as recognisable as politicians, scientists and other notorious beings.
In curating Public Enemy Number 1, it is hoped that six artists from different parts of the world will be able to
employ their skills to highlight through the visual arts the role of violence and the culture of violence that has
bred generations of gangsters and gangster attitude. Using wit, history, confounded values and conditions
that make our world, these artists will diversely treat the subject according to their knowledge and astute
understanding of the term Public Enemy Number 1