“Fuck you, Van Gogh! Look at me!” At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 2015.
The stuff of stock photography, this. Leaning into jellied eels, Tubby Isaac shouts over traffic to a short customer who can’t position her ear at quite the right angle. A surge of sentimentality. Then: He might be a right bastard for all you know. I’m starting to recognise the process of my own ageing. A man in a wheelchair is parked against a tree that is dying inside a pot that no one has remembered to water. He stares out. No hat. No hand. No used Costa coffee cup. I pretend not to look for his container. You think I’m a beggar cos I got no legs? I move to a distance before turning to stare. Get a grip, get a grip. I dig about and find a fifty pence piece. Close-up, he’s tanned and blonde. “Thank you love.” Oh, oh, here it comes again.
Even from this distance I can see them spreading over the pavement. Velma is here! And seven women in crocheted ankle socks. A man who wishes he were Italian fidgets at his friend’s neck, flattening the felt ruff she has cleaned with Selotape especially for this evening. An eight year-old girl successfully performs the habit of presumption, aware already that her purpose on this earth is to intimidate adults who lack her vast fortune. She twitches to the curls of her hair that are caressing her shoulders, bouncing about, each and every strand a soprano voice calling Cath Kidston from the heavens. She already knows that one does not smile at Events Like This. Behind her, a stream of highly-educated middle-aged women (all at their sexual peak) duck beneath the barrier and march through glass. Outrage spreads up the line like dominoes keeling over. Crimson lipstick. Black smocks handed out for free at the hairdresser. Rectangular trousers. A very short man walks up the line, encouraging people to form a proper queue to let the public pass more easily & requesting that they drop their sunglasses into the bucket. “They will be handed back after the show,” he shouts. “You don’t need to worry. They will be handed back after the show.” Irritation ripples, but no one is brave enough to question the orders of a dwarf who was born in Mogadishu. But a curator recognises him. “He’s my dealer,” Tedd boasts to Rimmer, a sculptor. They met at Eton. Other conversations are not happening. No one is listening to no one else. Everyone is looking to see who they recognise and who might recognise them. Aldgate can’t sustain this amount of disappointment. So it’s relief all round when the doors open. Half-shaved heads holding clipboards and biros hurry us into the open space. Pallid boys in black shirts offer white wine and apple juice. There are dicks and cunts all over the fucking place. And ironic robots. On three screens, hipsters are washing themselves in green slime. A Slade emeritus has splashed water colours over canvas to capture his retirement home in Provence. “Form!” The stairway is blocked by graduates who can’t sell their work. The queue for the ladies is for the floor-to-ceiling mirror.
No one urinates in these parts, and no one looks at the work.
A young Pynchon was there. In black tie. I assumed he was going to the Oscars. Another man was very silently giving birth to a succession of babies. Then the cat cried for breakfast and I started to lose them. The art dealer came back to me. His heavy shoulders cloaked in a well-worn waxed jacket. His curls of grey hair, windswept from the Scottish highlands, marked him as outsider on the London tube. I’d snuck into his slipstream just after the ticket barriers. He was using a framed artwork wrapped in folds of bubbled plastic to peel the crowd at the top of the escalator. He was big, perhaps 6’3″. But I suspected, as I watched his gaze in the carriage, that this was becoming a disappointment. The knowledge of ageing, what it does to the body. He had refused to sit down. No one had offered him a seat, but as he leant into the vertical hand rail, his shoulder squeezing against the rectangle of protective glass, I felt his body begging for rest. Shortly before Kings Cross, he’d caught my eye. I had looked up from my book; I was thinking about the links between the holocaust and Stanley; and as I returned to the pages on my lap, he mouthed a word. It might have been two. The skin of his face made me think of the weather. He wore corduroys. I didn’t notice his shoes. At Kings Cross, he turned his back and stepped off the carriage. In moments like these, even I start to believe that we should recognise fully that humans do have a sixth sense. He stepped to the side of the platform and turned to wait for me. What’s that you’re reading? I wondered why he felt the need to demand information. I thought of all the women who’d left him. I held up the book. Ah memory, he said. What’s that? PTSD? I explained that it was a little more nuanced than that. He’s a novelist, I said, surprised by the sympathetic tone in which I had spoken. He relaxed. I hate this sort of transport, he said. Lost my licence, he said. Some fucking Scottish sheriff. I wasn’t in the wrong, but I was the one who was punished. I saw him in his cottage, half-drunk bottles of whisky dotted about the place. I’ve been in Kent, he said. I’m an art dealer. He held up the large package he was carrying. Yes, I said, I saw how you used it to push through the crowds. He laughed. It’s worth fifteen thousand. We were walking at a steady pace now, beneath St Pancras. I told him that I’d spent the day in an art gallery, talking about the black subject. Oh, he said, misunderstanding me, you are depressing. The black subject, I repeated, about the presence of black people in British art. Oh I don’t believe in racism, he replied. Nonsense! I had the chance to buy an 1806 oil of a black man in Liverpool. Dressed like a gentleman. In the background, a hunt was galloping past. He was an estate manager. An estate manager. He thought I hadn’t heard and said, again, but in a bark, An estate manager! You see, there wasn’t even racism then. I grew up in Africa. Tanzania, my dear. There was much more slavery between them than anything we could have done. We came to a halt. He was going upstairs to get the night train to Edinburgh. I was going further, deeper down, far underground. He wanted to know what I was doing. Meeting my husband, I said. He laughed. Damn! You’re just what I could do with. His bottom lip was loosening. Hanging, pink, fat and wet. He stepped back. He didn’t want me to turn first. He didn’t want to see my back, and to be confronted with himself. So I held out my hand. I’m glad we spoke, I said. He held down a smile. Yes, well, have a pleasant evening. And he turned. I stood still and watched him and his painting rising higher and higher and higher.
You learn to tell things as they are. You learn to cut back. Minimise to the point of. Lying. Based on what is there in. Front of your eyes. What you saw. Or what they say they. Saw. Or what you heard. What she is. Saying. Cut it back. Though. Time. Time. Timing. Timed. But it did. Definitely happened. It’s only that. Having cut it down that much. It did not happen. Quite like that. Still. Being told is never quite as interesting as having to work for it. The most liberating art — interpret art how you like — is the stuff that makes you work. Forces you to drop. The walls. Bash them down. In. Your brain. It shows you something in a new way. That you didn’t know before. You didn’t know you could think. In. That. Way. You didn’t know this was thinking. Or reflecting. Or imagining. You didn’t know you had an imagination. Like this one. And then there it is. Then. You have to work out. How to keep it. How to — to borrow capitalist speak — grow it. Fertilise it. Produce. It. To flourish. So liberating. Frightening. But liberating. List the stuff that has done. That. Succeeded.
They rose early, having decided to keep that morning clear. They took their tools to the corner of the room and, carefully, with a routine that only an old couple could share without prior planning, began to unscrew the cupboard that, 43 years earlier, Mr M had worked into the wall as a place to store their shoes. A steaming pot of tea cooled above the fireplace; they worked with such focus that they forgot to pour any into the two white mugs waiting on the tray.
When the cupboard eventually came down, it was as she had expected. ‘I told you,’ she said, breaking into laughter, ‘I told you he’d be there.’ Mr M nodded. He couldn’t disagree with her, she was often right about things like this. There he was, Paolo Facchinetti, with a small brush and a pot of black paint at his feet. ‘I was just trying to capture the mould,’ the painter said, ‘before the summer comes and dries it away.’ Mrs M chuckled still more, nudging Mr M with her elbow. ‘I told you,’ she said. ‘I told you.’
In his high-collar lambs’ wool jersey (navy, of course), he is bellowing into the slender i-Phone in his palm. “We’re at the Chapmans’ show, Ems. Fabulous building. That Muslim woman did it.” He’s standing, legs apart in a capital A (is-for-arse), as if preparing to piss down the side of one of the large glass cases that form the show, left hand wedged into lightly gelled greying hair. “Hold on, Ems, just a mo’ darling.” A child is calling him from behind. “Daddy, Daddy, when can we go? I want to go. Daddy.” The child’s mother is trying to distract it, trying to educate it possibly, trying to stop it upsetting Daddy. “Look, darling, the horsey, darling. Look at the horsey.” She presses the child’s face up against another of the large glass cases, close to a horse, part of the scene of carnage inside, a massacre, a genocide — call it Hell if you like, but I’d rather keep it in the real world, not tucked away in the corner of a faith that bows down to the supernatural — that could be a snapshot from a part of the world in which we all live right now. (Syria, anyone?) Yes, there are Nazis in there. Hitler’s in one peaceful corner, a pet dog, a little garden, the picture of petty-bourgeois desire. Ronald MacDonald is there too — indeed, another mother of another small child offers helpful reminders in Putney tongue: “Corrie, sweetie, have you seen Ronald MacDonald?” She neglects to mention that the clown of obesity is also nailed to a crucifix in some cases, and apparently killing or maiming or torturing in others. Unfortunately for me, she also doesn’t name the blow-up purple figure that reminds me of a 1970s Weeble, but is probably a cartoon creation after my time. Meanwhile, Daddy’s still shouting into his phone to Ems. “Chapmans. Fabulously fucking weird sweets, hah!” They arrange to meet in a cafe in Kensington. They leave.
Show your kids these scenes if you like. I honestly don’t care. I don’t want censorship, or signs up banning the under-12s. So bring them to this show, and laugh at it with little Hugo and nine-year-old Muffy. It’s only art. It’s just a joke. It must be: apparently, Jake and Dinos have been doubled-up in giggles too. If it has no purpose other than to make us laugh — or to allow others to laugh at me (and people like me) when I don’t laugh — then classes of primary school kids should be bussed in and made to stare into the detail so that we can laugh at them when they have nightmares. What bothers me (much more than the kids’ expressions of consternation) are the adults.
Walking through Come and See yesterday was like looking into a huge mirror. I saw not only my reflection, but the reflection of the world, stretching out of Hyde Park, down Oxford Street, all the way to Goma and Homs, San Francisco and Aberystwyth, Grozny and Hong Kong. The presence of the Ku Klux Klansman (which one critic seems to scoff at because they aren’t real) reminded me of the ever-expanding crater between poor and rich, and of the many migrants who have tried to get in to the UK but who end up being held inside private prisons controlled by men in uniform who work for companies run by men in suits who might as well be wearing white cones on their heads. The KKK figures wore striped wool ‘hippie’ socks and Birkenstock sandals, dragging me to thoughts of the intense gentrification of my own neighbourhood of Walthamstow, where property prices are escalating at such speeds it’s starting to seem as if the local estate agents (who invent new rules of play for price bids and who establish glossy magazines that are more popular than the borough’s own dedicated paper) have levels of power our local MP might soon start to envy. Strolling through the show, I felt implicated. Because I am implicated. I am part of this vast hypocritical class that seems to have been chosen to enjoy a good life, for the time being anyway.
But don’t be fooled, not even by Dinos and Jake. There is no ‘if’ in this show (as the Telegraph’s critic also suggests): of course, we are fucked. As I listened in on conversations between couples in their Campers — ‘This is spooky! Ha ha ha!’ — I began to wonder if they, too, were part of the exhibition. The Chapmans are watching me, I thought. They are ramping up their parody to new heights and the joke is on me. The paranoia got worse. Allusions to Auschwitz made me miserable. Thoughts of my own book came to mind, of conversations with Angolans who were held in concentrations camps in the late 1970s, camps that one of them compared with the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland. Funny? Hardly. Kids entertainment? Probably not. But perhaps the ones I saw yesterday won’t have sleepless nights because they’ll end up like their parents — who seem to have had every last drip of empathy hoovered out of them, and every last line of political nouse snorted up the nostril of some unassuming celebrity chef who’s art-dealer-of-a-husband turns out to be a thug — so it won’t matter anyway.
Through the glass wall they step, one after another, until the six of them are on the other side. One looks back. The young woman. Oozing anxiety, she searches for the shape of her reflection, a need to check her size. She pulls a leather jacket from her shoulder and ties it around her waist, thinking, I need to cover my arse with cloth. She turns again, searches again, and seems slightly less dissatisfied with the image that meets her. It’s a testament to the discipline in her self-loathing that she doesn’t fall to the floor and scream. The young men, all five of them, are enjoying the view. One pulls out a packet of cigarettes, offering them among his friends. Two accept. They huddle together to light up. A rush of smoke appears over their silky heads and they pull back in one choreographed movement, inhaling and exhaling as if they have just completed a particularly taxing task. The woman pulls at the pony tail that follows her spine to the small of her back. She’s searching for an opportunity to look away from the view of the City to glance again (and again) at her shape, her form, this burden of flesh around her hips that is hers that she wishes to carve off now with a knife. What if I don’t have a child? she asks herself. What will be the point of all this? She lines up beside the men and for a few quiet seconds they stare together at St Paul’s. Then a camera comes out. One of the men reverses out of the line, warning his friends to prepare. The men laugh and one pulls out a pair of sunglasses, the sort Hutch used to wear, then undoes his top button, flicking at his fringe and manipulating his collar. He uses the glass wall to check it’s all just right, delighted at the youthful thing before him, within him, springing out of him. He sucks on the cigarette, then launches into a hug with the man beside him, and — snap — the photo is done. His friends laugh. But the young woman is still twitching, eating herself up, hating being here, hating this whole period of her life, wanting desperately to be a man, hating her female self even more than even she is able to recognise. And all the while, the names of the works she’s just seen keep running through her head, over and over. Vision of the Tomb. Self-Portrait of Suffering. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1. The Last Sound. The words run over her like twists of rope and she stares at the rail upon which her friends are leaning.