Paint me partly.
Parting pains me.
Pain is painting.
Pain au raisin.
Paint me partly.
Parting pains me.
Pain is painting.
Pain au raisin.
I’m not sure if you can see them,
From your side of the wall,
But those trimmers missed a spot or two.
But it’s okay, because now there are some lovely flowers,
Blooming in our garden.
Wind-buffeted, they dangle,
Over the wall,
Trying to get back to where nature is free.
They dare not crane their petals,
To glimpse the horrors behind them.
The bush from which they spring is bald and sad,
Without the sun to give it colour.
Do flowers hear the grass cry out,
Or is it drowned out by the mower?
Come, little yellow friends,
Ours is the utopia,
Overgrown and weedy.
Shun that desolation,
Neatness is forbidden,
We are but guests in your dominion,
Here is where you sing.
Does the air feel different
In this cave of Man’s creation
With giants clomping up and down
In constant animation?
And what’s your point of entry?
What secrets have you found?
Are there gaps between the floorboards
Do you come up through the ground?
And what do you get up to
On your nightly escapades?
What strange enchantments find you
On these uninvited raids?
These questions I would ask you
O tiny slimy slugs
That enter in the darkness
And ooze upon my rugs.
The wretched thing fell to its death
Soggy and crumpled
Forced through gritted brass teeth
Onto the tiles below.
‘What are you peddling then?’
Asked a surly takeaway menu.
‘They don’t need loans you know.’
‘Will you have a little pity?’
Cried the Radio Times.
‘It’s cats and dogs out there.’
The menu scoffed.
‘I didn’t think you’d noticed
Miss Polyethylene Sleeve
Miss Ooh La Di Da.’
‘Oh, don’t get your sundries in a twist’
Muttered the maligned magazine.
‘We’re all stuck here, same as you.’
‘Ignore her,’ said the menu
With a conspiring tone.
‘She’ll be inside come morning
Pride of place, kitchen table
Right next to the phone.
Not all of us were born with a double-page spread of Nigella up our arses.’
There are two men working in the garden next door.
One young, one older – fifty or more.
The garage window has frilly curtains
So I thought it might have been converted
Into a little annex, fully furnished
For people to come and stay.
But in went the men, and out they came again
With a hedge strimmer
And a lawnmower
And a leaf blower
And a hefty sack for all the grass.
So it must be just a tool shed.
Still, how often do you see a tool shed with frilly curtains?
The garden is finished now, they’re packing away.
The older man talks to his mother inside.
I crack the window but their voices are muffled.
‘Are you staying for dinner?’
She might be asking.
‘See you in a fortnight,’ I hear more clearly
As her son and his boy emerge from the house.
Then mower and blower and strimmer and sack
Are hefted and carried around to the back
To a gate in the wall, right next to the shed
And all of a sudden it clicks in my head
How this family scene has been sorely misread.
For as the gate opens, I vaguely remember
The van that pulled up half an hour before.
With a grumble of diesel
And the crackling of gravel
My story unravels.
I shut the window.
There I was, thinking of asking to borrow their mower.
A while later, I wonder if she’s lonely
Looking out over her garden
With its perfect purple flowers
And its lawn so freshly mown
And its little flock of stones
And the bushes which had grown
Over the wall
Into our garden
Connecting our worlds
Before the gardeners came.
…I don’t really know what to say about it. An opinion just doesn’t seem to want to form. It didn’t come from anywhere, and it doesn’t look like its going anywhere. If I thought it was worth naming, maybe I’d call it Stuck. It’s made me all the more aware that I shouldn’t use image-making to process the current moment. Either I write about it, or failing that, I wait. I think waiting is needed now.
Sorry, never got round to it. Muddle. Just start writing. Stream of consciousness, maybe more of a stubborn drizzle of consciousness, fogging up the windscreen of the everyday. Keeps getting wiped away, no time to pull over and turn the engine off and just let the rain fall.
Conversationalism. That’s “-ism” as in “Socialism”. A Proper Thing. A way of looking at the world. Everything is conversation, I think. Particularly with art. You’re constantly trying to get someone to see things the way you see them, and if they don’t, it’s either frustrating or fascinating, or both. You have to translate, and compromise, and come to agreements. It’s maddening, as a human being, for no one to understand you. We need to be understood just like we need to sleep. It soothes us, and it keeps us going.
Putting two artworks on a wall next to each other, that’s conversation. A dusty pair of men’s slippers next to a portrait of a sad old woman. But where does that conversation happen? Not in the slippers, unless dust mites are far more intelligent than we give them credit for. It’s in your subconscious, isn’t it? Two inanimate objects are talking to each other inside your head, and you’re listening in. You glance from one to the other, and hear the little whisper: “ooh, it was ‘er ‘usband”. Because they can’t just be slippers, can they? They have to have belonged to someone. There has to be a human connection there. They can’t just be objects, they have to be things. There has to be a little bit of someone’s soul bound up in them. Otherwise they’re not important. They don’t matter. They’re just matter.
But what if you can’t listen in? What if you don’t understand the language? What if you don’t care? Many, many people are quite happy to accept the fact that they aren’t “arty” people. They look at a Rauschenberg and wonder “what’s it all about?” Or more to the point, they don’t wonder. They scoff, call it a load of arty farty bollocks, and go about their day. They don’t hear the quiet little conversations in their heads, and it has no impact on their lives. Actually, none of that happens, because they didn’t pay the 16 bloody quid for the ticket in the first place.
So who does contemporary art talk to? The artist themselves, sure. It’s self-expression, it’s identity, it’s a deeply personal conversation with the world. It nourishes the self. Who else does it talk to? Those “arty” people. People who have made it their business to speak the language of contemporary art, and have a fascination with the way that artists choose to share parts of themselves with those who will look and listen. It’s empathy, it’s the human condition to want to understand other humans. If you choose to creatively express yourself through artistic means, then you’re probably going to be more invested in what other people have to say through similar means. Amy Adams said it in Arrival. The language you speak affects who you are as a person. It changes your nature. Speak someone else’s language, and you’ll start to see the world the way they see the world.
But who else does it talk to? How many taxi drivers have you had to try and justify or explain your artistic career to? How many of your friends nod vaguely when you tell them what your project is about? How many pieces of contemporary art have changed the world? I mean really, properly changed the course of history? Kurt Schwitters reckoned artists held up a mirror to the times, but what good is a mirror if no one stops to peer into it?
I think that a different conversation needs to happen. If contemporary art is trying to talk to the world, then the world needs to talk back. A language needs to be invented, if it doesn’t exist already. What if, at school, instead of (or as well as) singing hymns every morning, kids got out their paintbrushes and painted how they were feeling that day? And then showed their feelings to the other kids? And then talked about it? It would become natural, wouldn’t it? To see meaning and emotion in the scribbles of a child, which is what some abstract art is so dismissively brandished as? After a few years of that, I’m willing to bet you could show said child a series of Rothko paintings and they’d be able to tell you which best matches their mood that day, or the mood of their mother or father. How would that change the way that people learn to visually express themselves, and recognise such expressions in other people? Maybe then you’d get taxi drivers and estate agents flocking to the latest exhibitions in a search for empathetical reassurance about a broken marriage, or feelings of intangible despondency in a world without meaning, rather than just those “arty” people. Art wouldn’t just be the mirror, it would be the world. It would be necessary.
That is, if they could afford the Tate card.