Hello. Sorry for a bit of a lacuna over the last few days – I’ve been in London, with very little meaningful access to the interweb. It was a great trip – scheduled partly to meet my agent (there is really no way that I can say that without sounding like a wanker, is there?) and partly to take in some art galleries, museums, theatre and quality time with cherished old friends whom I don’t see half enough. I had a cracking time – particular highlights were: meeting said agent Euan at the A.M.Heath offices (seems like a great guy, we talked about exciting things); Ganapati (amazing South Indian kitchen in Peckham, book ahead and order the lamb dal cha); watching Detroit at themNational Theatre (superb script, excellent drunk acting); browsing Borough Market and the South Bank book market (homemade pasta and freshly squeezed fruit juice, grudgingly resisted bookish temptation since I have approx a billion to read already); a dirt-cheap Lebanese restaurant just off from Paddington Station (annoyingly can’t locate on Google Maps, but green beans & lamb houmos to die for); and the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern (getting quite a lot of flak for this on Twitter… went along with high snootiness and a sense of zeitgeist obligation, but was flabbergasted to enjoy it. Really really enjoy it.)
A bit of a word about the Hirst, actually. Because it’s book-related, sort of, ultimately, promise. The reason I stumped up my fourteen quid is because, one day over a greasy brunch in Morrisons, I was wagging my fork and lecturing my dining companion about why Hirst was a knob when I realised that the only reason why I thought he was a knob is because other people had told me he was a knob. I had a sort of hand-me-down impression of a canny generator of both controversy and cash; his art seemed to me a sort of artistic equivalent to Stewart Lee’s description of Jeremy Clarkson’s “outrageously politically incorrect opinions which he has every week to a deadline in the Sunday Times”. There’s something suspect about an artist making that kind of money, surely? Isn’t there? And about him constantly using the morbid, the deathly, the shocking, to do it? Crass.
Well, for what it’s worth, the main thing that struck me about the exhibition was how much of Hirst’s voluminous output doesn’t fit this shock jock bill. I had never really heard of “Lullaby, The Seasons”, a dazzling array of thousands upon thousands of hand-painted pills, painstakingly arranged in great complex swathes of modulating colour along mirrored shelves… but I stood marvelling at it for a long time, and can still see the colours when I close my eyes. Ditto the stunning “Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven”, a set of enormous stained glass windows of achingly vivid colours which on closer inspection are made of hundreds of thousands of butterflies. Both were simply very beautiful. Yes there was a subtext of mortality to both – ‘Lullaby’ in particular made me think a little more about medication’s role in helping us to accept our mortality – but the main thing that sprung out of these works for me was an investment in the pleasure that can be provoked by aesthetic criteria, coupled with a self-reflexive edge that asks us to question what role this pleasure plays in helping us to adjust and streamline the world. If that isn’t good art, what is?
HOWEVER, the most memorable moment of the exhibition for me was actually in response to one of the most famous shocking pieces of art, “Mother and Child, Divided”. For those who don’t know, this is a cow and a calf, each cut in half and preserved in a pair of glass-walled tanks in a formaldehyde solution. The tanks are set a distance apart so that you can actually walk through the cow or the calf, inspecting each grisly inch of gut and gristle. Now, I and my friend had just finished squeamishly inching our way through the cow, and I was feeling rather shaken – the sense of enclosure provoked by the experience seems like it can’t help but make one reflect on both the meatiness and fragility of one’s own body, the proximity to that state of death. At that moment, I saw a little boy, probably no more than about four years old, who had been brought along to the exhibition by his enterprising mother or aunt or family friend. He was crouched down inside the calf, tracing his finger along the passage of its intestines. And he was absolutely loving it. There was a massive grin on his face and every now and then he would shout out to his mum or whoever, “YEAH! GUTS! COOL!” He was utterly untouched by the sense of horror and humbleness that the memento mori is culturally calculated to produce. Either he was simply responding to something that he found instinctively appealing in the pattern of the animal’s innards without really being aware of the grisly context, or else he was cheerfully aware of this context and his reaction was, despite this, one of ludic pleasure. Looking at this vignette, I felt one of those shifts in perspective that you sometimes get when confronted by art and that make the fourteen quid entry fee worthwhile; a sense that my reactions to certain constructs are culturally conditioned; that death (among other things) doesn’t need to be responded to in a particular way; that it’s possible to it occurred to break out of that, to take pleasure in the seemingly unenjoyable.
It also occurred to me that while I didn’t rate “Mother and Child, Divided” that much in itself, that with the addition of that gleeful little boy, it is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. And this, in turn, as I wandered along the South Bank afterwards, got me thinking about the place of reception in Hirst’s work. When he created that thing, did he think of it as being admired from the point of view of a solitary, omniscient viewer? Or did he imagine it in something like the context I saw it – with a group of people crowded around it, observing not only the piece itself but also others’ reactions to it, learning something from that spectrum of reactions, letting the piece act as a catalyst to generate reflection on difference? It would be nice to think he did, I thought. And then I reached that lovely secondhand book market, and browsed the books for a while, and of course my mind, still lingering on this idea, gradually turned to books, which it always does eventually. I realized that this context of social reception is something that’s pretty intrinsic to what I do with books, both academically and creatively. Books don’t exist in a vacuum. Or at least, they shouldn’t. Academically, the Chapter that has been monopolizing my every waking hour recently is not just about Cecilia; it’s actually about how people were talking about Cecilia. I’m arguing that the novel acted as a catalyst to provoke explosive debate about issues of identity and social classification in assembly rooms across London, among many conversationalists who were not really supposed to debate those kinds of issues (ie. women). Creatively, I realized that the book I’ve written has been set up to defer resolution, to keep the moral balls in the air, to keep people talking. I don’t know why but my ultimate dream for the book, rather than amazing reviews or the Orange Prize or fantastically lucrative sales figures (ha!) has always been that somewhere a few people might sit around a table in the pub and have an argument about it. And that observing one another’s responses to the events, identifications with the characters, they might slightly re-place themselves in the world. This, I think, is the point of literature. More widely (this has after all been a post mainly about Hirst) it’s the point of art. Are books still best placed to generate this kind of debate and re-positioning?
Fourteen quid. Well worth it.