Photographs

Christmas2

By today’s standards I came late to photography, growing up in the days before cell phones, I never had that immediate access to a camera like we have now, and so I didn’t think, or ever could have dreamed, that a photograph could ever be just a slight, throw away digital file. I began to “make” photographs when I was about eleven years old mainly using a small, very cheap, camera that I bought from Boots the Chemist which costed about the same as a hardcover book. It was a miraculous object, using 35 millimeter film, having all the essential controls; a focus ring on the lens, choices of aperture and shutter speeds through spindly aluminum knobs; it had the essence and characteristics of a real camera, if not the quality, and was soon to become an invaluable learning tool. The price for all this education could be high sometimes and it wasn’t unusual to get the negatives back only to find half of the pictures were over or under exposed, and sometimes in a complete blur. But that was the point, it was almost a toy, and mistakes were a necessary component of the learning. Quite quickly I assumed the cloak of a sophisticate, particularly with regard to the deliberately (or not so deliberately) out of focus ones, ridiculously I claimed artiness, and made the effort and paid the relatively high price of having them enlarged rather than discarded, doubling down on pretentiousness. It’s a practice that I still employ, my favorite photographs are the ones I understand the least and trouble me most, they exist on the cusp of being moved to that little trash can on my computer screen.

In those days, you didn’t just take photographs, you made them. Thanks to a light proof bag in which you broke apart the film canister like you were breaking an egg, rolled the loose film inside the spiral interior of a processing tube and then poured into it developing and then fixing fluid washed out with plenty of water before revealing your black and white negatives. These would be excitedly scanned, searching the small images revealed by a back light for some form of visual magic. Edwardian in its ingenuity and equipment, the chemical smell is unforgettable and the mix could be precarious, the dexterity required led to a sense of achievement each time the process was successful. No longer needing these skills takes away big part of the enjoyment away, and it’s not so surprising that some younger artists now are re-exploring film and older artists never moved into the digital world.

It seems like audacity to say that even at that young age I recognized that photographs didn’t simply record memories, but were also capable of capturing moods. I quickly got bored of the photograph-as-a-record, an image of a place visited…and I was left with endless black and white photographs of chateaux’s taken over the summer holidays and the grimy streets of Paris without knowing what to do with them. Sure, I could show my bored friends and paste them into a book, but what then? In time, and on future visits to France, I took pictures of that city with a deliberately slow shutter speed so the result would be unclear, out of focus, revealing chance unplanned movement. These accidents could be wonderful in their way and it was not difficult to elevate them to something special, at least within the rudderless, dreaming, drifting confines of my own mind. But who did I think I was? A little later, as a teenager and then as young adult, I would be back on the Streets of Paris, once or twice with a girlfriend in tow, but I preferred being alone with my camera, now elevated to an Olympus OM-1 declaring my seriousness to the world.

Evenings in an English suburban library had exposed me to the great mainly French and American Street photographers and I allowed myself to be seduced by them, what could be better to wander through the urban underbellies, casting sophisticated judgement, capturing a moment of time…and it seemed so easy. Part of the allure of street photography was it gave travel a purpose, something to do as I walked endlessly through city streets, exploring their rougher working class districts and dangerous alleys, critiquing their apparent danger and authenticity. If you had asked then, that one day in the future – thanks to Mary – I would be riding the Parisian Metro with a large box of cookies with the prominent bold East European handwriting broadcasting its consignee; Henri Cartier Bresson, I would never have believed you.

It was a romantic idea, to be a photographer, but it was also a corny one. Not so long ago I saw a Woody Allen film called Vicky Cristina Barcelona which featured a character played by Scarlett Johansson, a budding photographer who had illustrated her credentials by ditching digital and adopting film camera’s instead, and who rambled through the lovely, apparently endlessly photogenic streets of that city randomly stopping, pointing the camera upwards and earnestly capturing an image. We were told by the voice over that she was a “talented photographer”, and therein lay the problem for me, what was she taking that was so interesting? We all do it now, reach for our phones when we see something out of the ordinary or iconic when we travel, but for what? Share it on Instagram or Facebook as yet another boast of the mobility, wealth and fascination of our lives I suppose. It doesn’t make us talented photographers though.

Like most art forms the practice of photography splinters and mends itself almost continually. There are the photographs which are simply tools to support a larger conceptual narrative and there are the photographs which are the end in themselves, objects of beauty, whatever that may be. Taking an interesting photograph gets harder and harder, we have all become curators, we learn to sensor ourselves based on content and volume, particularly when we decide to post them in front of the harshest judges around, our friends. Strange things happen. We acquire “friends” that we have never met, nor are likely to meet, and lose friends. We don’t see them anymore in the real world, instead now only through their much more glamorous exploits, seen through the little oblong portal in our hands. The images we create and words we write risks unwanted communion, not just the woman with the perfect body, revealed in greater detail as the summer progresses, or too little, a message or comment ignored by a close friend. Worst of all is when posting an arresting image that gets little to no response, I hear the sniggering and discouragement, and conclude it is best not to enter this minefield unless you are strong willed, thick skinned and willing to learn how to navigate it, but I delete followers like a professional assassin and take a solitary walk full of pugnacity and emptiness, forgetting to ask why all this might mean so much.

The photographers I admire are those who manage to trigger memories, tease out emotions and take risks. Typically they do this by pushing new ideas and expanding our understanding of beauty, which is a combination of visual intelligence and intellectual inquiry, helping us to understand the world a little better.

The first of these is Saul Fletcher whose show at Anton Kern I was reluctantly taken to one late spring afternoon, already tired and having seen enough art for one day. When I left the gallery the world shifted a little on its axis. His work is relatively small in scale but packs huge emotional power, the images are varied, they are sometimes of himself, sometimes small tableaux’s that might include commonplace objects or dead animals, others might contain a dog or a girlfriend, and typically with his rough Twomby-esque studio wall as a backdrop. He is a self-taught artist whose first photographs of Lincolnshire are in possession of despairing moods, in some cases they may represent the simplest of images but are never the less completely relatable, they capture the English countryside with their heavy, dense blocks of land, wisps of tree’s, a sky with clouds pregnant with rain. The still lives are equally as forlorn and contain the slightest objects that seem to swell in stature, their morbid associations and fragmentation suggesting the loneliness and interior life of the artist. There is sophistication in his strategies and alchemy, big themes emerge from these small scale pieces; fear of death, the rawness of love, food, loneliness, life’s building blocks. The show haunted me, and his work still does, it is intelligent and sensitive, if one day I take a photograph half as good I will be happy, I left his show paradoxically full of both optimism and envy, with a new resolution to try harder, and to endeavor never to take photographs which would obviously be a second rate versions of his.

Masao Yamamoto is a Japanese photographer who also creates moody, lovely images. He is known for his small scale landscapes and interior shots. Quite often there are images of birds and his small black and white images of Owls, at least partially, inspired me to photograph the same, but admittedly with different motives and very different outcomes. His work is particularly Japanese, celebrating its modesty and imperfections; he is known to carry them in his pockets so they become aged and creased, and at other times he adorns them with hand applied gold paint. Like Fletcher they are frequently small in scale – forcing you to look closely, creating, or demanding some intimacy with you.

Inexplicably I’m rarely angry at photographers in the same way that I can be with artist using other mediums, and cannot name too many that offend me. I love the landscapes made by Richard Billingham on a medium format camera, breaking away from his previous intense body of work centered round his own working class family. The wide ranging and forward looking experiments and body of work by Wolfgang Tillman’s is courageous and wonderful. I’m drawn to Nan Goldin’s for much the same reason as I am to Peter Hujar, for being unfortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time in history and to document it with insight and sensitivity. I’m less moved by artifice and intellect; the Gurski’s and the Jeff Walls that we are all supposed to like, the brainy but cold school of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

My own photographs (I will never call them “work”) are all over the place, or at least that is what I used to think. It was only over the course of a few days, when I selected a few of my favorites for a new space on the internet, http://www.nmanson.com did I find that they have formed patterns and adapted themselves to categorization which oddly gives me both hope and concern, as this is what is demanded by the outside world. Hope, because I might one day join a club where an image, or grouping of images, becomes recognizable as my own, and doubt for the same reason, creating self-imposed boundaries.  At the same time I am questioning myself, do I really have such ambitions? my inner critic scoffs even at such minor goals. But all this is reductive, I must confess to no real understanding of how photography is seen in the academic world, which I know exists. Photographic theories are pronounced, books are written and symposiums created to reveal motives, to understand and predict impulses, to make stars out of its critic’s. I Just take pictures without asking why. If I am pushed (I am not) I might say that my own impulses are rather simplistic, moving in three directions; landscapes which are typically dominated by an empty road or path ahead, street photography capturing images of the homeless and undone, then images of birds that are either in the wild or in an interior setting. But how to begin to rationalize, to explain (let alone promote) such romanticized, cliched imagery?

The landscapes have two things in common, they are depopulated and they have a path or road ahead offering a question; is it an optimistic, hopeful image suggesting good things ahead, or could it be a despairing image, one of leaving something bad behind? A slice of movement, a sense of forward motion has always been a catalyst for my own creativity such as it is; I need to be pushed and pulled in order to write, any self-critique or contemplation seems to require the assistance of a train, plane, and a country footpath or city street. At first I thought of these images of paths as a coincidence, never purposefully setting out to take photographs in this manner, but I realize more and more that it is our subconscious pressing the shutters.

The pictures from the street, whether they are torn posters, newspapers in gutters or drunk and homeless people are problematic. I’ve already set them forward to be judged in the courtroom of the internet and have been found guilty. There is a moral conundrum that prevents us taking pictures of homeless people on the street, those distressed feeling no hope, those hugely vulnerable…..and the idea that a comfortable, middle class photographer would be stealing something else from them is more than a little horrific. Yet there is something comically performative in this dubious, incorrect behavior on so many levels, fearful of offending and sometime failing spectacularly, receiving disparaging looks from both the subjects and passerby’s. I am too amazed by the abandonment, a lack of social filter that permits them to be lying on the burning sidewalk on a scorching summer’s afternoon, using the little money they have to buy some gin or vodka and be indifferent to the world around them, being present in their own squalor, an outsiders status; I feel something close to envy. I’m also alert to the timeless visual beauty of the pose, and I suspect that I’m ridiculed when I say that I see Caravaggio, Rubens and Manet when I walk down 38 st, but the truth is that there is elegance to be seen in the figures on the streets and on the faces of the people. I see this also on the torn bill boards and fly posters pinned to city furniture. They suffer the fate of time, of wind and rain, of city workers clumsy attempts to remove them and so they gain a rich patina. I only recently learned about the photographer Lee Jeffries who has made a career out of living amongst homeless people and taking arguably quasi-religious images of them, wisely he shares some of the money he makes supporting homeless causes, he knows how to do the right thing. His work walks a weird tightrope, with exceptional on one side and overly sentimental on the other

Finally, the birds, and owls in particular, here the ambiguity is less difficult to decipher. Just as horror and bewitchment can be found on the city streets, hope and despondency within a country path, life’s enigmas are even more apparent in the wild. I am always amazed at the reaction to an image of an owl which for many of us, schooled by a cities safe nurturing, seems cute or charming. They are killing machines of the highest order and terrorize woodlands and fields. I have seen for myself the breathtaking sight of an owl fly directly at me and land on my thigh, digging its claws through my jeans but not quite breaking my skin. It is redundant to say they are extraordinary creatures or to comment on their physical perfection, it is enough to say that there is a reason they occupy such spiritual and fearful positions within ancient societies. Also interesting is the fact that several people have told me recently that they live with an owl nearby, rarely seen, but always heard and they are comforted by its soft hooting calls at night and in the morning. These sounds, we are told by naturalists, are both a warning to keep out of its territory or an invitation to mate, this academic hedge I sense illustrates just how little we know of their mysterious ways.

 

The week before Christmas

trees

It is, of course, OK to be sad during Christmas; this advice received from one of the more earnest newspapers I skim online at the start of each day. These wistful few weeks at the close of each year are made worse by the customary Christmas fantasies which are omnipresent in the noise around us, on bill boards, television, shop windows, even as I look down at the screen of the ATM I see a happy, green and red clad family looking back at me, with cold vocational smiles that could only be pulled off by photographic models. So it is a time to be approached with a sense of resignation and to only allow yourself occasional flashes of healthy anger; a television commercial where a handsome pair of professional young adults casually gift each other expensive cars will do it for me, what kind of society can suggest such extravagance? I fume involuntarily each time, what messages are we transmitting to each other? Desires as boastful, plaintive, as naive as a Cave man’s painting is probably about right, while they clustered for warmth in the cave dreaming of feasts walking around on four legs outside in the cold plains, we sit at home contemplating the risks of  1.7% APR and no money down on signing; no wonder Christmas is an unhappy time. And all the Dickensian dispatches from is resting place in Westminster Abbey – these generic chirpy families around abundant dinner tables, redemption for the mean spirited, ambition and kindness cut across class boundaries like a warm knife through butter….are all equally fake and problematic; in his day the whole thing is easier to understand, in a land full of orphans and widows, extreme poverty, the idea of a shared day of gluttony and comfort in the presence of your family might make total sense. But for most of us, never enjoying the advantage of being orphaned at an early age (I’m joking!) and so facing the reality rather than the myths of parenthood, it’s a day to be endured and to forgive for some of us who can. Christmas has always been under attack in my lifetime, even as a precocious child I derided its backstory while being forced to participate in nativity plays, in teenage years laughed at its blatant commercialities and now complain of its climatic damage, of which I am a participant, moving hundreds, thousands of boxes through the air in the Cargo holds of planes.

Is this the worst time of year to be in New York? Certainly the weeks just before Christmas when the city is full of outsiders, apparently uncertain how to walk down a sidewalk without stopping in our path to check directions on their cell phones, can be annoying – the weather, which arrives with a grey cold predictably and persistence of a Jehovah Witness on your doorstep, also can add to the pain. Yesterday, against better advice, I wore insubstantial sneakers in the rain and spent the day with wet socks and moist feet which brought to the soft skinned surface of my memory school days when this miserable state was not untypical.

But personally I think Christmas Day and the few days afterwards can be lovely, slumbering in their quietude, not only are tourists well gone but so are many locals and we can hear our own undrowned voices clearly in the downtown streets, find a seat in a familiar restaurant without too much trouble, catch an early afternoon movie. So coming back into the city on a cheap bus from Philadelphia is the time I enjoy most, arriving on the edge of SoHo, which we feel we have to ourselves, a place which remains a living repository of our happiest memories and one we both know at some time in the distant future, its cobbled streets will be heartbreaking to walk through, thinking of our lost younger selves, of time and talents wasted. But for now, we will find that snug, warm place to eat, feeling happy that we behaved well, that we have done our duty visiting family.

Christmases in my childhood were typical, in that they were hugely anticipated and therefore as a necessary part of that naturally arc shaped experience, the final part was one of disappointment. In my case, from my earliest years I would be highly specific ( dictatorial even) about the gift I wanted and perhaps as a cruel life lesson, almost but never quite, received it. Instead, something close was given, the Raleigh racing bicycle that I dream’t of for months, turned out to be one with a strange, unheard of, brand name. And for someone desperate to fit in with my circle of friends it was devastating, physical proof of my outsider, second rate status. I knew, and suspect my friends knew, that the gift would have been purchased carelessly by my parsimonious father, I imagine him now leaving the pub, finding that he could save a few pounds bringing home a cheaper bike. On its maiden ride I managed to damage some of the metal tubing and spent the next few weeks hiding it from him, agonizing over it and admonishing myself rather than dare question the bikes poor quality. Another year when I had been craving the football toy “Subbuteo”, I received instead another game altogether which I am sure was bought in the same casual manner and which resulted in me crying in my bedroom and later being beaten soundly for my ingratitude. These events planted the seeds of a lifelong interest in buying quality objects, to never skimp, and even now harbor an irrational snobbery, contempt even towards badly made things. But it was really the inattention to my wants (and perhaps you could even call it “taste”) or rather the dismissal of them, which was so crushing (and perhaps this sounds all too precious) these little mistakes half a century old, such minor slights, still hurts to this day. And still I blame myself. If only there was a time machine I could borrow to go back to the 1970’s and not be so spineless, the things I would fix, like Michael J Fox I would disrupt the family dynamic….make it all better. But in the real world after each occasion, each unhappy Christmas there would be the doleful coda, when we children were sent to upstairs to bed, then the fiery downstairs rows, scream’s from my mother, the booming retorts from my father – me shaking under the bed sheets and assuming it was my fault they hated each other; a family held together by a gossamer thread and somehow even the giving of gifts caused irreversible friction between my parents.

Mary on the other hand had amazingly chaotic Christmases, or at least that’s what I experienced in the 1990’s when we were first married and her father was still with us. I cannot pretend it wasn’t a shock, to be at these populous events, a room full of such huge personalities, loud hyper active children, running around, fighting, and the ceiling above creaking under the strain of beds transformed into trampolines. It was a family wary of alcohol, and wisely there was little wine or beer, but on one occasion – knowing I needed a little help to get me through the evening they had bought a case of beer which disappeared early on in the evening, taken by (or more likely gifted by her mother to) the local fire department, dressed as Santa’s and ruthlessly terrorizing the streets in their fire truck. But this was also another powerful life lesson for me; that you can have a blistering row, say awful things and then five minutes later find the protagonists in a laughing embrace assuring each other of their mutual love and whenever I see this I always imagine hearing the soft sound of psychologists and psychotherapists everywhere applauding.

But I was raised English and our family dinners were largely silent affairs, the brittle sound of knives and forks on china, longing to be away from the table to watch television and to this day, the child in me races through meals. Outside it would be raining, the patter of water on glass, pale olive and earthy colors of trees blurred behind downward tracks of the rainwater, and inside the sound of Julie Andrews posh voice in the mountains of Switzerland on the television, casting a blue shadow which pulsated against the living room walls, and then we would be brought together later in the evening thanks to the comedian’s “Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show” acting as a kind of third party moderator to bring safe laughter to the family.

I still have an overwhelming fear of conflict and need for decorum. When I was about twelve years old my only aunt called on the telephone asking for my mother, I confess I was a little abrupt, possibly in a pre-teenage mood, distracted. After the call my mother said to me angrily, “What did you say to your Auntie Valerie?”, “Nothing” I replied….”well she is mad with you!” and apparently she remains so, because she never spoke to me again; that was forty seven years ago, and I’m mentioning the story only to leave you with no doubt how fucked up my family was. One last story. When my father was alive and before he got sick, Mary asked him what kind of child I was and his reply was “He was a happy little chap”. To this day she repeats this laughing, knowing how it infuriates me, not just the inauthentic folksiness, but I know a big part of her motivation is her love, she really wants it to be true, for my sake, and for hers too….she doesn’t want a messed up adult with unresolved anger. But the other is an admonishment of sorts, to force me forgive him, to let things go, and perhaps I have a bit of my aunts stubbornness in me, this unwillingness to exonerate or perhaps just a lazy inability to care enough.

So it may seem strange to say I am looking forward to Christmas, to travel on that inexpensive bus to Philadelphia then out to its grim suburbs, to be with Mary’s family where I will be bear hugged and kissed by the very children who jumped on the beds and browbeat us adults all those years ago…now with their own young families. They call me “Uncle Neil” which I will never get used to and makes my skin crawl, because when I was young these uncles were crusty, old and uninteresting…how it possible that this is me now, while my mind is as young, younger even than theirs? I try to compensate for my age by telling them I like some of the pop stars that I imagine are in their universe, but suspect this just adds to my eccentricity. But Mary’s family is one where love is unconditional and so I am glad to within the tender folds of that community, even for the short evening, they are warm and kind to me and most of all accepting. More than once over the years, I’ve disappeared quickly to the bathroom to wipe illogical, infuriating tears from my eyes, quickly rejoining the party before I’m missed, hoping no one notices this weakness that is part of me, full of self-reproach and confusion.

Early December 2019

judd

Fourteen days after arriving back from Europe I found myself on a plane again, this time southbound, four and a half thousand kilometers to the city of Quito, Ecuador’s capital. As we were about to depart New York we were conscious of an approaching snow storm, and even on the runway it announced its arrival with icy patches sliding down the aircraft’s window. It’s a long journey, three hours to Houston then five more through the night to Ecuador, an evening of far distance lightening, illuminating the Ocean and Forests in sudden welcome dramatic flashes, moments of excitement and relief from the black void outside the window for the few of us still awake.

Many of the passengers on the plane, I guessed by their expensive outdoor attire, were headed to the Galapagos Islands rather than to the capital. On arrival the first thing you notice as you take the winding road from the airport is the thinness of the air, the city is close to three thousand meters above sea level, a couple of miles or so, and your body reacts sometimes in an alarming way, a shortness of breath making you fear for your heart until you remember where you are. The taxi journey itself is comfortable as the road is new and smooth and snakes its way through high terrain down into the city, the driver on the emptier sections of the journey taking a racing line crossing to the other side of the road as if competing in a Grand Prix, and I urged him on, both of us laughing. I couldn’t help noticing that several people during the week mentioned how quick and nice this airport road is which left me feeling that there is something touching about their civic pride.

To get to my office there was a short but steep walk from the hotel each morning which forced me to stop several times to allow my breathing to catch up to my ambitions. In the office itself, the view from the conference room was spectacular, less for the city and mountains, but more for the changeable weather which animated and breathed life into the scene, projecting a sense of dark drama in one moment and then the next, a Swiss like perfection of blue skies and powdery clouds. In the morning the sky was so dense and the clouds so white and perfectly formed that the tableaux resembled the innocent simplicity of a child’s painting but by nightfall, now the weather taking a wild swing creating an ominous overcast sky gathering behind a black silhouette of construction machinery, it transformed into a twenty-first century dystopian landscape. I liked this visual restlessness, the sense of movement in the climate coexisting with the stoic quality of the city, never bending to the rain the heat or whatever else is thrown at it. But this view is also a distraction and I know I’m being laughed by the local employee’s as I take pictures during the day with my comically small camera.

In this part of the city itself there are many new buildings, offices and apartments in a style which might be uncharitably called bland modernism, where the wide windows reveal ugly brown furniture and the slight, barely noticed, whispered movements of uniformed cleaning ladies during the day. In the background are the mountains which form a deep brooding V shape forming the valley the city sits in, providing an inexplicable feeling that we are protected by these volatile volcanic Pichincha mountain ranges. I realized long ago that we humans seem to be good at living with such deep contradictions; building expensive homes on the San Andreas Fault lines, only feeling safe when we live in the world’s capital cities which are the bulls-eye in a  target for multitude of nuclear warheads; it is a particularly twenty first century form of denial. When I asked my friend later in the week about the active volcano’s he laughed and I sensed his pride at living so precariously, as if that was a key component of life, the potential for sudden death and disaster.  I could see small white house’s climbing up the mountain that look like shellfish clinging on the side of a rock pool but if you look further from that valley there are signs of pastoral farmlands and forests in the distance creating a powerful yearning to be outside, to see the city from above.

Working with the staff and management in our office can be revelatory experience as they approach their day with a seeming innocence of political ambition; they embrace and kiss, appear to be happy working together and possess sincere interest in each other’s lives and daily news. They also don’t seem to have to work too hard or allow stress a foothold into their day. Naturally we silently compare our situation and attitude – driving me more and more to consider the nature of work, mine in particular. In my world, which is a medium level executive in a large global company you sign two contract’s when you start the job. The first formal one, the terms of employment and all the official business, but there is also a second one, the contract you make with yourself; how much will you give up, how much are you are prepared to play the corporate game, will you leave all integrity and authenticity behind? I walk that tight rope like everyone else, to call out foolishness? to align myself with the ambitious and powerful despite the lack of belief? Its all still a work in progress I concede on the long trip back to New York…..

Then last night we went to the Donald Judd Christmas party in his Spring Street house, an event that we have attended almost every year, and as we get older the building gets younger thanks to its many face lifts. If I had to list my favorite artists then Judd would always be included although probably for all the wrong reasons; I like his interiors and furniture as much as his sculptures, perhaps more…and secondly fall victim of the cult of admiring self-centered, overly purposeful, driven individuals; I have no evidence to suggest he was an art world Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne, leaving a little chaos in his wake, but his rigorous output and style of living suggests this. I have also been around people who were close to him and his family and there is always a feeling of nervousness when we talk about him, like he may suddenly overhear and reappear to correct us all.

I felt I got closer to him in Marfa a few years ago when I was allowed into his inner sanctum and could browse his book shelves, a sadly dying practice in this digital age. I was thrilled to see the Diary of Samuel Pepy’s, it must be the only copy in West Texas, but also the bourgeois coffee table book “French Style” a book about interiors, showing Parisian apartments drowning in Chintz and near empty Fisherman’s cottages in remote Brittany. I owned this book once, and also “English” (and improbably even “Greek” style) but one morning some years ago I woke in a fog of nihilism and threw them out, knowing it wasn’t so much the books that were going into the dumpster but all the unrealistic fantasies and dreams they contained. In the same way that Lucy Jordan had reached the age of thirty seven knowing that she would never ride through Paris with the warm wind in her hair, I’d also reached the conclusion that the tiny, eighteenth century cottage in a quiet backwater of Arles…well, that probably wasn’t happening either. It was also a relief, this acknowledgement that I wouldn’t suffer the anguish and complexities of wealth, multiple properties and false friends.

But I looked at Judd in a different way, seeing all the things he didn’t put into his work, admiring even more his disciple of exploring raw form, texture and color now having a little more insight into the man himself; the scope of his aspirations and wide ranging luxurious and slightly decedent interests.

 

 

 

Stopover in London

vienna

Last week, while walking at my side struggling to stay dry from a persistent light drizzle under an inadequate umbrella, I told her what she already knew; I am too old now to be seduced again by London’s melancholy ways. A wet night had been followed by Sunday’s cool, hesitant sun casting watery shadows across pavements messily carpeted in broad autumnal leaves of orange and yellow. But this being London, and the month being November, the weather is a game of chance; you can expect rain broken by sun several times during the day. Most of the time however you must endure something in between; a damp mist on your skin, precarious leaps over wide puddles, and you think to yourself, in these gorgeously comfortable, smug old streets, even the climate lacks enthusiasm to please, possessing a lazy, arrogant indifference, so assured it is of its status, its class.

London is a city best appreciated when you approach it without purpose, enjoying the luxury of an insouciant day which we did on this occasion by meandering through Kensington’s pretty squares and lanes. Of course, they reveal hugely desirable residential Mews and Georgian Houses, a mix of formality and intimacy, all enviable beyond words, just the right level of disorder can be seen in the plants on doorsteps and in those climbing up the side of the red bricks….but then later, looking in the real estate windows became a cruel sport, a misjudgment which felt like a sharp slap in the face, spoiling the days benevolence, bringing us abruptly back to reality, a world of dollars and pounds.

Class, its privileges, flavors and malaise is never too far from my mind in London or indeed other parts of England when I am there. It’s nothing to lose sleep over, instead it’s a mild curiosity for me now, but growing up I was hyper conscious of societies boundaries and fences; social mobility was and still is something despised on that damp Island. I knew with certainty there were careers that were simply out of my grasp, such as working in the glamorous Foreign Office or one of the more interesting departments of the civil service or even joining the military which, despite what we are told, employed unabashed differentiation between the “officer” class (which implies good public schools and Oxbridge) and the common soldier. For a very brief moment I was pushed in this direction, fortunately in a casual way by my father, and so didn’t take up this path as even at that young age I saw through his machinations and conflicts and wasn’t one to blindly repeat his mistakes.

We were staying at the Gore Hotel on Queensgate. A fantasy, or perhaps more accurately, travesty of the eighteenth century with its darkly painted walls, working fireplace, comfortable floral sofa’s and deeply curtained windows. On the walls were what looked like old master paintings until closer scrutiny revealed that they were reproduced using some modern photographic sorcery, which is fine of course, we are here for the illusion and are willing participants in the fraud. Out on the street of similar mansion houses we noticed that some of the front doors had paint peeling, the windows showed signs of disrepair, the reason is seen immediately by the door bells, sometimes as many as ten installed haphazardly telling the true story of these buildings; tightly cramped spaces, kitchens composed of little more than a stove and a fridge, intransigent lives as uncommitted as the weather.

To us it is almost unimaginable for a family to inhabit such a large structure, but that was their purpose when built in the nineteenth century. In these neighborhoods first you look for the church, which was the core of any respectable community, from there you will likely see a square of large imposing houses which immediately appeal to a modern eye due to their endurance and formality with minimal external decoration other than a few modest Greek flourishes. Behind these are smaller, more modest residences backed by Mews, used for housing horses and carriages; so the social demarcations were orderly and clear, your role in society completely transparent by placement. I thought about this as I walked down these streets, which seemed to be suffering a “viral” moment, as youngish people were actively taking pictures with cell phones. Moments later I saw a disappointed estate ag1ent with a couple talking nervously behind her and could easily imagine their dilemma, how much could they afford? And obviously whether you are affronted or take comfort in all this privilege is a reflection of your world view. Most of us accept the wild, unfair distribution of wealth because we have hindsight and understand the well-intended but poor functionality of communism, but Karl Marx, who is buried not so far away, would be enraged by our complacency. For some reason these debates over societal governance seem retired now within my circle of friends, there was a time when I was young when we all felt aligned with the idea of greater social justice but as we grew older (and one way or another a little money accrued to us) we became alert to the hypocrisy of champagne socialism. Later that day in a lovely Victorian house in Barnes, many corks would pop amid encouraging laughter.

We were heading the next day to the exact opposite of Marx’s social and political experiments, the USA and New York. It is still an unsettling day for me. There is the discomfort of the long plane journey and subsequent days of jet lag on our minds, but it is also the fact you are being propelled across the planet in a way your body cannot comprehend no matter how frequently it occurs. In the hours after the flight it’s hard to believe what has just happened, starting the day in one continent and ending it in another; I feel the miraculous and heroic quality of survival, walking around our apartment in a fog of disbelief. I relish in the familiarity of home, catching the programs missed on television while Mary has been known to clean the bathroom, we have our own ways of finding comfort after a long journey. Before London and after Venice we spent a few days in Vienna, a place new to us both. It is often cited as one of the world’s most desirable cities to live in, or at least that’s what the Austrian in-flight magazine told me, and in the back of my mind I’m sure I’ve heard this before. It’s a place I arrived and left with poorly justified, and very different, prejudices. Initial impressions were hampered by a downpour and Mary’s cold which turned from bad to worse. I saw the city through rain drenched taxi windows and within the claustrophobia of a 1920’s pension’s room that held the essence of an old military hospital. She would be asleep by eight in the evening and then spend the morning in bed, bravely fighting the fever with over the counter drugs that had little impact.

On one evening we had drinks and a small dinner in the blue room of the Sacher hotel. It was exquisitely decorated and there were a handful of hushed people, depressingly all looking down into electronic devices. One exception however, was a very elderly married pair who sat and drank without once speaking all evening. This apparent mutual indifference, or perhaps the exhausted nature of their relationship, infected the room and made me uncomfortable, I felt the need to compensate by speaking a little more loudly and with more attentiveness towards Mary than necessary, as though I was giving a lesson in civics’ by my good example. Later that night the couple resurfaced in my dreams, this time verbose and shouting racial epitaphs. Lying awake in the quiet room in the early morning hours I realized how much my overly romantic expectations of this secessionist city of Mozart and Mahler, Freud and Klimt were being crushed.

Beating the Acqua Alta

venice

Last week we left Venice with about half an hour to spare, an unanticipated but not completely unwelcome sense of melodrama that somehow felt consistent with the theatricality of the city. The waters at eight in the morning were already rising to new historical levels which had been heralded early in the morning with strange sirens and unfamiliar sounds of industry, I looked out of the window onto the Grand Canal in the cold light with a sense of anxiety, the waters rise would have prevented our boat from passing under the bridges on route to the airport, so quick call to the taxi service brought it around to the palazzo earlier than planned.

It took us out to the Grand Canal before sharply turning in again to the cities dark waterways. The driver was young and we were to discover held reckless tendencies. He had announced his insolence early by asking for a cigarette when we boarded and then initiated what he might consider a flirtation with us for the duration of the ride, leaning back to talk to us with obvious casualness, but it was halfhearted, charmless and inept….I felt he could have done better. This was a game to him, the tight canals and the perilous inch to spare when racing under the bridges, the open water to the airport with the waves thumping the hull of the boat, its engine speeding and buzzing like a dentist drill, our bag already carelessly soaking on its side. Mary was asking about the apparent lack of life jackets and already fearful towards this feckless progress, pale with the cold that she was developing. Looking back at the city, heavy and grey, one cloud high to our left was shaped like a human hand with a single accusing finger pointing downwards at one of the outlying islands. In moments like this, with extreme weather approaching and primal fear of the sea, it wasn’t hard to understand the power of religious belief, six hundred years earlier this image might have found itself on the walls of a church.

It was November and already we had experienced the Acqua Alta which plaques Venice at this time of year due to the rising tides. In the alley at the entrance to our hotel temporary wooden benches were placed each morning so we could walk over the waters that breach the canals banks. Should you wish to walk to Saint Marks then wellingtons or throw away plastic boots are required to keep your shoes dry; wearing these, like I did, you are unambiguously a tourist. But this day was to be special, there were high winds, sirocco’s that had come up from North America and storms over the Tyrrhenian Seas creating surges which lead to some of the highest waters in history. We counted our blessings, watching it unfold later that day on Television comfortably in our hotel in Vienna, images of flooded stores, ruined merchandise and people wading thigh high through the brown water.

But why go to Venice at all in November or the winter months? We had two, perhaps three goals, and, as they say; it seemed like a good idea at the time. The first was to catch up with friends who had moved from New York, the second to see the last days of the contemporary art biannual and finally was simply to get absorbed in something that was not New York, to be removed from our regular life. We had not accounted for the weather. Arriving late on a dark, wet Friday evening we shared the Alilaguana vaporetto with an excitable French family, trawling slowly through the inky, half lite canals. Then waking to a Canaletto day, opening the window to the city’s main artery which was already alive with traffic, the sky as blue as a robin’s egg and a winters conundrum; cold in the shade and warmth in the sun. We were staying in the grandly named Doge’s room which had thirty feet ceilings embellished with cherubs floating in a dreamily blue sky, on the walls faded mirrors, gilded wood and rich wallpaper, a grandiloquent, typically Venetian, confusion. A room that reminds you not to take this city too seriously or to believe in its surfaces which hide all manner of builders shortcuts, economies and mistakes, its pompous swagger and assurance that for me is irritatingly Italian to its core; full of ornament and weighed down by the curse of pride.

The contemporary art Biennale, as its name suggests, comes around once every two years and it’s needed in this crusty city, scattering itself around churches, halls and squares. Its main space is in the large Arsenalle building, a curated exhibition with artists from multiple countries represented. It is a big deal to be selected, to represent your country, an Olympian honor that is frequently difficult to rise up to. But walking around the exhibition I had the sensation of going around an art fair or a cluster of commercial galleries, by which I mean attempting to absorb the art while at the same time being overly aware of all the others around me jostling to do the same, uncomfortably negotiating the shared space, a constant distraction. When we talk to artists they are increasingly dismissive of these attempts at global surveys, they say that they see the same handful of participants, the same mediums and strategies, that it’s increasingly pointless in our modern world of instantly available images. Yet in practice it is enormously popular with the public, and that something else we turn our noses up at if we are being honest. We convince ourselves that the Art world used to be a small one, a place for long drunken, happy discourse and tight communities, now its opened up to a different group entirely and so we were quick to leave the show with a feeling that it was repetitive and redundant, a contest for the brightest, most photogenic, the most recognizable pieces. But I have doubts about all this now and think the art world was probably always like this, each passing generation lamenting the past and complaining about the new.

I am glad that we did not to the show’s openings, the “vernissages” with all the art world air kissing, the party lines and the guest lists; I’m too thin skinned for all that. And anyway I feel as though I’ve seen it a thousand times, the rawest, most naked form of human behavior on full view, the pruning, the territorialism, the fights and the hierarchies. Should Jane Goodall witness this she might be appalled and regret all the years spent in the discomfort of the African bush. It is of course the tribal and adolescent that is most offensive, like being a member of a gang or a fraternity, the “A” lists and the “B” lists created in order to protect and elevate such insubstantial talent, such transient fame. There are the cool kids hanging out together, just like it was at high school, except they are now in their fifties and sixties, still with an unresolved need for admiration, we can read it plainly on their faces and in their ill-advised skinny jeans and sneakers. I was thankful to be away from this art of our time, even the show of the dour Belgian Luc Tuymans, one of my favorites, was underwhelming in this city of Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese, Giorgione and Turner.

But this negativity was coming from somewhere else, specifically from the outside, where the winter sun was now shining down on Venice and I was burning to out on the streets, away from all this commodification. We escaped to the Island of Burano, on holiday at last! And to a fish restaurant recommended to us as I had ink squid risotto on my mind, something salty and tender, fresh from the lagoon. But when small squid arrived to start I found myself a little squeamish, affronted by their sensuality and the rawness, its fleshiness. We were ripped off sensationally at the restaurant, deliberate misunderstandings by a surly waiter and a huge bill left both sides unhappy and illustrated this uneasy coexistence between the locals and tourists.

The beauty of Venice is that we see the same cityscape that a person from the fifteenth century would have seen, it is a city largely unchanged and for a modern observer, this is what makes the city remarkable. In our own country we struggle maintain roads or bridges or to build the most basic infrastructure project, and yet starting a thousand years ago this miracle of engineering, art and business grew over a short period to become the capital of the world. And it did so without resources other than salt and sand, just a wooden settlement on the edge of the sea. But it did have a location poised on the edge of Europe, a perfect port for the rest of the world and the land based silk routes to China, famously Marco Polo travelled far and wide, trading and administering but he was one of many, and that spirit and ambition seemed to radiate from this place.

We come here from all over the world to look at the past, but we know that are also looking at the future, one day I believe New York’s downtown, the East and West Villages, SoHo, Wall street will all be flooded, Spring and Canal streets reclaiming their inheritance, Miami too, the whole east board of the USA will succumb to the Oceans rise. How equipped will we be? I suspect we will be looking at the conclusion reached by the architects, city planners and builders in Venice to see how we can adapt…or perhaps this will be all too much ambition and the place will be abandoned.

Is it an ordeal to live in this city, we ask ourselves, how do they do it? Putting aside the visual harmony, how do they manage with this extraordinary influx of tourism which must be a cat and mouse game between locals and outsiders who arrive on masse from their cruise ships? I sensed anger several times at our questions for directions and moments of hesitation down fast moving alleys and thorough fairs. But mainly I was annoyed at the tourists, many who didn’t seem to know how to handle the Cities energy and small spaces and would block routes or walk while staring at their cell phones. We have to assume that this many outsiders must have a crushing impact on the culture of the city. In the most popular months they outnumber locals six to one and traversing the city is difficult. Their behavior is criticized, and for good reason, if you look on the internet there are several forums where locals post images of tourists with their shirts off, large white stomachs, drinking beer on the streets, and women in revealing casual sportswear amongst the familiar sights. It’s not the only city to be scarred permanently by providing tourists their needs, cheap restaurants and souvenirs that I uncharitably guess have been made in China only to be sold to the Chinese but because of its size and narrow streets they are unmissable and a nuisance. Perhaps it is people like us who are even worse ones in our pursuit of “authenticity”, that holy grail of travel, the “real” Venice, our clumsy attempts to blend. We are the ones that encroach upon local restaurants, go out of our way to find unpopulated, local districts. I have been to these out of way places several times where I’ve felt like a rat in a maze, finding myself going down the same familiar alleyways, passing streets I’d recently gone by, circular pointless journeys both frustrating and inexplicably prophetic. Venice suffers the fate of every beautiful old city, a kind of schizophrenia where one city is revealed to tourists while the other is hidden from their sight

This time I had more of a grip on it, felt more positive about its possibilities and on the last evening, drinks at the Gritti Palace and quiet walk home in the wonderfully empty lanes leading to our hotel and the sound only of our footsteps echoing thorough the cities tight corridors, I recognized for the first time that it’s also a manipulative place and pulls on your heart strings. It is the most improbable and difficult city I can imagine to live in but already Mary was hinting at spending some time here in retirement and slowly I allowed myself to be seduced at the idea, fantasies emerged and perhaps I will play an unconvincing Dirk Bogarde here towards the tail end of my life. I concluded that there is something profoundly human about the city and that’s what draws us in, we are aware of its disorder and slow death, its vulnerabilities and audacity, a high low mix of decadence and decline, something that has been ongoing since the 16th century. The city has arteries, veins and capillaries, lungs and kidneys. We recognize also its wear and tear from the weather, the sea persistently peeling it and exposing its age, like an act of cruelty to an elderly person, increasingly see ourselves in this cityscape as we too grow older. It a miracle that the City was built at all, it was and still is being repaired and renovated by the heart not the brain, we look back at our ancestors in wonder and not a little envy, there are few comparable achievements in history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Falling hard

accident

On an unseasonably warm New York Sunday lunchtime I woke from a deep sleep to find myself lying on my back surrounded by a small crowd of anxious people. To my right there were subway tracks behind chain link fencing, uncharacteristically silent, to my left 350 feet below, I could just make out the slow progress of miniature boats and ferries on the surface of the East River which shimmered and danced in the midday sunshine. A few minutes before, I had been riding a Citi Bike across the Manhattan Bridge when I turned sharply behind to see if Mary was following but instead saw the path in front rushing towards me, an unoccupied bike skidding down the path, blackness, already fully alert to the moments absurdity. It was her voice that woke me, I moved fingers and toes, my neck, answered some questions being offered by an unknown cyclist while another was calling 911 and giving sharp directions to an ambulance crew. It all didn’t seem so bad to me, I felt they were all overreacting, I was simply a reluctant actor in this mini-drama and thanks to the shock not in any pain (that came days later), but when I used my i-phone camera to see my bloodied, mashed up face I understood everyone’s alarm for the first time. I don’t recall much about the hours we spent in the hospital, the conversations with nurses and doctors, but the one thing I think of most now was how quick we all were to blame the bicycle.

Sitting on the hospital gurney, I wanted to use my memory as much as possible, to show off its retention, as losing it is one of the obvious fears most associated with any head injury. Had I fallen off a bike before? There was an occasion, which must have been in 1992, Mary and I were not yet married and were enjoying a weekend together in Amsterdam. We had picked up bikes at a favorite rental store in the Jordon and sped through the cities lanes, obediently following the circuitous course of the canals, occasionally terrifying pedestrians. The lovely formality of the architecture, its decorative gables and handmade glass windows, the snugness and domesticity of the tall narrow houses; small, seventeenth century golden age bricks and dark green doors with the names of the occupants gracefully hand painted with an exuberant flourish. There was something, a confidence, that felt impenetrable and robust within these streets and waterways that defy their precarious sandy foundations, surviving floods and plaques, Nazis and financial catastrophes. Old, toy like church bells, half a millennia old reprimanded us for another hour wasted, their warning goes over our heads as we only have time for each other, and are swept down cobbled lanes and alleys to be blown out to sea. We had discovered by chance a cool café, with art students and crazily multicolored tiles; playing in the back ground was earthy, mournful music by a Peruvian folk guitarist. We left and found a road away from the town, a busy street, and that’s where my front wheel got caught in a tram lane and the bike went over. It was a silent movie moment and its black comedy cannot be ignored, passerby’s must have laughed at my hurry to pick myself up, as elegant as Buster Keaton, but the palms of my hands were bloodied. We found a nearby store where Mary got some damp paper towels and patted the wounds and I felt a warm charge of electricity being cared for like this, we had both just said goodbye to our twenties, were in love, and it was like a scene from an unknown but entirely possible future where we might end up looking after each other. But my hands stung with each touch no matter how gentle and this too seemed like some kind of metaphor, a warning sign, where I knew not everything would be easy, we were willingly committing to an unspoken quid pro quo, bringing me back down to the ground sharply, both aware of the things that would be lost as I limped back to the hotel.

And then I remembered another time ten or more years earlier, it had been while I was passionate about Motorcycles. I was at collage in Wales and would ride my Suzuki 250 the hundred or so miles back to my parent’s house at the end of each term. Today the size of the engine and the distance seem ridiculously small when I write from the USA, but in then in the UK with its narrow roads and complicated towns to traverse, a journey like this required patience and concentration, it was surprisingly exhausting. There was also the intimacy with the road itself and its impulsive temperament making me circumspect to its climate, humidity, sounds and scents. Passing an old Land Rover I could lock eyes with some playful children, bored in the back seat and on the edge of town the powerful floral aromas of Lilacs, Lily of The Valley, Roses could be overwhelming from well pruned gardens. Farm animals announced themselves through their stench, wails and cry’s long before they are seen, there is no escape from this sensual onslaught nor the winds that pull you sideways or slow forward progress when you are riding. A grey line on the horizon, or the oncoming traffic with headlights on would send foreboding waves of fear as this might signal that the road ahead would become slippery and a sudden disastrous loss of control.

But most of my concentration was on the motorcycle itself which was not so easy to take command of; it was a foreign object, made so far away in Japan and therefore in possession of transoceanic mystery. Also, it was fabricated in that uncomfortable post war environment where an ancient eastern culture was being rapidly westernized and the end result was an attempt to predict a western customer’s appetite with highly variable, sometimes humorous, results. They were typically light weight and the sound made by the speedy two stroke engines were rasping and tinny, the very opposite of the heavy plodding English and American engines. So my attention that day was on the sounds and slips of the bike, I felt empathy as it strained up a steep hill and registered its apparent relief when going down one, it was as fickle and insubstantial as a spring lamb. Some people called them “Jap crap” but already we embraced them not just for the speed and affordability, but for the new internationalization of our lives, we recognized their foreignness and potential seeing this as a positive thing, something futuristic, thrilled to see little details like Japanese writing on the brake fluid tank this was, we told ourselves, modernity.

In Wiltshire I turned from the busy main road into a small lane surrounded by sublime flat farmland flanked by gentle wooded hills, a damp, darkening, increasingly grey day. Approaching a tight right turn the bike went down without warning, it slid to the other side of the road, showing its underside, an angle that I had never seen before and I myself bumped for a little on the tarmac before jumping up to examine my leg. As always these things happen rapidly but are recalled in slow motion, there was nothing serious; a tear in my jeans, a small cut above the knee. A farm hand walked over to help with the bike and we both looked silently down at the road to see what had caused the slippage but it was entirely mysterious, an act of a malevolent god. With all the riding I did and in all conditions those days, this fall was alarming because it made the least sense. There was nothing I could learn from it, no behavior to modify or to correct; that absorbed and worried me most, sometimes there is nothing you can do.

Bringing me back to where I am today, enjoying the attention too much. Perhaps the best part is walking to work down Park Avenue where all the commuters from Connecticut pour out of Grand Central, take one fearful glance at my scarred face and then allow plenty of room when I pass. There is something addictive about having the patina of a hard man for once in my life and I’m afraid I’m going to miss it a little. Interestingly the lovely African American ladies in the deli have refused to take my money for breakfast all week and ask me how I am each time I drop by, a curious form of bonding takes place when we recognize each other’s fallibilities. I’m already a little disappointed to say that the visual damage is being repaired and by the time I am in England in a few weeks I will be a standard, soft, pasty white guy again. But I’m also lying to myself a little, putting a brave face on it all, as in truth suddenly the streets of Manhattan have fresh hazards, a steep curb, an uneven sidewalk, the buses are too close, I fear the germination of an old persons anxiety and fear of the future.

I thought again about the hospital visit, these sterile places, rich repositories of utilitarian objects. We have a chair in our apartment made by Hans Coray on the eve of the Second World War, 1938, which Mary describes as our “hospital” chair because it reminded her of her late in life disabled father, who needed something like that to shower in. I suspect the designer might have been flattered. Made of aluminum, it is incredibly strong and light, has arms that help support your own and holes in the back and seat that will allow water to run away should it be left outside on a rainy day. It is the embodiment of logic, safety and form, for that reason alone I find it very beautiful but she hates it, and for perhaps the same reason. Its the firebrand of our relationship, these inexplicably opposing views, keeping the flame alive.

I feel like I am in a strange in-between, transient place with this injury, sleeping a little during the day, and lying awake at night whispering to Mary to see if she is awake. In the morning she demands to nurse, and I enjoy giving in; I sometimes tell people that it is better to surf the wave of her attentions than stand on the shore like King Canute demanding the tide retreats. She rubs a liquid onto the wounds and at times it’s painful but sometimes you have to give up control, relax and accept what might be coming.

 

 

Mixed memories

miami

A few weeks ago I found myself reclining in the comfort of a United Airline business seat, travelling between Central Europe and New York, trying to concentrate on a book which I would pick up and then put down as I was increasingly distracted by the flight map. It was an hour into the flight. We had gone through the funereal boarding process which always fills me with anxiety, partially due to resentment towards the special privileges built around how frequently you fly, a curious achievement to honor. But there is also that uncomfortable moment when you sit in those generous seats in the front of the plane, where I feel something between sympathy and cruelty towards the economy passengers shuffling by. It is an occasion that makes you want to wear a grave expression and murmur “I’m sorry”; that awful comedy when infrequent travelers stand in the aisle and look down at you resentfully sitting in these high priced pods already with a glass of Champagne and then look beyond to the already packed rows at the back, their destination for the next ten hours and for the first time sense the crushing injustice. I try to shut it off, I’ve earned the additional space I tell myself, the better food and wine but most of all the privacy, that ultimate luxury where you cannot be observed nor need to look at others.

Normally the journey would take us across Northern France, England and Ireland before the long climb over the Atlantic until the rocks of Newfoundland appear. Then the comforting progress down the US East Coast with its saw tooth coastline, pretty harbors and glimpses of lights below, intimate communities. I look down on with the same unease and sentimentality that I feel when receiving a Christmas Card from someone I vaguely knew in the past. But on this occasion the plane headed north, across Berlin and then further north still, towards Scandinavia. I put down the book again and removed the headphones, alert to the fact that something might be wrong; “please not another mechanical issue…” I said to myself, and then almost immediately in response I felt the aircrafts slides, drifts and complaints from turbulent winds behind us. It was confirmed by a message from the pilot; strong winds leading us across Greenland, an unusually northern route, so I could relax again, or at least as much as anyone can within a metal tube a mile above the ground.

An hour or so later, I looked again at the map and jumped at something significant; we were now over a narrow unlikely patch of sea between Denmark and the Northernmost Scottish Islands, a place where about eleven hundred years ago an ancestor, probably with the last name of Mansen would have crossed over to the Shetland Islands from his Norse dwelling in what is now Norway or Denmark on a Viking boat, a treacherous part of a long journey that would have taken him in time down through Scotland and Northern England where at some point the name would have changed to Manson. I recognize in myself slightly Scandinavian tendencies in both appearance and disposition, prone to a depressive temperament, a love of solitude and an appreciation of grey, unpopulated landscapes making me question if memories can be passed across generations like relay batons. It seemed pretentious to mark the occasion. I couldn’t claim some kind of spiritual landmark with any authenticity, but equally ridiculous not to, to ignore our human migratory patterns. Our world is full of miracles, elevated abilities to know where you are physically on the planet, natural GPS systems that bring small birds half way across the world to the precise place they were a year ago, for salmon to know and return to where they spawned after journeys of hundreds of miles but it is a lost human trait where just hints might still be gleaned in places like the Australian outback. I decided to re-read Bruce Chatwin whose book “The Songlines” is full of stories of our migratory patterns, and also ordered a white wine to celebrate. Normally if I was in the back of the plane a second drink this early in the flight would turn your stewardess into an irritable psychiatric nurse but up front all I received was encouragement, as if they were thrilled to have a borderline alcoholic as their guest and it created a dangerous pattern when each time I finished the glass it was automatically refilled, heaven for a while, but in the end I had to stop it while I still could.

I have travelled only a little in Scandinavian countries; Denmark, Sweden or Finland and each time had the feeling of being at home, despite incomprehensible languages and its unaffordability which almost forces you to the fringes, to feel like a spectator. I feel that I spent too much time wandering the streets, looking with a sense of envy at the diners while speculating on what I could afford. On one occasion in Copenhagen I remember looking at a store that appeared to be stacked full of teak and aluminum boxes only to see it was a Bang and Olufsen repair shop, something that made me strangely happy. I’m of a generation that places high value in making good investments and keeping something for a long time, an object that might be repaired. I talked to one of the shop workers for a while and he said that it was not so unusual for these elegant music systems to be given as expensive wedding gifts, kept for the length of a marriage and I thought this is the kind of life I want; to hold onto the same shared objects, growing old with them, allowing them to gain the patina of a marriage and be the repository of a relationships ups and downs. And it’s only right that in Scandinavia plainness and clarity are approved of they are famous for the physical manifestation of simplicity, the love of natural forms and materials, tactile qualities that endures while the rest of the world this slips in and out of its own fashions, disposing and replenishing without a thought.

My own early memories are scant and their authenticity replaced by family lore; fictions in the ancient traditions of storytelling at our rare uncomfortable gatherings. One of these was a claim made by me, probably at the age of seven or eight, that my Grandmother had threatened to strip me naked and tie me to the back yard and smoother me with bird food so I would be pecked to death. She protested laughing for the rest of her life when it was brought up, but the details, the eroticism and dark imagery were surely beyond my capabilities to fabricate at that age. It remains a strange, foreboding threat. Perhaps I did make it up? a premature awakening of carnal thoughts, something residual from a dream of abandonment and letting go, nakedness as its metaphor, something I’m still occasionally plagued with today, waking up with an enormous sense relief after recognizing it was only a disturbed nightmare. But even if it was my imagination, it does tell me about the fear I had around my astringent Grandmother, possessing an authority and presence that dominated our family especially my father who craved her approval.

I do clearly remember visiting her for the last time when I was in my mid-twenties. I was working at Laura Ashley at the time in the middle of Wales and when they offered me a two week assignment to Sterling in Scotland I jumped at it. I realized that her home in South Shields was a convenient stopping off point but at that time she was approaching eighty and had liver spots on her hands and an air of frailty that I was fearful to damage in my clumsy youthfulness, for me then she seemed as vunerable as a ceramic vase that I was afraid I might drop at any time.

At the time I was living in the small English border town of Shrewsbury, an ancient market town nestled within an Ox Bow river. It is a strange location, sitting on the border between Wales and England and therefore had a slightly split personality, the warmth of Welsh and the frigidity of the English, the rejection of pretention while containing a rare refinement; the kind of place where you could walk through a quiet star lite night in cobble stoned lanes to hear a Bach recital in a Norman Church. It was, and is, a lovely place, it holds a Georgian charm and grace, with formal grand houses rubbing shoulders with ramshackle Tudor ones. But like many in that area, its character changes a little on pay night when the local farm boys and factory laborers come into town looking to have a fight with a timid local or to chat up their girlfriend.

I set off one late winter morning. At that time of year the wind could blow eastwards across the valleys and bare forests bringing chills from the Irish Ocean or alternatively westward allowing in warmer currents from the polluted heartlands of England; the weather was entirely unpredictable. One might wake to a putty colored sky with a diffused, washed out light, trees and roads around might look as if they are rendered in a flat matt paint. On others however, like this day, you can wake to purity, an aquamarine sky, an orgy of blues and greens, bright sunshine, the icy sparkle of winter. I woke suddenly, not sure whether it was entirely due to the low cold brightness of the early morning, that pure polar light that sweeps over the West Midland’s sometimes , the freezing air outside the duvets warmth or sudden memories of childhood, looking out through the windows dew to the frost, mist on the fields and the cleansing quality of cold air. It stirred memories of a snow day without school and the wild, thrilling, slightly out of control acceleration of a childhood sledge down an icy hill side, air cold in the nose and full of promise.

The journey was to be in my Volkswagen Beetle, already over twenty five years old, amazingly confident that it would make the 200 plus miles without mechanical event. I threw it around the country lanes, letting the rear tires slip, overtaking slower cars with my foot firmly on the accelerator. Like most cars, the VW Beetle is something more than a vehicle to get from A to B; it is a signal to the world communicating a liberal political stance, an interest in the arts and the ability to not take yourself too seriously. The brand is an ambitious and misleading promise though, in some of the rough sinuous country roads which I purposefully took as detours from the bland busy ones, instead of being a species of insect with a dexterity to traverse any terrain, a very intellectual English friend of mine once joked that it would better be described as “decapod crustacean” as it has crab like vulnerabilities, with a brittle outer exoskeleton but a hugely delicate under side; a low hanging exhaust system, engine sumps and easily breakable, mysterious rods and hoses which were the legacy of its old fashioned design. Paradoxically the agricultural suspension, which was fine on smooth motorways and autobahns, accentuated rather than dampened the rocky ride on these un-kept roads, I longed for a Range Rover. This car was purchased quickly one summer’s day, second hand in an emotional rather than meditative way, inexpensive on the garage forecourt and charming in every way, so it was an uneasy tightrope between utility and fear when the engine didn’t start up first time or the new groan or rattle materialized. At the same time it also turned the heads of smart, funny girls…..my type; it was a car with possibilities.

I drove north from Shrewsbury through some handsome scenery of honey frosted fields, rich pastures and dense and dark woodland. At one point I deliberately turned from the normal route to go through a tunnel of trees with branches interlocking above, icicles reaching down. Less happy passing recent, ugly housing developments which were ruining the countryside (the local’s constant refrain) crowding in and choking the views with a ferocity that you would imagine could only come from the natural world, like mold or weeds. These were made in a very vague, poorly defined and hesitant manner, to mimic the older buildings around them, called “mock” Tudor or “mock” Georgian and appeared to be doing just that to their owners. I wondered not if the architects were being sarcastic, but to what degree, and did they quietly scoff at the developers with derision?

I was in a strange mood of truancy, the sense of freedom from not being behind a desk and answerable to no one, a person who could not be contacted. And so I drove erratically as if road rules could be broken as well, there were reckless near misses when I took rash risks in over taking, on one occasion with oncoming traffic and looking back now I struggle to recognize myself. There was an almost laughable abundance of beauty on the first part of the drive with scenes that still haunt my memory, a wide field with a single perfect oak tree isolated and solitary, the neat containment and smug satisfaction of flinty towns. I could imagine stopping at some of these for good, to disappear into their contented arms and be alone, reading books and listening to music for ever. There were moments when I was almost hysterical with the roads sweeping perfection and was both enchanted and yet full of a sense of loss, a bitter sweet feeling that this can never be replaced and that there is no going back, this could never happen again.

As I went further north it became wider, flat spaces, remembered landmarks from my youth telling me that I am nearly there and already a sense of industrialization in the fields before the roads start emptying and signs of poverty begin to be seen in the towns, a sense of shame, of hopelessness, within the dingy stores. Arriving at last, I parked the car and walked to a small convenience store to buy a drink. I heard the inward humility of the accents where every sentence seems to end with a question mark, leaving a sense of doubt, questioning. I was in a foreign country that I had been to before and knew well enough to critique but not to understand.

It was surprisingly awkward being with my Grandmother. I felt a need to please and even to impress which made me sound grandiose and pompous, I sensed her duty was to in return sound encouraging, but she did so without conviction. The best part was to listen to her unreliable stories. She had lived through two world wars and told me that twice in her life she had run from her house “throwing the keys away” which I still find perplexing and counterproductive. But on both occasions it was because a warship was visible and threatening on the horizon, a fear that is as ancient as time itself. I have memories of her and can see her face still, even though we were not close at all. A hard women in many ways, or should I say brittle? Without much capacity for love or at least its external displays, someone who lost her husband while he was still young from tuberculosis, managing a Public House, a job that he apparently resented. They had a single child, my father who was unaffectionate with us in turn and who naturally went on to do a job he grew to hate and dreamt of escape. There was some mystery to her, she was both stern and formal, her house was large and well kept, there were antiques and every time we would make the long drive from the Cotswold’s to see her, my father would have his hair cut and dress well in defiance of my mother’s mean spirited scorn. Over the years she moved into a much smaller apartment and there was hushed talk about her falling victim of an unscrupulous property developer, robbing her of her house by convincing her that she would be more comfortable in a smaller place.

I carried with me the naivety of youth, imagining that she would be thrilled to see her grandson after such a long period yet despite unsaid protests to the contrary, I could she wasn’t particularly comfortable, and I noted her efforts to be accommodating were forced, I sensed her relief when I left. But now all these years later, I just wonder if it did mean something to her to see me, but she was too afraid to show it and was in possession of the same fears of revealing warmth and need for affection that I sometime have.

My other Grandparents were dead by then. They passed away within a week of another, the first from heart failure and the second from a broken one, and I suspect I got my capacity to love from them. My grandfather in particular would take me as a child fishing, riding on the back of his motor cycle. Of course my parents were against it, but I enjoyed the feeling of letting go and of trust in his ability to get me through the wet streets of South Shields and down to the docks where I could spot rats and jump off rocks while he fished in the Tyne, never catching one. He lived his life in a way that today we would find unbelievable. A claustrophobic who spent every day of his adult life a mile below the surface in a narrow mine, breathing in the coal dust without any protection for his lungs as he chipped away at the wall in front of him with a pick. Naturally he received a pitiful settlement at the end of his career which, like many people who never grew up with money nor ever expected it, spent it all on a mink coat for his wife which was lost or stolen eventually. Their terraced house was slim and contained two families, both of which shared a single exterior toilet, and I would be terrified at night going down alone with a flashlight into the concrete yard. There was also no bathroom, instead, hanging from the kitchen ceiling, a metal tub which would be filled on a Sunday night with hot water from the kitchen tap and turns were taken to be soaked in it. To this day my mother talks of her shame when coming back from school, the tub in the front yard in view of the whole street and her father in it, a little insanity or just absolute relief to be on the surface of the world while the next day there could be a cave in, a gas explosion or one of an interior type with nerves giving over to the panic of being underground.

 

Vija and Damien

newyork

Yesterday, on a perfect early fall day, Mary and I cycled up to Hamilton Heights through the leafy passageways of Riverside Park, the sun still blinding so late in the year, drawing indistinct patterns on the path which was largely unpeopled, even at that lovely, gentle time of day, there was the promise of a fresh breeze  from the Hudson. Also in the air was a mild sense of anxiety which permeates a halfheartedly planned day in Manhattan, somewhere that demands structure and purpose and has no time for dormancy in its restless, tightly gridded streets. Two double lattes didn’t help our mood, there was snippiness in our exchanges, irritation, a feeling that the day could turn bad if we didn’t expend our energy fully, so to remove the guilt of an unfocused day and purposefully blind to its pleasures and potential, we pedaled vigorously down along the river as if this might absolve us in some way.  Mary was much more enthusiastic. I saw her disappearing ahead of me proceeding at a furious pace and so would have to stop from time to time to let me catch up, it proved slow progress for her and heavy in symbolism for me. We turned south and rode as far as 26 Street, passed quickly through the flea market which was already closing for the day and up to Madison Avenue on foot where we predictably got into a fight that materialized from nowhere, about (of all things!) the artists Damien Hirst and Vija Celmins.

Although the noise from this familiar street is loud, it didn’t justify her emphatic passion or the forceful narrative Mary offered, at least in my opinion. It is pointless to suggest that arguments are never properly won by verbosity, that rational discourse is more sustainable, I tried but by then she had already pulled out the emotional card, which I am no match for, and so was not entirely unhappy when my voice was drowned by the mechanical roars of the buses and trucks reverberating from the glass and the high buildings around us. I was reluctant debater anyway, irritated why we would care about the reputations of two already rich and successful artists, and I didn’t want to sail in that Ocean of frustrated sensibilities on a day like this; there is no way of predicting which currents will pull you into deeper, stormier more treacherous seas. And also in the back my mind, even then I had suspicions that the real conflict was going on beneath the surface, crawling along the Ocean floor: did she perceive of lack of respect for her judgement or the value of her opinions? I sensed in her voice the wash and waves of a different unresolved conversation that had taken place days or weeks ago. Yet still I saw myself as the loser in this argument and that it provoked me during the following day, even knowing I had no stake in its outcome.

I knew of course why Mary gets upset and heated when hearing criticism aimed at Hirst, it is because from time to time she has been pulled into his tight circle of friends and has occasionally been the recipient of his kindness, is keenly aware of his generosity towards his close friends, something that holds deep meaning for her being of Italian American descent and fearlessly no stranger herself to authentic, unfiltered feelings; something that I, and others, envy incalculably and respond to each in our own way. For most who know her well it is profound love, but in others a petty meanness can surface, you learn that insecure people can be resentful towards those with big hearts and I have the protectionist impulse for her to tone down her generosity sometimes. Here is the issue. Both Hirst and Celmins are successful living artists of different generations, both we admire tremendously, however at the root of our disagreement is my assertion that Hirst has largely damaged his reputation in critical circles whereas Celmins has only increased hers year by year and I think most people in the small, closed art world probably agree at this point.

Vija Celmins is an artist who is in the news today because of a museum show at the Whitney Museum and therefore there has been much press; profiles in the New Yorker and a rave review in the New York Times, both of which I am surprised to sheepishly admit annoyed me a little. Part of the problem is that I have been an over possessive fan of her work for many years and, childishly, find it irritating to have to share her with a wider public, and so now characteristically contrarian, find myself searching for faults. If you are not aware of her work then it is best summarized as being almost photorealistic images of the Ocean, the night sky and spider webs. There is more of course, early pieces of prosaic household objects, a foray into sculpture replicating rocks, but it is images of the surface of the sea that are the most well-known and have been made repetitively over the course of her long career. Whether she approves or not, this is her brand.

Perhaps we are drawn to her work for a couple of reasons, that old fashioned sentiment “skill”, and that more contemporary fad of single minded determination. The skill is undeniable and something I understand personally as I tried myself several years ago to make similar drawings. Realizing how much I loved her seascapes, and realizing also that I couldn’t afford even a print, I went about my project using photographs taken from the bow of a ferry on the way to a Scottish Island, on what impulse I cannot say exactly, something about capturing a moment and view point that was atypical, a perspective that might suggest reflection. Staring first at the photograph and then back at the blank sheet of drafting paper, I was jolted back to that moment, the after taste of a bacon sandwich which was salty perfection, the unexpected rockiness of the boat from the sea’s turbulence, the laugher coming from Mary and her artist friends who were having the show on the Island. Once I started, it was painstaking work and I never imagined it could be so hard to draw something apparently so simple. After a while you drown in the Oceans complexity, it takes you out of yourself and into a darker, more frustrating place. In my case a black mood crept upon me, the end results were clumsy and inexpert, I had committed a joint crime of being incompetent and derivative, if not worse. Attempting to replicate an artist’s work is one way of gaining an insight into their psyche, I’m not sure I can claim that by this somewhat embarrassing exercise, but it did give me the greatest respect for the techniques involved, and even now, when I walked recently around her show of prints at Matthew Marks Gallery, I felt a degree of discomfort and awe at the tiny crests of waves, made in their hundreds by her hand on a small eight by ten sheet, for the time and labor involved.

This notion of persistence and discipline to do one thing perfectly is much, and overly, admired in our society. A few years ago I had another cynical idea of writing an airport novel for no other reason than to make money, my enthusiasm lasted about a week and I finished two paragraphs before self pity, or perhaps it was self loathing, crept in and the idea was abandoned. But it took me into a different world, skimming these throw away texts. One outcome was the realization that each book had a hero, and each hero had a defining characteristic; a single mindedness and determination towards a goal. It makes me wonder if Celmins triumph might be considered as much a human achievement as it is an artistic one. Her work embraces its inner seriousness and could only be achieved through singular absorption, a lack of distraction and self doubt, it took bravery and to be undeflected from this monumental sense of purpose and I might argue that these are the foundations to our admiration, after all if we love artists we live through their lives a little. Her output is undeniably impressive, to see a large body of her work awe inspiring, but I suspect it is both the combination of the quality of the work and the commitment we esteem.

In a way this leads the argument against Hirst. No one can deny his energy and creativity, the work he produced starting around 1996 and for the next a decade made him the most exciting artist in the world. He explored multiple mediums to question the biggest themes; life, death and the fragility between those two states….sometimes at the mercy of science and at others by nature. He used both poetic imagery and conceptual ideas to elevate these visual mediations. On the poetic side there was the extraordinary performance of butterflies hatching and flying into wet canvasses for their brief lives to be memorialized, the nihilistic processes of “spin” painting, using an industrialized version of a child’s toy to make random paintings by the childish act of pouring paint onto a revolving canvass. On the conceptual side, he had developed a rule based process for making spot paintings, all spots must a certain size and the space between them consistent, no color could be used twice, but beyond the these guidelines nothing else; everything was open, the outcomes highly variable and the amount of work vast. These paintings hint at the language of science, a visual representation of chemical compounds, some life or mood altering illustrating both the acceptance and randomness of our faith in chemical substances. Something similar was playing out with medical cabinets containing surgical devices and branded pills, there is a compelling beauty to these corporate logo’s and a primal fear and curiosity towards the instruments purpose. What gave him fame however in the eyes of the public was the device of placing dead animals within metal structures usually soaked in formaldehyde for preservation. Using a metal structure as a frame was not new, it was used by Joseph Beuys and others, however placing animals in this context was altogether unique and to recall that over used word at the time; sensational. Displaying a tiger shark in this manner became a phenomena and the caught the interest of the branding expert and collector, Charles Saatchi, who bought the work at that time and helped secure his career.

By 2007 it was clear something was wrong, to the outside world it seemed he was intoxicated by wealth and fame. He made a diamond skull, an expensive foible, a decorative item that ironically had to remain inside a safe; it withheld rumors of joint ownership and market manipulations, which might have made it interesting at any other time. But that was the beginning of several terrible years when much money was lost, houses repossessed, for the middle and working classes, a time of economic hardship. For the next twenty years he seemed to make one tactical blunder after another artistically and personally while getting wealthier and wealthier. I felt that the work he produced was laughably poor and yet destined for the rich, for the moneyed tasteless classes rather than discriminating collectors. His face appeared regularly in British newspapers with younger women in expensive restaurants.

I had seen him around several times and had shaken his thick workman like hand, mainly in London during the key public openings and events of his ascendancy; his restaurant Pharmacy, the major Sotheby’s solo auction, the Saatchi Gallery openings. In New York I had waited for him with Mary and her friends in the lobby of a hotel in SoHo. It was a large meeting place and already, earlier in the evening I heard that there had been some loud verbal exchanges across the polished space between the artist and a pop singer whose name I have forgotten. As we were arriving at the hotel a taxi pulled up and a well-known art dealer literally fell out on the wet cobbled streets on his knees and already the grotesque comedy of the night began. When Hirst and his business partner eventually arrived, it was clear he was impassioned…he raced across to where we were sitting, leap on the back of a chair so that it would deliberately fall backwards, a teenage ploy, and then peering down at his body amongst the mess I saw he was crying. Quickly surrounded by friends and dealers he focused his attention on me, being the only unfamiliar face, and went for me with fists clenched, now a boxer…but pulled back at the last minute. We decided to leave, the last words I heard from him that evening was “they were laughing AT me…”. (Later it was rumored that they had visited a London art dealer and a curator who had moved his gifted painting in her home and replaced it with one by Gary Hume).

On Valentine’s Day of 2008, when he enjoyed almost universal credibility, Hirst joint hosted an auction with the U2 singer, Bono for charity called “Red”. Together they raised huge sums of money at that event even when the US economy was on the brink of turmoil. I attended the auction for the breathless prices and its spectacle. Directly in front of us was a family with a child, a young boy of about ten dressed as an adult with tie and jacket, who had been given the bidding paddle from his father and permitted to bid while the paintings price drew towards a million dollars. It was, I suppose, an excellent educational moment for a young person, and a quite a thrill….but I remember whispering to Mary that I hope he grows up to be a social worker in the Bronx.

The evening afterwards we attended a small party in midtown, an entire pig was being conspicuously roasted, a band that Hirst sponsored were playing, already he had Warhol in his sights. For a while I sat next to an attractive woman about my age enjoying the food, it wasn’t until midway into our conversation that I discovered she was Joe Strummers widow but she didn’t seem so enthusiastic to hear about my own youth, following the Clash around when I could, preferring to leave her own history behind while she was in New York. I moved to a bench when the band announced that “we need an Irish singer for this party” and Bono sprang onto the stage to sing Beatles songs for an audience that I would guess didn’t exceed a hundred people. I turned to my right and saw Hirst alone, with a soft drink and a plate of pork, a person who at that moment seemed to have achieved everything, conquered the art world and all that suggests, but more importantly an unshakable place in art history, I smiled over and he nodded back.

Some instinct told me that this moment was his pinnacle and that he would now embark on a descending spiral, he would lose his critical standing at the expense of chasing the desires of the rich. Or was it something else? that all creative forces run out of steam and there must be a period of self-destruction, a necessary component, that real creativity is an arc? At some point Bono came over in his platform flip flops, scrutinized me for a few seconds for signs of recognition, to see if I was someone, and eventually said “hello” but I didn’t give off that electric spark necessary when one celebrity meets another, and he correctly detected that I wasn’t one, so he quickly moved on and I felt relief when I saw him turn and disappear into the crowd.

I decided to re-read the New York Times article on Celmins, as on first pass I was struck by its absolute lack of challenge, and where a feminist angle could be predicted as its central theme not least because at its beginning and at its core still her work exists outside of the fashions and norms of the times which is still primarily driven by male artists. Additionally there is the feminine aspect of care and detailed craftsmanship, the trompe l’oeil conceit of making one object look identical to a real one.  I love her work for its intensity and its beauty, its decorative power, yet any intellectual or conceptual bent is in the process of making the work rather than ideas behind it. The problem is that there are a host of photorealistic artists and sculptors, it is hard to set her apart other that the grail of repetition. It is very telling when the artist, the curators and the critics all agree that in the Whitney show, and its predecessor in San Francisco, that there is too much work on display. Meaning too much of the same work and for me at least raises the question about what “creativity” actually means.

We sense in the museum world and the critical and collector circles, she is loved and Hirst derided a little, at least by some. It’s with growing alarm we repeat opinions with conformity and are fearful of challenging the consensus. I have a brief insight into the mind of Trump supporters who cry “fake news” and the “failing New York Times”; it isn’t failing of course; but perhaps we are, for the lethargy of group think, the clubby coziness of being part of an elite. Maybe we are all wrong, perhaps an artist like Celmins is not at all interesting in the long run, making formulaic versions of a similar image on repeat…and instead we should be celebrating Hirsts restless imagination, his creative self-destruction, something that fueled every truly great artist, a desire not to sit still and to take unsettling new roads and to re-evaluate his recent work rather as a conversation to see if we still care and possess the capacity to forgive. It pains me to say it, but maybe Mary was right after all.

 

Goodwill in San Jose

costa rica

It’s difficult to piece together how Costa Rica won its reputation as a safe place, sandwiched between Panama on its southern border and the ambiguous charms of Nicaragua and then the well known danger of El Salvador on its northern one, yet tourists still flock here for its wildlife, beaches, rainforests, mountains – some still volcanic and its climate of sexual liberation, if loud conversations overheard in the bar are more than drunken male bravado. But like lots of others I come for work, usually a few times each year, and so know little of the countries charms beyond the fifteen minute drive from San Jose Airport to the hotel. In many places in Central and South America, my finger prints can be found somewhere in the local company’s history, Costa Rica is no exception.

I was involved at the beginning. It was 1995 or thereabouts when I was instructed to fly down from New York and perform some due-diligence work on a company that we were secretly in talks to purchase. We had to open an office in Costa Rica for a single customer that manufactured computer chips, and our choice was stark; start from nothing or buy an existing successful logistics company. Performing due diligence work is in theory simple but in practice hazardous. It was my job to make sure that all the claimed “value” of the company is real so that the price agreed on is reasonably accurate. It encompasses the valuation of buildings, of the numbers of genuine, paying customers, how much those really owed, how much money the company was actually making and how much cash they had. The books had to be opened up and talked through painstakingly and I had to be convinced quickly. Secrecy too was a concern as our competitors were also on the prowl and we also had to convince several shareholders to sell their stock. I learnt for the first time the complexities of Central American book keeping, its perverse pride in complexity, the layers of regulations and tax rules, my head span at the end of each day.

At night I ate mainly alone. The restaurants were uninspiring and although I grew a taste for the sweet small plantains and appreciated the luscious quality of the steaks, there was not a lot of diversity in the cuisine in those days. However one evening I was invited to the owner’s home as I think they slowly began to suspect that the deal was at least partially dependent on the degree of my enthusiasm and positive observations. I’m not sure if I should have accepted, it might have been more correct to keep some distance as socializing like this be seen as a conflict, but it seemed impolite to refuse and after a while confess, I was in need of company to shorten those drawn out lonely evenings.

I was picked up in an old SUV by the owners son, it was one of those early, boxy Japanese four wheel drives that rattled at every pot hole on the road, the engine whined and raced as we leapt backwards or forward with each harsh traffic stop, hill climb or sudden descent. He was about my own age I guessed, and being also the accountant, it was he who had been walking me through the numbers each day. We drove away from San Jose up into the forest to a modest home was hidden from the road, the interior characteristically clad in polished wood and with local leather flourishes everywhere; the wine holder, place mats, chair coverings which were all from local cattle that once roamed in the Costa Rican fields. The father was also leathery, when we first shook hands I was instantly aware of my own feminine soft palm against his abrasive course hand, his face showing every year of his advanced age, telling a story of a long, rich life which he was keen to share through increasingly wild stories over a three hour dinner.

He took us back in time to a different world where small propeller planes moved cargo across jungles and oceans, where the unpredictable weather changes caused changed schedules and your bed might now be the cockpit or a make shift tent. He talked of landing strips quickly carved out of a forest, deals made in strip joints , quiet pay off’ s, mergers not just of companies but of families, life time relationships built upon the foundations of extreme discomfort in a lawless place, the fear of landing in an un-bribed airport, the inside of a prison cell.

Bottles of sweet dangerous rum came out, small glasses (from leather holders). As the night progressed the stories became more raucous; revolutionary names were not being dropped casually, it was free fall, Fidel in the jump seat, terrifying night landings in Bolivia and Honduras, names of Caribbean Islands new to me, wars, politics and uprisings slipped into his urgent verbal history, but never drugs, that forbidden topic. I don’t know if it was pure mythology, how true any of this was but it hardly mattered to me if he knew Castro or Che or Batista or if he really gave them a ride through moonlit Caribbean nights. Sometimes the travels in your imagination are more important that the real ones. His son caught my eye, don’t take my father too seriously he seemed to be saying, a photo album had been threatened but the night was drawing to a close and he had to be helped up from the sofa to say goodnight. We were all a little drunk and yet reputations had to clung onto, the family was to receive a significant amount of money once the shareholders votes were won. As I left he came to the door I thought he mumbled “thanks for all the goodwill” with all the other well wishes, I assumed he had slurred the words and was just part of his rudimental English, but I caught a sharp, dark look from his son pass between them at that moment.

That meeting was to be the next day, my work was over but I did attend the vote and it was a remarkable day. Firstly someone had parked outside the hall a secretly rebranded van with our companies’ joint logos’, giving the impression the deal was already too far gone to turn back. The shareholders themselves were an older generation; elderly women seemed to possess the highest authority, dressed in immaculately formal outfits, their hair and makeup clearly worked on for hours. I nursed a hangover and I was grateful to take a ride with the owner’s son out to the countryside once the deal was done. The landscape changed from the dense cargo area with chain fences, metal warehouse buildings and suddenly I was in pastoral England, farm animals and hedgerows. We stopped for lunch in a traditional restaurant (Steak, Plantains) and talked about the night before. I knew of course, the point of the stories and their urgency from the old man, was to illustrate an alternative story of his company, the real one. It was not the state of the balance sheet, the grubby outcome of years of risk and adventure, I guessed his comment about goodwill was pointed in some personal way and held some special meaning; in accounting terms it is the difference between the price paid for the business and what the balance sheet shows but in his mind it is all the things that could not be described by Dollars or Colones. It was a rebuke I guessed for his son, and for myself, as he had seen us during the day peering into the icy grey glow of our laptops. My biggest triumph would be an under depreciated asset, my greatest fear would be a number on the balance sheet missed, a line that failed to be scrutinized. His opinion did not need to be said out loud, when he looked around the office with everyone intent on staring at screens, this is no way to live a life and I would agree with him. On the other hand, I justify to myself, at least I am here, under a rainforest canope in Central America, absorbing and observing the worlds wonder.

Now, twenty five years later I am back, in the same hotel, I come here twice a year and its a place, I realize now, that also has something of little England to it. The rooms have windows both the front, where other guests walk past and at the back facing the bar and pool area which is heavily screened by greenery. It’s a voyeur, or exhibitionists, delight. Our modesty is protected both by heavy curtains and flimsy lace ones, for a moment you think that you could be in a small town like Hull or St Ives with tightly drawn net curtains. Walking past the rooms you occasionally see outlines of guests and the flicker of a TV screen, lives partially revealed through the gauze. Outside I hear the sudden and melancholy drone of a decelerating truck, rain falls, heavy and persistent on the steel roof, but otherwise silence overwhelms this grey evening. There is something wonderfully comforting about the downpour, when I am sitting in the early evening watching the sky perform its evening multicolored show and the surface of the swimming pool, animated and dancing, offering the illusion that it is coming to boil.

The hotel is a miracle of landscaping, employing countless men in high visibility vests to tame the creep of the jungle; still from where I am sitting I cannot help noticing the immodesty of the blood red flowers, or the palm tree tree’s, a perfect exercise in design with thin, finger like leaves and pliable trunks to survive whatever the weather throws at them. And the sounds around me fill the air with carnality, the voices and mocking whistles of the birds, sounds of yearning and loneliness that are almost human at times.

Thinking about the encounter all those years ago with the old man made me think for a moment of my own father who was still alive at that time. He belonged to the same generation but could not have been more different. Mine was Edwardian in spirit, culture, or perhaps we could blame education, one who thought his role was to be distant, feared by his children, perhaps because his own had been taken from him at an early age. He wasn’t someone I could ever be close to; if I phoned home and he answered there would be a short uncomfortable exchange until the phone was passed quickly to my waiting, over compensating, Mother. When at home we would barely talk and instead use that reliable arbitrator, the Television set, to enable communication between us; laughing at the same joke, disapproval at over sentimental Americans, it acted as a safe filter for our emotions. Night after night, saying nothing, in front of the glow of that square machine. Perhaps, the days of telling tall stories are over and there is too much safety in our lives now, we are not the generation who rattled in the sky searching the Central American horizon for threatening storms or the ground for plausible landing strips. I was never to be the son who listened at the foot of his father, who adopted the parenting role himself at the end of his life, to apologize for his exuberance, for the wild romance of his stories.

Fall in the City

fall

There is no more beautiful, bittersweet month than September in New York City. The cities climate seems to change from equatorial swamp to preppy New England. The sky is artificially blue as if filtered by some particularly skilled cinematographer. There is raw brightness on the street, windows and steel on tall buildings dazzle and our lean Giacometti shadows follow us to work. There is an influx of new students, we envy their optimism as if it were our own, there is a sense of renewal; long time New Yorkers come back from their country houses tanned and more than a little grateful to be back and quickly get over the melancholy of locking up and winterizing. There are art openings, galas, fund raisers and opera’s. It must irritate Mary when I say with the same predictability as the change in weather, that I am amazed by how precise this transformation takes place on the second week of September, when the first scent of ice can be detected in the air. But the fall will always be September 1 2001 for those of us who were there at the time.

Mary and I had returned from London in April of 2001 after three turbulent, not always happy years. Mary came first and found an apartment in the eaves of a Federal Townhouse in Greenwich Village once used as a studio by Jackson Pollack. It occupied what was once a generous attic and it could be precarious to climb the steep stairs and there was a feeling that you were climbing into a tree house, compounded by an additional shaky climb to a sleeping loft area. However once up there you had the most remarkable view of the sky, there was a window cut into the roof directly over the bed and the star filled nights belonged to us as did the moons slow nightly journey; during the winter days we watched clouds forming and drifting and in sky, then the snowflakes slow progress down towards us eventually resting on the window above revealing their unique soft mathematical perfection before dissolving . We laid there in the warmth, protected by this thin sheet of glass; it was the most romantic place we ever lived in. The apartment was one of three above a retail unit. Once, a few hundred years ago, it had been a town house with wide maple floors now a rich honey color, narrow corridors and steep steps, a lovely small garden at the rear, it was a time capsule and enchanted everyone who visited us. It had been bought collectively by three lesbian friends in the 1970’s and we were renting from one who had moved temporarily to Florida, there was always drama between them now they were getting older and money was needed to fuel their free spirits.

In those days I was working across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey. I could take the PATH train from either Christopher Street or the World Trade Center and (depending on how quickly I could get out of bed) would choose either the longer route to the World Trade Center or the slightly shorter one to Christopher Street in a continuous effort to burn a few more calories. Once in the PATH it would take circuitous routes deep underground and under river to the small city of Newark. Down in these entombed spaces there would be an inevitable moment when a train in the opposite direction would pull to a stop beside us, a few meters away, and we would exchange glances in that eerie ghostly light with the other passengers, there was something cold and deathly serious about these exchanges, pale faced under the harsh neon. Then a short walk to my office which had a panoramic view over the city of Manhattan. This describes the first few hours of my day on September 11, 2001.

Around nine o’clock I noticed black smoke rising into the perfect azure sky at the same time as I heard the rise in volume of conversations in the rest of the office, someone told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and we immediately thought it was a small plane, perhaps carrying a few passengers and that someone in Air Traffic Control was going to be in big trouble. A television was turned on and we went back to work until the remarkable news that a second plane had crashed in the other tower and they were large commercial planes …the world changed at that moment.

I phoned my wife, uptown at a doctor’s appointment and then my mother who insisted on telling me about my bicycle being shipped from England, I demanded forcefully that she knew that I was OK, and she, perplexed, replied “I know you are!” When I mentioned the attack she said, “Oh just that?”…..The city was on lock down and I couldn’t return home that night, a hotel had been found in some rural part of New Jersey and I received a ride from a co-worker pulling me away but even at that distance the location of the city could be identified by the black clouds continuous progress.

I watched the news lying on a bed in the hotel and like the rest of the world observed the tragedy in physical comfort and mental turmoil, above all disbelief at its scale and audacity unfolding minute by minute. Later that night when I had ingested about as much news as I could I walked from the hotel down a small country lane where there was a police car parked and two cops rigid in the front seats, the night was still and silent, the dark silhouette of trees could still be seen in front of a blue black sky, they looked at me with suspicion as I walked by. My mind was everywhere, it was with the workers in the building on that day making the fatal choice of staying to be suffocated and buried in rubble or leaping out into that splendid sky, holding hands with a colleague with the knowledge that it would be your last moment and you would never see or speak to your wife, children, friends, parents again….I imagined myself in that agonizing position. It seemed unreal watching this on the TV, but it was real to me, not least because there was a pair of binoculars in the office and before the towers fell I had, to my horror, guilt and shame, witnessed these horrors earlier in the day.

The first reaction to an event like this is disbelief, the second hatred and the third revenge, I think this is true of individuals and societies. As person you need to stop during the hate phase and pause, because if you take it to revenge, you are no better that the awful perpetrators and continue an escalation of violence. I spent a lot of time reflecting over the next month about the nature of religion and the duty of the United States in all of this turmoil. There was a predictability about the US military response and the feeling that it was exactly what the mastermind behind the act itself wanted.

The next day I took a train back into the city, and even before arriving in Penn registered the smell of burning, even forty blocks north of the site. I had expected the streets were full of dazed civilians and angry cops but I was wrong, the city hadn’t changed, the people were walking to work with the same purpose, shops and restaurants were open at least in midtown. Our apartment was perhaps fifteen minutes’ walk from the WTC and after I had met up with Mary, who had the good fortune to have been surrounded by friends that night, and shared a hearty breakfast, we walked down to see how far we could get to the site to see the remains and what we could do, which of course was nothing.

Coming back into the Village we heard the raw harrowing sounds of an adult crying in an apartment above and a few days later a family broken apart walking along the river with a single parent. On the bodegas windows were the lamentable sights of photocopies with “Missing” and then a photograph and description. People were crowded around looking at these blurred photographs, a happy middle aged guy with his dog, a heart breakingly young woman on a date, I couldn’t look. In such moments something has to be done to release the massive, combustible energy of grief as the pathos and tenderness, combined with a sense of helplessness is overwhelming. In our case we went to the west side highway where crowds thronged the side of the roads cheering the firemen hurtling down in their trucks, I suffer from a cynicism and have little sense of civic pride, an English handover, and so added my own cheers and handclapping halfheartedly; if I knew then what I know now it wouldn’t have been the case. Walking back I noticed our normal fire station with the usual crowd of young firefighters gone, it was now almost  empty except for one or two standing with remorse surrounded by flowers.

I remember vividly all the events of those weeks and months later, but there is one detail that troubles me still, and it seems extraordinary. On the morning of September 11 did I walk to Christopher Street or to the World Trade Center to take the train to Newark at my regular time of 7.45am? I am sure I did the latter, and have told people this when they have asked me if I was in New York that day, in which case I was hours away from a disaster, but I am also capable of self-aggrandizement and to be in the center of a good story, and I might have taken Christopher street that day. Now if I’m asked that question I say I can’t remember if I was at the WTC on the morning of 9/11 and agree it is odd.

There is also a collective memory loss or denial around this period. One evening a few days after 9/11 we sprang out of our bed due to an explosive sound over the city; What now? At the window there was nothing to see except one by one our neighbors’ lights going on and dark restless shadows. Putting on the radio, again nothing and so we faded back to sleep our heart beats slowing, foreheads touching, fingers tightly interlocked beneath the sheets. In the morning it was laughed away by the newsrooms, a USAF F-15 accidentally made a low pass over the city….but try now to find any news about this today on the internet. Another collective memory loss, and one that makes me sound like a right wing conspiracy theorists (but I sure it is true); stories of Muslims dancing in joy in New Jersey, of Italian American thugs attacking them with baseball bats being reported on the local news stations, poorly advised wind to kindle the flames of racism.

It was of course Giuliani’s finest hour, he was everywhere on the news, consoling victims making speeches and enormously popular for that. History will not be kind to him for his subsequent behavior but this moment cannot be taken away from him. Likewise George Bush, that eternal clown, will forever be known for his posturing, whether it is on the rubble of the site or on a deck of a battleship, his declarations of revenge and victory are as laughably hollow now as they were then.

My own anger took a perverse course. The attack was clearly not an act of religion, it was one of bravado, to illustrate weakness in the USA, and if that was the aim it did so spectacularly. But for me I focused on religion and it made my already rigid agnostic beliefs impenetrable, something I recognize as a deeply contradictory stance. Obnoxiously I blamed every faith for this act, placing equal contempt on Christians, Jews, and Hindu’s in the same place as Muslim’s for their certainty and angry passions for texts that are more than two thousand years old. That’s how angry I was with these hijackers; they made me lose all reason and sense.

What did they want to destroy, what did they want to tell us, these Saudi’s? Was it simply how easy power can be lost. If that was the case the mission failed, it created a time of patriotism like no other, a recognition that the countries beauty is in its fragility, an experiment that we must all believe in for it to succeed. I normally hate the hubris of patriotism but felt strangely sentimental towards the flags and the warm treatment of soldiers and service members seen on the street or departing an aircraft. Every man it seemed had acquired a small stars and stripes lapel pin, all houses were placing flags at their door steps and there was a powerful sense of community. Still, when I hear people say that they love God, Country and Family I reply that I have no belief in the first two and am on the fence towards the third. At the end of the day, those events of 9/11 confirmed these beliefs.

Another plane crash in Long Island on route to Puerto Rico, barely mentioned today and hard to remember now other than there were conspiracy theories for a while. Conversations were overheard in coffee shops about leaving the city. They probably didn’t in the end, New York rebounded bigger and shinier than before, it took only about six months, more wealth poured in, more spending… “consumer confidence” escalated, perhaps it was the knowledge it all can be taken away from us in a moment, our hedonistic lives are too short.

It made me think hard about the USA, its experiment in perfect free market capitalism, the promises of human rights and self-determination, of what that overused word “freedom” means both in theory and in reality. In the rest of the world there is a school of thought that thinks of the USA as a group of self-obsessed individuals who have inherited a glorious parcel of land and systematically destroying it. They laugh at clichéd imagery from these shores, its overweight fantasies, and its citizens who absorb the propaganda fed to them from a young age about its greatness. The events of 9/11 made me realize both how tenuous and how robust the American dream is, how quickly it could turn bad and yet how promptly it could reset itself. I got swept up a little in its propaganda.

Many years later I was forced into a conversation with a Trump supporter, a painful evening where we both of us attempted to find common ground for social decorum, so the evening wouldn’t be completely ruined. We started with the obvious, our appreciation for the natural world (easy) the parks, forests, deserts, mountains and coasts. We moved onto the free market and I shared how I had recently been on a train journey late one Sunday night through Germany and I could see from my window that each town was asleep, there were no stores open or cars on the road, and I compared that with the following week flying into Chicago around the same time and the place was alive. Not necessarily a fair comparison, but the feeling of capitalism and ambition exists thanks to the free market driven at least partially by the lack of financial safety net. We then talked about the constitution and the concept that we are not subjects of Kings or Queens nor Presidents or Politicians or Army…these work for us, we the people and no matter how imperfect this is in practice, as an idea it is an all-powerful one. Strangely the conversation turned out better than expected.

But there were the topics to avoid, immigration for example. Part of my right wing companions selective memory was that he took offence at my attempts to see which part of the world (which crisis and human tragedy) his family was saved from. At what point do you cease to be an immigrant in this country of made up almost entirely by them? Other perilous topics to be avoided; Health Care, Abortion, Climate Change, Gay Marriage, Military Spending, the rise of Islam, Israel, the Composition of the Supreme Court and term limits, the Electoral Collage, Gun Control, Media bias….America is still a young place when these conversations are needed and basic principles for society remain unresolved. Churchill’s famous phrase about counting on American’s to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else… comes to mind, and not in a sarcastic or cynical way, but in the need for process and democracy…. in so many ways it leads the world for its openness and acceptance of debate, of asking citizens fundamental questions, and yet in others lags far behind held back by is constitution and conservatism.

But September is still a wonderful month in New York City. Today children are on the streets protesting for climate justice led by a sixteen year old Swedish girl called Greta Thunberg who arrived here from Plymouth in a sail boat. The leaves in Central Park have begun turning, it is cold in the shadows and warm in the sun, so many reasons for optimism and contentment.