What will others applaud you for?
Women have for long been educated to assume that, to be truly liked (and get far) they better obey.
To get what you want, seduce.Don’t be assertive. Don’t exude authority.
Don’t be too confident.
Never show that you know where you are going.
Never reveal that you know what you want.
Never be threatening. Never be firm.
Be soft. Be pliable. Be pleased to please.”
One day I decided I would stop tiptoeing.
I took some loud steps right into the centre of the stage.
I chose to dress big and wear only things that laugh, dance & scream.
I stopped saying ‘if you do not mind…’ or ‘I believe you might agree that…’.
I said: This is the way it is.
I said: No.
I said: Yes.
I thought: I know better [than you].
The volume of meaningless social media likes reduced.
The variety of affable colleagues shrinked.
I got less anonymous love and a few more valuable conversations (infrequently).
A few months ensued, sleeping badly.
Then one morning I woke up.
And I felt I was exactly
where I wanted to be.
* Artwork Credit: ‘Pliures’ by Agnès Geoffray
A reflection on global art blockbusters and our capacity to find intimacy, new insights and meaningful confusions while surrounded by hype, crowds and spectacle.
Everytime I go for an art exhibition blockbuster I brace myself.
How to go with the flow (meaning, the crowds)? How to comply with the half an hour entry slots? How to accept the pricing? … And how to take in the hysteria, in general, that comes with joining in a ‘must-see’ event?
Expectations raise-up while behaviour standards lower-down… we become more pushy, less patient, less meditative. We become louder, faster to judge. We become consumers of art in its trashiest sense, perhaps. We become consumers of spectacle…
… Or not?
This year I have been binging on art & craft blockbusters. Mostly in London (V&A — Dior; Royal Academy — Gormley; Tate Modern — Eliasson) but today I also did so in Paris: Pompidou — Bacon. The previous three exhibits (plus The Hayward Gallery — Bridget Riley, which I am not sure counts as a blockbuster) had been experienced with my son: we stood the queues; brandished our tickets; lived piece by piece of art in close communion with the masses — the respectful, middle-class, well-dressed and well-coiffed masses. No chance to attain any moment of solitude and intimate connection with the works; in this context, the only thing to strive for is: spectacle, please!! Let’s make sure it is AMAZING.
These London-based exhibits did the job. With the exception of Dior (!) they did well by a nine year old boy. I was pleased, entertained and proud to be carrying my progeny into great examples of world-class blockbuster art (the art ‘everyone is talking about’). Tick! I am an accomplished 21st Century mother.
Now, I am in Paris. By myself. No mothering distractions. Just me and the hype. Or me and the art. Disturbing art, at that. Disturbing art I have engaged with a few times before.
So what has happened today? How have I experienced Francis Bacon, chez le Centre Pompidou?
The answer is that I have experienced his works and his inspirations in a surprising new light. And I have valued every second of it.
Let’s start with le Centre Pompidou, and how it crashes on you every time you visit. The last time I was here was… when? nine years ago? could it be so? It might well be.
I have arrived via Chatelet Les Halles, the mega-transport hub of Paris city centre: so incredibly confusing and so well-signed up. A wonder of global city navigation techniques. They are frustrating but they work. They got me to where I wanted to get to, without the need of my phone and my (by now, ubiquitously unbereable) google maps app. Hooray! I can make my way as a stranger following analogue ways. I will find my way to the Pompidou, no matter how tired and confused I am today. Exit 3. Flêche. ‘Par ici, madame’. ‘Merci, je vois. Parfait’.
I arrive early. The Pompidou has just opened its doors and it is prepared for the hordes of art-thirsty punters. Ridiculously long queue line markers are ready for what may be descending on this place later. When I arrive these lines are deserted and it feels quite theatrical to step into them. I race through them, just for the sake of it.
The check-point, at the entrance to the building, is an impossibly complicated arrangement for securité’s sake. An aged gentleman spends what feels like ages emptying pockets and going in and out of the magnetic doors, without luck. The doors keep ringing on him! ‘Messieur, est-ce que vous avez de la monnaie?’ ‘Non.’ ‘Des clés?’ ‘Non.’ ‘Un autre portable?’ ‘Non.’ ‘Des medicines?’ ‘Oui, j’en ai un inhalateur pour mon asthma’. ‘Ah, ça y est, messieur. Mettez-le ici. C’est parti.’
Then there is the cloackroom and its wonderfully ancestral arrangements. No lockers but one-on-one service, meaning long queues, bien sûr. Let’s have a chat over every piece of ‘manteau’ and every ‘sac’ each of us carries. It is impossibly fun.
Bon. Time to get up, to the sixth floor, and experience the art at long last. I have the 11.30am slot at a gallery that has opened its doors at 11am.
This ‘Bacon En Toutes Lettres’ exhibition [translated into English as ‘Bacon: Books and Painting’] is otherwordly. Despite the crowds, despite the hype and despite the complicated arrangements that make it an epic adventure for any of us to get up here, it does feel special and strangely intimate.
It takes me a while to understand the concept: The artwork is hanging on the walls, without much explanation while, on six separate cubicles, we get the chance to listen to readings of six excerpts from books believed to have been deeply influential to Bacon and extracted directly from his library.
We get the texts in print. But it makes a difference to get into the pods and listen.
I need a bit of time to figure myself out in each of the pods. I must make an effort to descend into a listening mood.
You may arrive in the middle of a French version or an English version of the text being read. All of the texts are read in both languages, in an uninterrupted loop.
I like listening to both versions a few times. The readings are delivered with poise and gusto. It is a joy to listen. And it is a joy to read. A memorable experience I will treasure for a long time.
Then… there are the paintings. Experiencing them alongside the readings gives me some mixed feelings to start with. I am at a loss: do the readings complement the visuals? Do they contradict them, distract from them, or take us in a completely different direction?
I felt the readings took me somewhere else, far away from the artworks. I loved the strong feeling — and repellence — produced by the paintings but I needed some distance between the visual experience and the literary experience: for me, the words and the pictures did not complement or speak directly to each other in a straight forward (or in a mutually enhancing) way.
I did not like looking into the tryptich that was supposed to have been directly inspired by Aeschylus’ ‘The Eumenides’ in The Oresteia straight after listening to that excerpt being read out loud. The reading caused a profound impression on me that was not matched by the painting. That is: I needed to cleanse my palate, to free my mind off the words, before being able to engage with the visual.
For some reason, the dense mindscape I had travelled to inside the listening pod felt crude, flat, even, when looking at the tryptich that — just before considering the text — had felt so rich, so textured and strangely enticing.
After a while, the visual experience worked its magic again and it took me somewhere powerful. But it did not speak the words of Aeschylus. It spoke another language I did not want to mix with the reading.
I realised, very strongly, that literary words produce a deep enchantment on me. And that, when meaningful enough to me, they tend to win over anything visual.
The power of the visual can be strong… but in my imagination, it seems to play second fiddle to what words can convey. So I need to forget the words a little, so that my eyes readjust and engage with what I see before me, at another — perhaps more primitive – level.
In this exhibition, I have been reminded that I tend to experiene the world in an intensely cerebral way, meaning: I tend to experience things more powerfully when they are worded concepts.
Francis Bacon does something indescribable to you, by producing a version of reality that is so real and yet… so non-literal or so non-figurative in a classic sense. When you listen –or you read –his literary influences, you are transported somewhere very richly articulated (sometimes thousands of years into the past). But it becomes clear that words act very differently to paint… and, the way my brain works, such words force me to revert into my need for lines and dots as a way of making sense of feelings. (I can imagine finding a transition between readings and the works of Kandinsky or Miro far easier to mirror…)
Not every reading affected me in the same way, but Aeschylus The Oresteia, T.S Eliot The Waste Land, and Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness were delivered in ways that went far with me. Then I got caught on Michel Leiris Mirror of Tauromachy, which reminded me of why I cannot write-off bull-fighting so easily, despite my Catalan roots (Catalonia has been the first region in Spain to ban the practice); and I smiled wisely at Georges Bataille Chronicle. Dictionary where we hear a few brutal truths about our need to block the Slaughterhouse far out of sight. The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche did not have as much impact because I knew the text by heart as a teenager. All in all, extraordinary texts, all of them, well delivered in the most special and thoughtful of settings.
So did I re-connect with Bacon in newly meaningful ways? How did this compare with my experience of his tryptichs at Tate Liverpool a few years earlier (and without the crowds)?
I must say yes, I connected anew with the artist and his twistedly accurate representation of the ‘real’. I did so, not directly out of blending words with images (interesting that the listening pods were isolated, inside the exhibition halls but enclosed and devoid of any visual distraction). Rather, I managed this connection out of feeling disoriented and feeling the need to take time, lots of time: time listening, time forgetting what I had listened to and time to look back at familiar paintings that looked different in that setting.
I also managed the new form of connection by taking the time to look very attentively at the blockbuster crowds and their particular dynamics . All of these fashionably dressed people stopping over the paintings, photographing them, annotating them, looking in awe, in disgust, in confusion. And then these people reading, entering the pods. Doubting how long to stay in. Staying long, quite long.
Many of us took quite a long time to experience this exhibit. This is a first at an art blockbuster, in my book. We were keen to listen, look, listen again. And then, most memorable of all, we experienced a form of strongly bound communion: we gathered closely over each other, very closely, in order to watch attentively a film of Bacon being interviewed.
The entire cohort of viewers at the exhibition wanted to see this film from beginning to end. So we all stood obediently, hanging on every word, on every smile of this generously cheeked and gently sounding artist who wanted to tell us, convince us, that he did not intend to express horror in his work, just to show reality in intense ways, as intense as he could make it, as intense as it is necessary to do so in an age of precise mechanical reproductions.
I believed him, I thanked him, and I was thankful also for the words he vowed to read so often, the words — sentences, passages — that we were lucky to listen to in the unusual setting of an art museum.
I left this blockbuster feeling engrossed and not at all caught by the spectacle or the hype. I felt I got the chance to experience some powerfully intimate moments, just for myself, while sharing some wonder and intensity with ‘the masses’.
I tried to engage with Christian Boltanski’s exhibition next but I could not. I needeed space to think, digest and cleanse up. I needed time to look out of the window and time to drink a glass of something nice and expensive. And so I did, ending very pleased with myself and full of many intensities… the kinds of complex and confusing intensities we all seek when craving for art. (Never mind the spectacle.)
10pm // 22h.
Poisson (merlu) et sancerre, by waiter’s orders. Section fumeurs.
I soak in the red plastic tables and white plastic chairs, under the ‘dining al fresco’ heaters. It feels cosier to be surrounded by committed smokers than sitting in the aseptic non-fumeurs sector, inside.
Not many lit their cigarettes. But the faint aromas emerging out of the three die-hards around me feel strangely comforting. I am at ease letting my luxuriously luminous cardigan get contaminated by tobacco. A hint of not-good-for-you fumes will give this jacket a character it had been lacking so far.
I drink my prescribed wine. I feast on my poisson <<fish! not venom!>> sauce, so delicious I’ll risk it trickling down all over me. I look at the Boulevard Voltaire sign outside. I read Le Monde. I tap these few words on my laptop, bathed in red light.
The waiter is back and seduces me into a crème brûlée (it was not hard). I write ‘crème brûlée’ delecting on every acute and grave accent, on every circumflex. I feel happy and completely satisfied on this, my first hour back in Paris, at the very start of my EU excess tour.
With just a few weeks to go before an election and what could be the irreversible final step towards Brexit, I find myself lined up with a series of trips that will take me across the EU to some of its most symbolic capitals. From the craddle of Europe, to the capital of European bureaucracy and also to the capitals of its two leading – and strongest – defenders.
It is going to be a beautiful opportunity to experience the EU all at once, a concentrated tour the force accross the continent, taking place over less than twenty days. An inspiring way of saying goodbye to yet another year of troubles, pains and disappointments in a country I struggle to love and call home.
I would like to record these visits and create as personal a log as I can make it.
How will it feel to experience cities that have been so instrumental to the ‘European project’ when you know that dramatic change is coming? More documentation to carry, perhaps. Longer queues to be allowed in and out of borders. More reasons to take longer journeys to the continent. More arguments to dissolve the hope that these Brit islands can or want to be on the same page as its immediate neighbours.
The UK, or rather, England, has this endless need to be and act ‘different’ in the least meaningful of ways – the purely procedural ways: the boring and annoying ways of being different; the ways that consist, mainly, of making inconsequential procedures ever more noticeable and time consuming.
I have lived in the UK for over 18 years now; 13 of these, in England. It is 2019 and I have never felt less connected to this place, to the country that has given me so many platforms and opportunities to thrive. The UK as a nation state means little to me. England is a concept I cannot relate to from an emotional point of view. Cities like Glasgow or Liverpool are, however, profoundly lived in places that have made me and unmade me in irreversible ways.
I want to think of what it feels like to live in Liverpool while I walk in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Athens. I want to write love letters to Liverpool and Glasgow while lost in the continent. I also want to be deeply aware of how it feels to be there, in those four capitals at this point in time, after so many months consuming exaggerated rations of The Guardian and BBC Parliament updates on Brexit.
I will think about it, I will write about it and I will share it.
<<I will then travel to Barcelona and get drunk on cava and yet more endless, frustrating and confusing identity disagreements, missing my stubborn capacity to discard England as a place of belonging… while dreading the pull of Catalonia as my other impossible ~ implausible home. I trust the cava will be worth it.>>
[Sound recording, as an extra treat… with a couple of sound ‘typos’, unedited out…]
Every time I go up to my study I hear the sound of flies
They accumulate. They gather against the window sill.
They dance, in a frenzy. They never stop
I see them dead. Six or seven at a time. I collect them, one by one, grabbing them by their wings. Delicate. They look ugly and precious.
They die and they breed. There are always more to come.
I do not know how they enter my space. What holes. What little doors remain open. Inviting. Enticing. Welcoming.
I do not go up my study often.
It is a beautiful perfect room. Covered in art & crafts flowers, lit by art deco lamps, warmed by exposed floor boards.
I worked hard at this space. Many helped me. Moulding it, from unpromising origins, into the perfect room of one’s own.
But perfect things are always flawed.
The sun does not visit often
The door does not close
The flies own it more than I do
Darkness and buzzing. This is my room
Gloom and dances
Shade and insects
A dream gothic corner. To concoct twisted fantasies. To horde made-up memories. To sit down and squint, listening – intently – at the regular deaths. Seeking the oblique lights of yet another absent sunset. Guessing the errors in the walls – that bit of paper that does not fully fit the angle; that flower that was unfinished, unintendedly deformed by a lazy crafting hand.
This room has a strange disorienting power. Perfectly failing to offer what I think I need. Probably offering what I should seek.
I avoid it.
Fabulous paper cuts accumulate on the floor. They are full of beasts. Full of gold and of leaves and of goblins.
The old chest of drawers harbours inks and dry pens.
Ribbons overflow out of that frustrated piano seat, the one that has not been put to proper use in fifty years. From music throne to bow-making box – is this a dignified ending for servile furniture?
Photographs. Many photographs tip toe over the inclined ceilings. They talk to each other and to the golden papers, to the inks and the ribbons and the wall flowers.
Often alone, all of these objects, these desires, these ingredients in the perfect dream of a study, of my room, they pursue lives of their own. They are splendid. What a marvel to behold.
And the flies go on and on, following their own business. Breeding. Dancing. Kissing the windows. Dying. They enter through the room’s secret holes, they line up, they lick their little feet, they enjoy the dust and the quiet in this perfectly flawed room. They wait for me to visit. They tremble and go zzzzzzz zzzzzing into the frozen view, into the dirty glass, into the tiny blind window, under the stiff and beautifully unloved lampshade.
I’ll sit down and admire this musty sight. This study of mine. A study where no studying occurs. Where no work gets done. But where fantasy lives flourish. The lives of abandoned pretty things, animated only through the relentless, buzzing dance of endless tiny impertinent intruders.
Go keep breeding and dying. Go kiss my wasted dreams. Go reign in the room of one’s own that I have never owned. This room that is mine but only you, dear moscas, truly know.
Spending this half term in London visiting art galleries with a child is a test of endurance. All the big names are here, with blockbuster shows in contemporary art that are spot-on for the selfie generation. A nine year old should be enchanted by the chance of stepping into indoors mist & fog (Olafur Eliasson @TateModern); getting your eyes blurry while looking at lines (Bridget Riley @haywardGallery); or stepping into a steel tunnel and maze (Anthony Gormley @royalAcademyOfArts).
Only that… we are in London! And this means everyone else is here. The entitled crowds are here. And experiencing these exhibits becomes something far removed from what most artists may have intended while conceiving their work.
I have been lucky to experience a Gormley tunnel in Matera, Riley’s optic work in Glasgow and Eliasson’s variations on the weather in São Paulo. I was by myself in those occasions, alone with the work in empty galleries. My son has not been so lucky. So, for him, these artists are all about queues, mobile phones, fed-up gallery attendants telling you to move on, and noise, lots of noise.
There is an element of fun and momentum in the blockbuster experience. But a possibility for art to enable contemplation, intimacy or transmit much more than crowd-management directives and squeezed Instagram moments, is not…
(…unless you are in Paris (and they create distraction free pods for you listen and close your eyes! See my review of Francis Bacon at the Centre Pompidou)
I read something Ayurveda-related, two years or so ago. It told me mushrooms were the wrong food to eat. Because they emerge from the rot. They are associated with death and decay.
But I adore them.
Of course the kinds of mushrooms I would love to eat are rovellons. My brother just shared a few pics from his lush fungi feast at home, back in Vilassar. The bright orange rovellons on display had been collected by my father in one of his secret early morning excursions into the woods. This is the passionate pursuit of so many pensioners in that area of the Maresme at this time of the year: getting up to the mountains around Vilassar and Cabrils, sigilosamente, making sure no one else knows where they have spotted their stash of setas – rovellons, pets de llop and the rest of it. Every year. Their clandestine pilgrimage into the wet soil, under the leaves, amongst delicious rot, wicker baskets in hand and lots of hush-hushing. They certainly won’t share their precious locations. Their knowledge of where the best, most fruitful forest decay lies, is probably their most valued possession.
Well, my Liverpool mushrooms are, naturally, from Tesco. Or Sainsbury’s. They are boring, they are mass produced. But I still like them. Doused in good quality olive oil I have brought all the way from somewhere nice in Catalunya; tossed with rosemary branches I grow in my terrace; sprinkled with garlic from I do not know where. Very satisfying, all in all.
So, I do not know what’s wrong with mushrooms. But I will keep eating them and thinking of secretive pensioners proudly tip-toeing into the humid mountains, first thing in the morning.
I do not want my machines to be intelligent.
I want them to be brute servants of my needs
I want to use them and exploit them and be inconsiderate towards them
If I treat them badly, of course, what they can do in return is fail & stop working
But fail, meaning just failure. Not revenge on me.
I do not want my machines to be intelligent.
Because I do not want my machines to be hurt.
I do not want my machines to have feelings.
Because I do not want my machines to judge me and revolt against me.
I need to be able to count on something – a thing, not a being –
whose only purpose is to serve. And I need not to feel guilty about it.
I will exploit the machine, without malice, simply because I need its service.
And the machine will fail me, without malice either, simply because it has been misused.
That should be the end of it.
I will learn to use a machine in the adequate ways – if I choose so –
in order to avoid major failures.
But feelings, loyalties, emotion, will not be part of it
Trust and relationships should not be part of it either.
I want a machine to remain a machine.
Let’s please not humanise machines. Let’s not make them like us.
Let’s accept their limitations, and force ourselves, us humans, to keep acting like ones.
I do not want a machine more intelligent than me.
I do not want to stop knowing how to do things important to me
and count on my machines to know so instead.
I do not want a machine guessing what matters to me. Nor proposing it to me.
I do not want an algorithm replacing my capacity to think and decide what is beautiful,
what is meaningful, what is a memory, what I love.
I want to impose limits on machines. And I want the right to choose a stupid machine.
I want to keep being forced to think, to decide, to remember, to discern,
to make an effort to find out what is relevant, what is valuable and what is right.
I am in pain
Deep, relentless pain
I feel it, it does not go away. It increases when I move around. When I think.
When I smile.
The nurses asked me not to lift anything heavy.
Well, as a woman living alone, there are a thousand heavy things to deal with constantly. Specially, right now. From pumping the wine vacuum stopper to carrying a full water jar for those fresh flowers so essential to my survival this evening. I cannot be asked not to perform these pleasure-production duties.
The procedure was uncomfortable.
Pushed around this machine, forced to embrace it furiously, my body crashing against every harsh plastic corner, with my breasts but also my arms, neck, face. It is the most unpleasant type of contortion imaginable. But there you go. I am privileged in that I am tested for signs of breast cancer every year. So I take it. I trust the system. I let them do with me what they may.
This time, the procedure was going further. Needles were going to be inserted as well as a little tube with something that would allow the surgeons to extract a piece of me, from deep down into my breast tissue.
They asked me to look the other way. I found myself facing this turtle.
A turtle on a screen. Followed by palm trees on white sand and turquoise waters. Then the temple of Angkor Wat; a street in Barcelona; infinity swimming pools. Picture after technicolor-picture of glossy dream holidays. On a small ipad, located just there, on top of a plinth placed by my contortionist-torture machine. An improvised – or carefully advised, by expensive consultants – visual-comfort mechanism.
“We know you are in pain. Let’s distract you”
It works. I try to look down into the plastic containers and refuse bag on the floor but it is too demoralising; the pain too sharp; the position too uncomfortable. So I go back to the turtle, the paradise island, the temples and luxury resorts.
There are a few pictures of perfect people in trunks and bikinis. Pictures of feet behind a piña colada. I look and I think: how many of these places have I been to? A little cloud comes over me: how many will I never go to again? They are couple-holiday-type places.
I have not been in a couple for years and years and I do not see me going back there any time soon. Specially not for an expensive and elegantly boring resort holiday. That part of my life is over.
Pang, the pain intensifies.
The turtles are neutral. I can travel and see turtles by myself. Angkor Wat is a neutral distraction too: it was visited by me as a disappointed wife carrying, singlehandedly, her three-year old son in tow. Paradise islands have been walked by on my own, as well, as a newly independent single woman, defying the flirting of waiters hoping for a tip.
Resorts, water skis, petals in bed… are another story.
Now I write from my apartment. The moon is performing a seven-veils dance. It is an exquisite sight, a satellite enveloped in a celestial Dior-looking gown. What a perfect framing: a ruffle of semi-transparent clouds partially uncovering a moony shoulder.
I think of the pains, confusions and disappointments of dating in a digital era.
The pain is there, heavily felt. Pouring out of my bandaged breast and my too-fresh-a-memory of dancing to the tunes of the contortionist machine, no Dior gown – celestial, or otherwise – in sight.
So here I am… alone, thinking of the digital turtle that held my virtual hand at a moment of deep discomfort. The turtle that helped me forget the passing of time and the rise in interventions and ugly moments; the normalisation of hospitals, checks and treatments that I so despised not so long ago and are now part of life, my life, opening the gate to many more discomforts and scares to come.
I drink my glass of wine and look at my fresh flowers. My heavy-lifting provokers.
I feel a childish pleasure in disobeying the nurses’ rules.
I feel the pain. While I forget about unnecessary, picture perfect, never-again, fake-dream couple-holidays.