The Sigmar Polke retrospective starts off playful. A man in his mid twenties toys with ideas of modern art and the preceding generation, gently mocking. “Silver brick” grabs my attention. Silver is beautiful; but here the white cuboid roughly marked out like a doodle is ugly, but the green background shading from pale to darker is beautiful. “Shirts” is just that, four shirts folded as new bought, line drawn. There are hakenkreuzen, but even these are playful, mocking the Establishment- were they not complicit- not at all? Much later there is a dancing devil with crooked crosses and a violin.
The next room has a disclaimer, that some of the images may be disturbing, and I see a sketch of a woman’s face with a childishly drawn penis about to penetrate the mouth. I hear disclaimers all the time on the telly, and have no problem, nor with this. It does not speak to me, but does not disturb me. The wooden lattice in the shape of a shed, with potatoes at each joint, amuses. The bamboo poles, “attempted resuscitation” by sticking them in a bowl of water, dox too.
So the disclaimer that the film “Quetta’s hazy blue sky/ Afghanistan-Pakistan” has scenes some viewers may find disturbing does not bother me. Watching it, though, I am disturbed. Horrified, actually. If you really want to know the details, ask me in a comment, and I may answer. After, I see people walking past the huge, dark triptych Negative Value, which indeed appears different depending on viewing angle and lighting conditions, but well, so what. It reflects the light. I liked that devil, a bit, but not the Watchtowers- like concentration camps or the Iron Curtain.
Ask staff members for details. OK. The caption says the monkey is “apparently playing dead”- as opposed to what? Really being dead? Being unconscious? Do you know? She doesn’t, but the information desk downstairs might know.
That is how I got chatting to Nicola. She is about thirty, pretty, likeable, and at 5.15 not seeming busy. She did not know, either. Like the woman upstairs and me, she did not wait to see the bears. I could leave a card with my question- so I write out a post card with my email address.
I gain enough trust to ask, can you recommend an art work here which might be a sorbet, to cleanse my palette after that film?
-I’m transsexual [beat] I wish people showed more surprise when I disclosed that-
-I have transsexual friends, she said.
-And I went to “Poetry and dreams”, the permanent display, to see something less disturbing, and the first thing I looked at appeared to be an arrangement of legs, a woman being buggered. Then I saw the caption which refers to a patient who “fantasised” about becoming a woman, whom Freud diagnosed as paranoiac with a castration complex. Round the corner, there is a heavily made up drag queen.
I did not need to say “Is there anything in this entire building that won’t wind me up?” She asked me if I liked Picasso, showed me a work on the online display, and walked me first down to the cloakroom to drop off my case again, then up to Poetry and Dreams to see that Picasso. It is beautiful. She is naked, and he had a particularly domineering cold male eye, but she is beautiful.
Nicola has worked here “eight long years- I have to get away. The team are great, but some of the managers- I can’t stand the micromanaging and politics. I am very much what you see is what you get.”
Carrying my heavy bag over the Millennium Bridge, I was open to the beauty of the Cathedral, lit in that peculiar cold light, and the new buildings just upriver. The cranes have bright red lights at their joints. Heart open and perceptive is a wonderful way to be. I don’t know, I just don’t know, whether I want Hope, so I might go out into the world again, or Excuses- well, look at all I have done, it is entirely reasonable for me to stay dependent on benefits. If excuses, they are for myself- the Department for Withdrawing Payments won’t listen- which makes it more perplexing.
Now (writing Tues 25th) I am in my hotel room- £40 a night in London, even Muswell Hill. Imagine. My room number is scrawled on the door in marker pen. There is one nasty shower for ten rooms. When I went downstairs to ask for a towel, I found a kitchen, and got chatting to Wendy, who lives here while her house is renovated. She had defended her kitchen- residents only, not guests- from a Polish man who had been frying eggs, but graciously allowed me to use the microwave.