Allies III

Oh, those poor LGBT! They have such a hard time, you know.

Well, we do, I suppose. I am left handed, and things are often designed for right-handed use. People assume Straightness, even I do, and many feel uncomfortable with queers. Yet, basically, Brexit that. Let us enjoy our triumphs, not dwell on difficulties.

This has been an arty week. I saw Francis Bacon on Tuesday and was irritated by the phrase “anxiety and hopelessness”, and then on Friday I saw the Bhupen Khakhar exhibition, whose paintings are beautiful, and loathed the patronising git who wrote on the wall, When Khakhar developed cataracts in the early 1990s he adopted a looser, blurry style of brushwork which allowed him to depict suggestive scenes of same-sex encounters. Well, gay lovemaking remains a crime in India, yet Khakhar’s oeuvre expresses his sexuality from the beginning. Here is “Man Leaving” from 1970. It looks like a wedding, no?


Possibly those who hate queers would not consider that possibility, so think the title “Going abroad” indicated a parting; but perhaps they would be hyper-sensitised to suggestions of gayness, so be wound up by it.

Here the many colours on the apron suggest oil paints, and how could that hose be anything but a penis?


It’s just funny. I love the smile on his face.

And finally Yayati from 1987, from a myth in which a young man gave his youthful vigour to his father, but the father wandered the world and found no need for youth. I love the colour, and the fire of the wings.


I sit before this, entranced. I also loved “At the end of the day iron ingots came out”, where Khakhar depicts himself on the lavatory during his cancer, and the ingots look like a continuation of his depicted bowel. It is agonising. It hangs behind a picture of him having an enema, and the result in me is a powerful sympathy and love of his humanity. I feel some of his pain. It is raw, honest, truthful, which is what I strive for here.

And there is no apology for sexuality. He may be exploring just how much he can portray, but the portrayal is clear. Surely the curator can see that! Surely the curator needs sympathy with the artist! What?

I wanted a post-card of it, so asked a delightfully camp young man at the shop. There is to be an LGBT artists’ exhibition next year, their first. I look forward to that. He loves the window cleaner too, and the beauty of the colours. That green is so cool and restful. I agree it is such a joyous exhibition. And yes. That is definitely a penis.

I want his sexuality to be seen as completely normal, and that means allowing people to see it or not, as they can, in his paintings. “Ooh, look, that’s a gay bit” is not supportive, really, it maintains us as the exotic other. If someone is expressing derision or disrespect for the quality of gayness please do correct them, but don’t-

oh, I don’t know. Work it out for yourself. What would you want?

That’s it. Don’t look after us. We don’t need looking after generally, just defending occasionally. It’s like benevolent sexism- you mean well, but you hold us down.

Switch House

From the roof of the Turbine Hall, accessed from the members’ room, here is The Switch House. The sun did all I could wish in that moment.


An art snob complained that because the viewing gallery is free, the lifts are clogged with people going up for the view who do not bother with the art. I hope that some of them might descend by the stairs, and be fascinated by the exhibits. I have been up there: if it is a less sophisticated pleasure than the content of the galleries, it is still a real one.


Magical London

I haven’t gone a swing in years. I never really mastered it. I needed pushed, and did not know how to work it up by myself other than by kicking the ground. I had not until today realised what good exercise it is, kicking forward and leaning back. I almost but not quite got to look over the top bar.

Strange days in London. I came down on Monday  to see Art. Walking through the church yard at the East end of St Paul’s I look at the trees and am centred. I am here. A woman in a black dress sits looking round herself looking cynical, yet interested and engaged. A woman in a wedding dress poses amid lights and long-lensed cameras.

I want a book, to swot for Francis Bacon tomorrow, and the Turbine Hall bookseller sends me to the Switch House. I cross the hall to The Tanks, and am overwhelmed- these great columns, the curving staircase, the bare, smooth, naturally-coloured concrete change my way of  being in them. They could be oppressive but are liberating: I walk taller. Here are video installations in a dark room with cushions scattered on the floor. The first has confused running and shouting like a demonstration gone wrong. Another room has huge works, possibly musical instruments.


In the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition I see a woman in a pink top hat with Steampunk goggles, pink tights, multicoloured top and electric wheelchair. I tell her how beautifully she is dressed, and she compliments me. We get chatting. Efrat, from Israel, has to dash off to get a train to Lancaster for a conference, but fbfnds me. So we stare at our phones for a bit.

Then a brief time with Bhupen Khakar, gay Indian painter reminiscent of the brightness of Henri Rousseau. In the story of Yayati the winged one and the old man embrace tenderly, their erections straining towards each other. It’s beautiful.

I go to the Members’ room for tea,  feeling a bit mind-blown. I chat to the staff member on the door who loves Bhupen Khakar. From there, I see this art work:

man-on-cubeman-on-cube-2 man-on-cube-with-bag

I am dreading going into Bank tube station at 6pm. Indeed, I was pressed against the other people in the Central line coach. But before then, going into Cheapside, I have a thought which becomes a haiku:

In every moment
there is a right way to be.
I choose it. Always.

This is a radical rejection of my habit of judging and second-guessing how I respond, which does no-one any good.

On Tuesday I went to Liverpool with H to the Francis Bacon exhibition, and on Wednesday morning walked with her along Regent’s Canal to work. I am at a loose end in the plaza between Kings Cross and St Pancras stations with an hour before my train. Behind me is a geodesic dome in which the European Lung Foundation is giving free lung tests. In front of me is a tall structure like a bird cage, with a swing in it. A security guard has a go on the swing, while his colleague videos him, and I watch how he kicks forward powerfully to work the swing up. He leaps off, laughing. I am second-guessing what I should have said to SĂ®an this morning, and how the various options might make me appear. These spiritual growth lessons never just take. They all need practice.

I go for my free lung test but am suspicious. I have to exhale into a machine, and do so as it bleeps, trying to get it to bleep one- last- time… I am suspicious, even though they have not asked for my name or email address. I am “normal”: I want to hear more. I want to be normal for a 30 year old man. I interrogate Kersten who is in charge, and outside recruiting, what happens to the data. It is not scientific, she says, because there is no proper sample selection. They are testing in various parts of London, and could record variations. They are offering a FEV test because most people do not have one until they are concerned and ask their doctor.

I sit, and finish off the book Accidental Saints. A woman holds her tiny child on her lap as she swings gently, another pushes her older daughter. A young man swings, all the while taking selfies. So I go to swing. I have been watching, tempted, all this time. I love it, it is exhilarating. After, Kersten asks me how I enjoyed it, and we get chatting. (I am looking round, in case her job requires her; someone else hands out the questionnaires.) It is beautiful. It is a lovely connection. I tell her my haiku, and she says “Of course”. And we second-guess and judge. I tell her there was a young man swinging, but when I say he was taking selfies she comes out with the standard judgment of screen-obsession. Where are you from? I tell her of the beauties of Swanston, including the extension on Bewiched and she imagines the building would be spoiled, though she is delighted when I tell her how lovely it is.

It is a beautiful connection, and she is a lovely positive person, and we are still judging and second-guessing. The adjectives I have for the concrete in the tanks imply ugliness or incompleteness, yet they are as they are intended to be and are beautiful.

Mona Hatoum

I have rarely seen a work of art that could kill me. Rather than a knee-high wire, there is a proper barrier, of wire taut across the room at intervals of a few inches, up to about eight feet. I imagine alarms will go off if anyone tries to put an arm through, as bodies draped over it would not look good.

The noise of it echoes through the gallery as far as the entrance. It is a deep electric hum, sometimes off, sometimes very loud, sometimes with hints of harmonics.

It is a living space. There is a table with kitchen tools such as a mincer; a smaller dining table with chairs around it; a bed, a pink cot with a chamber-pot underneath- not a potty to sit on, an old bowl with vertical edges- and a large cage for a pet, perhaps a gerbil. All of it is wired up. Bulbs placed at various places glow, then go out. There is nothing soft: no mattress on the bed or cot, hard chairs, no cushion. It is a living space, that is deadly; not a place of loving friendship and enjoyment, but of threat.

Before, there is a cheese-grater blown up to slightly above head height- a symbol of a barrier that could hurt, rather than one which could, actually- and some burned toilet paper, framed. This beside paper called Skin, hair, nails and urine and on which one can see nails and hair, oh that bit’s skin, that stain might be urine. The works are small, and I go up close, to be confronted with the idea of me, studying someone’s excretions.

This is us, physical, vulnerable.

There is a cube, about 5’6″, covered in magnets then iron filings which form sinuous tubes around it. It is beautiful. There is a video projected onto the floor inside a cylinder with two doors: the camera was inserted into the body. When I came with H, it was the mouth and stomach glistening, I saw the uvula, but today it is the anus and perhaps the vagina, identified by perineal hair. The noise was heartbeat, with the electric hum in the background.

Then there are bunks, five high, again no mattresses, nothing to climb on, the edges of the metal would cut into your foot.

And then there is the video of Mona Hatoum walking through Brixton, barefoot, DM boots tied to her ankles by their laces. Sometimes the video is of her shins and calves, sometimes of all of her, walking slowly, one pace to a second, looking down. She is big boned, not a catwalk model but beautiful, solid and squishy, animal human.

And then the cube impenetrable. It is 3m cubed, of vertical hanging black barbed wire about 10cm apart. The wire is black, the barbs sharp, and it shimmers as you walk round it, as you can see horizontally or diagonally through it. Beautiful, and another work that would hurt if not kill. Us and the world. There is no barrier, but a guard in here all the time.

Mona Hatoum impermeable

The Switch House

To the new part of Tate Modern.

Switch house members room 2

The members’ room is spacious and high-ceilinged, yet it feels claustrophobic. It is strange. Perhaps it is how small the windows are, or the thick concrete beams, but I feel enclosed.

Switch house members room

It is built onto the back of the Turbine Hall, whose wall is of course vertical- yet looking up at it, because of the angle of the new building, looks as if it is leaning over me.

There is now a bridge across the top of the Turbine Hall.

turbine hall ai wei wei

There is a viewing platform on the tenth floor. Please respect the privacy of our neighbours, say the signs. Perhaps those are exhibited for sale: they don’t look lived in.

The Two Towers

I love having this public space for art, and the large new works use it- there is one of Louise Bourgeois’ Maman spiders.

Georgia O’Keefe

It’s a vagina.
-Of course it’s a vagina!

The exhibition is packed, and I go to the pictures which catch my eye and are less crowded. Those could be the heels of two hands, but are more likely arses, cheek to cheek, with a sort of epic sunrise thing going on above them. In other paintings in this room, the lines are more abstract. I love the way the colour washes and merges.

Afterwards, I read, the artist was irritated that critics saw sexual images in her flower paintings- but so do I. Having seen the bodies in Grey Lines, I see bottoms in the petals of Jimson Weed. H says, reasonably, that flowers are genitalia, but this is a painting of a flower. Now, I am hopeless: that building in a desert makes me think of vaginas! The doors and windows are dark holes; and it has wee sticky-up knobby things!

I need to spend more time in this exhibition. I went round quickly, wanting to taste it after spending more time on Mona Hatoum. Don’t characterise her by other things- she painted an animal skull floating above a mountain, but did not want compared to Surrealists, even though before I knew of her I might have guessed DalĂ­ painted that. She is herself.

I made you take time to look…and you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower- and I don’t.

I do, actually. I make associations with her Jimson weed, which is a few cm across, which indeed I might not really really look at, but for her-

Jimson Weed

and it is something of me that I see. And as well, there is- a distinctively female response? Possibly. I could just be saying that- female artist, picture made me think of a vagina, that’s one they’re selling postcard reproductions of- and I like to think I am groping towards understanding, though perhaps I should not use words.

It’s really crowded. People like this. I do. I find it heady- smell of flowers association, perhaps- or thoughts of sex. I will let her be alien, aloof; I will not imagine I have pinned her down or classified her. This attitude permits me to find more in the paintings, which I may be finding in myself.

St Pancras

St Pancras, castle in the air

From the other side of the British Library, St Pancras station floats like a castle in the air. Paolozzi’s Blake’s Newton has better things to think on, staring at his compasses on the ground.

Paolozzi Blake Isaac Newton

William Blake, Isaac Newton

This is the first time I have taken a photograph on my phone and blogged it from the wordpress app. I confess I edited it a bit on the lap-top. At least I am now in the current decade…

An Oak Tree

Before Yearly Meeting, I am alone in the Tate Britain exhibition of conceptual art with two staff members. One comes over to chat as I look up at “An oak tree”. If you did not know it was an oak tree, you might think it was a glass of water on a transparent shelf about ten feet high on the wall. At eye level, there is a transcript of a real or imagined conversation about the oak tree. It is not a symbol of an oak tree, but an oak tree. The artist has made it one. This cannot be taught. It has the “substance and accidents” of an oak tree, which reminds me vaguely of the theology of transubstantiation.

We discuss whether when the water evaporates, they replace it- with special oak tree water produced by the artist? He does not know, you would have to ask the technicians. I came here for beauty- he says I would find that in the Painting with Light exhibition downstairs.

I don’t know, either, whether the shelf is part of the art work, or indeed its height and the spatial relationship with the conversation. I spend a little time reading the conversation, some time thinking of it, and very little time looking at the glass itself.

In the first room, there are a pile of oranges, and a pile of sand, roughly in a volcano shape. The sand moved me- the shape is precise, and not replicable once removed from this gallery floor. It is protected only by a line on the floor and an instruction, and our respect- for it, or for rules. So vulnerable, and so- unimportant, really, it is only a pile of sand. The staff member said the pile of oranges are replaced regularly: there was a smell, when the work was first exhibited.

There are three or four black squares. One is a secret painting, only the artist knows what it is. Another is four successive colours of acrylic paint on about five feet square, black then blue. It is mostly uniform black, and there is a thin strip of lovely blue at the very top. I could spend time looking at it.

Two congruent grey rectangles, one marked “PAINTING”, the other “SCULPTURE”. Again, there is the intention, perception, thing, and description; I can tell you of this because there is little more in seeing it than reading my description. I am unfamiliar with conceptual art because it was work expanding the concept of what art could be, and now the concept is wider, art works can do so much more.

In the Duveen gallery three dancers in black tights, short red tops, and clownish long necklace of large white globes dance, then move along black stripes on the floor. Oh, that one is a man! The Tate has just purchased its first performance art work.

The Caretaker

The Caretaker begins with an altruistic act: Aston invites Davies into his room, after rescuing him in a fight. Davies describes the fight: he was in the right, and gave a reasonable account of himself- these are pitiful attempts to deceive. Davies is a tramp. Such generosity is not rewarded.

There are three men in the play: Aston’s brother Mick owns the building, whose rooms are otherwise uninhabitable. A bucket hanging from the roof catches drips; the room is clogged with rubbish such as a disconnected gas cooker, a metal sink and draining board, and a television. The man behind me refers to Davies as a “Street person”- no, he is a “homeless person” because the play is British- indeed, a tramp because it is from the 1960s.

At separate times Davies confronts Aston, or Mick. It seemed to me the tension could be increased or decreased by the director at will: have the men closer, or further apart; have them observe all the pauses in the stage directions, or speak more slowly. I would have the set much smaller than the Old Vic stage, as the room would be smaller than that; outside the room I would have darkness.

Davies tells stories of his life. He went to a monastery in Luton because they were handing out shoes, but the monk told him to piss off. “Piss off”, he said. Davies spoke back, no-one would talk to him like that. He will go to Sidcup to get references, but he never does. Aston wants to build a shed. Mick wants the remaining rooms on the upper floor decorated, and has precise ideas how; that won’t happen either, though Mick seems the most effectual character, prowling the stage with threatening grace.

Aston had electro-convulsive therapy which damaged his brain. Davies uses this against him: “They’ll come for you, with those pincers”.

We sat, waiting for the play to start, watching heavy rain fall on a steep roof in the dark. It is cheerless. The characters can’t plan, can’t foresee consequences, can’t communicate, but “no-one actually starves”.

R wanted to go, as he had done it for A-level, forty years ago. He forgot the tickets, and I had to go back for them; we needed a taxi to cross London, we were too late to get the bus; he had bought full price tickets, and needed to change them for disabled persons’ tickets; the box office woman was charming, he wanted to prove he was disabled with his disabled person’s railcard, but she did not need that. She was charming, and a cold hard coming we had of it. I offered him an arm for the few steps; led him off in the wrong direction to get the bus home; he was perturbed by people pushing past to get to their seats, touching the back of his head, but bore it. It seemed more a task to achieve than an entertainment to enjoy.

Cezanne, card players


To Medea, at the Almeida theatre. It is a slog. I had been hoping the all-consuming anger would invigorate, but it enervates. They destroy each other.

It starts with the mother from hell, her beautifully grating voice in a triumphant monotone saying over and over, “I told you so”. All Medea’s suffering is her own stupid fault. If only she had done exactly what her mother said, she would be happy. Her mother was happy. You can see this was a lie, and so can Medea, who stands quite still, head down, shoulders slumped, part turned away.

So much dark beauty in this play! The mother’s voice, the daughter’s posture, beautifully observed, beautifully real, beautifully merciless. The complete absence of hope or joy in the whole ninety minutes gives a long, slow burn of catharsis, rather than a single moment.

The chorus of five yummy-mummies with their babies blame her, of course. They put up with it, why should not she? They keep going, why should she think herself worth any better? She is not completely stupid, she knew the deal. He provides the money, he gets to play away. The money, and the subtle gradations of importance it gives them, is some compensation.

The play is one long marital row. The topics are relentlessly banal. The boys want their father to take them to Arsenal, and do not understand when he does not. Medea is a writer; Jason uses his contacts to prevent her getting published. Then he has a job offer, and she manages to thwart it. They destroy each other. He appears in metal breast-plate, then in ancient overcoat and rags. She whines in self-pity.

There are steps down in the middle of the stage. She pushes the boys down them, then slowly shovels grit down the hole, trudging slowly back and forth from a grit pile at the back of the stage scattering grit as she goes. I loathe that scattering of grit, so untidy, so wasteful!

There is not even her death as a relief, only a lapsing into silence.