Appearances

Can we perform psychological experiments on you? Oh, OK. After the exhibition of Elton John’s Modern photographs collection, I am wandering down through The Switch House past their seventh floor where the space for participative experiences is open, so I wander in and am given tasks to do. I like the idea of helping, of doing something interesting, of balancing myself against a task.

I look at pictures made of black patches on a white background. Some are moderately clear, some unintelligible, some become clear after they are named. The male and female lions, their noses touching, seemed to be random spots until the caption told me what they were. Some still appear to be random spots after the caption is revealed. How certain are you that you see the outline of the thing pictured?

Are these samples real or artificial hair? Two samples are straight, two waved, two heat-treated into tiny tight curls. I look at them, feel them, close my eyes to concentrate on the feeling, feel them with my lips for a more sensitive feel, scrutinise the ends, and still get two out of three wrong. How did I make the decision? he asks. I tell him I am pleased, as I wear wigs.

With four others I consider pictures to decide whether they are valued at more or less than £3000. The most expensive, we thought was a worthless daub. How certain are you, of your own judgment, and of the consensus? Not certain at all.

Last, I look at portraits by Lucien Freud, and am asked how much they move me. I move the indicator left and right with cursor keys. I only see the picture for a fraction of a second, and the indicator disappears quickly after. My heart rate is monitored, the woman says to see whether I am a heart or head person, how my heart rate shows arousal contrasting with my conscious assessment. “Is that too tight for you?” she asks as she straps it to my thumb. “Please make sure you can keep it still, as it responds to movement.” I rest it, relaxed, palm upwards, on the table. It was not too tight, and I felt an after-image of it in my thumb for hours afterwards.

My conscious assessment has to be so rapid it is pretty instinctive, but I notice that these portraits are young or old, and I am concerned how I might appear. Am I more moved by young women, and is that facile of me? I do not want to be facile. I decide to claim to be moved by some men, and some older people, then worry that as some of the portraits are repeated I am inconsistent…

After, the attractive young woman- post-doc age, I feel, rather than undergraduate- explains that some of the pictures were timed to appear as my heart beat, and some between beats. Do I respond to how my body is in the moment of seeing, or more cerebrally? “You are unusual“- she twinkles, this is a good thing- in being in between, sometimes moved by the heartbeat, sometimes not. We discuss the self-selecting sample. Usually she works with undergraduates, who spend longer performing tasks, and get paid. Here, the volunteers are in an art gallery.

Why should I care how I appear? They have a note of my age and gender, and have video’d the proceedings, but it’s a few years yet before AI and data-storage is good enough to make it worthwhile to identify me, analyse the data and add it to a file on me. I hope. H, who put me up, was horrified. Her mother had always been concerned about appearances, and she found this repressed her true self, which she liberated as soon as she could with the ardour of a rebel. I tend to feel I am unduly self-conscious about how I appear. I will not see these people again. How I appear has a great effect on how I am treated, even though decent people are accepting not judgmental of appearance.

To a great extent, it is how I appear to myself- though that is a way to judge how I appear to others, I could also notice their reactions more. If I wanted to game the system, I failed, as sometimes I responded to my beating heart- not controlling my appearance I might be even more self-conscious about it.

Appearance is such an all-consuming thing- voice, dress, movement, body-language, wig; and who I am, how I am with others, eye contact, touching, attention… in the moment, having been confused and not getting my desired sense of performing well and above average, and being inspected in a way I did not fully understand, I was self-conscious.

Fair use of low-res picture, to illustrate the article’s subject.

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?

bhupen-khakhar-man-leaving

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?

bhupen-khakhar-the-window-cleaner

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.

bhupen-khakhar-yayati

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.

the-switch-house-from-the-roof-of-the-boiler-house

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.

the-switch-house-viewing-platform-watchers-watched

Francis Bacon

Bacon needs a queer curator. I am enraged reading on the wall, as if Clear Fact, the isolated male figure, which has been read as Bacon’s lover Peter Lacy, communicates a sense of anxiety and hopelessness, which has been read in relation to the continuing illegality of homosexuality. They are from 1954, before the Wolfenden Report, yet I see no anxiety and hopelessness here. In the paintings I see exuberance, joy, and the need to seize the moment. The trouble with anxiety and hopelessness would be that at the time some might read it as hopelessness that Bacon suffered from the terrible scourge of homosexuality, and feared he might never love a woman.

I look at man in blue IV, and it depends where the body is. If this besuited man is leaning forward on a desk, that is one thing, but he could easily be lying on his tummy, propped up on his elbows.

man-in-blue-iv

He could be kicking his heels up behind. If that’s a desk, he would need to be in a hole in it, or lying semi-prone. I often see playfulness- there is a sense of humour in these paintings far more often than that caption-writer might see- and self-assuredness. I am not sure about the man in cap, which could be a Nazi haranguing an audience, mouth wide and shouting. It seems possible to me that Bacon is the voice of monsters, portraying us unashamed, just doing our thing.

I chose the book I bought on Bacon because its third paragraph made me LOL: according to one story, he was sounded out as to whether he would accept the Order of Merit, but replied, No, ducky, give it to someone else, it will give them so much more pleasure. I don’t know if his homosexuality would have prevented him being honoured in 1992 when he died- possibly- but I want the story to be true. How could we know? Why would he feel any need to tell the truth in words, rather than in pictures- to help the stupid keep up?

The most conventionally beautiful thing here is Isabel Rawsthorne’s hair. She stands outside, and the hair is much prettier than in the photograph.

Reading about Bacon’s right wing anti-progressive feelings of pointlessness and cruelty of the world- I remember looking at a dog-shit on the pavement and I suddenly realized, there it is-this is what life is like– I wonder if I am reading into the work my own projections from my own character. I passionately want to see other people as they are, and use his art to aid me in this, confronting myself with his reality. I saw a painting of a seated man and standing child as bleak, with the man ignoring the supplicating child, but bleakness is not my main impression. I doubt Efrat would want people to look at her wheelchair and gush about her “bravery” any more than I like my transition called brave. We play the cards we are dealt. If straights see alienation and despair here, even if they are Allies, they are blinded by feelings of superiority.

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.

the-tankswoman-reacting-to-the-tanks

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 Sîan 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!

Georgia OKeeffe, grey lines with black blue and yellow

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 Dalí 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.

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.

Sublime

I like to get chatting on the tube. Reading over the shoulder of the pretty French woman on my left, I saw she was reading about energy healing, in particular chi massage for vital organs. So I asked her about it. The passage she was reading was keen to get the healer protected against sick energy from the recipient. Healers may take on the sicknesses of those they heal. The young, with greater vitality, may live with this for a while, but the sickness breaks through.

-What do you do to protect yourself? she asked.
-I don’t know. Perhaps all I do is to protect myself.

She got off at the next station. I try to protect myself, and it is not working.

I went to London to see my psychotherapist, but when I got to the GIC she was not there, and had not informed them where she was. I was very glad I had set out before they tried to contact me, because that meant they paid my train fare. So I went to Tate Modern to see the Agnes Martin exhibition for the third time.

The Islands is a series of twelve 72×72″ canvases, each covered in white acrylic paint. Each is divided into horizontal stripes, with no vertical lines: the edges of the stripes are one or two graphite pencil lines. Some of the stripes are lightly shaded with graphite. Before I entered I found a single stool leant against the wall, which I took, to sit before each canvas in turn. 1 ¾ hours later, I ceased looking at the twelfth, and went for chocolate cake and coffee. As I left, the guard said “Thank you”.

They are sublime. Any other art work I have seen I can impose my own rules, my own understanding on it. It fits within my world. We make our own understandings, something less than Reality but something each of us can more or less function in, and place new experiences within that framework- which is why it is so hard to get an inkling of what another human being is really like. But these, I cannot. I look at the wash of graphite- the words make no sense, except they express the feeling of it- at first feeling that I know how these stripes work: except that they do not follow my Understanding. They are Themselves, wholly other.

In that time, I seek to open myself to the things in front of me, as if meditating, and at another time curl up into a ball, protecting myself from them, but still looking. I rock: friends have rocked while sitting, for comfort, and I have not felt moved to do so before.

Looking at the edge of one, it is as if the darker stripe is divided into darker and lighter narrow graphite stripes. Looking at the middle of the wide stripe, I am unable to confirm this. So both understandings are possible.

Possibly because of seeing this art work, I could say today I am entirely of myself. Possibly, it liberates me.

They are beautiful things. The white acrylic paint shines in the well-lit gallery. They are on show at Tate Modern until the end of the exhibition on 11 October. They are normally at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which wants its url http://www.whitney.org on this post. The photo is fair use, as part of non-commercial criticism of the work.

The Islands at the Whitney museum of American art