To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself – Georges Perec
Try as I might, I have come to accept bumping myself – or being bumped – as an inevitability, and art is the worst culprit, it bumps me like no other.
Like birthday-bumps on Groundhog Day, exhibitions bump me no end.
Phil! Phil Connors! I thought that was you!
And like Ned’s indomitable reoccurrence in that marvellous treatise on the insipidity of reoccurences, some bumps are more welcome than others.
Exhibitions confuse my orientation. Artworks muddle my memories, make of them something “wildly coherent” (in the words of Grizzly Bear).
In museums and galleries, time fluctuates, and in The Surreal House (a gallery by any other name?) I find myself stuck between “one space” and “another”: my art-o-biography continues to remain unfixed. Such was my experience of and reaction to the Barbican’s current exhibition of the same name, where artworks and ideas displaced my temporality.
(Attentive to the centrality of the uncanny in all this, might we consider the surreal house in those terms, Das Unheimliche-Heim… an unhomely home. For all the comfort I take in looking at and thinking about art, it is nothing compared to reality. My partner reminded me of this last night, as we sat looking out to sea, away from the imposition of architecture and urbanism).
And so, an oppressively small room of Giacometti’s works at the Barbican recalls every word I’ve read or written about the man, and every exhibition I’ve seen. I’m visiting my brother in Norwich almost ten years ago where an exhibition at the Sainsbury’s Centre stops my breath. Or I’m waltzing around the Tate looking for my favourite works. Or I’m in awe at the Pompidou, exploring his studio works and imagining myself there: I even find myself walking through Montparnasse following the man’s footsteps. Now both of our histories have mingled.
Alberto Giacometti, Palace at 4am
Similarly, finding Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy places me simultaneously back at Tate and at the Barbican, and all of a sudden my mind is rambling duplicitously. Numerous exhibitions overlap and inform one another. My own chronology is propped up by and props up the art history I know. I’m at the centre of my own canon. The same with Berlinde de Bruyckere’s works, which place me squarely on Piccadilly at Hauser and Wirth where things get more confused: Subobh Gupta, Hans Josephson, Iza Genzken etc all muscle in. Le Corbusier redoubles at the Barbican and washes me back to Paris and the visiting the Villa la Roche. Everything is concurrent.
Berlinde de Bruyckere, Wezen
Le Corbusier, Villa la Roche
Things get more confusing still when Joseph Cornell’s beautiful assemblages blossom out of a dingy corner, alongside one of Duchamp’s green boxes.
Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Aviary with Parrot and Drawers), 1949
Now, my dreamy memories of exploring Cornell’s boxes at Chicago’s Art Institute and the alchemical enthusiasm they enthused in me doubles with the poetic and beautiful responses to his work collected in Jonathan Safran Foer’s amazing compendium A Convergence of Birds, which itself enables my mind to wander off in awe and tribute to Jonathan Safran Foer, whose magnificence was captured in a text to me by my friend Laurence just last night having finished Everything is Illuminated.
“Strange and wonderful. I’m amazed that someone so young could write like that. I’m left a little baffled.”
Baffled is the word. I remember reading many years ago that Jonathan Safran Foer writes to his favourite authors and novelists he respects asking for the next blank page they would have written on. These sat framed on his walls, like empty vessels dripping with an imminent potential for greatness. I liked this idea, and I found something of it again in Edward Kienholz’s The Wait.
Edward Kienholz, The Wait, 1964-65, The Whitney Museum of American Art
Here, an antiquated living room dwindles through time and consciousness. A skeleton sits propped in an arm chair, cluttered with vessels and surrounded by photographs. Memories and past experiences, caged expressions of everything before and beyond. What at first appears spectral and haunting, however, becomes somehow soothing. It’s a rendition of hope painting in remindful colours. Don’t let memories haunt you. Don’t burden yourself with the past; rather, let it swim into the now of your most vivid experience. Its title appears to revisit Bill Murray’s experience of Groundhog Day. Don’t lust after the momentous. Rather, celebrate the minutiae.
I have learnt to live with those bumps Perec warned against, to appreciate them even. Memories go hand in hand with lessons. I’ve learnt to lean towards those moments when one grabs repetition by the hand and revels in its translucence. It is only in the minute changes of pace day to day that life really happens.