Reading between the paintings

On Saturday morning I woke up feeling very excited. It was the first day for aaaaages that both the husband and I were completely free. A day to wander around and hang out in London together. Perhaps I was feeling especially, rather defensively, pro-London after spending a couple of weeks in South Africa.

We took one of my favourite buses down to London Bridge, gobbled some yummy sandwiches from Borough Market and drank some less yummy coffee (we couldn’t face the unbelievable queue at Monmouth) before going to the new White Cube in Bermondsey Street. The husband – an architect, lest ye forget – was keen to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibition, Il Mistero delle Cattedrale. I was more than happy to piggyback along.

I am a little nervous about writing anything about the Anselm Kiefer exhibition. After all, Kiefer recently said in an interview for the Guardian:

Art is difficult. It’s not entertainment. There are only a few people who can say something about art – it’s very restricted.

I am certainly not one of those ‘few people’, as I don’t really know what I’m talking about. If you too are an art purist, do feel free to skip the next four paragraphs.

So we turn up at the swanky new White Cube and it’s all white walls and grey floors, as you’d expect. The Kiefers are big and monolithic – grey and rusty and black. It’s all very impressive.

We wander around. I have to say I quite liked some of the pieces that I’m sure others think a bit trite. I liked the odd tandem bicycle Merkaba (above), which is apparently a reference to the cabbalistic chariot of God. I like the way it’s spindly and delicate, looking more like an etching than an actual thing. There are three measuring scales hanging down motionless and a bit wonky. In one there’s a pile of crumbled sulphur, in another a pool of mercury, and in the third a heap of sodium chloride. It looks a bit like magic.

I also liked Alkahest, an unfurling roll of film showing pictures of the sea. It looks like it’s all crusted with salt, as though it had spent hours in the sea itself. And I also liked some of the huge paintings, thick with paint, of the Tempelhof airport – big derelict spaces, feeling cold and empty and impressive.

But I HATED all the dead sunflowers – in fact I could barely stand to look at them, they seemed so horrid, such an aberration.

(Art purists, please rejoin here.) It was, in fact, while I was trying not to look at all the horrible dead twisted black pained sunflowers that I noticed something else, much more interesting …

The gallery attendants.

Usually, in an art gallery, each room is watched over by one or two young, trendy, arty gallery attendants. (Unless it’s somewhere like the National Portrait Gallery, in which case they’re usually very old and not at all trendy.) Their role seems to be to stop people from misbehaving, such as getting too close to, or touching the art. Stopping people from nicking anything is also probably pretty high on their list of responsibilities. I imagine that they’re usually artists themselves, earning a bit of cash to help pay the rent for their studio or something. I’ve always thought it must be quite a tough job – on your feet all day, in silence, nothing to do other than stare at the art and vaguely people-watch. In fact, I’d go so far as to wonder if I might actually go a bit loopy if I had to look at the same piece of art all day, all week or all month. Especially if it were those horrid sunflowers.

But, evidently, White Cube has introduced rather a nice policy. The gallery attendants are allowed to read books. How much better to stand around all day reading!

The fact that all the gallery attendants were very thin, wearing only black, and reading their books terribly intently, was a little bit funny. They just needed a cigarette hanging out of their mouths and then their 1960s Paris intellectual impoverished student look would have been complete.

Of course I was desperate to deduce what they were reading. The gallery visit swiftly became a detective mission as I stalked around the assistants, sneaking sideways glances and scribbling down my findings. This is where working in a bookshop really came into its own. Most of the time I only needed a quick peek, a tiny glimpse of the jacket to know what the book was. How I longed to find one of them reading Sartre! But, failing that, the books they were reading were still pretty perfect for their image. Meanwhile, the husband – tired of my games – had gone into the bookshop to look at some more serious books.

Here are my findings:

  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
  • Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
  • Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal

All are respected books. All gesture towards offbeat intelligence, but are actually pretty mainstream – except for the last one which I’ve never heard of. Here ends the book snobbery.

There was also one uncertain, an old Penguin Modern Classic with an orangey cover and a one-word title. If only my eyesight were better! Some browsing online has led me to think it might be this version of George Orwell’s Essays, but I can’t say for sure. It would certainly fit in pretty well with the others.

Added to which there were two attendants not reading anything at all. I suspect they had rather a more subtle appreciation of the art than me.

There was one other mystery, in the form of a Kindle – for who on earth knows what was being read on that (other than, of course, the reader)? But gosh it was such a relief to find that, in comparison to all those battered and loved-looking paperbacks, there was just the one Kindle. This discovery has led me to the welcome – yet admittedly somewhat tenuous – conclusion that Kindles aren’t cool.

Hurrah for paperbacks! Hurrah for luddites! Hurrah for independent bookshops!

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2 Responses to “Reading between the paintings”

  1. dussus Says:

    I do not work at the gallery but two of my friends do and I can officially reveal that the copies of Catch 22 and Lunar Park are in fact mine. My friends get through a lot of books working there and wanted to borrow something off me. Perhaps I should lend them the millenium trilogy next time.

    Either way, my books are happy with their new found fame. Catch 22 hadn’t got a look in since my English A level and Lunar Park still contained a slightly sandy mermaid bookmark from a holiday years ago. Never did they imagine that they might find themselves at the centre of such discussion!

    • emilybooks Says:

      Gosh how thrilling for those books to have been traced! I love the thought of a sandy mermaid bookmark hiding between the pages in a somewhat scruffy, very un-white cube manner. This is by far the most exciting comment ever to have appeared on emilybooks, thanks! Xx

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