'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

What’s needed now is a toy boy. My friend’s got one. Hers is great. So now I want one. She kept telling me hers was twenty-eight, but eventually it popped out he’s not twenty-eight until next birthday.
“And when’s his birthday?”
So that’ll be twenty-seven then. Any discernible twist of bitterness in my voice is exclusively down to the fact that I am green with envy. And I’ve noticed lately that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting smarter. Was it Tom Stoppard who said “wisdom is a high price to pay for getting old”? And let’s face it, not everybody’s in on the kickback. So why bother? Well ones got to of course. And that’s ok. I don’t think I mind that so much. Well actually that’s nonsense. I mind terribly. Who wants to get old and saggy? And who wants to die? Be honest. Nobody. But there’s no getting out of it, and I’m certainly not about to have an industrial strength hoover attached to the back of my head to suck the skin out of my eyes and take my brain with it. So I’ll just have to learn to live with it. Aging that is. And in that light, a toy boy will do nicely. It’ll be liberating; moving away from the drab idea of getting married that everyone seems to be so sold on. Even the nicest, apparently brightest people seem eventually to succumb to this bizarre eccentricity, this anomaly of the twenty-first century. Do I sound like some sort of hairy arm pitted bra burning lesbian? Probably. Oh well. My meditation teacher told me on Sunday (the new one, the old one’s Benny Hill moments were starting to get up my nose) that the point of meditation is not so much to make yourself a better person but to make yourself more accepting of the person you are. So sometimes I run the risk of sounding like a hairy arm pitted lesbian. So what?

And whilst I’ve already dug that particular social grave for myself I might as well crack on and tell you that I went to an exceptionally brilliant evening at the ‘Tate Moderna’ the other week-end – Once More with Feeling – an abbreviated history of feminist performance art curated by visual artist Oriana Fox, supported by The Women’s Art Library and Goldsmiths’. I could wax on for hours about this. It’s so my bag. But I’m vaguely aware that boring an audience rigid with tales of what fun something was is not the way to their hearts, so I’ll keep it brief. If I may I’ll just impose upon you one tiny art historical aside for the benefit of those who may be interested but not especially au fait with performance art, and that is that performance art at its inception, ie around the 60s, was lassoed by women artists, mainly, or rather partly, because performance as a medium was young enough to avoid carrying much of the baggage of historical male colonisation that say painting and sculpture unavoidably came and continue to come with.

The first thing I saw at this extravaganza of feminist performance art history, besides a sea of eccentric looking women of all ages, was two women in wedding dresses, one strapped to a cardboard model of a nuclear missile holding up a placard reading: ‘This demonstration is the happiest day of my life.’ I knew immediately I was at home. Entitled ‘Brides Against the Bomb’ this was first performed by Shirley Cameron and Evelyn Silver at Greenham Common and this re-enactment at Tate was the first time it had been seen inside a gallery. Without wishing to sound ungenerous (although if I do, so what!??) the fact is, if you don’t get this then nothing I can say will help. So I’ll leave it with you.

The rest of the evening was a series of updated honorific references to performance work by a huge range of women artists from Orlan to Yayoi Kusama to Yoko Ono to the brilliant Cunt Cheerleaders, whose performance at Fresno State College in 1970 involved the four artists donning satin cheerleader costumes adorned variously with the letters C U N and T and chanting light-hearted transgressive cheers to women – an attempted re-appropriation of a slang term for a fairly harmless and thoroughly indispensable part of the human anatomy that has somehow found itself the most offensive word in the English language. I’m not sure whether or not it worked but the performance was hilarious and very cheering.

Another high point was an homage to Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh who bound themselves together by way of an eight foot rope for one full year in 1983/4. Oriana Fox added an interesting twist to the reproduction in asking her divorced parents to play the protagonists – although for one evening only this time, not one year. Over from stateside for the week the estranged old pair seemed a little baffled but game enough to have a go. Towards the end of the evening I spotted Mr Fox standing on a chair trying to get a better view of a particularly gripping performance piece, whilst the much shorter erstwhile Mrs Fox was left standing on the floor looking at the back of the tall fellow in front. One began to see why divorce might have found itself on the cards for that particular famille.

Or perhaps we girlies have brought it on ourselves have we? Perhaps, as we’re often told by people who apparently know about these things, perhaps chivalry and feminism don’t make particularly compatible bedfellows. I rather disagree. I think feminism and chivalry have a lot in common. Both have much to do with respect and generosity towards oneself and other. Or perhaps it’s me who doesn’t get it is it? Perhaps. But then… so what?!

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

nuff said!
St Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as St. Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of
the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking
and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Galway Kinnell

Friday, 10 July 2009

An art dealers notes for surviving this urban metropolis:

1. never trust a man who criticises his wife when she's not there
2. never wear heels on public transport
3. when in an art gallery try to engage with the art first and the marketing bumph second.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The only problem I’ve so far identified with working from home and having other people working from my home, is that I can no longer revel in the life of a domestic sloven.

I can’t leave my dirty knickers on the bathroom floor. I can’t leave last week’s supper on a plate under the sofa and I can’t not get the hoover out for six months of the year.

Yvette’s a whiz in the kitchen. I am not. Last week she was very sweetly helping me make supper for a friend I’d invited round in a moment of domestic optimism. Something bordering on the right side of edible was expected from the kitchen of Knowles. Mild consternation at the absence of a casserole dish was exacerbated by the absence of any sort of oven to table ware whatsoever.
“Not to worry,” Yvette chirps, “we can use the baking tray from the oven.”
Ah yes, good-oh. Rescued from the brink of disaster.
Then the humiliation of the politely disguised horror of another at the sight of my baking tray encrusted with a year and a half’s worth of melted cheese from my staple diet of cheese on toast - or welsh rabbit as I like to call it when I have guests! In a fit of uncharacteristic embarrassment I set to on the baking tray with the elbow grease.
“You can get something for that you know” said Yvette, “you spray it on and leave it over night and in the morning you just wipe it off.”
“oh yes” said I, rather too cheerily, “what’s that called?”
“errr, oven cleaner.”

So, what excuse for this extraordinary absence of domestic know-how? How can this monstrous abhorrence be explained? I suppose I could put it down to my own profound laziness. Or I could do what I normally do in such situations and blame it on someone else: well, you know, when you go to boarding school from the age of seven how can you be expected to know about things like oven cleaner? They don’t teach you about oven cleaner at boarding school you know. They teach you about things like crop rotation and the square of the hypotenuse. Not about oven cleaner for goodness sake.

“Not a penny wasted on that education of yours,” as my old man is fond to jest.

Goodness knows why one decides to become a domestic sloven. Turning away from something I suppose. Deciding one doesn’t want to be whatever it is one associates with domesticity. Quite limited associations probably, but then personal associations are never wrong per say, they’re just idiosyncratic. The difficulty comes in being able to see them for what they are rather than assuming them to have some sort of inherence. But once you’ve spotted one of these funny little kinks, these sometimes unhelpful idiosyncrasies that we call personality traits, what are you supposed to do then? Judge it as good or bad and then attempt to delete it or not as appropriate? Or just look at it? And if you just look at it for long enough will it eventually change all by itself? Lord knows. I’m reminded - and cheered - by a verse from the Tao.

“A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.”

It’s all very well Michael, telling us to “make that change”, and I appreciate the sentiment, but is it, in fact, a realistic expectation? Is it possible, or even desirable, to attempt to change? Do we have quite the degree of agency we like to suppose? And if I knew the answers to all of these questions, what would I do then? And why is a tune that didn’t even make it into the top 20 in the UK in 1988 the tune we appear to have chosen to commemorate the King of Pop upon his death in 2009? Why not a more obvious choice: Billie Jean, Thriller, ABC, I Want You Back? That seems odd to me. Do you think we are all, as a nation, as a collective consciousness, in the post 9/11, post-credit crunch, post-post-modern, austerity chic noughties, finally in the mood to look in the mirror and see something other than our vintage Dior kitten heels?

Other than that it’s all going surprisingly well at knowles I greslĂ© chez moi. I’ve decided I’m the self appointed sales (wo)man of the team. An unusual ambition I’ve long nursed is to be a sales person. Other girls wanted to get married or become accountants or doctors (not nurses at Cheltenham Ladies’ College darling, not in the 80s!), but I always wanted to be a sales person. Finally now I am one. All I do all day long is phone people up and try to get them to buy art. Then bombard them with emails. Then chase them on the phone. It’s good fun. I talk for a living. Yvette does everything else. I reckon I’m sorted.

Then on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays we immerse ourselves in the art world in order to become the fountains of knowledge it is necessary to be in order to successfully consult on the subject of contemporary art. I don’t think I’ve been to so many exhibitions in my life. It’s getting on for a dozen a week including two or three private views. And yet the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know, so it seems my increasing knowledge is only sufficing to make me more and more ignorant. In a few years time I shall know almost nothing.

And the dinner guest?
“What a glorious flat”, she said, “so you, with a hint of Holly Golightly...”
Holly Golightly was a bit of a domestic sloven wasn’t she.
How kind friends are to put a generous spin on things.

I google therefore I am. And I think I may be having a coronary. Google didn't tell me that. I managed to work it out for myself. That's quite something these days you know, when even a common or garden round-about has fifteen sets of traffic lights because we humans can't be trusted to look to our right and figure out for ourselves whether moving forward in our motor vehicles would be a suitable course of action or not.

I want to write my diary in the lounge on this once jolly, now filthy, Saturday morning. I unplug the laptop from where it lives in the other room (I can't bear to use the word office). The second I unplug the power the screen goes dark. I can just about make out words behind the grey if I put my nose an inch from the screen and squint. A portable computer whose battery lasts hours on end, power cunningly conserved by directing almost no energy towards allowing the user to see what they're doing. Great, marvellous, how clever. Bill Gates isn't a gazillionaire for nothing. So I spend forty minutes googling through the fog and the fury, trying to find out how, quite, I might adjust the brightness on this stylish little contraption.

Why I can not, like any 'normal' person, simply bring the power-pack through to the lounge as well, I don't know. This would be the sensible course of action. Instead I fling myself around the living room, burn the toast, mutter unspeakable threats to the creators of the sony vaio, almost succeed in removing a generous chunk of my own hair - all in an increasingly irrational frenzy that the computer function in the way I would like it too. And now I can hear mother's words rising out of the sludge: "darling, I don't think anybody would call you normal; highly eccentric maybe, but not normal."

Really, I alarm myself sometimes.

And I had been feeling so mild mannered this morning. But now I'm in a tremendous strop, brought on, I fear, by far too close a proximity to modern technology. It's not right actually. It's not right at all. I should be living in a shed on the side of a mountain in China, like the monks I so envied at the Buddhist film festival. It's cracked up to be pretty tough going, all that ascetic facing up to your inner demons stuff. I don't know though, sometimes I wonder whether it isn't harder to get on with the trials of facing up to your neighbours and this confusing, all consuming, bizarre world we've created for ourselves.

Until last week I didn't have a computer at home. No computer, no telly, no broadband, no toaster even. The only things with a plug were the kettle and the radio, oh and the mobile re-charger. Now, only a week into my newfound techno wizardry and I find myself screaming at the dratted machine at nine thirty on a Saturday morning. I had intended to go to yoga this morning until I decided it'd be better to write. Bad choice, clearly.

I'm just not sure I get it. I'm not quite sure I get anything actually. But this whole techno thing is definitely becoming more and more of a mystery. What's going on? It's a bottomless pit. Disconcertingly so. Not in a bah-humbug on the future, "I remember when a packet of polos was 7 pence" sort of a way, but in a 'who am I? who am I?' overtones of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Oryx and Crake, Possibility of an Island, techno navel-gazing sort of a way.

I've noticed it's creeping into contemporary art too. What I'm not sure of is whether these art works are 'about it' or are they simply 'it'? Are they 'it' or are they an image of it? Do they stand at a remove and observe or are they identified with it? And anyway, what is it? I don't know. That's exactly what I don't know.

Some fabulously odd thing at Seventeen. Something described as a 'proprietary compression algorithm, single channel video with sound'. This piece of work, entitled 'Codec', seemed to be the artist, Paul B Davis, explaining to us how to create your own proprietary video compression/decompression algorithm - whatever that might be. We don't see the artist. In fact we don't see a great deal. It's just a projection of a computer screen, screen grab or whatever you call it, with Paul's mouse moving around clicking things here and there and his US accent muttering some (to me) totally meaningless instructions on how to do this and that.

It's not that I didn't like it, I just didn't know what it was. What was I supposed to do with it or glean from it? I had no even vague sense as to what it might be pointing towards. Probably this is simply indicative of my own ignorance. Well undoubtedly so. I did, however, like Seventeen - a lot. I shall be going back there. It's like when you meet someone and they say something and you think, I have absolutely no idea what you just said, but I definitely like you.

This 'single channel video with sound' whatnot was showing in the basement. Two chairs were provided for sitting on. There was a very curious and not entirely pleasant smell that seemed to suggest chronic damp. There were no lights. I had a vague sense of rodents, or at least the need for pest control in one form or another. The whole thing rather reminded me of my student accommodation circa 1993. My Dad insisting on sending in industrial cleaners at his own expense before we moved in, and point blank refusing to sit on the sofa or accept a cup of tea. In retrospect I can see where he was coming from. I must be getting old.

The title of the show is also rather good: Kanye West Fucked Up My Show. You can tell a lot about a show from the quality of its title. The same way you can tell almost everything you need to know about a person from a brief survey of their footwear. It's about integrity.

And now of course the battery has almost run out, so I shall have to go and get the power-pack after all. Oh God. The tragic futility of it all.

It's the Great British mini-monsoon. It's here every June. That's why they've finally built a roof for Wimbledon. As with most things, we're in denial about it, that's all. I quite like it. I like it when I'm at home with the back door open, so I can feel the gentle English humidity rising from the quiet chaos of the lush greenery and the watery sunlight bouncing off the white paint that's beginning to peel away from my beloved wrought iron garden table. Listening to a bird flapping about in the hedge and waiting for the next patch of unexpectedly deep grey to totter across the summer sky.

Sometimes it all gets a bit much and I have to retreat into my little sanctuary and be alone. Alone, listening to the rain. I should do it more often probably. That's no doubt the problem. I have too much to do with other people and not enough to do with myself. That's my life. A constant distraction of other people. The way some people use beer or gambling I suppose, I use extraversion. And then occasionally it all gets too much and I have to retreat. I could do with retreating for a week really, or a month, but as it is, a day will have to do. I've started reading the new Sarah Waters book. My favourite self indulgence: reading a book purely for its own sake. I realised in Waterstones - possibly one of my favourite places on the planet - it's something I rarely do. It sounds fatuous, it probably is fatuous, but I realised yesterday morning, I almost always read for a purpose. Without even hearing the conversation happening in my own head, I tell myself I should read Jung or Deleuze or Tolstoy or Quantum Theory or the Bhagvadgita (which I haven't yet, although it sits expectantly on my bedside table) or some other self-improving tome. I came out of Waterstones with William Boyd, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner and Sarah Waters. Not too bad as far as the hairshirt goes. I persuaded myself, without too much difficulty as it happens, straight into the self indulgence of The Little Stranger. So far it's reminding me of Brideshead, a book of such wit and brilliance it's impossible to read too many times. An interfering, patronising, social climbing nit-wit narrating the story of the downfall of a once grand old family, into whose lives he has pointlessly and without invitation ingratiated himself. The monstrous controlling grand dame, beguiling everyone with her charm, whilst stealing her children's lives from under their very noses, and the misunderstood self-loathing but fundamentally sweet dipso son on the path to self annihilation. I can't put it down. Another distraction I suppose, but certainly a good one. Read good writing, so they say, and your own will benefit. Well, here's hoping anyway.

Someone informed me the other day that art is, by definition (whatever that might mean) 'pointless' and without purpose. That's the contemporary line now, don't you know? Now that 'Art' has become so alienated from life by its own self importance, so needy of a capital 'A' to demonstrate its lofty independence from the boring old nitty-gritty of existence. Well that's nonsense actually. Just because you can't keep your socks in it, doesn't mean you can't make use of it. I happen to know that for a fact, because I myself make use of it on a regular basis. And I don't mean as a means to an end. I don't mean as a means to a living. I don't even mean as a means to accessing joy - although it often facilitates that too. No, I mean in a very practical sense, as a means to stabilise my unsteady and resolutely unpredictable trajectory through life. Through life's crashing disappointments as a matter of fact, of which there seem to be surprisingly many. And as a means of explaining, or consoling oneself, in the face of one's own rather inexplicable and erratic responses to the aforementioned disappointments. Yes, oh yes, someone I trusted, looked up to, loved in a way, has proven themselves to be a contemptible little snake in the grass. My own fault, of course, for projecting my stuff willy-nilly. My own fault for expecting something beyond humanity from someone who is, just like me, horrifyingly human. In a just world we'd all be allowed our humanity unquestioningly. But it's not a just world, and that also can be crashingly disappointing at times, at others, fabulously annoying.

But as I stomp around feeling sorry for myself and snapping at kindly people, what keeps coming back to me is one of the degree show pieces I saw a few weeks ago. That's the great thing about the degree shows. From the ones that stand out, you get the stuff raw, unspoilt and un-tempered. This is the place to sniff out the unmistakeably pungent whiff of existential rage in one of its purest (and probably healthiest) manifestations. The angry young man or woman before they've been ground down by life. By the suffocating necessity of earning a living - that overbearing juggernaut that one can, so easily, lose sight of oneself at the wheel of. By the murky waters of interpersonal politics and striving to get ahead, or even survive, in an unforgiving world. By the energy-sapping, but also, by turns, strangely liberating inevitability of living and dying just another infinitesimal speck of dust on the ceaseless turn of the wheel of life.

She knows she's good, twenty-two-year old Helen Carmel Benigson, presenting her extraordinary multi-media, super-sensory 'hyper-hysterical' installation at the Slade. But that's ok. Why shouldn't she. You need to believe in yourself in this life, because damn sure other people are going to try, many times over the course of a lifetime, to put doubt into your mind about things you've seen with your own two eyes. They'll put you on a pedestal only to try and hack the legs off it. Well you stick to your guns girl. You helped me through a sticky few weeks and I'm grateful to you for it. I hope you've got what it takes to stay the course on track. I for one, shall be rooting for you.