In Gourd We Trust

ArtReview columnist I. Kurator celebrates the US Immigration Services’ enthusiasm for international contemporary art

Image: jeffreyw via wikimedia

JFK seems unusually busy. I read that there was some sort of hullabaloo going on but I didn’t really expect to be inconvenienced in this manner. I silently curse agreeing to this little ‘personal shipment’ favour for my secondary dealer friend and confidante, Jasper. The queue for the baggage scanners is bad enough. Beyond that there’s an even longer queue for the gentle douaniers, as I like to call them (a little nod there to the self-taught genius Henri Rousseau). Some good folk seem to being lead off to an antechamber to the left, I presume to be served a complimentary cup of tea. I’m not even through the baggage scanners. I’m bored.

I get out my copy of Salim Barakat’s marvelous magical realist novel The Caves of Hydrahodahose while keeping an eye on my leather bag. My Arabic is a bit rusty but I’ve got the main drift of Barakat’s book that the Hodahose are a population of centaurs who live under the rule of a paranoid and capricious tyrant. It’s a delightful book and I wonder what the layers of metaphor are that lie beneath the surface.

Le Douanier Rousseau would never have done such a thing whilst discharging his responsibilities as a customs officer, I think to myself 

When I finally get to the front of the queue I realise that I’ve entirely forgotten to take off my coat. I hand the book to the nice chap organising the bag-check and fold my coat neatly in a tray next to my leather bag, as is the requirement these days. I smile gently at him and nodding back to me he presses some sort of button, which is odd because the conveyor belt seems to operating fine. I stroll through metal detector bit and bow to a large American official who seems, rather rudely to me, to be eating a large pastrami and salami sandwich while on duty. Le Douanier Rousseau would never have done such a thing whilst discharging his responsibilities as a customs officer, I think to myself. She spills a bit of her sandwich, a rather cheap morsel of salami, on her shirtfront.

“Salam…” I begin to say helpfully, putting my palms together and inclining them towards her. I can never tell in which culture pointing is rude, so this is a gesture I successfully adopt when not sure which cultural sensitivities might be in play.

But before I can continue, several of her colleagues appear and tackle me to the floor. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on. They all seemed to be armed. One is waving the Barakat novel about. The salami lady has opened my bag and I realise that my ruse of smuggling in an artwork in my hand baggage could be the cause of all of this.

“What is this?” the salami-lady demands waving the carefully wrapped art work I am trying to bring in.

“It’s a lampshade” I try to explain, although her colleague has his elbow in my mouth. But to my horror I realise that I have left the certificate of authenticity in there as well. Even with her childlike reading level she will shortly realise that my ‘lampshade’ is in fact a lovely little gourd sculpture by dear Anish Kapoor.

She’s inputting something into her computer. Her colleague seems quite keen on inputting his elbow further into my mouth. Overall this isn’t a good situation. I pray that the power of contemporary art will deliver me, as it has so many times.

“Aneeeesh Kapoor! Aneeesh Kapoor!” she starts to yell.

Perhaps I have mistaken her and she is an art aficionado. I try to nod enthusiastically at her to encourage this glimmer of understanding of modern art.

“Kapoor’s mother is Iraqi!” she continues, reading from her screen.

It the midst of this mayhem it strikes me that she is trying to educate herself more about dear Anish. She must have opened the bag, seen the work and had the moment of epiphany that I too first felt on seeing his work back in 1983 at the Lisson Gallery. Yet my thoughts are interrupted. I am being moved quickly by many hands. It strikes me that as I am now able to talk I must recommend Homi K. Bhabha’s lyrical essay on Kapoor for his 1998 Hayward Gallery show to the salami lady. But she is nowhere to be seen anymore. This is a rather small room I think to myself. I do hope they have Earl Grey.

I. Kurator