Unlike spare bedrooms, museums and galleries are designed to engineer your critical consent
For the past six months I have been living in somebody else’s apartment. I came to Athens in the late summer for a brief escape from London, where I am, in the language of artists’ biographies, ‘based’. (Artists never live in a city but are ‘based’ in it. Bankable artists are advised to base themselves ‘between’ New York and an ‘emerging city’, which would locate them on that small continent of plastic waste now drifting across the Atlantic. Which, some more cynical writer might say, is the best place for them.)
When the second wave arrived, the couple from whom I’m letting the place preferred not to return to locked-down Athens and I preferred not to return to locked-down London (weather, ‘variants’, Brexit, etc). And so I have remained, with only a small selection of fraying summer clothes, my laptop, and their books for company. The limbo in which I have passed the lockdowns is not my own, which is to its aesthetic advantage. The light-filled apartment’s walls are painted in complementary pastel colours – watermelon, mint, cerulean – and hung with framed posters, prints and drawings that I take to be gifts from artist-friends.
The spare bedroom has a French window that gives onto a fifth-floor balcony overlooking the museum making the edge of a district whose transformation from self-governing community into anarcho-hipster tourist destination for inadequately kempt middle-class teenagers from Barcelona has been at least temporarily interrupted by the pandemic. (Let’s not interrogate my sociological role in the change.) Clashes with the police still happen, and I have learned to recognise the bright ‘pop’ of teargas canisters before their acrid smoke drifts up on the breeze. I tell you this not to showcase my radical-chic credentials but to confess my own privileged ignorance: with no grasp of the language, I am largely oblivious to what’s happening on the streets below. That I am a conspicuously Western European white man in a neighbourhood that has made a political point of welcoming North African immigrant communities is, to be clear, a key factor in this sense of my own insulation from the violence meted out by riot police.
Illuminated by the light through that window, on the wall facing the bed, hangs a painting in oil on linen, 60cm square, within a thin wooden frame. The image is split roughly in half by a horizontal line separating a patchwork field of blue from an olive-and-ochre ground interrupted by a single explosion. The roughly gridded structure, aerial vantage and series of layered horizontal planes call to mind both Richard Diebenkorn and a pixelated military surveillance image, but the unavoidable allusion is to David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967), the composition of which it replicates precisely (to the point that an exposed pencil line in the bottom corner reads like the spectre of its shivering diving board). The orange flame and billowing black smoke of the explosion stands in for the champagne ‘pop’ of a dive into the swimming pool.
The lockdown here is strict, with a nightly curfew, and so I have spent a lot of time looking at this painting. It is the first thing I see when the sun wakes me through the window; it is the last thing I see before I turn out the lights. It is in my field of vision when I’m reading in bed and, as now, when I’m writing from it. I have come to realise that I have never before lived with a painting. The houses in which I grew up did not have paintings in them, though I remember a reproduction of a stylised Chinese landscape behind a television and a poster advertising a Belgian beer by means of a scantily clad woman in a bathroom. I have accumulated some prints and drawings gifted to me by artists, typically in exchange for some writing, and I recall now that these include a small painted abstraction burdened with so painful an association that I haven’t been able to look at it for years. But I have spent more time looking at the painting on a spare bedroom wall than any other, and certainly much more than the Caravaggio or Eisenman that I would hang in my desert island lean-to.
I have only seen those masterpieces in relatively brief periods of intense attention, snatched from the bustle of museum crowds. My relationship to the painting on the bedroom wall is different. My sense is that it has impressed its patterns upon my vision, like the ghost of an image allowed to linger for too long on a computer screen. I have become unconsciously attuned to the rhythms of its colours, which are also uncannily close to those in which the spare bedroom is painted: the cornflower blue of the sky matching the doors of the fitted wardrobe on my left; the coral pink of a passage in the bottom left corner echoing the bookshelves; the caramel brown of the horizon line reading like a reflection of the painted wall behind my bed. Those correlations reinforce the painting’s integration into a world circumscribed by the room’s walls.
I don’t know who painted it. One of the artists to whom the house belongs is a painter, but this doesn’t obviously resemble any work of hers I’ve seen. And while the correspondence of colours with the interior design supports the attribution, I’m reluctant to write to her and ask. I am jealous of the painting’s anonymity because it has enriched my experience of it. Not knowing the details of its maker’s life, the context in which it was produced, I am restricted to what I can glean from the work. I don’t know the title – I entertain myself by dreaming up puns that figure the painting as an oblique commentary on my own situation – and I don’t know how it relates to the rest of their oeuvre. I have relished this uncertainty when any such questions can normally be answered by reference to the vast library of images and texts we carry around in our pockets.
Looking at this painting alerted me to how rare it is to spend time with a work of art independently from the supporting information that governs how we attribute value. When you look at a painting in a museum, you know that it has been judged to be of art-historical significance by a panel of specialists. You can disagree with that judgement, but you’re still pitting your own opinion against the received scholarship, which is, for anyone who doesn’t totally disdain the principle of expertise and might not have the critical vocabulary to articulate their disagreement, at least a little intimidating. When you look at a painting in a commercial gallery, you know that it has been determined by the market to have a financial value, which is typically presented as corresponding to its historical status, and again the viewer is led to the conclusion that it must be important, even if it looks like shit.
Unlike spare bedrooms, museums and galleries are designed to engineer your critical consent. You are not allowed to forget that you have entered a consecrated space that guarantees the quasi-spiritual value of the material contained within it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I wouldn’t have known as a teenager that Piet Mondrian was any good unless the Tate Modern had existed to tell me, and libraries existed so that I could work out why afterwards – but it can be hard to escape. When you look at a painting on the wall of your bedroom, you are liberated from these subtle instruments of coercion. I didn’t waste any time wondering whether this painting was good or bad relative to the value assigned to it by those authorities because I was too preoccupied with working out how to move a breeze through the space when the temperature hit 40 degrees, and so it instead was able to insinuate itself into my consciousness. It is, non-metaphorically, part of the furniture. I don’t have to go outside to see it. I don’t have to enter a physical or intellectual space that is pointedly separate from that in which I live. This has had profound effects on my relationship with it as a work of art.
A manufactured paradox might help to illustrate this collapse of inside and outside. Derrida’s statement that ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ was famously (‘famously’) mistranslated by Gayatri Spivak as ‘there is nothing outside the text’. I haven’t read Of Grammatology (1967) – I am inclined to be suspicious of anyone who says they have – but I’m going to reproduce and then further misrepresent Spivak’s version to suit my own purpose (which kind of creative misreading is what I faintly remember Derrida advocating anyway). That there is ‘nothing outside the painting’ could be taken to mean that my relationship to it is not determined by external data like the artist’s biography, its historical context, its provenance, and so on. The ‘meaning’ of the painting is thus perfectly self-contained. Yet the same sentence could be read in the opposite direction (to the same end). If there is nothing outside the painting, then everything must be inside it. The ‘meaning’ of the painting is radically open. Within the parameters of its world is the whole world.
Derrideans, please resist the urge to write in. I’ve abused that phrase because its paradox has come to stand in for my own contradictory sense of alienation from my surroundings and radical entanglement with them (as a vector through which a blithe virus can move). While I can recognise that the painting is independent from me, continues to be a painting when I am not in the room, its meaning for me is predicated on the circumstances of my long engagement with it.
What I read to be its satirical take on Hockney’s paean to the gated Hollywood lifestyle and the insulation of the artworld also serves as allegory for my own sequestered existence. From the safety of my fifth-floor balcony I have spent nights watching armed police storm the campus of Athens Polytechnic. If I level my gaze, I can see the Parthenon. I met a curator last week who told me that a homemade bomb had gone off on her street. I walk through protests, but I don’t know what they’re protesting against and I can’t ask. Back in East London, the British government has built a vast morgue in the park outside the house in which I was lodging. I carry on writing about art. The world of this painting is also my world. I’ve become unhealthily attached to it. All of which is to say that works of art are for living with.
[Footnote: Citing something called ‘journalistic ethics’ and ‘the critic’s responsibility to the artist’, neither of which he’s ever mentioned before, the editor insisted I find out the artist responsible: the painting is by Alexander Massouras and is entitled, I promise I didn’t know this at time of writing although it’s hardly a brilliant insight, A Bigger Splash.]
Featured image: Alexander Massouras, A Bigger Splash, 2008, oil on linen, 60 x 60cm, as seen from the author’s bedroom.