by Jonathan Blaustein
Where were we? Right. London. I loved it. How’s that for succinct? Now you don’t have to read any further. (Just kidding.) It’s a fantastic city, one of the great spots on Earth. And of course, England and the United States have a “special relationship”, (as if I could make such a thing up) so there was lots to talk about.
My good friend Hugo, the deviser of the Art tour we began yesterday, moved from New York to London in 2007. He endured the Bush years, but missed all of Obama’s term. So he was incredulous when I told him that nobody talks about George W. Bush anymore. (From omnipotent to irrelevant in 4 short years.) Can you imagine? In Hugo’s mind, all that passion about W. was locked in time, and delivering the news of his obsolescence brought calcified shock to Hugo’s eyes. But I digress.
We left off on Friday, after visits to the British Museum and National Gallery of Art. My brain was tired, but we soldiered on. Our tea spot of the day was a cafe and bakery on the top floor of the Comme des Garçon store near Saville Row. The green tea and bacon-egg-tart were equally smashing. Our waitress was American, and dropped the word “bangin'” on us as if it drew gasps of pleasure from a more typically British crowd.
Then, on to some galleries up the street, right next to that famous fashion spot for bespoke suits. The first, Hauser & Wirth, had two separate galleries. One was lacking, and the other had some super-large, super-subtle paintings by the Dutch artist Michael Raedecker. They were panels, striated in pale pink, gray-silver, and green: Houses on a hill, chandeliers, and window curtains the symbolic motifs. Nice houses. Serene. Like on a hilltop outside LA. Easy living. (Sounds nice.)
The paintings were really, really beautiful. In the gallery, with its huge ceilings, white walls, concrete floors, insanely large square footage, nice ladies behind the counter…Pretty special.
Around the corner and up a short elevator ride, we went to see a Sarah Lucas exhibit at Sadie Coles. The woman working there, again friendly, was wearing this wicked Victorian-collar-meets-well fitting-short-dress, in black. It was seemingly on trend, as one of the ladies at MACK wore something similar that morning, in blue. (Not that we’re here to talk about fashion.)
The show was insane for three reasons. One, there was a video by the artist’s boyfriend (of course), in which he was playing with himself dramatically, while wearing fake boobs. And homeboy was selling it. It was so offensive it was hard to look away, so I didn’t. I watched for a solid two minutes, and make of that what you will.
Two, the artist, Sarah Lucas, had a piece in another room of a raw chicken hanging off of a hanger with cooked eggs. (The chicken has to be changed when it starts to smell.) Three, was a large-mural photograph, printed right on the wall, of a giant T-shirt, with just the middle of the nipples worn out on each side. I asked if it was editioned, and I was told yes. Ed. of 5. “Made to measure.” And I’m not making that up. That’s exactly what she said. Right next to Saville Row.
That night, I had dinner with a motley crew of global photographers at a Turkish restaurant in North London. We set the whole thing up in an online Facebook chat, if you can believe it, and I walked from Hugo’s place down the road. En route, I saw a road called Ennis, and some clever bloke had painted on a P at the front. Then, he claimed his credit: “Cletus wuz ‘ere, ’12.” Nicely done, Cletus. Nicely done.
Sitting down at Petek, ravenous, I started scarfing olives until I could catch my breath. And with whom was I to dine? Ben was British, Hin an Australian of Chinese descent, Dana from Romania, Liz another Brit, and Maja from Sweden. They all loved living in London, were working on totally disparate projects, (Romanian youth identity, Occupy St. Pauls, following the entirety of the Rio Grande River…), and seemed fulfilled in their careers. Wait, that’s so boring. No controversy? Sorry, not that night.
Saturday took us to the Burough Market, near the London Bridge tube stop, where we shopped for some of the most fantastic products I’ve seen. There was a dinner planned for that night, and we wandered the stands looking for inspiration. We ended up going the Italian route, as these were things that don’t exist in New Mexico. Mozzarella di Bufala, Grana Fiorentina, bresaola, rocket (arugula), fragrant lemon, tortolloni di cingale (wild boar,) and fresh garlic shoots to top it off. Our dessert of hazelnut, chocolate and coconut gelato was purchased the night before. Like I said, Hugo doesn’t mess around.
Art wise, we went to the Hayward Gallery, another public space, right up the way. (Though we did scarf down a Syrian Schwarma at the outdoor food market just below the entrance. Delicious.) This gallery does cost money to enter, and it’s a part of the massive, partly-Brutalist Southbank Centre on the edge of the Thames. Very beautiful spot. (Have I said that already? Are you sensing a theme?)
Two British artists, like Sarah Lucas a part of the famed YBAs, were paired together, Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley. Each, on its own, would have been a brilliant experience. Together, they were good enough that I deemed myself (incorrectly) done viewing Art for the rest of the trip.
We went into the Deller exhibit first, as it was on the ground floor. Both men work in multiple media, including a fair dash of photography, and utilize humor, wit and pathos. Straight off, we entered a room filled with Music posters and random photos, cramped and not exactly special. Next, a fake bathroom with a real toilet, as an installation, with people queued up to enter. OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Next, a huge wall mural, painted in dark gray, that said I Heart Melancholy. But the heart was an emoticon. Which I don’t know how to type properly.
Then, a photo print on mirrored stainless steel, a hanging video of dancing weirdos, a functioning restaurant in the middle of the gallery space, a couple of super-well-done photo series, a newspaper and reading lounge, an exhibit of professional wrestling capes, a whole section called “My Failures,” where he shows projects that never happened, and finally, miraculously, a 3D video, in a dark room filled with strangers, of 10 million bats emerging from a cave in Texas. Try reading that sentence again ten times, and you might understand how I felt coming out of the bat cave. I normally get headaches from 3D glasses, and this was no exception. But it was worth it.
I soldiered upstairs to see David Shrigley’s exhibition, from whence my memories are more fuzzy. Mr. Shrigley’s work was even funnier and odder, or perhaps just equally so. The first thing you see is a melted foam fisherman in hip boots. No, sorry, before that was of course the headless fabric ostrich. Then, a photo of a red sign on green grass that said “Imagine this green red.” A grocery list on an actual tombstone. A series of line drawings, animated, as black on white music videos. And, of course, a stuffed Jack Russell terrier in a vitrine holding a picket sign that said “I’m dead.” Just one more? On a wall pedestal, a 1 ft tall brass bell, next to it a sign saying “Not to be rung again until Jesus returns.”
That was one dense paragraph. And I didn’t even cover 1/4 of the show. You get the point. Clever stuff. Witty, smart, creative, and powerful in person too. Together, this was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time, alongside “September 11”, which was a Bizarro version. (Tragic/Comic)
Spent, I said I was done. I told Hugo, “No more. No more. Have mercy.” Even one more espresso/lemon tart pit-stop, and a walk along the Thames, didn’t clear my head enough. (Sample surreality: a three-piece Gypsy jam band, an African guy playing the saxaphone, and an Afghan man selling fake peacock feathers: all within 90 seconds on the Thames.) But then we found ourselves, mere steps from the tube stop, standing right outside the beautiful, Gothic, Southwark Chapel.
I. Could. Not. Help. Myself. So we went in.
Huge, vaulted ceilings, dark and imposing, it was irresistible. We slowly walked towards the crucifix ahead, and it glimmered. What? We got closer, and it was clearly metal. Just as I spied a route to get us closer, the deepest, darkest, scariest-sounding,two-story-high organ began to play, directly above my head. So, so, so frightening. Hugo said, “Remember, these were the guys who invented Halloween.”
I shook off the sound, and walked around that corner and up to the statue. A metal screaming Jesus, pierced by countless spears. That’s right, screaming. “Die Harder,” by David Mach of the Royal Academy. Recent, contemporary Art, displayed in a Gothic Cathedral. Not a merciful god, this.
Next, the very next minute, no lie, with the organ thumping in the background, and the scary Jesus sculpture shimmering behind me, Hugo tapped me on the shoulder, and there, a cat padded down the hall towards us. Then he skulked by, and disappeared. (This is not a work of fiction.) Have you had enough?
That night was a beautiful dinner party for my birthday, so the next day required a late start. (Especially as it featured the only real rain I saw all trip.) Hugo’s loft has got a partly glass roof, so we squirmed off much of the ensuing hangover by drinking crazy-special tea from China, and watching the gray clouds move across the sky. I said, “No more art. I can’t do it. Please, don’t make me.”
Eventually hunger, if nothing else, drove us across London, in the Porsche, in the rain. On to the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the other Crown Jewels of London. (Really, it was straight to the coffee shop.) We sat in the Victoria Room, which was suitably decorated, and ate currant scones with jam and clotted cream. We drank Lapsang Souchong tea, which is smoked. I’d heard of it before, but did not believe such things existed in actual realty. (Ever the economist, I assumed it was like a widget, a fictional product that doesn’t exist.)
What did I see, that you’d want to know about, that you could even possibly remember, after reading both of these articles? How about a golden kimono made of cannibal spider silk? One million spiders, to be exact. Or a stone tiger urinal from 6th Century China? Or, crazier still, a plaster replica of Trajan’s column from Rome, to scale, at 38 meters high and 3.8 meters wide. For you Americans, that’s 125 feet tall. (Imagine the roof on this place.)
Then, cruel twist of fate, the last gallery we visited housed the permanent photography collection. (The second to last show was the Cecil Beaton portraits of the Queen, which is not free, and totally, I repeat, totally, worth skipping.) As for the final act, let’s just list the names, shall we? Amazing examples all: Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Muybridge, EJ Bellocq, Atget, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Frank, Friedlander, Ed Rushca, and El Lissitzky. Just. One. Room.
At that point, the Museum was about to close, so they chased us out. Hugo and I stopped for sea urchin at a secret-sushi spot, and then drove home, exhausted. I caught a plane the next morning.
What else is there to say? London is fantastic. You should go there. That is all.