In and Out of Love (2012)
Updated: May 8
When I was studying for my MA, one of our assignments was to 'respond to a piece of art.'
Easy enough, but I began to worry, was hesitant to seek out something new, to create a new response. The thing is, sometimes I struggle to ‘respond’ to pieces of art. And I don’t mean respond negatively, I mean do not respond at all – at times all a painting or a photograph can draw from me is a step in the direction I was already walking in. Occasionally, both naively and arrogantly at the same time, I look at a painting and think ‘I could do that’. Which isn’t the point, at all.
But what, exactly, is the point? I have peppered walls of places I lived with attempts at homeliness. A sketch I took particular pride in, a postcard of a dreamy oil painting of a beach sent from someone’s holiday somewhere, when people still sent postcards. A photograph of my grandmother’s house on an idyllic afternoon, that was in fact taken on the afternoon of her funeral, but though I know the figures on the lawn are morose rather than relaxed, their faces are too far away to be seen. A calendar of illustrations taken from a children’s book, sketchy and dark. A few framed plates from an old botanist’s field guide. These are things I respond to. And each of these things, if created by an artist, would be pieces of Art.
Once, we took a train to the Southbank, and found ourselves retreating in the lobby of Tate Modern during a shower. It was a lazy Sunday when we had exhausted ‘Things to Do in London’, so we started at the beginning again. There was a Damien Hirst exhibition on, that month, and we duly paid and walked, in that sort of Sunday daze, through his surreal overblown pharmacy.
Walked, disengaged, through the centre of a cow.
And then through a room full of butterflies.
Full of butterflies that wove the edges of the picnics on the strange heathlands on the top of the moors, butterflies that make the sunshine in your back garden a little yellower, its sting a little warmer on your forearm. Butterflies whose fragility is so great that if you touch them, the scales will fall from their wings, and you would have taken from them their ability to fly. Butterflies once pierced with pins and held to a canvas, in the name of natural science. A butterfly can be summer, can be love, can be freedom, intangible because we cannot touch them.
The room had no windows.
Bowls of fruit on the table in the centre of the room, harshly lit as a hospital, were densely covered in wings, like mussels on a seaside rock. Some had become drunk, too much sugar at the tips of their almost-present legs, and sunk into a stupor. Gluttonous butterflies. Some of them frantically swirling around the room. Looking for something. Not looking for anything. Nihilist butterflies. Lots of them on the floor, blacker than the rest, colours faded. Dead butterflies.
I wanted to leave.
To leave, you moved into an antechamber, and waited for the butterflies that had settled onto your body, your brighter garments, to move off of their own volition. So they had some freedom of choice, at least. I began to panic, and I think I might have cried. And finally they let me leave; as though it was something you had to go through, like school or an airport scanner. Let you out into a room where the wings of butterflies were grafted into grand emulations of stained glass windows, and ashtrays were overflowing with cigarettes.
We left the exhibition, went to a different gallery. I looked for a painting I thought I remembered loving – a Renoir self-portrait. I think, I thought. I couldn’t find it. In fact, when I got home and googled it, the painting I came across was not the painting I thought it was. It was the painting I’d been looking at, but in my head I had changed it, I had thought it was brightly coloured and slightly abstracted. It was painted in dull, aged colours, and the man in the painting looked very different. I’d thought it was one of my favourite paintings. I suppose it was, but the way I had distorted it had changed it completely. I had looked at a frame on a wall for three minutes and thought about it for four years, and the painting had become something other than what it could possibly be for anybody else.
But those butterflies, those I remember. Exactly as they were.
Later, I read that 9000 butterflies died in the making of the exhibit.