Authors: Will Self
And with thanks
to D. J. O.
âAn ape, a most ill-favoured beast.
How like us in all the rest?'
âWhen I come home late at night from banquets, from social gatherings, there sits waiting for me a half-trained little chimpanzee and I take comfort from her as apes do. By day I cannot bear to see her; for she has the insane look of a bewildered half-broken animal in her eye; no one else sees it, but I do and I cannot bear it.'
A Report to the Academy
Simon Dykes, the artist, stood, rented glass in hand, and watched as a rowing eight emerged from the brown brick wall of one building, slid across a band of grey-green water, and then eased into the grey concrete of another building. Some people lose their sense of proportion, thought Simon, but what would it be like to lose your sense of perspective?
“Disastrous for a painter â”
“I'm sorry,” Simon blurted, imagining for a second that he had spoken aloud.
“They're disastrous for a painter,” reiterated George Levinson, who had come up by Simon's elbow and now stood beside him, looking out of the plate-glass window that faced on to the river.
“By that I take it you mean they're disastrous for
painter.” Simon half turned towards George's ruminant profile and swept an arm to encompass the white space of the gallery, the big oblong canvases, and the posing private openeers, who stood about in loose groups, arms cocked, as if they were some tableau vivant intended to exhibit human social interactions.
“Hardly.” George slurped some Chilean wine out of his rented glass. “Sold the lot. Sold the lot, every one shot with a little red dot. No, I mean the technique
for a painter such as yourself, this idea of silk screen laid over photogravure. I mean, I know it isn't that â um â remarkable in and of itself, but you have to admit that the finished result does have something â¦ something of the heft â”
“Of oils? Of painting in oils. Fuck off, George. I'll fire you if you say another word.” And painter turned away from dealer to resume staring out through the ravine of buildings, across at the
of modernist apartment blocks and Victorian mansion blocks on the Battersea side of the river.
The outer eddies from the opening reached the two men, a skirl of chamber music nouveau, a waft of Marlboro smoke, a couple of youngsters, who leant against a nearby pillar, the girl's sateen-hosed thigh gently rubbing her companion's corduroy crotch, while sheep-like they cropped on one another's faces. Islanded, Simon and George stood together with the quiet assurance of men who have stood thus many times before, the mood that held them unforced.
Another rowing eight nosed out from the brown brick building, hovered on its glaucous cushion in the masonry frame, the cox at the back clearly visible â baseball hat, loudhailer â and then slid into the grey concrete like a vast hypodermic powered by eight hearty junior doctors. “No,” said Simon. “No, I was thinking when you came up â¦ thinking, looking at this” â he poked a finger at the square of Thames, the oblongs of building, the garnishes of green to the side â “what a terrible thing it would be for a painter to lose his sense of perspective.”
“I thought that was the whole point of a great swathe of
abstract art this century, the attempt to view without preconceptions, cubism, fauvism, vorti â”
“â That's loss of perspective as an intellectual assumption. I'm talking about real loss of perspective, a sort of perspective
where all depth of field is eradicated, where all that can be grasped is form and colour mutating within a single plane.”
“You mean like some sort of neurological disorder? What do they call it, agnopho â”
“â Agnosia, yeah, I suppose â¦ I'm not quite sure what I mean, but I'm not talking about a CÃ©zanne-inspired viewing-of-the-world-anew, but a diminution. It's perspective that provides the necessary third continuum for vision and maybe consciousness as well. Without it an individual might no longer be able to apprehend time, might â¦ might have to relearn time in some way, or be left in a sliver of reality, imprisoned like a microbe in a microscope slide.”
“It's a thought,” Levinson replied after some seconds had elapsed, including himself out of it.
“Simon Dykes?” A woman had approached during this speech and stood, hovering between diffidence and assertiveness, hand forward, body leant back and away, as if the latter were the appendage.
“I'm sorry to interrupt â”
“It's OK, I was just â” and George Levinson was gone, heading back across the lack-of-industry white floor-covering, an adipose wader of a man, dipping his bill into knots of people as he went, dropping one name here and picking up another over there, amply justifying a recent
glossy magazine article which had described him as âthe most proficient room-worker in the London art world'.
“That's George Levinson, isn't it?” the woman said. She was round-faced with wavelets of black hair tossed about on the top of her head. Down below her clothing encased rather than draped her small, gibbous body.
“Yes, that's right.” Simon didn't want to sound as off-putting as he knew he did, but the opening fatigue was upon him and he didn't want to be there.
“Does he still handle you?”
“Oh no, no no, not any more, not since we were at prep school together in fact, then he would often handle me in the locker room after games. Nowadays he just sells my paintings for me.”
“Ha-ha!” The woman's laugh wasn't forced â it wasn't a laugh at all, more an allusion to the possibility of humour. “I know that, of course â”
“Then why did you ask?”
“Look.” The woman's face puckered, and Simon could see in that instant that petulant resentment was her natural cast of mind, all the rest a tremendous effort of will. “If you're going to be rude â”
“No, I'm sorry, really â¦” He raised a hand, fingers outstretched, and then tamped down the thickening atmosphere between them, patted it into the shape of niceness, patted it and even patted her wrist a little. “I didn't mean to sound so sharp, I'm tired and â¦” He had felt her wrist, the band of her watch, steel, the edge of her wrist bone sharp as his tone,
bird bones, sparrow bones, splintered bones.
His eyes slid to the window even as he patted, and there in the notch of river swirled a thrown handful of birds â
swallows presumably â fusing into flock then fissioning back into individuals, like thoughts in a disordered mind. Simon thought of Coleridge, and then drugs. Funny that, like a synaesthesia of concepts, some people âhear' the doorbell as green, I think Coleridge as drugs, or birds as Coleridge, or birds as drugs â¦ And Simon thought then of Sarah, her pubic hair specifically, and only then of the woman walking into his mind, under his very eyes, in through his very eyes â no perspective, you dig? â and looking over its contents to see if there was anything to use. “I don't mean to be so rude. I'm tired, ope â”
“You must be, what with your new show opening soon. Are you good on deadlines?”
“No, not really. I tend to be painting the day before an opening, and then stretching and framing most of the ni â” He faltered. “I'm going to be rude again. Before I say anything more I ought to know who I'm talking to.”
She flipped her birdlike claw under his hand and didn't so much shake it as scratch the palm. “I came to this, but I don't think there's much I can write about her, so it's a bit of a result for me â¦ seeing you here. â¦ out and about â so to speak â in the week before the new show â¦” Like a faltering engine, she died. The pause hunched between them in unequal space.
“Her?” queried Simon after a decent while.
“Manuella Sanchez,” Vanessa Agridge replied, tapping him on the arm with a rolled-up copy of the catalogue in a way she imagined to be flirtatious. Simon looked at her with his new perspectiveless vision: blob-shaped muzzle, slashed red, topped with blackish fur, blackish fur below. It
swelled some, slash gaped to show canines, and she continued. “She's meant to be so
â anyway, that's what her people said â but she isn't. Just dull. Nothing to say for herself.”
“But the work, isn't that what you're here to write about, her work?”
“Hngfh”' she snorted, “no, no,
is more of a featuresey thing, artists' lives, lifestyles and so forth. My editor calls it âVasari for the venal'.”
“Isn't it.” She lifted her rented glass to her lips, sipped, and viewed him over the rim. “So, your show, figurative work? Abstracts? A return to your conceptual stuff like
World of Bears?
What can we expect?”
Simon put on his perspective again and looked afresh at Vanessa Agridge. Her thickly applied pancake was almost friable when zoomed in on; her face not blobby, beaky in fact, her eyes rather on the raw, ducty side. Simon made weird assessments of volume, mass, weight, alcohol-by-volume, then flared his nostrils and caught primitive whiffs of her, then with remote sensors traced the webbing beneath the pouching of her clothes, sent one psychic probe into her anus, the other into her left nostril. He turned her anatomy inside out, sockwise, and in the process quite forgot who the fuck she was, what the fuck she had said up until now, and so told her.
“Certainly not abstract. I think non-representational painting has finally gone the way LÃ©vi-Strauss predicted, âa school of academic painting in which the artist strives to represent the manner in which he would execute his paintings if he were by any chance to paint some.' “
“That's very good,” said Vanessa Agridge, “very â¦ witty. Could I use it, do you think â credited, of course.”
“Credited to LÃ©vi-Strauss, it's his observation, as I said.”
“Of course, of course â¦” a Dictaphone had appeared in her, bird-like, prestidigitated, on. Simon hadn't noticed. “So, they're portraits then, still lifes â”
He remembered smoking a stolen cigarillo in a marsh, his mother's world-girdle, his father's penis, stubby, circumcised â
“Are they sort of Bacon-y, or maybe” â she tittered â “Freud-y. You know, peeling away the bloom from a woman's body, externalising her anatomy, sort of â”
“They're love paintings.”
Piss-in-pants, piss-on-floor. That very bilious bead. Piss lives with lino. Or maybe Piss Lives With Lino. Titlewise that is
“They're what?” Vanessa Agridge had the Dictaphone up by her pig-like â crushed, flat, bristly â the way some other jerks held cellular phones.
“Love paintings. They're paintings that in a quite straightforward, almost narrative way describe my love for the human body. My thirty-nine-year affair with the human body.”
In the minutes they had been at contraflow with one another the opening had begun to close. The openeers swam towards the doors of the gallery, sluiced here and there into little whirlpools of further sociability. George Levinson floated by them and slowly revolved to face Simon. “Are you coming on, Simon?”