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Thursday, 3 May 2012

The man with the photos of his sister's mess

Last Thursday, I decide to take a vacation*. Normally I write, but I decide on a day out up the East End. The break will last about twelve hours long and I have two aims, do whatever you feel like doing when you feel like doing it and be kind to yourself. I will travel there on The Ginger Line and return on the same day. I will have a sausage roll for breakfast, wine for lunch and who knows what for dinner.

Things have gone wrong lately. Not horribly wrong like when a high wind whips away your house and leaves a pile of wet collapsed walls, but certainly not according to plan. Strangely, I feel back to myself. Maybe because a shock jump-starts the heart and brings the body into feeling present. No one has died, so everything compared to that is manageable, right? I remind myself as long as there is writing and ideas for performance, as long as that urge keeps coming, there is hope. But still the year will not turn into the one I'd planned, the one I'd told people was going to happen.
My natural impulse is to jump on a plane and get lost, but I used to get paid to do that with British Airways. And it's against the advice I'd give anyone who thinks going travelling is a sure way to help an achy heart. If the backpacker in me asked me for advice, I'd tell them this; you can change the story of who you are anywhere on any day. No, that sounds naff. I'd tell them, the thing you're trying to leave is the thing that needs to be addressed. That however you think a different landscape will make things disappear, when you come back, the old you will be there at the airport leaning on the rail in the arrivals hall with your name on a piece of card wearing that corduroy jacket that you thought you'd got rid of. You know, the one with the writerly elbow patches that you'd decided made you look the part? So I say to myself calmly in the mirror, go for your vacation in East London and come home with a lovely souvenir**.
Gillian Wearing's show is on at the Whitechapel Gallery. I've been saving it up for when I needed a day of inspiration. The adventure reminds me of the time I walked through the snow in New York to see the film The Hours or when I trekked miles in Houston to find Rothko's Chapel. These were intense emotional moments when I was trying to sort out which way to go next, and become quiet enough so that I could hear what my heart was urging me to do.

So, I get off at Whitechapel and don't know where I am. I tell the man behind the glass window at the station that I have lost my bearings and he tells me to head right. Such simplicity, I think! The market stalls along the street are being set up. A phone stall, Indian clothing, phone stall, baby grows on hangers in plastic coats. One fruit and veg display breaks the repetition. Could be abroad, I think. Nothing is really stopping me from pretending I am abroad.
I wait for my friend outside the gallery as its not open yet. An attractive woman is waiting alongside me, shaking her umbrella. Another arty type arrives, demonstrating her arty-ness with an interesting hairstyle of hair divided up into sections held with colourful bobbles. So this is where they all are on a Thursday morning. My friend arrives a little late and hugs me. She says all the clocks have stopped in Stockwell and I don't think to ask why.
Gillian Wearing's art is about masks. She specialises in getting people to reveal aspects of themselves that would normally stay hidden. Her most famous piece is where she asks people to write on a big white bit of paper something they think or are hiding. They stand behind the piece of paper, it acting like a shield and pose for the camera. It is called Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say.

In Family Portraits She poses as each of her family members in prosthetic masks, her dark eyes shining out of each portrait uniting them. To the left she is her mother, to the right, her  brother. She wears a body prosthetic, contorted for six hours during shooting the frame.

All images copyrighted to Gillian Wearing

Then there are the confessional videos in where people tell their secrets. It's a bit like Post Secret, the postcard confessional art project TED Talks - Frank Warren but more in depth. 
In 1994, Gillian Wearing places an ad in Time Out magazine: Confess all on video. Don't worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian...

A man wears a prosthetic mask. It covers everything but his eyes and part of his lips. He starts by saying, today you're getting to see the internal me, people at work only get to see the external me. At the age of four he was locked in his room as his mum and dad were heavy drinkers. It used to make him late for school because they would lie in hungover and not let him out until they had come to. He got bullied at school because his parents spent all the money on drink, so he was in second hand clothes. His Alsatian was his only friend and sleeps with him in his room. The dad left and a new man appeared. The dog growled at the new man, didn't let him near the boy.
One day he got home from school and the dog wasn't there. The new man started to beat him up, pounding fists into him. He tried to drown the boy in the bath. One day he threw the boy in the Thames. The boy survived miraculously by grabbing hold of a mooring rope, though after he pretended to the Ambulance man that he'd just slipped in. He didn't know why he lied about it. The boy got older. He learnt to become top dog through bullying the bullies at school while he remained powerless at home.
Then he was in foster care. He pretended to be the carer's child when at school. He saw a photo of a family trip to America and pretended he went to America to all the school kids. He started to stand out at football, and got some attention and was asked to play for a good team by a well known footballer. But his real mum said no, that he had to concentrate on his school work. His dreams were crushed.
Then, when he was sixteen, he killed a random stranger in the street by banging their head over and over on the pavement. It made sense when you listened to the whole story, every detail leading up to that point. For the first time I could understand how someone might kill someone and it's frightening. It exposes the wilderness within, the dark violent woods, the empty black space under the bed, which we do well hiding from most of the time. We get used to covering things up as grown ups.
As the man was speaking I think how weirdly eloquent he was about it all, but then the story must have gone through his mind over and over as he sat in his cell, connecting all the pieces together.
After many years, he got out of prison and has now got a job working in a call centre. Everyone thinks he's the funny bloke in the office, the right laugh. They all want him around. He puts on a front, then goes home alone to his bedsit. He knows people won't understand the truth of his past if he tells them. Everything is built on lies, he says, because if one person gets to see that horrible little monster hidden in the cage, the people who he talks to at work wouldn't talk to him any more and he'd lose everything. It's only because of his lies and the fact he hides things that he gets to have a job, and is able to speak to people, because without that false person that he is, he knows he would have nothing at all.

Later that night, I go to the pub to meet my sister. She brings the friends along she used to work with at Barclays bank in the nineties. They all agree around the table that they hate Barclays Bank, and call it soul destroying work. I can sympathise, as I worked temporarily as a machinist in Knightsbridge for a while, buggering up millionaires accounts by typing in the wrong amount of zeros when processing cheques.
My sister's friend, Paul, has suffered from depression since he took voluntary redundancy. He is quiet and doesn't speak much nowadays. For occasional work he moves computer equipment in hospitals. As we sit there his wife speaks up for him, says he enjoys pressing the buttons to turn all the computers off, that he enjoys watching all the screens go blank as the big systems are shut down. The only time I see him animated is when he gets out his phone and shows pictures of the inside of his sister's house. He explains she earns over seventy thousand pounds a year. On his iphone he flicks through six or seven shots; inside her spare room he points out the bin bags, the old toys, the suitcases piled high on top of one another. In her kitchen he points out all the plastic containers she keeps on the surfaces. Then he shows me inside her wardrobe, the shoved jumpers, the piles of socks and a photo of a balding patch of carpet in the small bedroom. I am supposed to be shocked, I think. I realise this is his story, like someone would normally turn up at the pub with a joke, or an anecdote about work. I realise that this is all that he is able to show of himself. And when they ask how I am doing, I say I'm fine, everything is really fine.

 *I prefer the word vacation to holiday. To vacate = empty, quit, clear (good daring words).

**I bought three postcards and a half price book on self-portraiture.

1 comment:

  1. Such a vivid account of a day's experiences! I am stunned by your writing - in a good way, of course. Jx