Exhibition + book: THE DEATH OF A BEAUTIFUL SUBJECT
24 photographs of butterflies, retouched so as to distract from the original butterfly subject matter. The publication also includes extracts drawn from an email dialogue between the artist and her father, and a narrative text, reproduced below.
The Death of a Beautiful Subject was published by GOST in 2015
145 x 185 mm / 64 pages / Hardback, bound with two tone cloth / ISBN: 978-1-910401-06-4
THE DEATH OF A BEAUTIFUL SUBJECT
A bird like that? ‘e’d ‘ave yer eye out – wi’ that beak…
She stares at the faded sign, imagines the bird swooping towards her, its head turned sharply to one side so that its eye, on the side of its head, is looking squarely at her. It would have to turn its head at the last minute, just before the impact, and with a mighty swipe, plunge its open beak deep into the socket of her eye.
She wonders at the strength of the bird, the force of the blow, but more than that, she wonders at its intention; would a bird ever do that? Swans in pictures always look so calm.
* * *
I’m in the darkened, carpeted spaces, the innards of the Science Museum, and in all sorts of ways, am battling. The last time I was here, in the Climate Zone I’d read how 9000 years of climate history is stored in the growth rings of trees. I’m finding it difficult to retrace my steps, and when I eventually do, I’m taken aback by how unremarkable an exhibit it is. The cross section of tree, heavily preserved in a thick layer of varnish is smaller than I remember and, bathed in an ugly blue filtered light, the institutional code for science, seriousness, drama, the future.
“Scientists examine the width, cell density and isotropic make-up of the rings to shed light on past climate behaviour.”
Nearby is a stalagmite, its upward trajectory emphasized by the exaggerated proportions of the Perspex tower in which it is housed. It has been sliced down its length and held in place by a series of pins; defined and contained by the language of the museum, so much of it ‘invisible’. I gaze up at it. It seems to have been preserved, all the life drawn out of it, but in what, it is impossible to tell because it has lost all trace of materiality. I’ve been thinking about something else all day and it’s making me feel exhausted.
There’s another slab of wood, the headboard of a bed I’d bought at Borough Market many years before. A French Peasants Bed, according to the dealer, and I’d pictured it against the whitewashed wall of a French farmhouse, owned by a couple, in whose family it had been for generations. One side of the headboard had a dark stain that I lived with for years until my first day in our new flat in Mornington Street, when I sat on the unfamiliar floor and rubbed at it with an orange scented polish more oily and alien and abject than any kind of stain, until the mark had faded to a blur.
* * *
It’s early, we’ve only just met, but already I am drunk. I stand up and as I do, am interrupted by a flash; shiny white china against my black woollen sleeve, a small crash and my side plate and bread roll have fallen to the floor.
I walk away, confused, concentrating on the next few steps I know I must take, somehow understanding I am walking oddly, an exaggerated sense of purpose. The door is ahead of me, still some paces away, and I make for it, past the steaming heat of the kitchen, somewhere a fire, the clanking of plates, stunned, reassured, by the unexpected clarity and stillness of its warm wooden veneer. It’s dark, hot, noisy, indifferent in there but still I am stung with shame.
Even now, ten years later, I don’t want to know if he remembers that night.
* * *
My dad had a camera, and I can still see the barrel of it resting on the varnished surface of the mahogany drinks cabinet, next to the door in the sitting room. The lens was heavy, a Ground Lens, said proudly, it being ‘ground’ signifying some sort of extra specialness. It made me think of the ground, the earth. Not the Earth, but the earth outside in the garden, big heavy clods of red soil that my dad would spend weekends digging, and one day after lunch I would bury a dead gerbil in an ornamental pot and some time later, on spilling the contents of the pot out on to the grass, would see, just for a second, the soft, almost moist, absolutely brilliant white fragments of gleaming bone crumbling back into the soil almost as soon as they were unearthed.
Somewhere, there is a picture of my dad taken with that same camera. He’s smiling, sitting in his customary position, ankles crossed, knees apart, and elbows resting on them, a position that seemed to take up so much space. It is the first picture of him that I have ever taken and I grip the tool, its centre of gravity all askew, just a little too tight. My nose is pressed up against it and the whole back of it starts to moisten up with my breath. I stare forward and there he is in the distance of the viewfinder. My other eye is also open so while I see this miniature version of him with one eye, I see darkness with the other and my eyelashes tickle against the black casing of the camera as I blink, because I have not yet learned how to close one eye and keep the other open.
* * *
I’m with my uncle and I am making a sound recording of him talking about how they would go hunting for butterflies. He describes how the butterflies would be killed with chloroform and then pinned out on a setting table.
Where is the collection now?
Well, those butterflies would decay. Insects would get in and destroy them. They just didn’t last forever.
We are sitting under the reach of a huge dark tree. It sways above us slowly, under lit by the spill of light from the kitchen window but apart from that it’s night and we are in the dark. The gusts of wind get stronger; distortions in the microphone make me feel tense. I keep needing to start again. My brother sits with us, and as is often the case I have no idea what he’s thinking. So we are sitting there with the giant mass of this tree overhead, rustling into the microphone and my uncle telling the same fragment of story again and again and the more he says it, the more stilted it becomes, but I keep asking him to repeat it. And then he says, ‘and now of course it’s the photography. He takes pictures of them’.
I thought about the pictures, imagined him making them, his camera poised, inches from his subject. I wanted to see them, already thinking of them as something that would belong to me, as something I would make my own.
* * *
I’m looking out of a big glass window, one that slides open, purrs smoothly on its runners, and the air outside is heavy with rain. It’s damp and warm in here, but if I put my hand on the window it would be cold, colder than the air and that has always seemed like a strange anomaly. All that warmth, unabsorbed. The house is empty except for me and my mum. She has just come in to the kitchen, with a note in her hand and now we are sitting on the sofa. She’s telling me that he has left, and my body heaves.
A new ‘she’ rises up inside me as the story unfolds in my mum’s familiar voice. The past, folding forwards into the present against the backdrop of life, of fulfillments, obligations, engagements. She goes back to the beginning, and tells it from the start, maybe hoping that the veneer of chronology will make it all clear. I can hear her voice but it’s not making much sense and I’m thinking about the tree and the stalagmite and how so many layers of time are present in a landscape, everything already there - you just have to know where, and how to look, and the tall hedgerows in the dank lanes in the village where they live, alive with summer and the echo of another time, another place, and everybody secretly, silently susceptible to that; Shepherd’s Purse, Jacob’s Ladder, Wych Elm. Star of Bethlehem.
About a year before, my dad’s wallet had been stolen while he and my mum were in Rome - a loss, a violation somehow made more vivid by him being there with my mum, but taken up by someone else. And as she spoke, I could picture the quiet desperation of this man, suffocating in the uncompromising heat, who knows he is to leave his wife because he has fallen in love with another woman.
Back to the sofa, soft and pink and the rain on the window, the wet smudged green of the garden behind and the story is coming to an end – now he’s left, and, well, what are we going to do now.
I need you to do something for me. I need you to drive over the bridge and put some petrol in my car.
Please go and get some petrol. Put petrol in the car. We need petrol.
Even now I can bristle when I hear her name. It falls like a weight, denting the fabric of my day. I can’t take a casual glance at the photos of this new family all mixed up with the older photos of us as kids, arranged in frames on their shelves and window ledges. The different layers, representations of this new arrangement need to be scrutinized in detail, preferably once I am left alone. Familiarity, reconfigured.
Ten years pass before we meet to talk.
There she is in front of me, and I am sitting in front of her. We are separated by a crisp white tablecloth, wine glasses, silverware, the stuff of manners, of politeness, etiquette. I had paused in a doorway, grim and disused, before coming up. I needed to take in the sense of anticipation, to remember what it was like before we had spoken, or met each other’s gaze. The door to the restaurant is made of glass and as I push it open, am spooked by the possibility that I had already seen her, without realizing who it was.
The waitress smiles, welcoming me.
I am meeting someone.
I say my name and am shown to a table right by the entrance, and the waitress takes my coat, and suddenly she has arrived and we have ordered our lunch from the oversized menu and we have started talking and I’m hot and then I am shaking and crying and saying sorry and she is saying that it’s ok.
As we talk, my gaze flits between her and the huge window behind. We are high up, on the fifth floor I think and from here I can see the rooftops of London, St Martins in the Fields, and the miniature dome on the top of ENO. It’s bright outside, the sun’s reflecting off the leaden roofs, the small seams of padded tar. There must be some sort of coating on the window because the clouds don’t look normal – they are slightly metallic, greenish, with a hint of magenta – and I wonder how that can be technically possible. Wouldn’t one hue counteract the other? Why don’t the layers collapse into each other? How can they co-exist? There must be some kind of difference that stops them balancing each other out – the green layer does not operate in quite the same register as the magenta one does. The clouds appear more contrasty than they really are – it’s like a photograph with a technical glitch.
* * *
There is something odd about the house now that he has gone – it feels lop-sided, a little bit empty, is taking time to rebalance, establish a different kind of centre. I’m looking for a photo that I haven’t seen for ages, a photo of my mum, with me as a baby lying asleep over her chest. That photo always seemed absolutely ancient, a relic from another time. The photo was kept on display in a scratched plastic photocube that I would inspect, endlessly, turning it and turning it but never being able to see all of the surfaces at once. One of the sides, the one turned away from me, would always hold some kind of a secret. We’d learnt about cubes in school but here was one in real life, one side of it always hidden, and also, upside down. I tug at it and it slides open, and the photographs inside fall gently to the floor. I see that they were not really square – that they had not been made square - but they had been inexpertly cut into that shape. The edges are rough, cracked. Brittle. Folded roughly over the cardboard insert so that inside the cube they would have overlapped.
The photograph of my mum and me lands on the table. And now I’m holding a piece of card that’s folded into a cube. It’s printed with more photographs – other photographs – photographs of strangers. A lady with a baby. A family who are happy, and more real, a small voice whispers, than my very own family.
* * *
Where is that photo? The one of me when I was a baby, lying over you? You are wearing a blue and white stripy top.
Oh that one. I don’t know. I was pregnant with James.
She keeps looking and finds the cube but it’s empty, apart from the faded cardboard insert. Cubit. Display Your Favorite Photographs! Made in Hong Kong. I turn it in my hands, prolonging this re-encounter. The subject in every picture is looking at the camera – the lady with her baby, the toddler at the fair, the pretty lady sitting in the grass, the parachuting man, and even the cat, photographed from above, has is neck arched backwards so that it looks directly into the lens.
* * *
I’d been on a residency in Dundee for a few weeks, living in a flat near the city centre. It was winter, the days were short, the trees bare, and outside, it was relentlessly, bitterly cold.
One Sunday with nothing planned, I woke early, and drove in the thin morning light to the beach because I wanted to run. It was hard running in the sand by the waters edge, but I felt powerful and strong, as if the trail of watery footprints I was treading deep into the soft sand could go on for miles.
So I’m running along, completely alone, and then I see something, another living thing, up ahead, lying on the sand, a few metres from the waters edge. As I get closer, I can see that it is a seal, and she is looking straight back at me. I’m struck by the familiarity of her face, which I recognize from photographs.
I try to get close but she pulls herself away and slips back into the sea and now she has gone. I go to where she was and there in the damp sand is the unmistakable imprint of her magnificent body. I kneel down and touch the smooth folds of compressed sand. And they are still warm.
* * *