"I Sit Naked in an Extremely Cold, Empty Room, Waiting for the Public to Dress Me"


"The great man is he who in the midst of the crowds keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Last night, on something like a whim, we went with some friends to an opening at Modern Art Oxford. I like art, but I have to be honest: the real art, at events like this, is the crowd (the free wine doesn't hurt either). And Oxford's artsy hordes didn't disappoint. Girls in striped dresses and red heels, or outlandish outfits straight from a very colourful fever dream, men in suits and bad floral ties snapping photos, an appearance by the Lord Mayoress of Oxford (wearing of course the strange medal around her neck which only a society whose lawyers still wear white wigs could condone).

I thought of this rumination on the flâneur, by Baudelaire: "The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite." I thought that the real joy of a museum is not necessarily what it holds but who it draws.

Put another way, in Graeme Gilloch's Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City: “The flâneur is that character who retains his individuality while all around are losing theirs. The flâneur derives pleasure from his location within the crowd, but simultaneously regards the crowd with contempt, as nothing other than a brutal, ignoble mass.”

Eventually, when I was done regarding the crowd with writerly contempt whilst simultaneously basking in the glow of it, I wandered around the actual exhibits: Raphael Zarka's "Encounters" and Regina José Galindo's "The Body of Others". Zarka's highly geometric series of photographs and sculpture (see the photograph above, courtesy of The Man) were easy on the eyes and pleasant to behold (I only mention this because it is, as you shall presently see, so deeply in contrast to Galindo's videos). The photographs, images of huge isolated structures (mainly concrete), were not in themselves extraordinary, though they were nicely rendered; it was the knowledge that these structures, which were man-made but utilitarian in nature, had only become art through Zarka's transposition of them, which made the exhibit thrilling.

But then maybe it's hardly surprising that I liked Zarka: "True to Zarka's interest in the essay form," writes Acting Director of Modern Art Oxford and the exhibition’s curator Suzanne Cotter, "Geometry Improved consists of a literal as well as speculative narrative of formal enquiry...he describes himself as a collector, rather than a maker of objects...the artist sees his work more akin to the cabinet of curiosities, an activity of subjective classification, in which objects are freed from the weight of history and combined in such a way as to suggest new interpretations."

This is only intertextuality redrawn, where intertextuality refers to the relations-between-texts (texts in this case not necessarily referring to words on a page, of course); and a refreshing view on the act of creation. But on a personal level I like it because there's an extent to which it describes the genre of writing that I engage in (and with)--and therefore the genre of my book. Freeing objects (places, texts) from "the weight of history", combining them, suggesting new interpretations. It sounds lofty but just about doable, doesn't it? If you don't believe me, read Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel.

The second exhibit I visited was Regina José Galindo's The Body of Others. If I hadn't been on my third glass of free wine, I doubt I would have lingered for more than a few cursory seconds, but my senses had been dulled by Oddbins' Own white and I found myself as if hypnotized, drawn to the horrific images of Galindo, naked, being hosed down, forced to her knees, and Galindo, naked, pregnant, tied to a bed, and Galindo, naked (are you seeing a theme here?), being drawn on by a Venezuelan plastic surgeon, and Galindo (clothed this time!) swinging (as if hung) from a bridge, reading poetry, and Galindo, clothed, carrying a bowl of human blood, leaving red footprints. The worst of all was Galindo, clothed, with her head forced into a barrel of water, like a perverse aping of the torture scene in a spy film. We see enough of this kind of violence already, don't we?

But to give the artist her credit, there was, downstairs, a tiny video installation, a 23 minute long film entitled "Rompiendo el Hielo" (Breaking the Ice), which I found very good indeed. The subheading read: "I sit naked in an extremely cold, empty room, waiting for the public to dress me," and this struck me as almost uncomfortably poetic, as if it was a line from a text, now stripped bare of context and as naked and cold as Galindo herself. The Man and I stood for some time, watching the artist seated on a bench, watching the people watching her. What I liked about the video is twofold. She ends up clothed, first of all, which is (at least in comparison to, for instance, the video of her cowering by a wall with a heavy spray of water pushing her down) almost an admittance of hopefulness (the public will, if you give them long enough, at least metaphorically dress you).

But also (and I can only hope this was deliberate), the idea of the video mirrored the thoughts I'd had earlier about the flâneur; about our place in the crowd, about our being both within and outside of it. "The flâneur derives pleasure from his location within the crowd, but simultaneously regards the crowd with contempt, as nothing other than a brutal, ignoble mass" again. For a moment, anyway (or 23 minutes of cold) Galindo was a true flâneur, and we, by extension, got to taste the flânerie firsthand.