from Miles and Mabel, a novella
Tate Britain was crowded. Mabel and I weren’t the only citizens that had come out to look at an artwork the artist described as possessing the qualities of nothing.
“It’s more powerful than I was expecting,” I said.
The room was shady, as though the gallery was the deep white basin of a pool now emptied of water. The lights blinked on, then off, like eyelashes opening and closing in a soft flutter.
I laughed but it wasn’t cynical, it was completely spontaneous.
Martin Creed was a man my age and yet he was a vaulted contemporary artist thriving on the presentation of a simple idea.
Mabel and I waxed and waned, walking together, drifting apart, rounding the room in contemplative circles.
“What do you think?” I asked.
Mabel shook her head. “I don’t know.”
We spoke in dipped voices as though the gallery was a church. This happened in libraries too, but it made more sense in a library as people were trying to read, to concentrate. At the Tate the gallery had been emptied out and we were just rounding the walls of our minds. The artist had made a temple out of nothing, yet it moved me.
“I like it,” I said.
Mabel and I walked into the next small room. A video played on the end wall. The video was of a white uniform door, opening then closing shut. The sound filled the room – open, shut – along with the hum of the projector, its funnel of blue light – the dust, the spiralling dust, everywhere around us tiny particles of dust. A few people stood in the dimness, watching the video, their faces as unreadable as the work.
In the bookshop, I often watched the dust dancing in the sunlight and it calmed and soothed me. Other times I found it alarming, and I felt as inert as a bookcase, as though I had turned into a wooden shelf and was just there, a part of the shop, with no story, no narrative of my own. Here at the gallery, the narrative was also slight, insubstantial: the door opened, then shut. Were the lights perpetually turning on, or off?
It was an experience my Mother would not have thought much of. I could imagine her frowning and saying, “Well, I suppose it’s very clever.” Somehow that made me feel very small and far away from my origins and for a second I hated Creed’s work, as though it was a personal affront to my Mother and her life, to ordinariness, to humanity. I suspected it was the same rage that welled up in the papers, this cry of the common man, “don’t call me stupid!” and I recognised it as a cliché, but also felt it to be true. Creed’s work functioned on the mechanism of a joke; its success was founded as much in what it chose not to do.
Mabel stood next to me and tugged at my coat. “It reminds me of my old office job,” she said. “ I hated working in an office. It was so boring. Worse than the bookshop.”
We left the gallery and I couldn’t speak for a while.
I plugged my hands in my jacket pockets and we wandered along the Thames together, Mabel linked her arm resolutely through mine and as we strode through London, I imagined that we looked like Bob Dylan and his girlfriend on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, only I was a lot less freewheelin’ and Mabel wasn’t quite as good looking. The current moved quickly through the middle of The Thames, the water pigeon grey, turbulent. A hard rain didn’t fall but it looked like the sky was thinking about it.
“We shouldn’t have gone to the Tate,” Mabel said.
“Why?” I said.
“It’s depressed you,” she said.
“I’m depressed anyway,” I answered.
“I know.” Mabel snuggled under the wing of my jacket and I held her in a half embrace.
Big Ben chimed. Three O’clock. Sunday afternoon.