For the Sake of Art

For the Sake of Art

Barbara Kasten, Photogenic Painting Untitled 75/21, 1975, Cyanotype, 30 x 40 in (76.2 x 101.5cm), Unique. Courtesy the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; Kadel Willborn Gallery, Düsseldorf. © Barbara Kasten.

When I’m bored I like to see how things look underwater. It was an idea I had after discovering one of Barbara Kasten’s later photographic paintings. She calls them that because she’s trying to transcend conventional categories through art, and as a person. I realise that this in itself is nothing special. I’ve been trying to become formless since I was twenty-two, having experimented with being a child, a boy, a punk, a lover, a girlfriend, a friend, a critic, an enemy, an assistant, a deviant, a radical, a good girl, a woman. Now, the aim is not nothing — I want to exist — but it’s not anything either. It’s moving around me in a wild, ruthless dance and I can see it sometimes, a quick passing imprint of another self. So I don’t blame Barbara; she might be holding herself back with her transparency, but she’s closer than I’ll ever be and if we met, I’d tell her, transcendence has layers, and she’d know exactly what I mean.

The image that I’m obsessed with shows a kind of meshy blue fabric that’s been arranged to look like something else, which is more or less the same concept behind all of her work. To me, it’s the surface of a very deep pool of water viewed behind a pane of textured glass. I’m thinking of a tank in an aquarium where you can see the line of water if you press your face against it and look upwards. What’s important is that at the same time as seeing water behind glass, I am also seeing mesh fabric, and that’s what I love about Barbara. She shows that one thing can be two things at the same time without losing anything in the process. I don’t care about the science.

The first time, I dropped a nectarine into the bath from a height to make it dramatic and memorable. A small bomb, spraying water droplets against my t-shirt and the walls. It felt like pure ecstasy, but what I didn’t know then is that it’s not about the splash itself, but the quality of the stillness that comes afterwards.

It took a while for me to see the nectarine as anything other than a nectarine, which I’m sure even Barbara would admit has to do with physical connection — hand to eye to brain — and the absence of a spectator. Art only exists when someone is looking at it. Sartre said something like that.

The nectarine, though. After I dropped it and saw it only for what it was, I went to hang up the washing and empty the cat litter and then I got sidetracked talking to a man who was standing on the pavement on the other side of the wall behind the bin shed. I hadn’t noticed before, but the wall is low enough for a man of reasonable health and strength to leap over so even when I stepped back two paces, I didn’t feel entirely safe. He wanted to know if I had a spare cigarette and I told him I didn’t smoke, which is and isn’t true because I haven’t smoked in the last few weeks due to my supplies running out after two days and my strict adherence to social distancing thereafter.

This man, however, must have sensed I was hiding something because he started shifting from one foot to the other as if he were preparing to leap. I said he could try a corner shop of which there are two across the road, almost directly opposite one another. He left and I pretended to rearrange the bins while I watched him to make sure he was doing as he said. He bought cigarettes and a packet of crisps which he ate standing outside looking up at the sky. It was dark and patchy that day with sudden, drenching downpours that drowned my infant tomatoes whom I’m still nursing back to health in the cupboard under the sink. (I have to move them quietly onto the terrace for intermittent breaths of air when the cat is sleeping because he loves to dig and chew their leaves.) I took a picture of the sky on my phone, very zoomed in, and it looked like a spray chalk painting by Tacita Dean, which made me feel so endeared to the man that if he’d come back, I would have opened the gate and we could have stood together beneath the clouds. It would have been beautiful and we might have fallen in love. It would have been a tragically romantic cliche.

He crumpled the crisp packet into a ball and tossed it into the bin, and then went into a house, which I don’t think could have been his because he would have known about the corner shops and would have taken his crisps to eat on the sofa or in the kitchen.

At this point, Shauna came out of the front door to accuse me of wrongly sorting my recycling. Apparently the bin men have been on strike since I moved in. She pointed to the translucent green bags and then to the one still in my hand. I had forgotten to put it down and seeing it there surprised me.

Honour, she said pronouncing it ‘On-er. What’s in that bag?

I told her, and her forehead creased.

Eventually, she said, Well, you should flush it next time.

I know from experience that flushing cat litter ruins the drains and would cause her issues as well as me, but I thanked her since times are hard, and I’ve been wondering lately whether she has any friends. I never hear her speaking on the phone. Mainly, she sits outside looking at her glorious pink roses. I know that her life hasn’t always been like this. Her letters are addressed to Professor McCarthy and through the net of her knitted curtains, I’ve seen columns of boxes which I suspect are full of books and journals and papers. I like to imagine that she specialised in horticultural experimentation and that the hot pink rose variety was a breakthrough discovery for her, and the entire industry. A moment like that is hard to leave.

On the way back up the stairs, I realised that my period had started so I went to the bathroom to find my moon cup and that’s when I saw the nectarine at the bottom of the bathtub. It had been flattened into a two-dimensional hairy disc shape like a child’s forgotten sticker or a patch of shaved-off fur. I reached my hand into the water with the intention of scraping it off the bottom, but as soon as I touched its surface, it became a nectarine again. I was slightly hungry after my ordeal with the man and the cigarettes and Shauna and the bins so I ate it and it was delicious. I’d go as far to suggest that it was even more juicy than before which leads me to tentatively propose that this kind of experiment adds a certain sensuality to an object.

I’ve since tried it with mushrooms, chickpeas, a handful of pasta, a small potted succulent, a hairbrush, pencils, several pieces of jewellery, my running trainers, a sequined dress and a dried up bumble bee. I’m not trying to be Barbara, but it makes me feel calm.

I’ve found that it doesn’t have the same effect when I put my own body into the bath. I need to work out how to be in the water whilst also standing above myself, or at a distance. I’ve ordered a very large mirror, a pair of marigolds and twenty packets of Camel Blues from Amazon Prime, but Prime now means next to nothing, and by the time the mirror arrives, I may have come up with another solution. The marigolds are for more water-based experiments (a shortcut since, currently, my hands still need to be involved), but also for general hygiene. I can no longer trust the appearance of any surface. This is what happens when you live with a cat.

There was a tense day not so long ago when he drank the fat from a chicken breast that I cooked for him and both he and I thought it was the end. Calling a vet was out of the question, so it was a waiting game. He lay belly up for three days and I moved my computer so that I could prod at his fur. I’d like to think he’ll learn from the experience, but the truth is, he doesn’t want to.

The parcels arrive in three separate boxes. The delivery man must have rung the bell and then sprinted back to his van because by the time I get downstairs, they are lying on the grass and the street is entirely empty apart from a cluster of pigeons who have been working on the hardened heel of an old loaf for what seems like days. I use bin bags for gloves and carry them each individually up the stairs, holding them at arm’s length from my body, which causes me issues when I get to the door and have to get out my keys and then another key to unlock the terrace where I leave them to be cleansed. The mirror is so heavy that I have to keep putting it down and picking it up and eventually the only way is to carry it clasped against my body and face. I undress by the washing machine and then spray myself with scalding hot water until my skin is as pink and shiny as uncooked salmon. The cat sits on the loo seat and watches with an expression that makes me think about all of the things he sees from the rooftops. It seems such a waste that he exists entirely in the present.

I allow myself to dry naturally by walking up and down the corridor while the cat follows, licking my ankles with his sandpaper tongue. Then, we both resume our seats at the table by the window. He curls up with his head beneath his tail and I bring my knees to my chest which is very much like folding myself in three.

While I wait for the next thing to happen, I buy a limited-edition poster by another famous artist who is selling them cheap on Instagram, accompanied by a caption that promises anyone who sells the prints for more money than they pay will be eternally cursed. This might be more of a threat if there weren’t a sense of universal cursing already upon us, or if the poster were even half decent, but as it stands, I fully intend to keep mine packaged up and in mint condition until it’s ready for Ebay in five or ten years time. Then I shall sell it along with all the other bad stuff that has been created and made more valuable by the context. This is also related to Barbara’s duality.

Is it topical to say that what is happening now has happened before and will happen again? I’ve lost all hope in the concept of newness, but I’m like everyone and people have always been trying to remould things into the shape of something else — just look at Catholicism, Grecian gods, women and populism. What worries me more is infectious, viral blindness as forecasted once by Saramago, although back then he was more worried about class systems than actual viruses and economic collapse. Still, at a time like this, I think it would be fair to assume his blindness and my own fears are more literal than once imagined.

While I’m spending the day systematically sinking things in water, the cat scratches and meows endlessly at the door. He wants to leave, but if I can’t, why should he? Instead, I put the tomatoes out to breathe and bring the boxes inside. Huge boxes for small things.

I try leaning the mirror against all of the bathroom’s walls, getting in and out of the bath to check whether, firstly, I can see myself, and secondly, to judge whether I look more sensual. In my opinion, a mirror is a wall to any kind of reality.

After dropping two cigarettes into the bath, I text an old boyfriend who I haven’t seen or thought of in years.

— hey, how are you? just wondering how you’re coping & also did we buy our mimosas premixed or did you make them?

I hate myself for sending the text but at least I didn’t send a photograph of myself in the bath, at least I didn’t send a photograph.

— please reply, it is important that i know either way.

While I wait for the cigarettes to change, I go back to the kitchen, mash up some brown bananas for banana bread and find the cat peeing in the tomatoes. He must have got out through a window and decided to take revenge. He’s positioned himself so that his piss goes into the soil and runs down the side of the pot at the same time. After a few minutes of staring, I’m not even sure it is my cat. He catches a fly, eats it and then wants to come in again. I look at him down on the doorstep, and wonder how he would look beneath the surface. Slick or bushy? Would he flatten like a nectarine? I'd have to hold him under, which would present the same issue as submerging my own body; I’d be too close, a woman-cat hybrid. I think that might be the definition of a real relationship.

I let him inside and for once, he doesn’t wrap himself around my legs. It probably means he knows what I’ve been thinking, which makes me feel sad because he’s always been so supportive. If it actually comes to it, I will miss his meows and the way he sits on the bathtub rim, head-cocked sideways as I let go of it, the object, myself.

Millie Walton

is a London-based fiction and arts writer. She is a graduate of the Prose Fiction MA at University of East Anglia, and is currently working on her first novel alongside a collaborative project, exploring notions of place through writing, drawing, architecture and photography.

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