“Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando
There was an aura about the artists of London I could never quite perfect. They would thread the streets in their set formations, sashaying down the steps of their respective art schools, clutching with an almost angry earnestness at their necessary materials. But they also carried a certain breed of ambiguity – what appeared to be a sadness, almost heavy, as if weft into their shoulder blades and causing them to stoop slightly, but with an air that seemed superior, disgracing the rest of emotion. Girls would slice by in their suede skirts and thick woollen tights often ripped by necessary tragedy, a young man often on their arm like the prize of a fight, not a human being. The art evidently meant more to them – a cacophony of colour and expressions carted under arms like the carrying of severed heads. I thought there was always something particularly grisly about it – each of them a murder of some kind of projection, in some way.
I was under the illusion that it would be of benefit to take up art. I had not long been out of hospital, the hospital where the bone-white of the corridors had almost bleached any sense of identity. I believed a mind of reconstruction lay in art. It was ironic that what I saw appeared to be the cracking of corpses, rather than the building of bodies.
For that is what art is, is it not? - Stealing images, identities, picking your own materials so the subject of your choice can live a slimed and undignified existence. When I got out of hospital, I was encouraged to join a still-life class, which met in a bizarrely-lighted basement under an angry shopping street. Perhaps after the human tumult of the outdoors, it was the utter sincerity of the artists which shocked me – the secluded stillness of their faces, the way their eyes danced without romance in the half-light. Some held their brushes like one holds a knife when deboning a fine of piece of meat, others, the more atmospheric, held themselves – hands nervously clenching, fingers through the hair. The air was thick with angst, air thick enough to bruise the bowl of fruit, to which eyes darted and then back to paper again, like a form of rushed adultery. I wanted to laugh with the sheer hysteria of it all, the set severity, the putrid nature of the dull, cheap fruit.
I could not draw on that occasion. I struggled to draw most of the time. It was as if art was an action my body was unwilling to yield.
An ever-increasing inference, I thought it was the frame of mind that I lacked.
I would step hours stalking the streets, trying to perfect the nature, but only seemed to stir an enveloping anger – watching those who were evidently artists, their strained, almost blind strides, their state of beautiful undress which gave the impression of their bodies being an art so carefully perfected. Projecting their actions, I attempted eagerly to imitate them, slipping amidst the mixed crowd outside the art school as they drew on their cigarettes with a desperate indifference. They evidently prided themselves on paradox – the girls brittle and shrunken inside boys blazers.
It was a strange case of sightseeing – all the midst of the city, yet I felt like I had never seen a group so isolated, there was something cold and rural about them, a sadness which even flavoured their laughter as they poured into the midnight bars.
I tried a different type of art. I bought a camera. I didn’t need to tell anyone.
It left me with very little money, though made ultimately what I thought to be the necessary sacrifice. Perhaps it was the art of perfecting myself. Some days I would not eat, not out of negligence but a determined artistic indifference towards that kind of indulgence. Instead I would spend the hours consuming by sight, cast like a mere sheet of paper through the streets, I would I catch those artistic types on camera. A young man with a bluntly trimmed dark beard and pale lips, a woman whose eyes simmered with resent as she slipped, crucified with the weight of a canvas – it was strange to think I owned a second of their lives.
It was comforting – for on my camera I could capture them, watch them, looking at the level of sin they almost purposefully seemed to install in their art – like it was the prostitution of human touch. And thus I became an accomplice, my camera became senseless, greased, it captured images, I was a lone voyeur with uncertain objectives and strained eyes. I captured a middle-aged man hunched at his canvas in an appropriately atmospheric side-street. When he heard the slick click of camera he stumbled in his movements as if I was administering some grave injury.
Sometimes it was safer to photograph nothing; the sky and its peculiar bruising, the half-cracked bodies of birds of the wing. But I could not learn anything from them. No, I could not learn from them, not like I learned from the precious picture of the artists – the stilled images I trailed back home and propped against the wall in a sweet collection. Sometimes the floor would seep a black beneath them, but it was a necessary expense for art, I gathered.
At least I did not feel guilt – no, I did not betray myself to the ordinariness of fleeting feeling. It was a necessary art of the artists I was attempting to engage with, like those who glanced vindictively over their shoulders as they shifted up the museum steps, clutching in their fingers a creation of blood-lust. We were all as bad as each other. In that case, guilt would have been a waste.
It would have wasted all that strange sick pride I felt, looking at those heavy, beautiful, constantly-shifting images. Sometimes I would just sit in my flat staring at their array on the opposite wall, for they drained all energy, all attention, from the surrounding room. Sometimes I would steal out into the enveloping night, night was becoming a more suitable abode, especially in the summer months, in the hope of finding more. There was a young male artist hunched in his necessary melancholy like a curtain of cold against his skin, his fingers seemingly thick on the paper under the night sky. I caught his side profile with a ghostly beauty.
But as summer seeped onwards, the nights became shorter, the days long as if limping in heat, languorous. Most of the time I stayed at the flat, for the artists would be all at work in their respective buildings, the glare of the sun often too bright for outdoor work. I would skulk on the flat floor and celebrate my entrapments of dark ness, counting the images, convinced I had nearly perfected their sadness. I was almost alien – shrunken eye sockets and cheek bones slipping against the skin. It was a type of beauty I would have quite liked someone else to capture, only I did not care too much anymore.
Sometimes the phoned shrilled in the hall, there were querulous voices on the stairs – voices which were probing, beyond curious. I wanted to be left alone with my art, but perhaps I was not justified at all, still not the artist. I was angry. The images seemed to clot before my eyes, mulching together, gloating in the heat of their own, to which I was not permitted. I would look at the faces mostly; the captured artist’s faces still strained in their sadness.
But perhaps all I had gained was the lack of happiness rather than a profusion of sadness. Imperfect.
I wanted to see for myself. For I was exhausted, exerted under very other sense – there was the stench of festering potential like a kick of fate hot in the nostrils, sirens in the street, voices getting closer and closer. There was the unforgiving flurry of a fist, fast against the door.
I turned the camera to my face, and gazing straight into it, felt the resistance give beneath my finger.
With not a click but a shatter.
I still cannot decipher whether I have truly woken. All about my body is thick and unstable, as if my frame is challenged by some superior weight.
But I remember thinking as some kind of consciousness prickled my skin – this was what true artists must see. For all was dark, not an emptiness, but laced in front of my eyes – the innumerable patterns of black. Endless layers all those artists had been able to capture all their lives.
They did not need to tell me I was blind.
They did not need to tell me anything – for all I lay was in bliss, not pain. Perhaps I could be at one with my images, I thought. The pressure of everything became definite, defined as never before – the nurses threading irregularly like stunted pulses round the room, attempting to make me talk, pushing pens and paper towards me with a force equated almost to the strange surge of the monitors, the policeman’s hand on the rail of the bed – querulous as a heartbeat – thump, thump, thump. The familiar strikes of his attempt to wash out my thoughts, my eyes.
But all art had already dried.
“Again, I repeat, it was certainly not a camera you were using,”
His voice attempted the spitting syllables of the stern. But he was wrong too.
It was a camera of sorts – it captured them all the same.