Vanitas

by maggie

She looked down at the tiny boxwood woman, with her eyes demurely lowered, gazing at her hands resting lightly on her withered thighs. There was a marvel there, that you could still sense the strength of her beauty in this representation of that time worn body. She heard movement beside her and took it as frustration, perhaps boredom overcoming politeness. Was he happy to move on, for his revelation to to continue? She could stare into this cabinet for hours moving slowly from one miniature to the next, appreciating the care, the artistry even if now she could only intellectually comprehend the intent.

She had come here with hope.

She saw him seldom; rake thin, smoking, just outside the gate. A monotone composition. In the kitchen she watched him butcher the European diet; rice and rösti, fish fingers and faggots. She tried to engage him in conversation. He was here to learn English.

“I have been in London almost a year,” he managed.

“Go out,” she suggested, “look at things, talk to people. Spread your wings.”

“I prefer my room, I feel safe,” he countered.

He brought her his homework. To her his answers felt wrong, even if they were technically correct. I wouldn’t have started from there she thought to herself. Where should he start, she wondered, with the wandering tenses and jarring vocabulary.

 

One morning, he hovered by her at breakfast. With the usual half pantomime understanding slowly dawned.

“I have an interview at Chelsea School of Art. Would you possibly, could you look?”

The personal statement. Each word separate, inscribed in 0.1 mm mechanical pencil; she read not for grammar or vocabulary but for content. The purpose of all this hard work then, a place on a MA in Sculpture. The slow reveal from beyond the drain pipe jeans and striped sweaters.

She would not have been disappointed if the seventeen year olds she used to teach had written this piece, although she would have pushed them for some self reflection. It couldn’t be hard to find a reason to be moved by massive constructions in empty plazas and golden Buddhas in shadowy temples: she expected more from an aspirant graduate student.

“Why are you applying to Chelsea?” she asked looking over the statement again for some inspiration to hang his ambitions from.

“The other places I applied to have turned me down.” So much for the direct attack.

“Why do you want to study in London?” she tried again.

“It’s cool!”

The cool London he hid from in his room. She turned to look at him, the long hair was a sensible boys cut grown out. Black converse tapped nervously, perhaps he needed a cigarette break. Would he ever be cool enough?

“Did you speak to anyone at your University about studying in London before you left Japan?”

“No.”

She pressed on, surely there would be something salvageable from the situation.

“Do you have a portfolio of your work here?” A nod.

“May I see it?” He disappeared from the room and she slowly finished her breakfast. It was an A4 translucent Muji file, probably 20 pockets. She turned the pages, face neutral – a give away in itself perhaps. At least you have some craft, she thought, that’ll soon be beaten out of you. The eyes aren’t bad, but the girls have no necks. Three girls, each enthroned, each more slumped, distended, decayed than the last. Unbidden, inappropriate associations flicked through her mind.

“Tell me about these,” she asked lightly. They were unpleasant, the clay greasy, the marks of touch too intimate, the girls looked exposed, violated in their decay.

“Unrequited love,” he stated baldly. “ Seeing someone, wanting them and knowing that in years to come this is what they will become.”

Further on there were drawings, the HB pencil ubiquitous; knee socks, pleated skirts, long centre parted hair: the stereotypical Japanese school girl. Did he know? Did he care of that doomed jaded ménage a trois between art student, art teacher and manga. The endless recycling of headless Barbies and a casual juxtaposition of genitalia and religious imagery – the first hesitant steps of Art’s perpetual revolution. To him perhaps these were everyday people, nothing exotic about them at all – but now he would have a new audience to work with. On the school girl’s exposed, nubile breast, above the carefully drawn nipple a worm gnawed the hollowed flesh. Breasts, worms – at or on or in: by, with or from. The reference nudged gently from her subconscious. Undoubtedly the image meant something else to him. She closed the book.

“This is your degree work?” He nodded.

“Have you done anything since?”

“I’ve been learning English?”

“Have you had any thoughts about what you want to do next?”

“Yes”

“Tell me.”

She couldn’t really follow him. He talked about masks, but what was obscured, what revealed she wasn’t really sure. If she were going to school half way round the world, she mused, it would be to a place she wanted to find all about, to understand: revel in their art, their motives, their raison d’être. At least he was thinking about his work; it was a start.

“Do you have any of this down on paper?” He shook his head.

“Do it next. No more English exercises. Get as much of it down as you can; sketches, notes, even if they are in Japanese. Worry about putting them in English later. You’ll need something to show in your interview; what you next moves are, what your plans are.

“When is it anyway, your interview?”

“Tomorrow. Ten o’clock.”

 

He had silenced her.

 

Well, what should she have expected. He had come to her for help with his English, not Fine Art. She looked down at his statement again. What did he want from the MA experience – not informal access to 5000 years of endeavour and iconoclasm, not the intellectual stimulus of his peers, but to be told how and why to make his art. No wonder he had, had to make his way down his college list as far as Chelsea. She speculated on the order he had ranked the London colleges: probably not alphabetically.

“Have you ever been to the V&A?”

“Pardon?” She tried again.

“What kind of Western Art do you like?”

“Modern.”

“Have you been to the Tate?” A slight crease formed in his forehead. Was he embarrassed at his ignorance or lack of fluency?

“Okay,’ she stumbled on, “What stuff so you like? Have you got any references you can show me?” He opened his portfolio again at a different spread. Slipped into the pocket was a single page torn from a colour magazine. A Ganesh in the International Style stood on his lonely plinth, prominent tool marks in the soft wood. Commercial Art, a little voice in her head piped up, the kind of stuff you find in foyers and boardrooms. Safe.

“The V&A, the Victoria and Albert Museum,” he sat there expectantly, or perhaps resignedly, as she tried to explain. “Originally it was a teaching collection of European Art and World Manufactures. It has copies of famous pieces from all over the place. All London’s art students would be expected to be familiar with it as a resource. They have Michelanglo’s David, Donattello’s too.”

She watched for a flicker of recognition, suppressing her irritation. How could you critique a paradigm if you didn’t know it existed.

“What are you doing this afternoon?” He motioned to the statement under her hand.

“No. I’m taking you to the Sculpture Court and then to Tate Britain. It’s opposite Chelsea, you won’t have time to look around tomorrow morning.” He was too polite to object.

 

The Davids were walled away, in the section of the Cast Court cordoned off for conservation. Opposite, clustered together, as if for safety in numbers were the towering bulk of the two halves of Trajan’s Column, the alien curves of Scandinavian doorways and the grotesques of some cathedral’s west front. Uniform in brown varnish, stripped of their context save for tiny labels and the agendas of generations of curators, it was like walking through some giant’s long neglected toy box.

They perambulated gently along the sculpture galleries overlooking the garden. She tried explaining the stories behind the strapping youths and delicate dimpled maidens of late Victorian garden erotica. They passed Lacoons on repeat and in serried ranks the jaw bones of asses raised in anger. She wondered out loud at the history of sculpture in Japan, whether it existed before the cultural tsunami initiated by the arrival of Commodore Perry. Craft pieces sure, for temple and court – object d’art – but none of the continued reinvention, reinterpretation that had driven Western Art since the Renaissance. She tried. She asked him what constituted modern sculpture in Japan, and he smiled and sighed and could not say.

On more familiar ground she introduced him to the works of Jagger, Rodin, Leighton; old friends, in Dobson, Frink and Moore; the dodgy acquaintance of Gill. He brightened  at the chunky musculature, the lack of drill cut ringlets and well turned ankles churned out in some Italian workshop. Later she sought out alabaster altar fonts, pigment still clinging to the deepest folds; a pair of candle holding angels, their secret conversations forever interrupted by curious onlookers, heads turned aside to save their neat curls from the heat of an absent flame. A thousand years of the human figure. He stood face passive, bored she wondered, or lost in a jumble of impressions.

One more thing, she asked, what I really brought you here to see – she hoped he would understand. Back into the maze, up darkened shallow steps, past Preraphaelite murals, their inhabitants going though the motions in their antediluvian homeland.

Here, she pointed – you saw in the girl age and decay: the Day Lily past its time. We see that in the West as well. The lady is old but the artist remembers when she was young and beautiful. When youth see this with all their life ahead, they know that they too are mortal. She looked again at the old lady, serene, her skin sagging on her sparse frame. Beside her danced a skeleton, skin hanging from his chest in strips, worms in his belly. Maybe, she thought, he’d like this one more.

 

The next time she saw him, eking out his cigarette at the gate, she asked him how his interview had gone.

“Okay,” he replied, “I need to pass my English. I have to get 480 and I never scored more than 450 before.”

 

August 2009

MER

You can find the old lady here.

Her museum number is 62 – 1865. Her gruesome companion is really a synthesis of items 299 – 1870 and 2582 – 1856. All other object mentioned in the text are real.

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