Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

Obscurity of Objects

September22


Her worst were the openings. Tim at the podium, reduced to an artist statement- a jumble of jargon, justification. Explanations he owed no one. Why them? Out of all people ‘the madding fucking crowd’ with their ignorant asides, sniggers. The cruelty of pedestrians, she thinks, going through life gazing at their shoes, congregating at gallery openings for nothing but the gratis cucumber sandwiches and box wine booze.

The obscurity of objects: whims that alienated most, delighted few. It would be different if they were in Amsterdam, New York but South Africa, Durban? This shitty gallery with shitty wine. He’s more than this, she’s sure he is. Years of watching him agonize over light, shadows, street lamps, telephone poles had offered her gradual access, a gentle initiation. He would make her pull the car over on holidays and she’d watch, initially bemused, later intrigued, as he set about photographing telephone poles from every conceivable angle. The way its chords hung out: ugly, austere things, lines sagging between. Only now, independent, strangely idiosyncratic. Till she began pointing them out off her own accord, stopping the vehicle before he had asked.

Perhaps you had to love him to love his art. She wouldn’t have had an inkling had she not shared his process, anxiety, bed. The evolution of an idea, momentary fragments, fleeting, ephemeral….. blah blah blah. Yet when he spoke it, the blah was oddly effecting, poetical even sensical. His reference- hers. Now it seemed there was no other way of seeing, that, that was frankly, how these things, things such as telephone poles, had always been.

She must not judge them. Must allow them their right to ignorance. She could have been one of them, perhaps secretly was still one of them. Walking brusquely past images that confronted her, challenged her, moving politely toward the prettier painting sections. Conceptual art or crawling up one’s own arse. People were dying, children starving and this, this was his response to the world- an unflinching commitment to the inanimate, to most- the mundane.

Was there room left in the world for such…such insignificance? Yes its’ insignificant but….. she’s tired of justifying it, sticking by it. A circular debate best left to that to the pontificating minds of conferencing academics. Another glass of dreadful wine, familiar smiles flashed from people she has no recollection of meeting. Exhausted by the pretence. Maybe he’s set himself up for this- splaying deconstructions, reconstructions …god whatever you call them, on gallery walls to tepid responses, the stirred interest of the elite few. He should have learnt the first time round. This is no way to make a living, not here: Amsterdam, New York perhaps but not here?

He could paint, was a fine painter, she wished he still painted. No, she wouldn’t suggest it again. He found such suggestions offensive. He had progressed, this was progression, progressive art. Progression: the curse of our times. Painting the primitive starting point to which there was no return. Still she wished he’d do one every now and then. A bowl of fruit, naked muse (she would even offer to pose) birdlife, something that appealed to the ascetic of the everyman, something her parents could respond to, something that didn’t make them feel stupid. His diversions only incited confusion, frustration. Good he would say: Art must illicit a response, discourse, vitriol, bring it on!

Still she feels the need to hide him, block his ears, conceal the work, take the bullets, at least turn up the music, drown out their irreverence. She mustn’t hear them, more importantly he mustn’t. He’ll turn their indifference into a triumph, he has the habit of doing that, shrugging them off, but skin, his skin is thin, at times transparent.

She watches from the bar, another glass of wine, something to busy the hands, occupy the lips. Tim flitting between conversations, the occasional ‘Save me from these Neanderthal’s’ glances thrown in her direction. They’ll celebrate him, she thinks. Celebrate him, perhaps when he’s dead, it’s always like that. Depressing, pointless business this art– obliteration before veneration– not now, later. Later they’ll pay exorbitant sums, cover their walls in telephone poles. Hypocrites- she’ll laugh at them, laugh if she’s still around to see it.

The barman smiles, slides her change over the counter. For a moment, perhaps a result of the low light, he resembles Ian, her brother. Scruffy old Ian, Ian now an ecologist on assignment in Brazil. Ian who learnt the Newman’s Bird book before bed, made them stop every few minutes on family excursions to Kruger Park. She hadn’t minded the raptors or hornbills, the ones she could name, the ones blessed with grace and plumage, the pretty ones. But the ones her brother called the LBJ’s (little brown jobs) those were the ones that annoyed her the most. The ones whose identification he had obsessed over, lining them up in his binocs, whisking through pages and pages of finches. ‘Finches- shit with wings’ her dad had joked. But to her this wasn’t amusing it was sabotage. Ian was testing the limits of their patience, his parents love, worst of all interfering with their joint conquest at ticking off the big five before sunset.

But it was because of their indiscernible differences (at least to the amateur, the sight seer) that they offered the only real test left to her brother-the aficionado. A boy who had conquered the raptors, kites and kingfishers, could spot them a mile off. But those, those fucking finches, drab skittish things with wings, those were the only ones left- the greatest challenge of them all.

posted under Short stories

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