The Bottle of Memories
When I was doing my Ph.D. - a long time ago now - my father used to come down to London for his work, and we used to meet in an Italian restaurant adjacent to the college and Somerset House Last Thursday, I went back.
The restaurant is gone and has turned into an office; and for a few moments I stood there trying to remember how it was. Not for the first time I wished I could bottle memories and revisit them just with a twist of a cap and a nip of the contents.
The Hayward Gallery is showing The Art of Change : New Directions from China. It is an exhibition of contemporary installation and performance art.
The first installation was based on the concept of exercise machines in the gym: we work to make them futilely turn - why not make it even more pointless and make the machines work the human? There was also a mess of building materials under a canopy, and an invitation to bring along stones. I walked on up a ramp past a young woman in a pair of striped pyjamas and then into a space with bed-sized platforms and a girl huddled in a sleeping bag. A curator drew up a ladder and helped her down.
I read notices. I watched screens. Until recently, innovative art in China was discouraged. Like writing, there is something worrying anarchic about it all, and anyway artists, like all other intellectuals during the cultural revolution, were sent to the countryside to experience the arduous life of a farmer.
Xu Zhen, however, was born too late for this. His life seems to have followed a Western-style progression of art school followed by acclaim and then global recognition. Apart from the installation exercise machines he was also responsible for the impressive piece of 'live' art in which a girl was poised suspended and unmoving.
I think he was also responsible for this
the girl in striped pyjamas. Once I had passed her she had started to follow me, and for a while she was my silent companion.
She moved when I moved, pausing when I paused, observing me as I was observing everyone else. Once I faced her and asked her if I could take her photo and her face remained static, just the slight twitch of one side of her lips.
I went on: inside a human-sized mouse hole
Inside an artist called Yingmei Duan came towards me like an apparition from a fairytale, a lost child in the woods, peered into my face as though she was trying to see what was hidden inside, and then presented me with a folded up piece of paper.
On then to why I came: silkworms. Silkworms as art. Silkworms heavy with silk with an urge to climb, silk spilling from them, covering windows
coaxed into miniature bed frames
and wrapped around something in the shape of bones
or chains (named after the Milan Kundera novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being).
The girl in the striped pyjamas looked too. Always on the peripheral of my vision. Silent. A benign stalker.
Liang Shaoji's work features raw silk, silkworms and cocoons.
He lives near a silkworm farm in Shanghai, and one part of his installation featured simply the sound that silkworms make when there are hundreds of them eating mulberry leaves. Together, the sound of their many soft but strong jaws make a sound like summer rain.
The girl in striped pyjamas left me then. When I came out she had gone. I missed her. And as I walked around the rest of the exhibition of houses made from candles
putrescent pork pictured again and again
becoming, somehow, a grotesque family group, lacquered, buddha-like
a mud-covered room
the cinders of burnt books
and large models of monsters
I kept looking out for her, but she was fickle, and had attached herself to another.
I walked then, back across the river and onto Red Lyon Square for the internecine AGM of the Society of Authors. The debate that followed featured an editor and an agent and it was the usual mixture of hopefulness and resignation. The publishing world is changing. Tom Holland, the previous chair, called it a convulsion, and I don't think anyone knows how it will turn out. Today I learnt that A.P.Watt, the oldest literary agency in the world, which used to represent me, is now being subsumed by United Agents, and the thought of that is unsettling. Too much is changing. Established brands, which until recently seemed to represent something reassuringly permanent, disappear.
Sometimes I feel as if I'm on a sandy beach and this convulsion is like the tide is going out, sucking away all the sand beneath my feet. If I move I will topple. Maybe the answer is not to stop, not to wait for the sea or sand or the girl in the striped pyjamas to keep me company, but to keep walking, unstopping the bottle of memories as I go. Then I can choose what will accompany me: the memory of my father in that restaurant, the view from the office of my first editor in Penguin, my hand on the grand old door of what was then my agent's, and now after last Thursday, the shadowy figure of Yingmei Duan inside the mouse hole
and the piece of paper that she handed to me: 'Everything that you own in the world is temporary, nothing belongs to you. In life we are travelers, happily walking through. The most important thing is to treasure the moment.'