Category Archives: Arty Mumbo

In Defence of Obsession


Two men present at the gates of Heaven.

The first tells God he’s in a relationship; has a stable job; plays sport twice a week; sees friends; does some cultural stuff; quaffs a few beers (max) at the week-ends.

The second says he is obsessed by a woman with whom he can’t have a relationship, spending hours at a time lying on a bed where he once slept with her, usually in an alcoholic fog, rolling a ruler she has touched around his mouth, to the detriment of his business.

Assuming he’s not doing one of his hmm-it’s-not-what-you’d-expect-parable-things, we think we know who God’s going to wave through, don’t we?

It’s going to be the well-balanced, healthy-living chap with the wide social circle and the almost-finished inspirational TED talk on his side table, isn’t it? It’s not going to be the lone wolf weirdo fetish guy.

This is the belief called into question by Orhan Pamuk’s engrossing novel, The Museum of Innocence, which scrutinizes the all-consuming love of guy 2, Kemal Basmaci, 30, for a shopgirl-turned-thwarted-actress, Füsun Keskin. He steals her 18 yr old virginity lightheartedly while engaged to an aristocratic beauty, only to lose himself heavily in her thrall, alone, for the rest of his 32 years.

The neat device of the story is that Kemal creates a museum of  Füsun-infused artefacts- her hair barettes, photographs, coffee cups, 4,213 cigarette stubs- that exists in the real world, at Firuzağa, Dalgıç Sk. No:2, Beyoğlu, Istanbul.

Not simply a personal collection, it is also a chronicle of political, economic, and social life in the city in and around the 1970s. (A selection of it visited Somerset House quite recently, too.)

Interwoven in the tale are themes of romantic love, familial love, companionship, recollection, personal narrative, status, suffering, and success.

But it is the value/ affliction of obsession that lingers most powerfully, as Kemal exhorts his ghost writer (Pamuk) to close this 728 page opus with one prevailing message: ‘Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life’, leaving us as readers to decide whether we would agree with him.

Is this the story of a delusional saddo, rendered beautiful by interpretation? Or, does it relate a valid and true-hearted (if unconventional) experience?

Can obsession be worthy?

Obsession is a preoccupation: if you’re in medicinal research, this is a good thing; if you’re chasing Eckhart Tolle’s wild goose of receptive consciousness, it isn’t.

We allow for romantic love as long as there are two people involved, and it is bookmarked within a reasonable time-frame; that’s OK, we think: you focus on me, and I focus on you until we’re both familiar with the view, and can start talking bin-liners.

When one person alone takes the plunge, it feels limiting, or (worse) futile. All that intense channeling, to the exclusion of all else, carries with it the implication that ‘all else’ might offer an opportunity for reciprocation that will, necessarily, be missed.

But, is it such a crisis to be in primary relationship with oneself, or with one’s passions?

Given that we all react to how we feel about things rather than the things themselves, anyway, isn’t there an honesty in indulging wholeheartedly with that communion itself? (Woody Allen’s Annie Hall masturbation quip springs to mind: ‘It’s sex with someone that I love.’)

In collecting items attached to his beloved, Kemal finds a creative expression for his obsession- indeed, the creativity becomes one with it.

He manifests memories, and makes emotions material. He curates his love artfully, processing his urges aesthetically. This means of therapy in coping with his estrangement from Füsun may prevent him from finding a cure; but, if he were to find one, where is the evidence to suggest another ‘illness’ wouldn’t simply take its place?

In fetishizing, anatomizing, projecting, and fantasizing over his amour, he gains more satisfaction, arguably, than he would from interacting with her human imperfection and unpredictability. The sacrifice, certainly, is that he fails to grow from the learning that only input from another can invite. He turns in on himself, becoming as much obsessed with himself obsessing as on his object of desire. But, in another sense, he has conquered the quest to conquer: he ‘owns’ her already.

If it seems tragic Kemal cannot enact his dreams, we might turn to his friends in Turkish society to ask how their ‘real life’ fulfillment compares. In their empty visits to brothels, and false notions of traditionalism and status, their self-realisation holds little by way of contrasting appeal; the novel’s parting snapshot of wronged ex Sibel’s rabidly functioning marriage, replete with two beautiful rugrat daughters, is surely enough to send even the skeptic racing to fondle Füsun’s cheese grater.

Ostracized from this outwardly respectable crew, Kemal finds a meeting of minds in the rubbish dens and hoardings of his fellow obsessives. Restless, and stripped of his reputation, he has, nevertheless, found a way of ordering and memorializing his proclivities in a way that speaks uniquely to him, and speaks to him uniquely.

Though driven by his desire to be in true relationship with Füsun, Kemal experiences as many blissful moments reflecting on his concept of her as he does moments of acute pain at her flesh-and-blood hands.

I think this is the dark reason obsession deserves a screwy break in the midst of its insularity: it allows for the exercise of control over intent; it gives imagination license to do its best thing: run wild in service to our joy.

It becomes a fiercer, bolder attempt to sustain happiness no more absurd than any others we undertake.

And, if we seek a sign from our beloved that we’re not alone in suffering for our desires (hoping at least to connect in our misery), obsession short-circuits this neediness by declining to reach out in the first place.

Just as a fire results from the intense boring of the sun onto dry matter in the right conditions, so obsession powers an emotional energy to life by brute will. It eschews temperance and abstinence and apathy, knocking aside the faint of heart, to put a stake in the ground.

It’s a cousin of addiction, of ecstasy, of ill-advised box set marathons.

It’s not a Cath Kidston pinnie, or a member of the gang, or a good idea.

It’s an outsider with a strong point of view that doesn’t give a flying fuck for opinion. (Yet, it will eat you up with your own saliva, too.)

Like many habits that thrill and vivify, obsession is wanting in virtue.

But, for as long as we are slaves to our cravings, it may be just another pleasurable road to hell.



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Art for Life’s Sake

This piece has been doing the rounds on Facebook:

[Marina Abramovic and Ulay started an intense love story in the 70s, performing art out of the van they lived in. When they felt the relationship had run its course, they decided to walk the Great Wall of China, each from one end, meeting for one last big hug in the middle and never seeing each other again.

At her 2010 MoMa retrospective Marina performed ‘The Artist Is Present’ as part of the show, where she shared a minute of silence with each stranger who sat in front of her. Ulay arrived without her knowing and this is what happened…]

The way it taps into the pain of love is its immediate appeal, when there are no words that can salve the disappointment of a deep connection rent.

If an artist is someone creating (as opposed, for this purpose, to the naturalist who allows) then artists who make themselves the substance of their art somehow represent the apotheosis of artifice.

Meaning, that I think of the act of art as presenting an idea or a combination of ideas in such a way that a new perspective is offered, on some or any thing in this thing we call life.

To then live this out with deliberate focus- to invest in it personal integrity and have the impulse to share it- is special, and appeals to me in its total re-interpretation or re-imagination of the mundane.

The very idea of sharing a moment’s silence with strangers is compelling; to do it with a loved one intense; to do it with an estranged loved one- wow. (This may not have been Abramovic’s intention but she embraced it.)

Shortly afterwards I came across this prequel, which I really enjoyed on a number of levels:

I love the simplicity and grandiosity of the Great Wall of China project.

I love the nature of their artistic relationship, so perilously close to self-parody.

And I love that it backed up all the non-verbal cues communicated in its sequel, namely that when they parted he (at least nominally) held the power.

(Funny, though, how he does not resist the urge to let slip his grading of the gravity of her betrayal with a friend, even in the context of his own more lasting transgression.)

I experienced many feelings when I watched these two short clips but what I’d like to share is a fantasy.

I would have liked to be the translator who was to become Ulay’s bride- the demon minx who tore apart the Art World’s collaborative darlings, trudging around with a bulging belly just as Abramovic shrank into desolation.

Imagining for a sweet second that all the timings were right, after The Artist is Present I would have installed two gigantic photographs and a pedestal; the first, a photograph of Abravomovic and Ulay in their heyday; the second, a photograph of a pregnant me; and lastly, a real life pregnant me sitting on the pedestal.

In front of them all would be a paint splurter.

And all the people who had spent a silent minute with Abramovic would be invited to take a splurgy shot at one of the two photographs or at the pregnant me.

It would have been a comment on judgment and cathartic anger and honesty, all in one.

I think I would have felt more a part of their Art Thing and maybe a bit less guilty when I had the Ulay baby.

And I would have felt sorry for the people who felt justified at having a pop at the real me and the babe.

Because you can love the idea of something (an image of the happy couple) and hate the idea of something (an image of the one who tore them apart) but if you hate real people that’s sad, even if mediated through art.

And I would have felt scared of the people who would have liked to have a pop at the real me and the babe but thought it would look bad, because they would be sad but cowardly too, and outside of the gallery walls those people might be dangerous.


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Party People


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December 8, 2012 · 2:50 pm

My Own Drum













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Blond man: Do you admire me because I am an alpha male? Because I am light-skinned and fair-haired? Because I am rich? Because I am stylish? Because I boat? Because I represent the individual? Because I am heterosexual? Because I am in in a relationship? Because my partner has long, blond hair? Because my partner admires me? Because I am special? Or because you are so very ordinary?

And why does the last of you not look? Can’t he bear to? Has he been hurt? Is he a failure? Is he standing between you and your dreams?

Dark men 1,2,3 and 4: He is remembering a dream. We just love the way he does his hair. Where is your voice coming from? You sound TERRIFIC.

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Passer-by: What are you doing taking a photograph of a private house?

Me: I’m not taking a photograph of the house. I’m taking a photograph of the gorilla sculpture in its front garden.

Passer-by: Why?

Me: Because I threw it a banana.

Passer-by: Did you think that was funny?

Me: Yes, it made me smile a little bit.

Passer-by: Doesn’t that feel like quite a juvenile thing to do?

Me: Well, it didn’t at the time. It felt Banksy-ish. Using groceries.

You’re sort of taking the shine off it though, I have to admit.

Passer-by: And why is your son crying?

Me: Oh, he’s fine. He wanted to throw the banana.

Passer-by: So why didn’t you let him?

Me: I didn’t trust him to throw it in the right place. I wouldn’t have been able to get through the railings to move it and then the owners might not have got the gag.

Who are you, anyway?

Passer-by: I’m a passer-by.

Me: Well, pass on by then, if you don’t mind. Unless you see me next week, alone, with a hand-grenade.

Good day.

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Son of Manimal

(click on image to enlarge)

Art critic: How is this piece the metaphorical offspring of ‘Manimal’?

Artist: It isn’t. It’s the actual offspring.

He’s the lovechild of Elmo and one of the zoo animals.

Art critic: But I thought Elmo was their opposite- in some way their captive.

Artist: There was an element of Stockholm Syndrome, you’re right.

But fundamentally, beasts are beasts. We all have the same animal urges.

Elmo did what comes naturally.

Art Critic: With whom? From the form, I’m guessing one of the horses.

Artist: Christ, I’m not going to do a DNA test.

Art critic: Probably not the panda though.

Artist: Look, son of manimal is a new kind of creature.

Sure, he’s got a body, four legs and a tail. But he’s also got a horn like a unicorn.

You’re not going to find markings like that on any animal, anywhere. Not even in Wales.

He is part myth, part reality.

Art critic: And he’s wearing what on his back right leg? An ankle bracelet?

Artist: Actually, it’s an electronic tag. Son of manimal is an armed robber.

He was never going to fit in with that kind of heritage.

But, don’t forget, it’s society that creates the real monsters.

Art critic: It isn’t a clay figure your son was making at his friend’s birthday party and which you hi-jacked, is it?

Artist: No, it isn’t.


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