Crossing the Jubilee footbridge between Waterloo and Embankment something miraculous happened. I say miraculous because half an hour before I was in the BFI bar on Southbank with two colleagues having a conversation about art history, the imagination, and the significance of researching objects with a miraculous status. One of us is a medievalist and her work has recently confronted how a sculpture venerated by pilgrims for its particular holy qualities is an object for which research must begin by positing an earthly maker. We talked about the status of language (what do we really mean when we talk about pop art or materiality?), discussed the tenacity, guts and – plainly- money it takes to be a scholar and to share ideas in publications, and the essential quality all academics seem to hold dear in one way or another: being almost chaotically emotionally invested in our subjects. Invested enough, at least, to take serious risks. The best scholarship, perhaps, is that which shows imagination, courage, and the spark of sincere and deep investment in a field.
We parted full of fizzing conversation, and two of us walked towards the north side of the river. At the top of the steps leading to the bridge (and bridges are always no-places, liminal surfaces between there and here), a flutter of thin white cheap paper flew into view. Then another. Flimsy and twirling in the air, I suddenly realised what they might be and grabbed two. They had flown off course, having been dropped from a helicopter over the green scrub next to County Hall. They are poems. A Rain of Poems. 100 000 of them. This event is the latest in a series in cities that have experienced air raids. The poem that I picked up was about Impressionism. It was from Cyprus. Hers was from Chile. A couple asked us what they were and I explained excitedly that they are art, poems released in the sky for a brief minute of literary littering, and that they should go find some.
We decided to cement the chance act by swapping our flimsy poem papers. Now mine was from Chile. We watched a few pages float in the river, unread and evading capture. She mentioned that she liked Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with You’ and I agreed. Something about ordinariness and a profound unexpected intimacy at once. It seems fitting to place O’Hara’s celebration of extraordinary ordinary alongside my chance encounter with Chile and the past, which floated from a helicopter and landed in my London path. As art historians, to behold is to think, to see, to write. We take beholding pretty seriously, even when it presses its urgency upon us by chance.
Behold dread and fear
to lose it all in spite of the non-existence
of either all or nothing or the wager
the jelly cake of life and the memory
of another non-existent and made up
nothingness: the past.
Behold the facade of this house without
- its walls are sponges that we accept
because they swallow desire a la Hegel.
And the past in a moment won’t hold out
(Camilo Brodsky, translated by Jessica Pujol)
HAVING A COKE WITH YOU
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it