Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Looking for clues: five days in London, July 2014

I've just spent five glorious days in London seeing friends, visiting galleries and museums, watching plays and films, and walking and cycling all over the city.

I didn't especially plan what I saw, but here are some highlights - and an emerging theme.

At the Serpentine, Marina Abramovic's 152 Hours uses only her body and the bodies of the visitors to create a work of art.

She asks us to explore the work in silence, often eyes shut. We become highly aware of the people with whom we share the space, and of our own bodies. We have left everything else outside. We have only our bodies and our senses here.

We modify our behaviour - one man jigs and bows to the people around him when he arrives, but no one responds, and gradually he too becomes still.

I am strangely comforted to be tucked into a bed alongside maybe twenty others on identical beds - no one has tucked me in since I was a young child. But tucking in brings not only safety but an agreement to lie still. The bed isn't important, but the stranger's hand is.

At Dennis Severs' House in Spitalfields, there are no bodies except our own.

All we have are the objects left behind by a family of 18th century silk merchants and their descendants. They have, it seems, only just left - we see half drunk cups of tea, an overturned chair, hear a ticking clock.

How much of these people is held in the physical space they once inhabited?

Jennifer Haley's play, The Nether has just opened at the Royal Court (this is their image) and it's uncomfortable to watch. The scenes alternate between two locations. The first is an interrogation room - bleak, featureless and grey - where a young officer questions two men about their involvement in an online world. In this world visitors can have virtual experiences that are as rich and real feeling as reality.

The other location is that virtual world, beautiful and carefully detailed, where visitors may indulge their paedophilia without fear of exposure. As watchers, we feel we are taking part in this world too - and feel compromised because we have chosen to visit a place where terrible things happen.

But we also know that this is a created world, a world that only exists in the mind. And for me as a writer, created worlds are what I make. I defend my right to create worlds as strange and uncomfortable as I want. Is there a boundary over which we should not step? What happens when the virtual experiences we create, and live, become as important to our identity as our experiences in the physical world?

I'm sure there are intellectual giants who can immerse themselves in such wonderful stuff from dawn to dusk, day after day. Lest anyone thinks this is the kind of person I am, here are some other highlights:

lashings of cake (thank you Zoe for introducing me to Princi and their magnificent and enormous slices after a splendid visit to the National Portrait Gallery)

the joy and freedom of a bike (still a pleasure when it's 29 degrees in the shade because it's way better than a bus or tube)

regular views of beautiful buildings (my very lovely friends lent me their flat and this is what I saw each day as I left and came home - thank you, it was wonderful)

and deep breaths of fresh air and the scent of hot plants in the Chelsea Physic Garden. aaaaaaaahhhhh!