Fictional Works of Art

One of the greatest things about living in London is that, as people like to joke about, it rains approximately 75% of the time, so if you happen to be happy only when you’re reading (the lesser known Shirley Manson anthem) you’ll be enabled all day, every day.  Right now I’m devouring The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, and had a revival of this old thwarted idea: for someone (probably Petah Coyne or Sarah Sze) to recreate the sculptures/installations of both Sirena Shahid and Nora Eldridge.

Shahid: “In that first conversation, she told me about her installations, which were––as I would eventually see with my own eyes––lush gardens and jungles made out of household items and refuse: elaborately carved soap primroses, splayed lilies and tulips fashioned out of dyed dishrags and starch, silvery wines of painted and varnished clothesline and foil, precisely and impeccably made.  I couldn’t quite picture them when she talked about them, but the idea made sense to me: visions of paradise, the otherworldly, the beautiful, and then, when you’re in them, up close, you realize that the flowers are mottled by filth and the vines crumbling and that the gleaming beetles crawling on the waxy leaves are molded bottle tops or old leather buttons with limbs.  Her installations had names from fairy tales and myth––The Forest of Arden; Avalon; Oz; Elsinore––but they were, in reality, the kitchen or the laundry room, and sooner or later the viewer would realize there was an ancient sink behind the waterfall or that the boulders between the trees were a washer and dryer, blow-torched black and furred with dark lint.”

Eldridge (to be honest, though I’m obsessed with this book, NE’s work seems to be pretty obvious as metaphor): “That fall I was making a tiny replica of Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom, about the size of a boot box, each floorboard in place, the re-creation of her furnishings exact and to scale.  Once I’d made her room, and made her, as perfectly as i could, in a white linen nightie with ruffles, my aim was to set up circuitry so that my Emily Dickson might be visited, sitting up in her bed, by floating illuminations––the angelic Muse, her beloved Death, and of course my tiny gilded mascot, Joy herself.*

This was, I imagined, the first in a series: I wanted to make one of Virginia Woolf at Rodmell, putting rocks in her pockets and writing her final note: my idea was that there would be slides of the river, raging, and sound effects, too; and an actual copy of the handwritten note that would project not onto the diorama wall but out Virginia’s bedroom window, onto our walls outside, so that instead of being small, the words would be huge.  In my mind’s eye, they would flicker: the flickering was, to me, very important.

Then there was to be one of the painter Alice Neel, in the sanatorium to which she was sent after her nervous breakdown at around the age of thirty.  I wanted there to be an echo, you see, between Emily Dickinson’s spare white room and Alice Neel’s white room, the monastic and the asylum: both retreats, but of such different types.  And both the province of women.  I even though about the title of my nonexistent series: A Room of One’s Own?  I thought the question mark was the key…

The last diorama I planned was to be the opposite of the others.  It was going to be Edie Sedgwick’s room in Warhol’s Factory. Instead of trying to escape the world, Edie sacrificed herself to it.  She existed only in the public gaze.  Imagine that: a surface, so beautiful, from which all depth has been erased.  But then, the photos, their intensity, her vitality––it certainly looks as though a soul was trapped behind those eyes…

But the point is that I was consumed––in a digressive, obliterating way––by my hypothetical series, and by my Emily Dickinson diorama in the first instance, by its practical minutiae.  I had paintbrushes comprised of a single hair, and a loupe like a watchmaker’s that I could attach to my forehead, and I’d spend three days on a miniature replica of the woodcut landscape that hung between the windows in Emily’s bedroom only to decide, once it was done, that the likeness was poor, and that I needed to begin again.”

Now that we’re on the topic of fictional works of art, perhaps a gallery should organize an entire show in which artists make their versions of “fictional art.”  I’ll get the list together––Mental Floss tried, but it’s a paltry offering, IMHO.  If you own a gallery and have a lot of money with which to pay artists who might be interested, please contact Siobhan after the Bank Holiday has ended.

*Don’t worry––you won’t get it unless you’ve read the book.

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