A Cloud to the Back
In the sky a mixture of things float around. Without gravity they are able to drift and bump into one another. Here, motion is something lethargic, calm and soundless.
On the ground things move faster and snow covers almost everything in sight. A glove sticks out from the earth, a small totem for the related ideas of death and burial, but also for the safe building of things – the sense of ingenuity and ability the people here possessed. As the land is white, the glove is visible from hundreds of metres away. In this sense distance offers it a perspective and its own landscape too.
Running northwards through the middle of a shallow valley is a shimmering line. Metal – silver and black in colour – runs the length of this ground. If you walk from one end to another as the sun sets over the top of the valley, you can watch the last remaining shards of light bounce off the snow and reflect about the place. The metal was used for domestic objects before everything moved upwards. Plates, cups, knives and forks were cut directly from the ground and distributed evenly and adequately amongst the population.
Now that everyone has gone we can study this place without fuss. I’m introducing you for the first time because, as you will be aware from that brief conversation we had on the phone, we’d like to invite you to take over; manage this place, as it were.
Something strange happened and we doubt those things will return from the sky, but for now we can still see them clearly and we wish you to learn about their meanings and use them as a point of departure for your own investigations here. It would be good if you could make new things and create an environment that people want to return to. This is a good space where you will be happy I’m sure, at least for a few days and then we can move you on to a new project.
The important thing here is culture. You have to make sure that as one culture transforms into another, or one grows larger and another next to it shrinks as a result, that no object is underprivileged. Things will inevitably be different in size, you cannot chop and prune to avoid this, but you must make sure that there is balance and understanding. Everything is of fundamentally equal importance. The older things have a relationship to their own time and are no more or less principal than what will be made now. The relative value and quality of materials is no longer what ties them to that form of historical presence or legitimacy – the one you have heard and no doubt read about – as we are now considering the ideas and the interactions of things as more crucial. We must see this as an opportunity to build something worthwhile.
Soon the land will thaw. Until then my colleagues and I recommend you study the sky until about eight o’clock every evening, when the sun sets, and then make notes to ensure you don’t forget anything.
Something pithy sits there in the sky. It sits because it is conscious enough to be upright, to adopt the pose of a human. But it is sinew, like the stuff I pull from an orange and toss to one side. Some white material in the shape of a human body. I walked away from that thing in the hope a more general familiarity with the landscape might ease me into it.
There was an ineffective air to the objects scattered above; a sense that they could be forgiven for being functionless at first glance, but that they would make you run through all their backstory before they’d stop whatever it was that they were doing to intrigue. It was my job, and by extension when the place was populated, everybody’s responsibility to understand such things.
Old black branches lay out at my feet in the form of veins. Unrestrained by anything that might contain them they tunnelled through snow and emerged in clumps on the surface. Black, but also purple, they were what gave the ground life, uneasy as it was. My employer, a tired bureaucrat from Somerset, had convinced me that this place could be turned into something more promising and despite my first impressions I was willing to believe him. This was a job after all.
My colleagues had prepared a few things for me. Some green-tinted glasses that dulled the sunlight exacerbated by the reflective qualities of snow; coffee in a bag, mostly consumed with its top rolled down and a bulldog clip sealing the packet half-fresh; a towel too small to wash a child with and a tub of Priorat red paprika in a box of mixed veg. I waited until the sun set, removed the glasses and turned in.
In the morning I drank the coffee and left the glasses on the table. My eyes hurt from how they turned everything I looked at lime green. I couldn’t study the objects in the sky at all properly while wearing them.
My employer had mentioned an old piano in the sky at the end of the valley, so I walked for thirty minutes or so until I saw something above me. Tilted on its side, it droned-out a series of minor sevenths. If you can’t recall the sound of this chord, think mellow, the most obnoxiously laid-back timbre imaginable; what you might hear repeatedly as it moves up and down in scale. A bit like a tired relative you are obliged to eat with at an overpriced jazz restaurant. It’s an incessant and mind-numbing intonation.
Families function in the same way minor chords do. They complement and drag out the sad procession of life. You’ve got to love them because they offer you candour – a feeling of complete honesty – but there is absolutely no guarantee their advice is right. Give them a chance and they’ll put you right because they have to, ignore them and you’ll wish you listened more carefully in the first place. Take it or leave it, case-by-case, like the complication and absolute necessity of the cultural landscape. I don’t envy those people who see things obscured by a cloudy head. You’ve got to push away what doesn’t stay useful, with the familiar an unfortunate exception.
I left the children with my ex-wife to come here. I couldn’t live in the same city as her, despite the feeling of sadness that came with the thought to move away. When my wife left she took only those possessions she owned before we met; as if to state that our relationship was some kind of hiccup and her life could return to the way it was before us. I put the remainder of her things in a plastic box on top of the wardrobe in the bathroom. The box was transparent. I enjoyed, with some conceited sense of humour, looking at our life all collapsed together in a container, visible but without space or order; a failed history of the idea of family. I could see the thing reflected in the mirror when I brushed my teeth in the morning and at night. I’d laugh out loud and splutter toothpaste all over the sink. Living alone brought with it a series of new and previously unimaginable pleasures.
I looked down to rest my neck and spotted the mess I’d made on my shirt earlier. The faded green squares in rows specked with yellowy white. Tooth brushing was my mental complex made physical. This habit will follow me forever. Working and living alone helps no end. All those banal secrets we have; the ones we ought not to be embarrassed about just because other people would find them uninteresting. The secrets that make you as dull as you expected to be from childhood. The sneaking suspicion you would never live up to your own expectations. I thought I wouldn’t write this down or mention it to my employer.
Several days passed and my list of objects grew longer. The glove, silver and black metal, the conversation with my colleagues, they all came together to create what I had been taught to understand as culture – the difference and diversity of things. The specific and at times abstract relationships between cultural objects no longer left me bewildered, but instead I felt them familiar. I had formed relationships between things I thought meaningful before the snow started to melt and the clouds came and obscured everything in sight. The piano was the only visible object, because it was static and sounded out. Listening became a device for remembering the location of objects in relation to the ground. As the contents of the sky changed position gradually, I could no longer locate myself. Not seeing clearly invited me to listen. It was in this act that I realised that my personal crisis – the sense of confusion and frustration with new things as they relate to previous personal experiences – was of little consequence to the meaning of the place I had encountered. Culture necessarily finds a life outside the interpretations of a single individual.
This short story was commissioned by UCL Art Museum and published in a catalogue alongside the exhibition Re-Launch, curated by Andrea Fredericksen and Keef Winter.