The cleanest lavy I had ever seen, and it disgusted me. White cubicle walls under ultra-violent light. The lazy yawn of the open toilet, wedding train toilet paper so soft. I stood on the bowl and inspected the nooks and crannies of the ceiling. Not a mark. No blowjob numbers or insults or hidden masterpieces. Gaping nothingness.
I was on the top floor of London’s Tate Modern. The country’s largest collection of modern art had moved not a soul to graffiti – no one wanted to say I was here. Go to any level of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and visit the toilets. Along the walls is an atlas of human emotion and endeavour, wee willies, big willies, happy willies, sad willies, political cartoons, withering insults, Davey gives BJs, Old Fashioned Poof seeks wonder tel:xxx, Andy’s maw is game as fuck: pictures of willies portrait, landscape, impressionistic, modernistic, tumescent, fading, little squirts scratched into the porcelain and alabaster. No matter the subject, it’s the urge that’s important. Those tattooed tiles indicated an engaged longing for something out of reach – art.
A curiosity had grown in me. What did the bereted smug bugs get out of it? How could they stand in front of paintings for so long? Maybe it was a proper buzz and I hadn’t realised. Folk were willing to pay more for a hit of art than any other drug known to man.
But all that splashy stuff, or the everyday objects strung up, or the sculptures of bizarre shapes – it all seemed a bit off, artists laughing at my expense. And what is art come to think of it? Can anything be art? Am I art? Oh god, am I art? Should I stand still?
I was out my depth. And standing still.
The Tate’s toilet’s empty canvas was frightening. It should have been covered with shooting boredom, scratched angst, a million subconsciouses wrestling with the generations of art consumed on the way up. But no. Nothing. Any artistic inclination had been crushed by the Church of Modern Art.
Most of the visitors rushed through the exhibits taking blurry photos to frown at later. Then they could say ‘I’ve done the Tate Modern’.
I’ve done Paris, I’ve done London, I’ve done this and I’ve done that. The language of conquest and finality from the mouths of chubby tourists. You haven’t done anywhere darling, you’ve been. These aren’t rides at Disneyland.
Most of the art was shite. Argue all you want, but it was shite. A flew splashes there, a couple of multi-coloured spots there. Not buying it. All the good gear had been bought by the wealthy and hidden from the proletariat. Imagine the only Beatles’ song the public experienced was ‘Yellow Submarine’ while ‘Yesterday’ and the rest languished in private collections. You’d think they were shite too. The Tate was full of also rans by well known artists – brand worship at its least satisfying.
Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ the Redeemer’. Goya’s ‘The Black Paintings’. The sum total of art that did something to me. Bloody hell did they do something though. Deep in the shadowy recesses of the subconscious. I stared into them and understood everything and nothing. The brilliant confusion of Dali glowed from the canvas. Goya’s darkness – the work of a man in his seventies, fearing death and madness, intended for no one’s eyes. The demons of life walking among us. Within us.
Dark hooded gargoyles cast shadows on an overgrown garden, ivy constricted along the rusty gate. The church was near abandoned in the centre of London, surrounded by thin streets and boutique shops. As I approached the crypt, a scream escaped from below. Sandstone steps led down to a wet mucky floor; the smell of damp and cold brick. In the corner sat a typing lady on a foldable chair. There were no other visitors, no signs, no gift shop. Just a low tunnel into the darkness behind her.
‘Is this a gallery?’
She stopped but didn’t look up.
‘Can I walk around?’
She ignored me and began typing again. I ventured into the abyss.
The theme was Brexit and a host of amateur artists’ reaction to it. A flagellated David Cameron, Nigel Farage with BoJo’s wee fella in his tooth box, a distorted recording of Theresa May screamed ‘Brexit means Brexit’. The underground cemetery was a prophetic look at Little Britain’s destiny; a carpet of muck and sludge may not be as welcoming as a Persian rug, but at least it was made on home soil.
Theresa’s shrill voice quietened as I left. The gatekeeper ignored my thanks.
London’s greatest guidebook isn’t TripAdvisor or some paid-per-click blog (blogs, eugh). It’s Tinder. I logged on and swiped furiously. Until I found her. Bermuda – avid cult joiner, wearer of dark clothes, general frowner.
‘Hello Bermuda. Where can I find the darkest art in London?’
I hadn’t time to finish my skinny latte before she replied:
‘If you want dark, Victor Wynds Museum of Curiosities is dark.’
‘Thank you. Good luck with the cult.’
‘You fancy joining? Smiley face, knife emoji, goat emoji.’
‘Oh, no, sorry. I’ve got a lot on just now.’
‘This is Not a Brothel’ said the sign on the door. Inside was a dingy cocktail bar festooned with stuffed animals and dusty trinkets. I went up to the counter.
‘I’m looking for the Art gallery.’
‘Downstairs,’ said the bartender. ‘And don’t touch anything, it’s cursed.’
Down a spiral staircase was The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities. It smelt of basement and boot sale. The red carpet was plush, a maze of glass cabinets filled the space with a cacophony of tat. A dead junkie’s clothes hung on a mannequin, stuffed Saharan beasts played poker, the mummified erection of a hung man poked out from the wall. Pornography was everywhere, niche to the extreme. Death, sex, and souvenirs. The sills of cabinets bowed under their loads, crammed with contextless trivia and ghoulish finds. The whole experience was akin to studying a car crash.
There was always that kid in high school who had videos of beheadings and other horribleness. He’d try and trick you into looking – ‘want to see a picture of my new puppy?’ – and by the time you realised what was happening, you had PTSD. I often wondered what he became – did he move on to pulling legs off cats and worse, or was he a normal guy, living a normal life, haunted by gruesome images? I imagined a mixture of both. Or he changed his name to Viktor and opened a curiosity museum.
Viktor Wynd had amassed an interesting collection. It definitely provoked feelings in me – mostly discomfort. What the collection failed to do was get at that whispery greyness of presque vu, the feeling of happening upon immense, wordless understanding without fully grasping it.
On leaving the gallery I saw four drunks sipping Strongbow under a bridge. The human traffic gave them a wide berth, crossing the street to avoid happy hour. Crackling laughter exploded from each of them between drinks. The bald toothless man began to tell a story and the others moved closer, hushing, waiting. For a moment they became still. Then it passed.
I ran my hand over the white wall’s smoothness. Outside the door the hushed voices and careful steps of visitors vibrated. Does art matter? It would be possible to spend lifetimes exploring such a complex question. So I’ll save time. Yes. Probably more than anything else. All enlightened societies strive to create surplus time in which to make and enjoy art. The dawning of consciousness, man, language, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, automation, the interconnected network, art, science, medicine, thousands of generations of life and death, every straining fibre of human endeavour, have all been working towards you spending the weekend in your underpants binge watching Netflix. Remember that.
Above was a nook between the light fitting and roof beam. The bathroom around me disappeared, and all I could see was a canvas.