Sunday, August 16, 2009

Between Cabinets at the V&A by The Windowless Consultant

The thought long haunted me that somewhere in the V&A to anyone with the key, who could find the cabinet, secrets extending far beyond design, into the most esoteric nooks of existence, might be discovered. The thought has always been an idle one, something in the nature of a dimly glinting not so much awareness as sense, and since for me idle moments had long been few, one I'd never had the opportunity to pursue.

Of course my trips in the line of work have been innumerable. I've only ever met one London-based window consultant who wasn't intimately familiar with the place as a source of inspiration, but in my experience opticians tend to live in a world of their own. Although my visits had always involved searching for some particular item, fact or design - the style of a Chinese temple, the decoration of the Crystal Palace, possibilities with cast iron, the exact appearance of an angel in flight - I'd always be troubled at some point on a visit by the sensation that there was something else there that I was missing, at the same time deliberately ignoring, and yet because even if I'd wanted to, I'd have lacked the means, not only to see, but even to look out for it. Call it a flickering in the corner of the eye, but of something subtler than colours or shapes, not so much the beginnings of an appearance, more a dim suspicion that there might be something that could, hypothetically, appear, less an exhibit, perhaps, than something about the spirit of collecting and its limits. Such, then, the intimations wafting elusively around the corridors untagged.

Because the place is stuffed with models, casts, proposals, examples, styles, designs, is itself in its architecture, layout, intention a further set of models, proposals, casts, designs, and styles, the idea that anything else than that should be sought there - that something about, not what people, societies the world over have said things might be made to look like, but what they are, for instance, might be found, what the world is, the universe, what it is to tread it, to breathe, eat, dream, to look there for answers, love, a home, adventures - would have seemed beside the point. Perhaps, at the time, if I'd asked myself, I'd have said that it was my firm belief that anyway, from life in general, what we ought to seek is in the nature of decoration: that the merit of the belief systems that have populated the earth through the ages is to be decided not according to the degree to which they match some reality they'd model, but rather according to their relative beauty - their beauty in themselves, in their role in their society, or as a part of the universe of which their society is itself a part. To the question, for instance, is there really a chance we're re-incarnated after death in the form of an ant the answer I might have given would have been yes, that is indeed a beautiful idea, in itself for its strangeness, socially for the elegance of its solution to the problem of selfishness, metaphysically for its expression of the interconnectedness of all things, of change, the relation of thought and matter, the shifting boundaries between the known and the un-. And yes, I'd say, I also believe in angels, particularly carved in wood, figuring in paint on a gold background, or Raphael emerging from the hands of Milton.

But at the same time, even though I don't think I'd have put things in that way, if only for lack of the time to phrase them, patience with the attempt, belief it might be worth it, the notion that the museum could teach me about the world as a whole, the universe as it's inhabited not only by humans or even animals, plants, or even only also things, although I can say retrospectively that it was that intuition that shadowed me as I searched out my design solutions is one I'd never until I found myself with this idle time allowed myself to entertain.

How many times have you been in love? This is a question, it seems, each new lover has to ask me at least once. Honesty hasn't, I suppose, always been a forte, and I've tended to seek either in their expression or my own mood for an answer. Are they pleading for me to tell them they're the first, and if so, is that what they really want, or need? Do they deserve the reverse? Is their look wicked, conspiratorial: will it be a high number that most pleases? Is there any reason why I should care what they want? Shouldn't I rather say whatever will most distress them, most pleases myself, dispenses with the need to think, punishes the error of seeking an answer?

The V&A's universe is one in which an encounter with things is always guided, chaperoned, by parties of others, but who hover always on the edges of vision. The traces they leave as they move out of the path of what you see are perhaps all they are. It's in that sort of thought, perhaps, that my own intuitions most meet the Archaeologist's.

We met, as I recall now, in a pub, run down affair, in time off. There was a reading group he was in that used to meet there, he had me join. Nobody ever seemed to have read the books, but the discussions were full of an intensity either naïve or visionary - it's too long now for me or anyone else to seek to arbitrate. I remember the young barman used to join us after closing once the doors were locked. 

I went with him to the bar once alone to get a round in, the group off behind us in a corner. He looked at me with a smile while a stout cleared black in its glass. The trouble with us students was that we were all so spaced on undigested theories, and the trouble with him was that he was so bogged down with work he couldn't swallow them. Did the fact, he wanted to know, that between us we seemed to manage such understanding depend on the beer, the drugs, the place, or a real affinity? Although I smiled, I somehow felt defensive. Perhaps this was some sort of proposition. He knew I was with the Archaeologist (to be), perhaps the most studenty of us all in the same way I was surely one of the least. 

Any similarities between the Mile-End pub and the refreshment rooms of the V&A would surely be hard to pin down, but something there on this last trip made me recall the conversation, and wince at my answer. If it had been disingenuous to deny the understanding between us, though, perhaps that was because what he'd meant had just been too elusive for me at the time.

In all honesty I've been in love, really in love, I've sometimes thought, three times. Three known times. And yet I do wonder how many other times I might have been, how those other stories, too, began and ended. These can only be known, perhaps, by analogy with the times I'm aware of, fleshed out with the accounts of others. As eluded to in the refreshment rooms of the V&A, I wonder whether they've only been with people, what affinities we really have with other things, qualities of atmosphere, arrangements of things, currents of air or light, traces of movement, to name some, only, of which we're most aware. 

I do have jobs: they're just less frequent than they were. My last one involved a Knightsbridge jeweller's, was so well remunerated I stretched the term towards its synonymy with 'heist'.

For the brief, we sat back-store in the office, the manager, a woman he failed to introduce who mostly nodded, champagne on ice between us, a table, choice pieces displayed. They wanted, he said, something romantic. That was an extremely wide brief, I suggested, and perhaps he could be more exact. What, he wanted to know, was romance for me? The other woman counted the bubbles above the mouth of her flute. The cut of her skirt was perhaps responsible for her stiff appearance. If she'd uncrossed her legs I'd have been able to tell you more about her anatomy than you'd perhaps want to know. Something in the atmosphere told me the manager already did, perhaps only for having thought so hard about it.

Lies, I said. Hypocritical excuses for a bodily pleasure that didn't need them. The silent woman smiled, sipped, crossed her legs the other way, looked up. The manager looked back at her and then at me. That's what he wanted, then. He smiled, raised his glass.

I knew what would work, needed no research. A trip to the V&A would furnish me, not with ideas, but with something extra for the invoice. 

So my visit there last week, for the first time, was one without aim, although on my first job in a while now, the first that was purely idle.


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