Missing the Point

Colm Tóibín · The Trouble with Signs

From an early age, I have missed the point of things. I noticed this first when the entire class at school seemed to understand that Animal Farm was about something other than animals. I alone sat there believing otherwise. I simply couldn’t see who or what the book was about if not about farm animals. I had enjoyed it for that. Now, the teacher and every other boy seemed to think it was really about Stalin or Communism or something. I looked at it again, but I still couldn’t quite work it out.

So, too, with a lot of poetry. I couldn’t see that things were like other things when they were not like them. Maybe they were slightly like them, or somewhat like them, but usually they were not like them at all.

And allegory. I never got the point of allegory. If it was a choice between algebra and allegory, I knew whose side I was on. When I picked up Moby Dick, I liked it because it was about hunting whales. And oh dear I just couldn’t concentrate when everyone began to explain, all at the one time, that the whale was a symbol or something, that it stood for... I cannot remember what.

And then there was structuralism. I read all the books about it, and attended lectures, but I couldn’t see it, the signs weren’t there. Or maybe they were, that was the worry, maybe they were.

It often got worse. The signs on the doors of toilets in bars and restaurants have been the bane of my life. I often look at them, really take them in, and it is clear that one signifies Men and the other Women, but the more I look the more difficult it becomes to work out which or what. Often I have had to piss up a side street because I could not decide which door to open.

I like things that are plain and visible. Maybe it came from an overexposure at too early an age to the Catholic mass. I knew from age seven or eight that the host wasn’t the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Not before. Not during. Not after. I was an altar boy and I studied it all from close quarters.

And it was the same with people. I was (and am) always the last to guess that someone ostensibly straight is gay or vice versa. Or that someone is with someone other than their partner. And, once, in a bar in Barcelona, when I was assured that the barwoman was really a guy, I then began to wonder about everyone else I knew. How can you tell? I wish things were less complicated, easier to read.

It is often a great advantage, however. It means when I look at paintings, I sometimes actually look at them because I can think of nothing else to do. This is often very enjoyable, especially when everyone around is listening to some drivel on an audio guide.

Thus as I walked around the Frieze show in London in October, it was easy to see that everything was all shiny and shallow, and that it was really a show for children with chequebooks, or adolescents with attitude. The work was silly. Maybe it could have been argued that it was all significant, part of a new movement towards something or other, away from abstraction towards a brash figuration, but I have never been able to listen to arguments. One of the artists had made a big ceramic thing and he was wearing girls’ clothes and looked like Little Bo Peep. I liked him.

And then I saw something beautiful. A few drawings and paintings at the stall of an Edinburgh gallery called the Ingleby Gallery. They were pure. No one else was looking at these things. The first thing was a series of three drawings by Richard Forster and they had each been made showing the coastline at a different moment as the tide changed. They were very precise and exact. The artist had timed the scene, maybe photographed it a lot and then worked out how to make a drawing of it – the receding tide, the different light, the wet sand, the lines of definition versus the lines of texture.

The other things that caught my eye were smaller, purer, more mysterious. I suppose I loved them because of their absolute absence of content. Two canvases, quite small, done in a monochromatic blue-grey. Abstract. Made by Alexander and Susan Maris. Nothing more to be said. Except there was a glow from them, a sense of the paint having been applied by someone, or even by two people, with consummate control over surfaces. I don’t know why it was a big deal and why I kept going back to look at these two small works. But they were good. Whoever did them knew how to paint and they shone with that. A funny sort of calm integrity. I can’t think why I bought them, but I finally have them here now in Dublin in a box. Soon, I will take them out and work out what to do with them.

They are proof if I need proof that I really do miss the point of things. Instead of wallowing in their clean beauty, unsullied by modern fashions in painting and the general tendency to ironise everything that moves and everything that stays still, they are a sort of joke. I did find some of this out when I looked at them the third time and before I bought them, but at times it takes a while for the enormity of something to make its way into my skull.

The pigment that made them – there were thirteen of these paintings done altogether – is not pure; it is made from the ashes of a copy of Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting. When they had finished burning and painting, the artists wrote to Derrida and offered him one of the paintings. On 11 November 1991 he replied in a handwritten letter. ‘Dear Maris,’ he began:

Forgive me for writing/thanking so late. I was very impressed by the quiet audacity of your project and by the (art)work which is [very?] good. Of course, and there is the ash(es) I could not have deciphered/understood without the explanatory letter that you so kindly sent with your dispatchment, I mean to say your 'gift'.

He went on to say that he would be pleased to meet them in Paris.

The artists replied with a long letter which ended:

I hope that the only mystery rendered by these 'paintings' is a purely catalytic one – une ponctuation tranquille – intended to facilitate a more meticulous 'deconstruction' of (the truth in) Painting... Perhaps you already see what I mean.

Sigh. I thought that were just nice, these little paintings, harmless things, like lyric poems that mean what they say, without meaning too much, or novels that just get on with it without being about ‘the novel’. And now look! I have just taken them out of the box. There is an envelope which has a backlabel and I suppose I should stick it on to the back of one of the paintings. It says:

Alexander & Susan Maris; Extracts from THE TRUTH IN PAINTING 1990-1993 (Revised 2006); book-ash from an unread volume of Jacques Derrida’s ‘The Truth in Painting’ in acrylic medium, and book-ash from a read volume of Jacques Derrida's ‘The Truth in Painting’ in acrylic medium on canvas, 30.5 by 66 cm overall (2 parts).

In other words, they read one before they burned it, but not the other. I suppose that must mean something. But it’s hard to work out what. I like things that are either very simple or very complicated as long as I know in advance which. The problem I have now is I cannot decide. I mean: would there be a problem if I put them in the bath and washed myself with them in lovely soapy hot water? Or if I burned them and sent them to Jean Baudrillard? (Yes, I know he’s dead.) Or if I just hung them up and smiled each time I passed them.


  • 2 January 2010 at 12:53pm
    Gillian Darley says:
    I have (slightly) more time for conceptual art than you, but still much enjoyed the blog. It has the tone and clarity of Brooklyn which I read a week or so ago with great pleasure. Hang the little paintings up and smile, I say.