I have a friend who was once given a month off as part of an artistic project. She was working in a gallery in London five years ago when she heard that a well-known artist wished as her installation to close the gallery, give the staff full pay and send them home. In turn, everyone involved in the gallery was interviewed by the artist, whose grant money had paid for their month's holiday. Rachael wondered where the art resided was it in the sign that announced the gallery was closed for a month, in the interviews that were recorded, or in a space between the two? She wondered whether this was the art of politics or the politics of art, but was happy to take the month off.
For five years after graduating from a well-known London art school, Rachael decided the best way to gain recognition as an artist was to gain any recognition at all, and so she decided that Monday to Friday she would have a day job in some capacity or other in the arts, and at weekends she would paint. She was lucky that a teacher at the school helped her find a position as an attendant at one of London's museums, and this part-time job became full-time. Then a year after that she was employed at a smaller gallery in the same capacity, eventually becoming an assistant and, by the time, she moved to the gallery that was to give her a month off, courtesy of the famous artist, Rachael was even involved in curating works. However, this meant that she travelled a great deal and also often worked weekends, attending gallery openings that never seemed to give her many opportunities for her art. Perhaps, she concluded, her purpose wasn't to make art but facilitate it. When she did have a few hours to herself she didn't quite know how to use it for creative ends. She had never given much thought to the phrase a few hours to oneself, but now that she had so few of them she gave it as much thought as time allowed. Her time was not her own even when it was, since she was alert to the needs of others and dead to the demands of her own work. There was no space for it she found, and the canvases remained blank. Occasionally she stood there and looked at the emptiness that was waiting to be filled and sometimes thought: what if this is the painting? That it was finished before she started. The art world was full of work that was so conceptual that it was hardly at all actual, and yet Rachael knew that were she to pursue such a project it would be charlatanism.
Rachael was telling me this, years after these moments in front of the canvas, and at the time she might not have known the difference between an empty canvas that was nothing but the hubbub of the social that didn't allow the solitary space for her to work, and the emptiness of a work that comes out of the void. These are two absolutely opposite relationships with being, though indistinguishable as a given art piece. It was inevitable, she believed, that the art world was full of charlatanism but while many wanted to claim this as no more than a problem of chancers in the field, she reckoned it was a problem of the field, perhaps even beyond it: that once you address problems of existence in a certain way, then the possibility of charlatanism becomes inevitable. Anybody who wrote articles and essays commenting on this as a problem of corruption, decadence and poor craftsmanship was just a charlatan from another angle. She named a well-known and now dead critic for a popular newspaper who was famous for disliking many aspects of modern art, and also a philosopher who she reckoned had a narrow notion of beauty and subsequently saw little in the modern. In their different ways, they were trying to solve the problem too quickly. Many others didn't acknowledge there was a problem at all. She might have been one of them if it weren't for the month she was given off by an artwork that many may have seen as an example of fraudulence.
In that first week off she didn't do anything except correspond with friends, watch some television online, and go for drinks at the weekend without fearing an early start on Monday morning. But when at the beginning of the second week she woke early, she found herself in the mood for work without the need to go to work. She thought a bit about this, taking twenty minutes to make tea and arrange breakfast. Usually, a Monday morning consisted of putting a pod into the coffee machine, and fresh oranges into the juicer that she would clean when she got home at night. On her way to work, travelling from her flat in Highbury, after getting off at Bethnal Green, she would get another coffee, and a croissant, and have them at her desk while reading the arts news. That Monday morning she instead made a pot of tea, had a bowl of muesli and also the usual fresh orange. The muesli hadn't been touched since she bought it a couple of months ago; at weekends she often breakfasted with friends or alone at a nearby cafe. Yet as she took her time, eating slowly, reading nothing but instead looking out the window at the rooftops, she sensed a space opening up in her that was somehow reminiscent of the empty canvas she months before couldn't work on. That day, after her muesli breakfast, when she went to the canvas and hoped to start painting, nothing happened. She looked at it for thirty minutes, thought of various starting points but couldn't accept any of them and instead went out for a walk. She crossed over to Stoke Newington and wandered around Clissold Park, sitting for an hour on a bench.
Rachael felt no anxiety in this idling and didn't think that she was wasting her time or failing to get down to painting. She supposed that the painting was getting done; it just hadn't been put on the canvas yet. She had no argument to make for this feeling but found it retrospectively when on the Thursday of that week, she put a small blob of green in the right-hand corner of the canvas. She then added a streak of brown below that, and a dash of blue next to the green and the brown. She was still only thinking in shapes and colours but over the next hour she saw she was painting Clissold Park. She was sure that if she had forced herself to paint when she first went to the canvas on Monday she would have painted nothing even if something had appeared. She thought too, that if she had gone to the canvas as she had that morning and said she was going to paint Clissold Park, she would also have painted nothing. There would have been a painting but it would have had the same value as the empty canvas she could have claimed was a painting months earlier.
I think I would have found what Rachael was saying incomprehensible if it weren't for the trajectory I've seen her follow since then, and at an exhibition of her work here in Glasgow. After that month off, she returned to the gallery and worked for a further six months before handing in her notice, and also ending the lease on her flat. Half her wage went on the apartment, even though it was a studio, and she knew she could pay a much more modest sum to her parents if and when the studio flat they had in the centre of Glasgow became available. When she left Scotland she was sure that London was the city in which she wanted to study, live and afterwards work, and for ten years it was, and perhaps if it weren't for the artist's project that gave her a month off, she would still be there. She might have stayed, continued working her way up through the gallery and becoming a full-time curator, and then moved to a bigger and more prestigious gallery. She would have had a successful career and never again been able to put a patch of green, brown and blue on a canvas and watch it grow into a park.
Though we were the same age, and both went to private schools in the city, we never knew each other until she moved back to Glasgow. She went to The Glasgow Academy; I went to St Aloysius. We joked about the ineptitude of a private education if it fails to create networks and proposed that if nothing else the failure of our educational system in this instance was the success of fellow minds rather than expensively generated ones: we met sharing a park bench. She rarely allowed a day to pass without sitting on a bench since that day in the park in Stoke Newington; I had for years taken a flask with me to Kelvingrove park and usually read a book, sometimes watched the ducks, or looked out onto the pond, occasionally having a conversation with someone if bench space were limited and the person keen to talk.
About eight months ago, Rachael sat down beside me, tentatively and at as great a distance as sitting on the bench allowed, with everything in her body language suggesting she would have chosen another one if it had been available, and that she had only taken it because she wanted to eat a hasty lunch. It was a mid-May afternoon, the first day of the year warm enough for a few sunbathers to lie on the grass in bikini tops if they were women, or bare-chested if they were men. The sun was occasionally masked by a cloud but it was hot enough for no great loss of warmth to be felt by its disappearance. Rachael ate the sandwich with a haste that could have indicated she was in a hurry to make an appointment or in a rush to no longer share the bench, but I sensed more that the hurry was a performance, a gesture by someone who knew that they were occupying another person's space and wanted to make clear in every nibble of her sandwich and sip from her bottle of water that she didn't want to intrude. I've always found it fascinating how property works; how liminal in many ways ownership happens to be.
When I was at university in Edinburgh I had a girlfriend who loved to pick fruit, but she didn't do this simply by going out onto the Braid hills or round by the front of Arthur's Seat and pick blueberries in July and raspberries in September; she would think nothing of plucking apples from a tree leaning over a wall. The tree was in the garden, she said, but the apples weren't, as she jumped up and yanked one off a branch, and then another. I looked on and said I supposed I saw no problem with this, seeing other apples that had fallen off the tree and were squished on the pavement. If the owners didn't feel obliged to clean the street of these fallen apples, why shouldn't we pull them off their trees since they belonged as much in the public sphere as to the private? I supposed, unlike Tania, I was thinking through the repercussions, looking to be able to justify our theft if the owner caught us in the act. It was as though their neglect allowed for our thievery but I think I would have couched it as two wrongs allowing for a right: if they weren't looking after the pavement their apples were falling onto, we had no reason to feel that the apples on the tree were exclusively theirs.
I offered this to Rachael after we started to talk and I'd joked that a bench is an odd thing. It belonged to the public but belonged more to the person who arrived first, though no property right made it any more mine than hers. She smiled and apologised for failing to ask permission, saying she hoped that her gesture indicated that she was the intruder. I laughed and said not at all, but agreed that usually a person asks if it is okay to share the bench or shows signs that they are invading another space while making clear in their body language that no other bench is available. I then told her about my thoughts on property, when I and a girlfriend would steal apples and as if by stealing the apples from the trees, we were preventing further mess on the pavement. Rachael said it was funny what I was saying. She and a female friend at school stole apples from inside people's gardens, feeling that if it looked like no one was harvesting them then they ought to do so. If they saw even one or two apples lying on the ground, this was license enough for them to go and pluck them off the tree, believing that the apples belonged only partially to the owners and more to mother nature. Maybe since it was in their garden they had first right to them but if it looked like they were neglecting the fruit, just as I was saying the owners were neglecting the pavement, then they were entitled to steal them. She admitted it still felt like theft, that when they would go into the garden and hastily pull a few apples down from the tree, it didn't feel so very different from going into a sweet shop and walking off with a few chocolate bars. Yet she believed that in the latter instance this would have been unequivocally thieving, taking apples was equivocally so.
We talked for an hour that afternoon, and many of our conversations since have been similar, perhaps because we were like minds who enjoyed discussing the minutiae of moral dilemmas. Before she left, she told me that she had an exhibition opening the following week. She gave me the address, said it was between 7 and 9 in the evening, and added she hoped to see me there. After she had gone I tried to work out the nature of the abruptness. Was it that she left quickly, after appearing to have plenty of time at her disposal, that she invited me to an art opening without even hinting to me that she was an artist, or was it that the invite seemed so perfunctory, with no attempt to write down the address, and would have thus been more inclined to remember it.
I did go to the exhibition, discovered her name was Rachael Waugh, and that her work interested me. What I didn't do was go on the opening night; instead, I turned up a couple of days later, feeling that the invitation contained within it a desire for me to see her show but not quite the enthusiasm to see me there for the opening. The work was mainly of nature but the best way I could describe it, and maybe taking full advantage of the hindsight through the insight Rachael would later give me, was that nature was not full. Often the paintings were images of trees, of bushes, of flowers, but in all of the paintings one sensed that nature was fragile, provisional and alone. She would often create in the frame a single flower or bush or tree and show on the edge of the frame there were others but that they were not part of the one shown. She managed to offer the natural as the solitary and while I didn't think she wished to symbolise loneliness in her depictions, that was only because she wouldn't wish to use nature metaphorically. A tree was as lonely as a person, she later told me; it isn't a symbol of people's loneliness. If I hadn't seen her work before she made such a claim I might have been inclined to say she was talking nonsense, but looking at the work it was as though she had found in nature not its abundance but its precarity.
She said when we later talked that people assume nature is abundant, and in its way it is but if we think too much of that and not enough of its singularity we fall into the assumption that there will always be enough of it, and think not enough of its potential scarcity. She wasn't especially offering an ecological argument, though I wouldn't deny it wasn't there either. She said however that she always liked art and films that would isolate a tree, a flower, a piece of fruit. What she loved about a Cezanne still life was that each piece of fruit seemed to have its own existence, each one felt that it was picked not harvested. She wondered if we could somehow make clear how singular nature can be, whether we could find a new relationship with it based not on cliches like saving the planet but on respect for the living. It was a term too often used in the context of the human, she thought.
This discussion took place about six weeks after I went to see her exhibition, when I saw her sitting at another bench in Kelvingrove park. It felt less like a coincidence that we came across each other; more a surprise that we hadn't done so sooner. I lived on Woodside Dr. and worked four days a week at the university library, and would always walk through the park on the way to work, often had lunch there too if the weather permitted, and read a book there after my shift. I was also looking out for her, keen to talk about the exhibition that I saw, and that she might have assumed I missed. After all, she invited me to the opening and I hadn't gone; would she have assumed I'd gone on another day? Had she even been so irritated that I hadn't accepted the invitation that she avoided the park afterwards? I would be crediting myself with an importance I didn't feel I had the right to possess, but if the thought only passed through my mind momentarily when after a while I still hadn't seen her, it was a thought she expressed when I did see her and I said I was surprised we hadn't come across each other over the last few weeks. She said that there were various reasons for that but couldn't pretend one of them wasn't because she didn't wish to see me again, didn't want to face somebody who might make excuses for failing to attend her show. She said this wasn't because she believed I ought to have come (though she had hoped I would), it was that she feared I would make an excuse for not going, and then all the sincerity she reckoned we had shown towards each other, when we initially talked on the bench, would be lost. She offered this in a tumble of words as we both stood at the Prince of Wales bridge, the flow resembling the stream below us and it was there that I told her that I had gone to her show but a couple of days later. I described several of the paintings and she said it somehow wasn't so important that I went but she knew of too many people who had made excuses to her over the years, and she didn't want more from someone who seemed real to her that day on the bench.
Perhaps in other circumstances, this may have been the moment that a kiss would have been likely. There we were on a romantic bridge, the early evening sun, soft and warm, and Rachael had declared her feelings. Yet I had no sense that this was what she wanted in declaring them, and I've sometimes wondered if this phrase is used too narrowly, with many an affair embarked upon because the declaration of feeling possesses only one meaning when it must surely be manifold. I explained that I sensed that she wanted me to see the work but perhaps didn't want me to see her, her friends, her family others who weren't just interested in her but knew her and wished to support her. I didn't feel entitled to play that role after just one meeting on a park bench but knew also that I felt an affinity with her and what she was saying, and was of course very keen to see her work. I asked if she wanted to continue walking, and for the next hour and a half we strolled around the park, coming out past Lord Roberts Monument, and onto Park Terrace, wandered around the area, and returned back to the park before we went our separate ways from where we met.
I didn't ask where she lived but assumed it was somewhere near the university and before parting she asked me where I lived. I said over on Woodside Dr. and she said had she known we could have parted up by Park Terrace; now I would have to walk all the way back. I told her I loved to walk, which was true, but didn't add that I also so enjoyed her company that I would have been happy to walk for a couple of hours more. I asked if she wanted to formalise our meetings that had thus far been contingent would she be free the following afternoon when I finished work? We arranged to meet on the bench where we first met, and the nearest one to that if it was busy. We hadn't swapped phone numbers and oddly she hadn't suggested it. I used my mobile like a landline, rarely taking it anywhere with me since it was old and the battery was weak. The few friends I had and my family knew this and so there was no anxiety when I didn't instantly return their calls or texts, yet I was surprised Rachael hadn't offered me her details and mused over whether this was a question of privacy or that she too had a similar resistance to technology. At no stage while we walked did she take out a phone, and so this seemed more likely than that she had no interest in offering me her number; she had after all asked where I lived.
The next day when I arrived she wasn't on the bench; another couple were and so I looked around the benches nearby but couldn't see Rachael anywhere. Someone more technologically-driven, cruel, or a lover of irony would say this is what happens when people think they can defy the very tech that has been put in our hands to facilitate such meetings, and that any anxiety I might occasionally feel as a text comes in or a phone call that must be answered, was negligible next to how I must have been feeling as I looked all around me hoping to see Rachael. Yet I didn't feel anxious at all. I supposed there was a good reason why she couldn't make it and she would suppose that if I didn't know the reason I would have been someone happy to assume the best without worrying about the worst. I couldn't easily explain this but it seemed consistent with why it would have been inappropriate to try and kiss Rachael while we were standing at the bridge. It was as if we both implicitly understood that the expected ways to behave weren't comforting but alienating; that received behaviour was perhaps too close to the predictive which ruled so many areas of people's lives. While we had walked the previous day, Rachael said that she noticed so often now people were discussing not what happened but what was about to happen. She was at her parents' house the previous weekend and her father was watching the telly and there was a world cup game soon to be played. At one moment her father yelled at the pre-match pundits to get on with the game, as though it could start half an earlier if only they would shut up. The point was that another show should have been on but no, an hour before the match they were discussing all the permutations and possibilities available based on various players' form, the manager's tactics and the niggling injuries one or two players still had after a tough season. Rachael said this was just one of many areas in life she saw where anticipation far outstripped the reflective, where planning was more important than execution. It was as if all event had become non-event, all possible excitement banished from the event and pumped into the build-up.
I added that it was now possible that a criminal could probably be found guilty before they committed a crime: that the combination of extreme poverty, lack of education, bad housing and access to guns could allow someone to be a criminal without them knowing it, but where the statisticians are waiting merely for the inevitable. I added that this didn't mean I wanted to say all poor people commit crime, and obviously that I didn't think people from run-down neighbourhoods should be arrested as a preventative measure. To me, it made more sense to solve the problems that made such crime so predictable, though I also added that perhaps a fairer society needn't be so especially because we wanted to see the eradication of poverty, but that we wanted to see the eradication of predictability. I mentioned an article I'd read a couple of weeks earlier on assortative mating; a fancy term perhaps for the rich marrying the rich. So many of these marriages seemed predictable and no doubt there are newspaper articles and TV programmes working through the likelihood of who will marry who based on the money they have, the area in which someone lives and the schools both parties went to. She reminded me of what I said when we first met: that wasn't it great that we didn't meet through the sort of networks the schools were designed to create? Somehow, Rachael failing to turn up for our meeting that day was if nothing else a wonderful instance of the unpredictability of the world when so much felt the opposite.
It wasn't until a month later that I saw her again, sitting on a bench near the Stewart Memorial Fountain and she didn't look surprised nor even apologetic when she said that she thought she might find me it was as though this wasn't the first day she had hoped to see me walking past; that any apology was unnecessary due to the penance of her waiting for far longer and more often than I had the day she failed to turn up. I asked her why she didn't come that day and she said that someone had phoned earlier in the afternoon on the day we were to meet. They were keen to buy several paintings and up until then nobody had bought more than one at a time, and often those who did were people she knew, friends of family or friends of friends. She asked if they could wait until the following day but the person was in Glasgow only for work and would be leaving early the next morning. They had been to the exhibition the previous afternoon and saw on the table the artist's card and decided to phone. They said what moved them about her work was its solitude, one so pronounced that they felt as though even phoning the artist to enquire about the sale of her work felt like a possible violation. She thought for a moment and reckoned the person seemed really to want to buy her work and not just some work and believed that somehow I would have approved: that I would accept her prioritising this person who was buying her paintings over her meeting me.
She offered it with a cheeky smile that I hadn't seen before, and added that there was no way of contacting me but I could have contacted her if I had picked up a card too at the exhibition I could have texted or phoned her to find out why she hadn't come. The buyer had shown initiative that I hadn't and thus they were prioritised, I thought but didn't say. I also for a moment wondered if Rachael was disappointed that I hadn't offered to buy a painting, as I thought too about why I hadn't. What I did say was that Rachael had a point but it was hardly a moral one. She could redeem herself by getting me a tea or coffee, and so for the first time we went to a cafe together and arrived just as a downpour heralded the sensibleness of our decision. Within a few minutes a cafe that we entered half-empty had become full and the atmosphere was convivial and yet clamorous, with people glad to get out of the rain and others annoyed that they had so quickly been soaked. Rachael was more interested in the walls and said that her ideal would be for all her work to be on show and on sale in cafes. She never really liked the idea of museums and exhibitions, and yet at the same time she knew what she was saying was nonsense: that her paintings needed bare walls and isolation. I agreed: what was the point of creating such quiet in the work to have it surrounded by the noise we were now amongst?
Rachael thought again of that time in London when she went to the canvas and could paint nothing, wondering if that was what she should be painting, only to find months later, after she had the time off another artist had gifted her, that the nothing she would initially have painted would have been something, would have been full of the conviviality and the clamour of this cafe, when what she sought was a silence that demanded a bare wall and not a bare canvas. We looked at the artwork on the wall and it was a mixture of street scenes and cafe crowds, art that reflected the cafe if it was art at all. Its purpose was to be put on these walls and perhaps no other. There was a hint of impressionism, though a dash of expressionism, but clearly painted long after the two movements. I asked her if she thought bad art wasn't about technique but about irrelevance. I recalled reading a review of a very famous and successful Scottish artist and the critic was saying he didn't know how to do collars, or hands, or something, but it seemed to me such a trivial criticism; that the failure was much greater than that. Rachael said she didn't want to disparage another artist's work, even someone as rich and derided as the artist I mentioned. But she did think his work would be well-suited to the cafe walls, and knew in such a claim that she was offering an insult but hoped it contained a diagnosis.
She said that the artist's life had been a lot harder than hers or mine, if reports of his childhood were true. He was brought up in a seaside town in a -miner's house, sharing a bed with his brother, working part-time from an early age partly to support the family. She didn't know how much he earned but it would have been a heck of a lot less than her school fees or mine. Yet she sensed what the artist never had was time; that he was always expected to work and the art he ended up producing was nothing more than an escape from that. She wasn't surprised by its popularity; it possessed a yearning for a life not pressurised by work and money; how many people wouldn't wish for the things he showed in his paintings? Perhaps you and me, she added, but let us not pretend to pass for more than a minority. It was as though the artist had painted from the difficulty of his life to the luxury of another's, or at least the fantasy of another's, and there was no place in between: that he somehow arrived at the canvas as she might have done if she had started painting that day when she thought about the meaning of its blankness. Whether it was going to be as blank as hers would have been or as full of cliches as this famous artist's work, it didn't make much difference.
Rachael expressed this in the hubbub of the cafe without any sense of arrogance or superiority. Her work may have been astonishingly minor she said, but she believed very much that it was hers, while the famous artist's work was so directly, nakedly the world's. I said I didn't quite know what she meant, and she said that was precisely it. We never do; and that is why we need to work at conveying a meaning to others. If we assume in the work that others know what we mean, we arrive if not at the meaningless then at the too immediately meaningful. When we use idioms, the point isn't to say what the person speaking means but what another person is supposed to understand. If she were to say she has to bite the bullet or call it a day, if I understand colloquial English, I will know what she means even if any number of people would say the same thing. I don't really know what she means, and the same is true of visual images as it is with words, she insisted.
As she spoke I thought back to the discussion we had on the bridge by the park, and 'idiomatically' that I should have kissed her but that she was not feeling in idioms; that such a response would have been to misconstrue the expression. She seemed now to be clarifying this communication not because she thought I was about to make a pass at her but to try and venture further into why it would be no sort of answer for either of us. I wouldn't have disagreed but I had my own reason for that, and this story is about hers.
I used the bathroom and on my return she asked me if I was in a hurry and I said no I rarely was, as though the artist who gave staff a month off needn't have worried about me. I always seemed to have time on my hands, I said, utilising the stale idiom, and perhaps protecting myself from further questioning. She said while I was in the toilet she had looked at the menu and reckoned the food was overpriced and probably poorly sourced; she had been to the farmer's market at the weekend had loads of food. She would cook.
Of course, I had no idea where she lived; though I assumed for no good or bad reason that she stayed near the park when she said that it wasn't really within walking distance, though she sometimes walked in, often cycled (though I'd never seen her on a bike) and occasionally took the train. We could get the train she said, and instead of asking her where we were going I enjoyed the mystery of misapprehension: I was so sure that she lived around the West End I was now intrigued to know where she did live and enjoyed the wait. She asked if I wanted to walk at least for a bit. I said why not, and she asked if I wanted a slightly shorter or a slightly longer one. I said she was in charge. We went back through the park, came out by Park Circus, down along Woodlands Rd and along a footpath over the motorway that took us out near the art school and into the city centre, where we got on a train at Glasgow Queen Street. She bought two tickets and used them both as we passed through the ticket barrier. I still didn't know where we were going.
We exited at Alexandra Parade and walked a few yards along the wide and traffic-heavy, Cumbernauld Rd and turned off down a side street and then turned down a narrower one. The buildings looked like a mixture of the well-preserved, the recently refurbished and the medium to well-dilapidated, and I was surprised to see us going into a medium dilapidated one, up several flights of stairs, before arriving at the top floor, where there were several plants on the landing.
Inside, the flat was very different from the facade of the building. While I had seen loose wires and dented satellite dishes, inside everything was organised and tidy, with floors sanded bronze cesar (after I asked about the colour), the hallway painted powder blue and the doors and skirting a darker salmon pink. The sitting room, with the kitchen tucked into the corner, and a dining table separating the two spaces, was more neutral, an arctic blue. The bedroom was, like the bathroom, cream. The doors were in a Charles Rennie Mackintosh style and were there when she moved in, she said. I didn't get a tour of the flat when I arrived but the bedroom door was open, and from the entrance you could see the whole apartment, which was compact and yet didn't seem at all cramped. As she cooked up a Tofu stir fry, as I helped chop up the veg, so she told me that after moving back to Glasgow, she had 8,000 in savings and knew that it wouldn't be enough for a deposit. Her parents wanted her to live in the West End, not far from where they lived in Dowanhill and they said she could have the studio whenever it next became available. It was, after all, in a desirable area. she could live in a more desirable area. But their notion of desirability was not hers, or rather while of course she liked the area around the university, Byres Road and Kelvingrove park, the combination of her parents' studio flat and her parents' nearby presence appealed a lot less. If she was so keen to escape the job in London it was for an autonomy she didn't want immediately to lose on returning to Glasgow.
I realised that while she knew I worked in the library, I didn't know how she survived, as though our constant abstract conversations left little space to discuss the concrete. When I asked, hoping it wasn't impolite, how she managed a mortgage, she said that first of all the mortgage was very low less than 300 a month and that she had, she supposed, two jobs. She worked a couple of shifts a week in a cafe on Duke Street which covered her mortgage and bills, and taught some community courses in art practice. She had also since the exhibition started to make money from her paintings. She was fine she said, and meant more than financially. I didn't doubt it, and asked if she thought she would be in the situation she was now in if the artist hadn't created an installation that was based on the absence of art rather than its presence; by allowing the gallery workers a month off and closing the gallery altogether. She thought not, and would often recall that moment when she stood in front of the canvas and wondered if she ought to produce what she felt, which was empty.
But it was more than moral decency that insisted she couldn't claim it was art, and perhaps she well knew that an unknown artist producing a blank canvas wasn't the same as a famous artist doing the same. If the famous artist who gave her and her colleagues a month off had been a philanthropist it would have been deemed a work of charity and not a work of art. There was a discourse the famous artist was part of that made it an artwork and not charity. Yet she also believed it wasn't quite a moral problem nor a discursive one: she sensed that though the blank canvas would have reflected how she felt, it wouldn't have resolved the problem of how she felt: that would have demanded an artwork that the blank canvas couldn't have been. This didn't mean another artist couldn't claim with some justification that the same gesture was art; she couldn't. She still didn't know what constituted art but she did feel with some certitude that the instinct telling her that the empty frame wasn't it, was where, for her, art came from.
Obviously, for many such an instinct is obvious: they list the things that make art, art. She didn't have that type of confidence but did believe the sort of assuredness that came out of knowing what couldn't be art for her led to her beginning to understand what was. She supposed she learnt as much about art by sitting on park benches as from going to art school, or even from standing in front of paintings. She then said something so intimate and vulnerable, so open and surprising, that neither of us quite knew how to respond further. She said that talking to me was the most articulate she had ever been when discussing her work. When she had tried to sit down and write about what she did and why she did it, the page turned into anecdotes and cliches, simplified claims and declarative intentions. She knew this because she had tried when the curators of her recent exhibition asked her if she would write 1600 words about her art practice. She worked on it for about a week and eventually gave up. Instead, as I may have noticed, inside the entrance, on the wall, it said, Rachael Waugh, when and where she was born and the art school she attended. Underneath were three quotes. One was from Van Gogh, a second from Frida Kahlo, and a third from John Berger.
All three quotes she supposed concerned time; that what she wanted to paint was time even if paintings themselves weren't temporal. When she worked in London, and when she travelled to various parts of the world for exhibitions, she sensed she never had time even if she was never late: whether it was trains, meetings, shows, she was always punctual. Yet now she understood much better lateness, that often people weren't always being rude by showing up ten minutes late, though they might be, but that they were flexible with the temporal; it can be as malleable as Dali's famous melting watches. She read the analogy while looking at an article a while ago about time-keeping around the world: that the Swiss, those great watch-makers, are never late; Mexicans reckon if you don't turn up an hour after the dinner invite you might catch the host unprepared.
She suspected that the reason she couldn't paint while she was working at the gallery wasn't that there were all those established artists whose work she curated. It was that the deadlines placed upon her reduced her life to only the temporality of the clock. When she stood in front of the canvas, it was crowded with time. How to remove that time so she could paint? Most art takes our time, and of course some installations take too much of it provocatively, so much so that the gallery usually won't be open so that we can absorb it all as she named a slowed-down version of a famous film and an installation that worked with clocks in film over a twenty-four-hour cycle. They were great works she said that steal time but the artist who gave her a month off was instead giving it back. However, as far as she knew, she was the only one of the staff who turned time into art. The others returned to their jobs refreshed, she supposed, and happy to be immersed once again in working in the gallery. She didn't denigrate this; that they were given time off and used it for time with friends and partners, taking a holiday or whatever it might be. Yet she sensed if she hadn't started painting, the time off would have gone by wastefully because she wasn't looking for 'time-off', with its connotations of an escape from the clock, but searching for a different temporal dimension altogether.
By now it was after midnight. The oven light and the lamp in the corner of the sitting room, both only of decorative and practical value initially, since, when we started cooking, the sun was still coming into the room, gave the room an intimacy that was in keeping with the divulgences Rachael offered. When during the course of the evening she would sometimes break off and say she was talking too much about herself, I said no, that she was hardly talking about herself at all, even if I couldn't quite have said what talking about oneself was, except to say on numerous occasions I had carefully avoided doing so. I didn't feel that evening it was based on a resistance on my part and felt that my time would come, that both of us, in this unusual relationship that needed intimacy, but didn't appear to require the sexual, had searched out ways to escape the tyranny of time. Maybe we both knew that to make it so, to pursue physical intimacy, would have given back to the clock its despotic power. Yet I also found myself thinking again about her work, and one painting in particular, based, she had said, on a plant she saw in Kew Gardens.
The painting was titled Imperishability, and the plant's proper name was Encephalartos altensteinii. It seemed a rare work in the exhibition and perhaps why I had asked her about it. It appeared more entangled and 'sociable' than most of the nature she painted, and she told me it was the oldest pot plant in the world, over 240 years old. I thought of it again because on the wall was a framed sketch of it, and I recalled her saying she based the painting upon a drawing she made. When I looked at the sketch and we discussed the plant, she said that of course it will eventually perish and perhaps long before the sketch or the painting that she made of it. This had nothing to do with any posterity her art might endure; it could survive for centuries as landfill. She often thought of the tragedy of one and the horror of the other: the tragedy of things passing, of the perishable disappearing, and the horror of things that won't disappear, like plastics and rubber. The things we create, use and waste long outlive us, and yet we deploy them so casually and carelessly. It was in that moment I was sure that she would eventually return to that blank canvas, leaving not a trace upon it, and before long have no need for the canvas at all. But that, I suppose could be said for all of us.
© Tony McKibbin