49. Future Imperfect: writers beware?

It’s quaint to look back from the vantage point of 43 and consider which of the academic experiences and skills you’ve grasped, albeit weakly, over the last 25 years would be of use to students today – bar those studying ancient history or delusional writer syndrome. Is Marxist media theory still relevant? I guess that depends as much on your opinion of the man as how you rate the latest cooking and talent shows. Is developing B&W photos in a darkroom still a valid skill, or yet another meditative zone long since bulldozed by an impatient twenty-first century? Time will tell, though presumably only if it starts rewinding.

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Ginsberg looking chilly but cheerful in the snow (Beat Museum, SF)

My dissertation related to how drug use affected popular protest in the 1960s and 1990s. My rather sweet conclusion was that the psychotropics of the earlier decade promoted genuine empathy and desire for social change, while the ecstasy tablets favoured by my own generation encouraged only hedonism, despite the free hugs they induced and the friendly emoji (the ne’er-do-well cousins to today’s puritanical variety) they were stamped with. For a few tantalising seconds last week I wondered if this long-lost paper was about to be vindicated by the words of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, who was being interviewed on Jarvis Cocker’s fabulous radio show. Listening more carefully, I realised the reverse was actually the case.

Curtis maintains that the ‘60s flower children are to blame for much that is broken in the world today; that their need for self-expression, and with it the desire to stand out and be different, fuelled the insatiable capitalism of today due to its inherent promise of choice and uniqueness (a promise that was all too easily monetised). This meant the collective movements of the time ultimately vanished in the haze of a Hendrix guitar solo, and from thereon in we were screwed.

Even more disturbing than realizing my dissertation was fatally flawed, and that rampant selfishness is about to destroy the world, was the next thing Curtis said. Apparently the most radical thing to do in the face of all this damned self-expression is nothing. Nothing? Or even better, he suggested, walk to Aleppo, Syria [and see what you can do to help]. Don’t tell anyone you’re going. Don’t tweet about it. Don’t write a book about it. Don’t write a book about it?

Unthinkable. Or perhaps not. First, ask yourself whether writers (and other creative types) are typically altruists or egoists. Have you met one before? Okay, question answered. Second, do we really need to publish more and more books, to upload more and more thoughts and feelings until we have an infinite number of clever theses and artistic flourishes, or do we need to take direct action according to our consciences, and if that doesn’t work…do nowt?

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Timothy Leary looking to the future

In another Cocker show, future thinker Dr Yuval Noah Harari asked what humans can bring to a party soon to be hosted by algorithms with more willpower than a zillion horny undergrads. Should they even bother to pitch up? Already taxi drivers are being threatened with imminent redundancy by driverless cars with a much better attitude. I wonder what lies in store for editors of soon-to-be-outdated textbooks. Perhaps our attention to detail could be applied to Virtual Reality programming? Oh, hold on. In the next breath Harari explains that in future middle-aged folk whose first occupation becomes redundant will either join the cabbies in a ‘useless class’ or face annihilation, depending on the political climate of the time.

On the upside, I still haven’t learnt to drive so that’s one less skill I need to find a home for in my darkroom of obsolete abilities – a space I see being curated by an AI version of Timothy Leary that spends its days dropping acid with a regenerated Karl Marx. Rest assured, despite the squeeze I’m sure there’ll be a place for all of us in there in years to come.

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48. Something of what Bowie looked at

Somewhere near the top of the bland ceramic womb of Hong Kong’s Pacific Place mall there is a Sotheby’s, or at least a showroom belonging to the international art and antique peddlers. I am guided to the correct elevator by a smiling woman holding a picture of David Bowie with a finger to his lips. Mixed messages. I have swapped the Hunky Dory tranquillity of home for the Tin Machine tinnitus of the city specifically to see the art collection of one of my heroes which, somewhat depressingly, is being flown around the world over the next few weeks, presumably to see which economic hub is capable of birthing an oligarch with the beans to bid hard and fast when the 350 pieces are sold in three thematic job lots in London next month.

Sealed into my metal box I sigh in sympathy with the lift doors, and also in recollection at a certain dream I had before coming to Hong Kong. An avid Antiques Roadshow fan, I remember explaining to my ex-wife how I was seriously considering entering the antiques trade on arrival, sight unseen, in our new home. Before she started laughing, I sketched out a near-future scenario in which I would become a cross between Indiana Jones and Lovejoy. When she saw I was being serious, a mental note was made in the deficit column and accountancy courses were suggested.
img_6784We all suspect Bowie was well hung, but was he well lit? Not in this case. The twenty or so selections from his art collection are banged under uniformly bright lighting, allowing viewers to interact with the more brooding, abstract work by casting dirty great shadows onto murky canvases. Sure, no one wants to trip over a Picasso or mistake a Damien Hirst spin painting for a genuine work of art, but there seems little call for this treatment at what should be an intimate preview/last chance to see.
IMG_6790.jpgAlthough a Wyndham Lewis sketch could – at a stretch – be a nascent Starman or Bowie-as-mime, it’s too small to create much of an impact.
IMG_6779.jpgBar the bold Basquiat and some neon sculpture straight out of Homer Simpson’s day job, the exhibits are more reflective than might have been expected. Family is a key theme, and eponymous in Henry Moore’s undersized, overpriced sculpture.
IMG_6785.jpgThe purpose of coming today was to see things Bowie looked at and wanted. It’s tempting to wonder if Moore’s piece was chosen for its simple depiction of a straightforward nuclear family, something that eluded Bowie in his youth, due in part to his brother’s mental illness – a state of affairs he would write about so hypnotically in The Bewlay Brothers.
IMG_6787.jpgBowie’s purchase of unfashionable British artists from the last century has been gleefully seized upon in at least one review as a mark of his repressed conservatism, but I wonder if the melancholy hues of these dusty-seeming objects and canvases represented a confusion related to his past that he needed to identify, and hang.

These lines in Dollar Days, a song on Bowie’s final record, entered my ears as I studied the pieces: ‘If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see’. Superficially, these words support the defiant approach to death that permeates much of Blackstar, but an alternative reading is that so fixed within his mind was the idea of Englishness – the gentle countryside, the surreal humour – that he need not see his homeland in the flesh again: it existed within him, as it exists within some of the pieces on display here.
IMG_6781.jpgTrying not to dwell on the inevitable feeling of loneliness and loss tucked between the artworks, I concentrate on some of Bowie’s more contemporary acquisitions: the giant telephone, bright red cube radio and beige record player (all estimated to fetch £200-£600, if you’re interested), above which is listed his 25 albums that could ‘Change Your Reputation’. Tongue in cheek, finger to his lips, whatever your verdict on his art collection it’s clear who’s having the last laugh here, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a hint or two of what was going on behind the scenes in the eternal expat’s living museum in New York.
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