Friday, 11 April 2014

A Perfect Moment

My father's appreciation of art might be characterised as being of the not knowing much about art, but knowing what he likes school. I don't state this in any disparaging sense. On the contrary, this position makes it difficult for artists working with ideas rather than actual talent to pull the wool over his eyes, and it means that his praise, when offered, is genuine and hence has some value. Furthermore, it also means that his observations, on those rare occasions when he is so moved as to offer any, can often seem unusually profound. My favourite of his observations, made as we wandered through the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south-east London, was inspired by a room full of nineteenth century English landscapes, and came as a bit of a surprise because at that moment I hadn't been convinced that he wouldn't have preferred to be somewhere else.

'I like the skies,' he said, admiring the warm, scarlet and orange sunsets, painted with such precision that we could barely see the individual brush strokes. 'They remind me of childhood.'

We'd both grown up on farms, and I knew exactly what he meant, that magical quality of light recalled from hot summer evenings with everyone out in the fields piling up hay bales onto a trailer - perfect moments by some definition, the passing euphoria of memory sherbert flaring up at the back of one's mind. Those moments are part of the reason I myself took to painting, and why I continue in search of something approaching that effect.

In 1984 I was taking an Art Foundation course at the Mid-Warwickshire College of Further Education in Leamington Spa, when I encountered one of my own perfect moments. We were coming to the end of the one year course, a year I'd dedicated almost exclusively to the moving image, super 8mm films or videos produced on a portable VHS video camera and recorder. I suppose I must have been viewed as knowing my way around a video camera to some extent because a fellow student named Gaetano had asked for my assistance. His name was Gaetano on the register, but he answered to Guy and was of Italian parentage. I didn't know him very well as he'd gravitated towards graphic design or maybe fashion or one of those other subdivisions of Art Foundation that I didn't quite understand, but he was a nice guy in, I suppose, a fairly literal sense, and I didn't have anything better to do.

We loaded up his car with the video equipment and drove out of Leamington into the country. This in itself was quite exciting, and felt a little exotic as very few people of my own age had their own car, excepting Peter Wells with his knackered yellow Cortina, and Frank, but Frank was a bit of a dick. Guy's car was of the kind you would expect to see driven by a well-dressed young Italian, and it was always a pleasure to find oneself taken seriously by someone who so obviously had their wits about them, who had actual style, much as I might resent the fact. At the time I myself resembled a member of Gong, which had come about more by default than through conscious choice, and which defined squares such as Guy as the enemy principally as a pre-emptive strike against anyone pointing out that I might have benefited from a haircut; so in addition to everything else, it was pleasant to realise that most of the bullshit social constructions of Art Foundation society were in my imagination.

Guy and I headed out of the town, foot to the floor along country lanes into the Warwickshire hills. Eventually he decided that we had reached our destination, so we drew into a lay-by and got out. I had been asking what sort of video he wished to make, but he seemed unclear, apparently knowing only that the form it took would present itself when the time was right. The sky was the bluest I've ever seen, there was a huge oak tree full of green summer shadows a little way away, and opposite was a low hillside of oilseed rape in bloom, a wall of yellow so bright it almost hurt our eyes to look at it. We went into the field and Guy directed me to begin recording, sweeping slowly from left to right across the flowers. He hoisted up his ghetto blaster - a silver box the size of a suitcase and another indicator of his credentials as a man of the world, someone who knew what he was doing - and pressed play. The tape was Duck Rock, an album of music performed by African musicians, amongst others, to which the endfully talented Malcolm McLaren had attached his name; although the song itself, being more or less free of McLaren's touch but for a few whoops and yeahs, was surprisingly good - those bubbling African guitars and polyrhythms providing a perfect soundtrack to the moment. For a second or two it felt as though we could be almost anywhere in the world.

That was the moment I noticed, the heat and the peppery smell of the flowers, the brilliant wall of blue and yellow and with that music. It was somewhere I had never been sprung from circumstances and associations I could never have predicted. It seemed like a premonition of endless possibilities, the confirmation of a future which would be full of surprises. When I read descriptions of reputedly religious experiences, I think of that moment, stood in a field with a guy called Guy who didn't really know what he was doing, and whose approach to soundtrack work was to stand next to the bloke holding the camera with a beatbox.

I don't know if the resulting footage was really what Guy wanted, but he seemed happy enough with our work. There was no further dimension to that perfect moment. It wasn't the point at which I decided on my career in film-making, or rapeseed cultivation, or when I at last understood what Malcolm McLaren had been trying to say, or when I at last understood that Malcolm McLaren had actually been trying to say something other than everyone please look at me. It didn't mean anything profound despite suggesting that quality, and nor did it lead anywhere in particular. It was no more than what it was, which is possibly why I recall it so well, and all that was really necessary.

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