The Girl of Disquiet

Automat
Automat, Edward Hopper (1927)

Earlier this year, I moved to Lisbon for a spring sojourn because I’m no longer bound by geography to earn a living. From living in the Tuscan hills to the Atlantic Ocean, I romanticise and decay with indecision, but transport my mind and body to beautiful places.

It was sheer chance that led me to spend time with Gabriela. Like many associations in the modern era, I contacted her long before we first met. With life now reduced to a game of cards, I found myself chatting to an introverted soul; one who took esoteric selfies and expressed bizarre reactionary views.

We chatted intermittently in the weeks before I left London. I forget that at times – my early characterisation of a moody intellectual unable to fit in. Her grainy self-portraits complemented this narrative. From the comfort of my phone, I found myself forming judgements on the little messages hidden inside each picture.

For there were peculiarities with Gabriela long before I moved to Portugal. Such as why did a beautiful, well-educated Jewish-Brazilian girl have no friends in the city? It might be innately sexist of me, but I always assume that women have more friends than men.

“You don’t know me. I’m a horrible person,” she told me one evening long after we first met. I have always remembered the brutality of those words – the mean-spirited emptiness.

During that conversation, I encouraged her to download the Meetup’s app so she could meet like-minded people. From coding courses to gluten free spaghetti lessons – you can find a group for it.

“You need to go every day, every week for people to remember you…it’s easier to make friends that way”, I implored to her on What’s App.

It was an all too regular topic of conversation looking back. Gabriela eventually found one that she liked – an open mic night – and I hope she still goes.

There’s more to the picture than meets the eye

After arriving in Lisbon and meeting her in a Restauradores coffee shop, I met a surprisingly upbeat girl (who could never get to the grips with my Scottish accent) who wanted to see music and lights.

With her Bambi chestnut eyes and effervescent glamour, Gabriela’s phone should have been singing with social invites. It made no sense to me why she spent most of her life on her own.

Only for reasons I could never fully understand, she had a childish hostility to Portuguese people, who didn’t like her because she was Brazilian, or they ‘were all stupid’. Then you had the simplistic admiration for Donald Trump and negative social attitudes that would inevitably upset a young urban crowd if she ever publicly expressed them.

I often wondered if her strange views proved to be a barrier in making new friends – it must be lonely and isolating if your outlook on life does not confer to a common consensus.

Faith

Gabriela’s Jewish faith was enormously important to her, and she regularly attended the city’s two synagogues until she unwisely got involved with two senior members, whom only had lust in their hearts.

She also used to talk about the SS commander Adolf Eichmann’s biography almost every time I saw her. It sounded like a depressing exercise to me, but as a secular Scottish man with no religious heritage, I could never emotionally gauge in her tribal sense of persecution.

If nothing else, Gabriela had the courage of her convictions and would openly criticise something she didn’t like without hesitation.

Nighthawks

With insomnia causing her to stay awake until 4 am and her days regularly starting long after midday, Gabriela lived a largely solitary life in libraries and restaurants. She had moved to Portugal to study Edward Hopper as part of an opaque PHD project and previously graduated as a psychologist in Brazil.

But I noticed she never expressed any love or admiration for the American painter, let alone any other artist or art form. That troubled me. I quickly developed an uneasy feeling there were other forces in play when it came to her studies.

Denial

As I shifted my belongings across the city from the Alfama district to the cobbled buzzy romance of Santa Catarina, I would randomly meet up with Gabriela about once a week. Like many people in Portugal going out for drinks was not part of her vocabulary – she abstained from alcohol most nights.

Over plates of steamed cod and grilled chicken, we regularly spoke about her desire for friends and the nocturnal sleepiness of Lisbon. She loved the city’s soul grooves but found it immensely boring. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a isolationist romance about living in Portugal’s capital – it feels far removed from the rest of Europe.

Unable to leave country unless she goes back to Brazil, her loneliness was further compounded by her academic isolation. Gabriela had no peers, colleagues or even classes to attend as part of her library-based studies.

She did have flatmates in her Graca-based apartment, but they provided no companionship at all. Identifying that everyone needs peers as friends, I once suggested that she got bar job or something. “My father would be ashamed of me,” she stridently told me. “He’s not paying me to work in a restaurant, but to expand and explore my mind”.

I half-suspected her documentary filmmaker father, whom she loved deeply and cited frequently, may have been an overdue influence on her academic career. As I never once detected any ambition from her to teach or write about American realism after she graduated. It didn’t seem to matter either way to be honest.

She seemed trapped in her father’s image, a loving daughter exercising his benevolent wishes in a fairy tale land, forever dining alone like one of Hopper’s paintings.

Epilogue

I last saw Gabriela walking around the Pantheon complex in the Graca neighbourhood, which I belatedly moved too in April. She said she would miss me at the time, but randomly unfollowed me on Instagram a month later.

It must be obvious by now that we had nothing in common. I’m not even sure if she even liked me, but in the absence of like-minded friends, we filled the celestial emptiness together. Sitting amongst the city’s jacaranda trees and art nouveau kiosks, just waiting for something to happen.

 

 

A Portrait of the Artist as a Kohl-Eyed Entrepreneur

Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple has never struggled to get the internet’s attention. Born in New York, the visual artist has a saucy flair for the cruel and gorgeous, embracing a decadent world of burlesque, nudity and subversive politics. From decorating some of the world’s most glamorous nightclubs to founding a burlesque cabaret workshop, Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, Crabapple’s art empire strikes against the bohemian maxim ‘I am an artist, therefore I despise wealth’.

On the contrary Crabapple is a roaring American success story. By mastering the internet she controls her own financial destiny and this alone will upset some purists, as artists have traditionally rejected materialism. Making money from art goes against the ruinous fantasies of bohemians who live for the moment.

Poverty has traditionally defined an artist’s career, a garret lifestyle cliché of half-grooved eccentrics and drunken poets who believe art can only flourish where material comforts are absent. With the advent of crowdsourcing in the 21st century starving artists can now queue in Waitrose for lunch, if they are successful of course.

Her latest project the Shell Game received $64, 799 from 701 backers on Kickstarter, which will fund nine massive paintings about the collapse of the banking system. It may even pay the rent, grocery bill and six bottles of absinthe too. Why should an artist have to starve for their craft?

Everyone should welcome that an artist can now make a real living out of their creative gifts without starving or working for an insurance company. Uncompromising men and women are easy to admire but artists who subvert from within live to tell the tale.

“As any strawberry picker can tell you, hard work and nothing else is a fast road to nowhere.”

– Molly Crabapple

Through sheer force of personality and brilliant marketing, Crabapple has skillfully cultivated a subversive underground image. Arrestingly beautiful she could easily pop out of a traditional Western European fairytale and with her phosphorescent eyes and gothic baby doll aesthetic, the New Yorker looks like a painting. Luminous cheekbones bereft of intellect or character will only capture your attention for so long though.

And while no one should doubt her unseen hours of dedication, Crabapple’s anti-establishment credentials are very suave; the kohl-eyed darling of Occupy Wall Street trended after her arrest by the NYPD in September 2011. You don’t need to be a social media node to realise that #freemollycrabapple will do wonders for your marketing potential.

Eaeyoepotynia

While it may have been romantic for artists to suffer in the inter-war era, the crowd sourcing phenomenon of the twenty-first century provides a new model. Why should the wealthy have the sole reserve over the arts? Anyone who purports not to care about money either has too much or doesn’t need it. Crabapple in this respect is a modern inspiration and should be applauded for her glamour inspired riches. Romantics may starve in dismay but aspiration and the arts no longer have to be mutually exclusive.

Dieter Roth Diaries

Skipped behind my bookcase lies a collection of diaries and notebooks I have curated over the years. They serve no purpose. A decade’s worth of illiterate jottings, betting plans, groceries, to-do-lists and scored out lines. With inspired quotes squashed in the margins justifying their existence, I keep filling out notebooks and skipping them alongside their older colleagues. A scrapheap of memories no one will ever read.

German artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998) undergoes a similar process but unlike me his diaries are being exhibited at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Documenting his life through the medium of art, sculpture and writings, Roth’s dystopian centrepiece Solo Scenes is a CCTV installation that recorded his final year on earth.

Commanding squeamish levels of attention, the 128 video tapes show Roth brushing his teeth, sleeping and painting alone like a melancholy tramp. By filming the sheer banality of his everyday existence, Roth has revealed the seemingly innate human desire to turn everything into a routine. These homely reminders of grocery lists, gifts to buy, domestic chores to be completed and a bubbled note commanding you to pay the gas bill by the fifteenth.

Likewise my old notebooks remain firmly in place behind the bookshelf and I consistently refuse to bin any of them. In some respects they are physical reminders of my narcissistic desire to be exhibited just like Dieter Roth. That my life actually meant something. But if I am lucky they’ll eventually be boxed and kept upstairs in an oak wooden loft.

Maybe they’ll be sparingly reopened for an old quote or a nostalgic rummage through the past. Only to be put back in their place again, a written bond with a young man that no longer exists. Where just like my childhood toys locked away in my family home, these notebooks will keep on ageing, and eventually become Grandad’s possessions. And then over the passages of time they will find themselves skipped. Quality control. A lifetime of thoughts destined to lie unread on a skip.

I’ll watch it like a hawk, and every day
I’ll make at least – oh – half a dozen trips.
I’ve furnished an existence in that way.
You’d not believe the things you find on skips.

Dieter Roth Diaries will be running at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh until October 27th.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Revolution

As Madrid is more of a national capital than an international one like London or Paris, the British press have perhaps not given Spain’s “los indignados” the attention they deserve. Over 60, 000 Spanish youths held spontaneous protests in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia in May 2011, rebelling against the socialist government’s austerity measures. A decade of unemployment and emigration beckons for tens of thousands of Spanish graduates.

Youth unemployment among 16 to 29-year-olds is estimated to be around 45 per cent. Upturned in the Puerta de Sol are stolen crates, graffiti slogans and multiple plastic tents full of sticky protesters eating tinned food in brutally hot temperatures. Indignant in their defiance, the “los indignados” are demanding new jobs, public investment and changes to the government’s austerity plans but their wishes have fallen on deaf ears. Spain like so many other debt-ridden European nations has elected a centre-right government into power.

Madrid’s tent city should perhaps serve as a reminder that political dissent has not always been tolerated in Europe. For this red scar of rebellion may be gathering momentum in 2011 but situated in a former hospital is a heart stopping reminder of Spain’s fascist past. Forming an integral part of the holy trinity of Madrid’s historic art museums, the Museo Reina Sofía is renowned throughout the world for hosting Picasso’s Guernica.

Awe inspiring and superbly displayed, this icon of twentieth-century European art is one of the few universal masterpieces that commands a religious silence from all visitors. Displayed on the second floor, the art crowds flock to Guernica all year round and cross-legged school children listen attentively to the horrific origins of the painting. Picasso painted it as a response to the Luftwaffe bombing of Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937.

As a universal symbol against the fight against fascism, Guernica is a brutal reminder that under General Franco Spain was a military dictatorship until the late 1970s. On forming a one party state, the Falange, political censorship was vigorously enforced under Franco. Trade unions were banned. Catalan, Basque and Galician languages were severely censured and political opponents were mercilessly executed. The majority of Britons will be unable to comprehend the level of repression suffered in Spain during this period. Most people in the UK understandably take the liberal fruits of universal suffrage and freedom of speech for granted.

Britain is one of the oldest and most stable democracies in the modern world, and has enjoyed peaceful growth from 1945 until the present day. Guernica is a potent reminder that Britain has enjoyed its most comfortable, safe and prosperous period in its living history. The global recession of 2008 has triggered violent rioting in Greece and led to tens of thousands of protesters kicking spokes in the hub of Madrid’s wheel.

Britain’s anti-cut march in London attracted over 200, 000 people but it feels strangely weak and deeply uninspiring compared to the demonstrations in Madrid. The protest was quickly forgotten after a day’s headlines. And it will be most likely remembered for the self-aggrandising violence of a hundred upper-middle class anarchists. Spain feels different.

Although history will judge how effective the Spanish revolution will be in what is going to be a very difficult decade for Europe. A generational time bomb is slowly ticking because of this economic crisis. Unemployment and living costs continue to rise across the continent. But if history is to offer any guide, and hard as this is to admit, sometimes you have to travel across your own borders to realise how lucky Britain really is.

Nationalism is a Created Product

After attending the Pioneering Painters exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, I began to question why I never learned about the Glasgow Boys at school. Radical, bold and fervently European in their outlook, the Glasgow Boys represent a new progressive Scotland. However, the art collective remained off my cultural radar until I attended Glasgow University and stumbled upon their works at the nearby Kelvingrove Museum. On re-examining their most radical and exciting works at the Royal Academy of Arts, I drew an immediate contrast with Burns Night.

Reflecting back on my primary school days in Aberdeenshire, I vividly remember my P6 teacher’s poetry recital classes with ‘A Man’s a Man for all That’ being the proverbial jewel in the crown. With my Anglo-Irish vowels, I always dreaded Burns week and felt extremely self-conscious that I couldn’t recite verses in guttural Doric like my Aberdonian peers.

While I eventually grew to admire some of Burns vernacular gifts, I have remained curiously ambivalent about Burns Night. It always felt somewhat contrived to me. Almost like a post-modern image of Scottishness that bears no relevance to day-to-day life.

Burns Night is arguably the biggest literary event in the world with an estimated nine million people participating last year. A typical Burns night has poetry recitals, bagpipes and three courses of traditional Scottish fair, which usually involves cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties and a complimentary dram.

With the greatest respect this dour cuisine is certainly not the most alluring of European dishes. If there is a Scottish restaurant in Rome or Barcelona then I certainly haven’t seen one. All the while the Haggis represents a comic sentimental image of Scotland and I find it deeply regrettable that a foul peasant condom is our national dish, when the nation’s glens, forests and lochs are home to some of the finest game and fish in Northern Europe.

Whereas other countries define themselves around wars, revolutions and kings, Scotland remains a stateless nation and embraces cultural nationalism to exert her identity. Burns Night remains consistent with the twee sentimental image of Scotland constructed by Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth century.

After nearly two hundred years of progress, Scotland is still renowned for its kilts, whisky and majestic Highland landscapes. Anyone walking past a triumphant Visit Scotland billboard will be in no doubt of the country’s national identity. What is fascinating is that the Glasgow Boys emerged towards the end of the 1870s and radically vowed to challenge the sentimental Victorian obsession with the Highlands.

By challenging this twee conservative vision of Scotland, I found inspiration from the Glasgow Boys exhibition that there is an alternative to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. The Glasgow Boys were bold, radical and experimental painters, whose stunning collection of works represent a genuinely progressive movement. A collection of artists that dared to look towards the Mediterranean and Japan for inspiration instead of turning inwards towards the Highlands.

What I find surprising is that the Glasgow Boys remain a quirky afterthought in Scottish culture. If I hadn’t stumbled upon their paintings in the Kelvingrove Museum, then I could easily have remained ignorant of their existence.

A truly confident country should look outwards for inspiration and I see no reason why the Glasgow Boys shouldn’t be universally affiliated with Scotland like Dali, Gaudi and Picasso are with Spain. It is regrettable that this radical confederation of painters have been unable to impose a greater cultural influence in their own country.

Robert Burns remains Scotland’s most iconic and influential poet but anyone tucking into their Haggis tonight should be under no illusions that nationalism is anything other than a created product.