Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Barbican: Curiosity killed the Cath

Image result for barbican tube station
Pic: Mattbuck, Wikimedia

Cath looked out of the bus window. The street lamps were diffusing an orange glow to the street, while the brightly lit shop windows murmured, ‘Come in, come in.... we are open late tonight...’ She yawned, then felt her stomach rumble. Time to go home, have a bath, eat dinner, watch TV and then off to bed.

The bus slowed down as the rush-hour traffic built up. The doors opened and closed, people got on until all the seats were taken and a line of people were standing from the back up to the driver's seat. Cath saw angry faces when the driver refused to take any passengers at the next stop.

She peered out of the window and saw people approaching the old church that had been shrouded like a giant mommy by scaffolding and plastic sheets for months. A banner screamed ‘Grand Opening’ in big letters, lit by a row of industrial-strength spotlights. She saw people entering freely, no sign of a bouncer or anybody collecting invitations.

She rang the bell. The bus stopped and the doors opened. She negotiated her way through the standing passengers and got off. She reached the church and joined the visitors’ flow.

By the door a tall desk displayed exhibition programmes, a price list and leaflets of future events. Cath picked up one of the programmes and walked into the main room. Three metal towers reached the ceiling of what once was the main nave. People holding wine glasses were milling around, talking to each other and glancing at the smaller exhibits hanging from the whitewashed stone walls.

Cath liked the towers best. The first one had a plaque at the base with the words ‘Name your fears’. The second’s plaque read ‘Challenge your fears, while the third said ‘Overcome your fears’. She opened the programme and read: "Xandra Behr's totemic installations deal with the interior knots of pain, alarm or apprehension we call fears. Unlike animals, human beings can identify their fears, so naming your fears is the first step to rationalisation, a truly liberating experience, the first step to harnessing the dark instincts we bury inside us."

"Clever rubbish, isn't it," remarked a female voice.
Cath looked up. A tall woman dressed head to foot in black and wearing dark sunglasses was smiling down at her.
"It sounds interesting."
The woman removed her sunglasses. Two icy blue eyes bored down on Cath. "Nice, interesting, pah, it's non-committal crap. Do you like the artwork or not?" She waved her arm around the room to include every single piece.

Cath noticed that people were staring at them. She thought, "Bloody woman, why couldn’t she harass somebody else?" and moved aside, clutching the programme like a lifesaver. She walked to the bar at the other end of the room and picked up a glass of white wine. She sipped it slowly, admiring a black statuette of a woman holding a child by hand. Milk spurted from her left breasts and dripped, white on black, on her side to form a pool at her feet. The child's head was bent down, his small features screwed up in pain. Under the statuette, placed on the floor an open suitcase had been filled with spiders. On its stiff leather handle sat a stuffed rat with a long, slim tail.

"This work has a disturbing quality to it, don't you think?" asked a male voice behind her. He looked like he was in his sixties and was dressed head to toe in bottle green, a paisley scarf knotted around his neck. Cath ignored him and moved towards the second tower. A small queue was standing by the staircase that led to the door at its top. A gallery attendant was directing people to climb one by one.

The queue moved slowly, so Cath opened the programme. "Challenge Your Fears stands for courage, the prerogative of facing what limit or terrifies us as human beings. The triptych completes the journey through the human psyche with Overcome Your Fears. How can you control your fears? Is it through psychoanalysis, extreme fortitude or necessity? There isn’t only one answer, the solution is different for everyone of us. You're invited to complete the journey and find out what you're made of."

"Intriguing isn't it?" said the woman in front of her. Cath looked up and noticed with relief that she was speaking to the man beside her. She was getting paranoid about being approached by weird strangers. "Yes, very, but do you think it's dangerous?" asked the man. "Not for the initiated," she replied looking smug.

"What a snob," thought Cath and leafed through the programme. On the last page there was a short biography of the artist. Xandra Behr had been at St Martin’s Art School, had then exhibited all over the UK and abroad and been an artist in residence for a mental health charity. Cath had read about art therapy and wondered if the exhibition had been influenced by her latest experiences. Fears became phobias, phobias could lead to mental disorders.

The woman in front of her started to ascend the steps that reached the tower’s summit. She let the door go abruptly, so that it clanked loudly. At a sign of the attendant, Cath started to ascend the steps. She noticed that they had holes so she could see through them, the holes getting bigger as she ascended. When she was nearly at the top she looked down and she could see the far-away floor, a rather unpleasant experience. She felt dizzy. She had never been afraid of heights, but her left foot was frozen on the lower step and she couldn't move the right one. “Don't be stupid,” she thought. Only the thought of the people watching her down below, made her grab the handrail and force her legs to reach the top.

She opened the metal door and closed it gently. Inside the tower was hollow. A spiral staircase descended in a dark pit. Small lights lit up as Cath descended each step. On the wall a small glass framed a photograph. One displayed the roof of a skyscraper, in another a big spider was standing on a woman's arm. Other photos illustrated claustrophobia, agoraphobia and even social phobias.

She descended the steps without feeling any anxiety. The staircase had solid sides and the steps didn't have holes through them. She wasn't frightened, but the darkness below each step was unnerving. At the bottom of the tower she saw with relief that a neon sign indicated the exit. She was expecting to be in the gallery again but entered a narrow booth. A chair stood against the wall and an old-fashioned diver helmet was waiting for her to try it on. She put the helmet on, intrigued. At first it was darkness, then multicoloured lights flashed in front of her eyes. A spiral started twisting round and round until she felt dizzy and had to close her eyes. She jerked herself awake and took the helmet off, got up, found a half-hidden doorway and came out in the gallery. She emerged at the back of the tower and noticed that only a few people were still milling around. Waiters were busy collecting glasses while a woman was plugging in a hoover. She looked at her watch. Eight o'clock. It couldn't be, she couldn't possible have spent half an hour in the tower.

She saw the man in bottle green talk to the woman dressed in black. They turned and looked at her. She crossed the room and quickly exited the gallery. Outside a couple was lingering, perhaps waiting for a taxi. She crossed the road towards the bus stop and sat on the plastic bench at the opposite end of an old woman who was muttering to herself. She was facing the gallery. The couple who were standing outside were now boarding a taxi. A man flung open the heavy gallery door and ran into the road. A car swerved to avoid him, the driver angrily tooting his horn. When the man was past the middle white line, he stopped, opened his arms and was knocked off by a courier van speeding down. Cath sat transfixed. The old woman whimpered, a hand on her mouth. The traffic stopped, men and women got out of their vehicles to look at the accident. The van’s driver was talking in a mobile phone.

Eventually the bus reached the stop. Cath and the old woman boarded it. Cath glanced at the man lying on the tarmac, surrounded by paramedics. On the bus, passengers were looking out of the windows to find out what was going on. Cath stared ahead. She had witness street accidents before, but never a suicide. She closed her eyes. She could still see the man standing in the road, his arms opened as if welcoming death.

When she saw the bright lights of the bingo hall, she pressed the request button. The bus stopped and the door opened. Cath got off with a man leading a dog on a leash. She walked up the alleyway towards her flat. The man with the dog caught up with her by the pub.
"Do you want to hear a funny story, mate? " he asked.
"No, not now, please."
"I'm not mad or anything." He bent to caress his dog's back and added: "Today my dog was supposed to be put down. The sweetest dog in the world."
"I'm sorry, I need to get home," said Cath and walked away.
"Sorry, yeah, sorry," she heard him muttered behind her.

When she got home, Cath walked straight into the kitchen. She put her coat and bag on the table and bent down to look at the trap. She could hear the sound of tiny claws scratching, while the box shook. Of course, being a humane trap with holes dotted along the box surface, the mouse was still alive and trying to find an exit or make one. She reluctantly picked the box up. It wasn't very heavy. A baby mouse, probably. She had a horror of mice, filthy, furry creatures, their faeces small black pellets that have been dotting her kitchen’s surfaces for weeks. She decided to free the mouse by the canal. She dropped the trap in a plastic bag and walked out again. She was tired but it could not wait.

Down the steps, the pathway was deserted. She walked a far as she could, to disorientate the mouse, hoping it would not find its way back. She bent down, opened the trap, but because she was nervous she twisted the box and the mouse fell on her shoes. It was a black small mouse, it squirmed and started to climb her left leg. Horrified, she tried to shake him off, but it gripped her leg through the lace tights. It would not let go. Cath jumped in the canal. 

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