‘Beneath this mask, another mask. I will never be finished lifting off all these faces'. ~Claude Cahun
I found myself in the Wellcome Collection on my way home from a meeting today. It's in that cold, miserable area around Euston station, where concrete buildings and relentless traffic reduce people to grey shadows urgently flickering to someplace brighter.
In the course of my work I spend a lot of time - head down, defenses up - hurrying away from that station. Today however, in a strangely foggy state, I picked out the one radiant doorway in the block and went inside for the first time.
Since breaking my wrist rather badly, I've been in physical and mental limbo. As I lay on the couch, alone and immobile in a city that wasn't mine, gloomy thoughts came unbidden. What am I doing with my life? How much of my identity is tied up in my London lifestyle? Without London, am I anyone at all?
With the cast due to come off on Monday, I know my life will soon be a blurred carousel of theatre shows, exhibitions, talks and films: it certainly won't slow down long enough for any lagging doubts about who I am to jump aboard. So stumbling across the Wellcome Collection's Identity: eight rooms, nine lives exhibition today seemed almost fateful.
I challenged myself to stand in each of the eight little rooms and form a question about my own identity based on the contents within. For Claude Cohen's masculine, feminine, and "neuter" self-portaits, I wondered how much of my sense of self is tied to my appearance and feminity (answer: too much!). In the Samuel Pepys room I marvelled at Clive Wearing, the 'man without a memory' who lives in the "perpetual present", and asked myself what it would take for me to let go and live for the moment every now and then (answer: too long and too personal for this post!).
Identity is complex, and I concluded that I am a tangled web of a myriad of things: my memories, my physical appearance, my genetic make-up, my actions, my relationships, my words, and even my masks. I'm no closer to a coherent answer about who I am, but it's reassuring to be reminded that it's a question we all wrestle with.
Last night, I took male friend M to see David Hare's play The Power of Yes. The central figure in this 'story' is the playwright David Hare, who rather gratingly tells us that it's not a play and he's not a character. And he is right in a way: it felt as though a Louis Theroux or Michael Moore documentary was being played out on stage, wherein the subjects are unwittingly exposed as fools and we all laugh at their expense.
As our bumbling Hare unravels the meaning of 'options' and 'fiscal stimulus' and 'sub-prime', the banking world unravels on the stage behind him. Halfway through, exhausted by the pace at which the banking system is collapsing, I lean in to M and lament the lack of interval. It seems our man Hare shares my pain, suddenly collapsing into a chair and confessing he's overwhelmed too.
The story raises questions but draws only one conclusion...the fall of the banking system and capitalism represents The Death of the Idea. The Idea, robustly championed by the 'experts'* from Harvard, being that the markets are wise and that risk can be calculated out of them. The Idea may grandly be declared dead, but outside The National Theatre the market carries on regardless, if the evidence from my two trader acquaintances can be relied upon.
There were some interesting moments during the evening, the standouts being:
An industrialist declaring that a bank goes bust for no other reason than that it runs out of money;
A cheap dig at Damian Hirst as a man of luck rather than talent, whose fortunes have declined along with that of our reviled bankers;
The revelation that in Latin, the word 'credit' means 'trust', which sparked a moment of speculation by myself as to where trust lay in the transaction between banks and the people (banks trusting people to take on realistic debt?; people trusting the banks' judgement?) and then a further reflection concerning whether my life would be richer if I had been afforded a classic education and didn't need to check my Latin on google.
Upon the denouement, I personally felt as though I had been played; much like the pre-2008 markets which responded as the traders expected them to. Hare's comic timing was targeted perfectly at a middle-class left leaning liberal such as myself.
It was an enjoyable night, but I wonder if telling your audience what they already (if only vaguely) know and confirming their judgement of the situation is a little lax. Shouldn't art challenge us to think and feel more rigorously?
* Emphasis I imagine the playwright himself may have included in the script
I don't remember noticing the news reports of Nelson Mandela's release on this day 20 years ago. In 1990 I was a 13 year old girl living in a small town in Australia, who was too absorbed in the drama of boys and Point horror plotlines to notice the eminently more dramatic events unfolding outside my bubble.
But four years later, feeling far more worldly as a University* student in the big city (*ahem* Brisbane) I shamefully shed a tear over the front page of The Courier Mail as I walked up Anne Sreet. Pictured was a line of tired but determined African people, patiently waiting to cast their vote for the ANC and Mandela.
I now look back on it as a shameful moment, not because I cried openly in public, but because I had made very little effort to actually learn anything about apartheid. I bought the paper that day solely for the picture; I certainly wasn't a regular newspaper reader.
My generic sympathy on that day encompassed all those who had experienced struggle, overcome pain and were looking towards more hopeful futures. And like most of us continue to be today, I was awed by the powerful, almost god-like figure of Nelson Mandela that even a news-virgin such as myself was in thrall to.
Last night, along with my friend D, I arrived at the Frontline Club's South Africa panel discussion only slightly less ignorant than I was 16 years ago. Having recently seen the superb film adaptation of J. M Coetzee's 'Disgrace', and hearing varying perspectives on the country from those I know who have lived there, I was keen to become a little more enlightened.
The panel shared their personal recollections of Mandela's release, discussed what had been delivered in South Africa since the ANC was elected, and speculated about the future growth and development of the country.
The speakers found it difficult to commit to whether Mandela was the last of his kind of African leader or the first in a new line, instead positioning him as one of those rare international leaders who transcend their geographic boundaries and national concerns to represent the hope and aspiration of people around the world. Interestingly, Jacob Zuma (the current South African president who's in a little hot water at present for his virility) is considered to be truly a man of the African people. This resonates with what I've read in the press about the West's guarded assessment of his government's potential.
John Battersby, co-author of Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs, believes South Africa's future can only be understood in the context of its past. Apartheid deeply affected the psyche of white and black south Africans alike, meaning it could take three generations before reconciliation is achieved and people are lifted out of poverty.
The most touching observation of the evening belonged to the host, BBC news presenter George Alagiah. A few years ago in South Africa, he asked a group of primary school students if they knew what racism was. In this predominantly black African school, a young boy pointed to his white classmate and said: "It's when I look at Devon and call him a whitey".
The full discussion can be heard on The Frontline Club's site.
*I started University aged 16, not because of any precocious displays of intelligence, but as a consequence of Queensland's pliable rules on school starting ages and a secondary schooling that only runs to Year 12.