For much of the last month or so, I have been sorting through stuff; all sorts of stuff. The accumulated detritus of more than twenty years. I have made lots of very pleasant rediscoveries: I have spent this afternoon doing something I been intending to do for more than twenty years. (Twenty two, if you’re being precise; but I am going to write about that separately, some time.)
One of the things I came across was a pamphlet from an exhibition by Spencer Finch, which was held at the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh in 1995. (See – this really is like personal archaeology.) The show made a great impression on me.
The exhibition was all about colour; but more, about colour and memory. At first, I didn’t get it; I mean, I really didn’t get it: I thought it was lousy, pointless art, and it didn’t mean anything to me.
There were three or four different pieces. The worst first impression was made by a piece called Trying To Remember The Color Of Jackie Kennedy’s Pillbox Hat. It consisted of a great many small squares of pink. Lots of pink, with subtle – very subtle – variations in shade and intensity between them. (The pamphlet has only three squares; but I remember a whole wall full of pink squares. I could be wrong: my memory could be deceiving me. And I rather like the idea of misremembering an artwork concerned with colour and memory.)
When I looked at this, all I saw was squares of pink, like a Dulux catalogue. I didn’t even like the pink.
The woman overseeing the exhibition asked what I thought of the piece, and I told her. She started to explain it to me, and we got into a discussion. She explained what was behind the work, the concept perhaps. And as she told me about it, it began to make sense; the ideas were interesting, and intriguing, and grabbed me with an intensity.
What she told me was this. On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assignation, his wife Jackie was wearing a pink outfit. She was photographed in this out, she appeared on TV in this outfit: a pink suit, and a pink pillbox hat. These pictures were sent all over the world, as she scrambled to her dying husband.
All the pictures were in black and white.
So although her clothes were described – she was a superstar, after all – and although the pictures were seen all over the world, no one actually saw the pink of the hat. For most people – for almost the whole world – it only existed in our imaginations. (Until the exhibition, it hadn’t existed in mine: until I saw the show, I didn’t know she’d been wearing pink.)
The piece was all about imagining the colour, trying capture the memory – one of those events that people know where they were when they heard the news. (It is my earliest memory – at least, the earliest I can place a date on; I was three and a half.)
Knowing the story, having it explained to me, the piece made sense. And I saw a real beauty in it – quite a change around considering I had hated it five minutes before.
I don’t think it is “good” art – I don’t think that I should need to know the story to understand a work of art. But I also think the ideas encompassed within it are brilliant.
Another piece was similar: the colour of the blue of the sky as the Challenger space shuttle exploded. That was recorded in colour; maybe because of that, it didn’t resonate with me so much.
The last piece I remember I thought was brilliant from the outset. It is a sketch map of Edinburgh, drawn by Finch, and with notes as to the colours he remembered as he drew it. It was witty, it was about my favourite city, and it was about my favourite places.
Curiously, he drew the map wrong – in the same way that I always draw sketch maps of Edinburgh wrong. He has north at the bottom, where one would normally expect south to be. This is how I often draw Edinburgh. I don’t know why Finch drew Edinburgh this way – except that this must be how he remembered it. I think I draw it this way because I have mostly lived in the north, at the bottom of a long, steep hill – both as a student and for most of the last thirteen years. Going towards the centre of the town, I would walk up the hill – up to the top. And that is how I perceive the city: south at the top of the hill; at the top of the paper.
Postscript. I deliberately didn’t Google “spencer finch” before I posted this, because I wanted it to be about my memory. I have now Googled him. There are a whole load of images out there – on Google images. And he has a website, natch – http://www.spencerfinch.com. I hadn’t heard of him before the exhibition, or since. But that probably says more about me than him!
Should Mr Finch or his estate or publisher read this and object to the images of his work displayed here, I’ll remove them. But I’d rather not!