It is a myth that authors between books spend all of their time drinking. Yet yesterday afternoon was spent drinking 12-year-old malt with a gay priest called David. Today, long before four pm, I found myself downing pints of the dark stuff in The Social, scratching sentences into the Moleskine. If I carry on spending my days like this I risk becoming a cliché.
The evening was saved by the arrival of Surreal Girl. I was allowed one more pint before we headed for the British Museum via the gaudy whirl of colours at Dorothy Perkins. I am not sure if I am now officially a cross-dresser, but I came out of the shop owning a pair of DP socks. They are very Vince Noir, but also very me.
Socks bought, we moved onto The Past from Above: Through the lens of Georg Gerster hosted by the grand dame of Great Russell Street. Every time I walk up to the frontage of the British Museum, I am reminded of the John Constantine line: “Treasure house of the Empire, where all the loot is stashed.” Just before I walk through the main entrance, I always feel dirty. I can never fully dismiss the sense of the place as the fetishistic trophy collection of a serial rapist. Even those imposing columns act as a permanent reminder of the brutal force of the British monster. I tell myself that it is doing a good job; that its treasures would be in the hands of private hoarders or destroyed Taliban style. However, that sense of participating in a crime by being there is only ever displaced once I am inside. At that point, I am too lost in wonder to care as much as I should.
As a child and even as a teenager, I could spend days knocking around in the British Museum (the only museum I loved more was the Museum of Mankind). Unfortunately it is not a patch on the place it was 30 years ago. Then you could touch some of the mummies; connect with Anubis via wrapping your fingers around black basalt. Those pleasures are now denied. When I visit now, I notice lots of my favourite objects are no longer displayed, long since relegated to the oblivion of ‘storage’. Cabinets are barer and marvels and mysteries are spread much thinner. Despite this, I still have a cathedral awe sensation of being in the building, being amongst so many glorious artifacts of ancient art, belief and life.
The sense of cathedral awe when you first walk onto the Great Court has been increased since the museum’s architectural revamp – especially at night. The vault of the ceiling caresses the darkness of sky, focusing all the power of the heavens onto the illuminated sanctum of the reading room. Everything in universe above seems to orbit around the concentrated gravity of books and knowledge. Even someone with the weakest imagination could easily believe they were in an undeclared temple of Thoth. My first reaction on Friday was to want to lie on the polished floor and just soak in the beauty of the building, savour the atmosphere of learning.
I had been looking forward to seeing The Past from Above for a couple of months. Despite any impression the opening paragraph of this entry may have created, it was pure coincidence I rolled up on the night its curators were holding a ‘Beers of the world evening’ with its promise of sampling beer from across the globe. I was there only for the photographs and the chance to hear curators Lesley Fitton and Sam Moorhead talk us punters through the exhibition.
Collecting 40 years of Gerster’s amazing aerial work, The Past from Above is the British Museum’s first attempt at a major photographic exhibition. It is not an unqualified success. The images are simply stunning, full of intoxicating beauty and power. However, they are not left to speak for themselves. They are cluttered with unnecessary objects from the museum’s collection, crowded in too small a space and not blown up large enough. Although the shots of the White Horse of Uffington, Uluru, Great Serpent Mount and the Monolithic Church at Lalibela are wonderous, they deserved and needed to be viewed as much larger prints for both sake of detail and impact. Any new revelations I could have gained over locations such as Church Henge or Tara were not aided by labeling that seemed short on orientation and date.
Fitton spent a lot of the evening calling Moorhead a "prophet of doom and gloom" because with almost every photograph he offered a warning about how climate change and the relentless march of mankind was eradicating the planet’s archeological heritage. There is no doubt that Gerster’s photographs have become precious historical artifacts in their own right, showing a past already lost to us: remains of ancient cities swamped by dams, temples claimed by rising water levels and urban sprawl swallowing the ghost traces of burial mounds. Yet Moorhead offered much more. It was he who had chosen one of the few objects that added anything to the photographs – a Dreamtime painting that made explicit the concept of mythic space and the living continuum that happens through our interaction with the landscape.
When The Past From Above debuted in Essen, it had nearly 50 additional photographs and some of the prints were at least twice the size, making me feel as if I was seeing an abridged, impoverished version of Gerster’s 40-year aerial odyssey. Even though I loved it, the exhibition ironically appeared a victim of history itself. The heritage of the British Museum means it is so used to sticking things in cases it lacks the expertise to know how to properly display such a radically different form of artifact.