You never know who you’ll meet in a gallery…

This morning I downloaded all of my weekly podcasts for this week, and in the afternoon, while in the jacuzzi at the gym (which provides the perfect environment for a soak, a sweat, and a listen-to of all of my ~30 minute New Yorker Fiction podcasts) I heard something that so strikingly paralleled my novella, Degrees of Freedom, I couldn’t help but crank up the iPod. Chang-Rae Lee (author of “Daisy”) read Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” or, in English, “Art and Terror” and discussed it with The New Yorkers fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. (Right-click here to download).

Theme, theme, theme. This is what Degrees of Freedom and “Baader-Meinhof” have in common. They both chronicle the chance meeting of a man and a woman in an art gallery; the woman sitting there staring at an art piece; the man sauntering in; both of them wondering about the other; both sizing up the other; both challenging each other to assess the paintings, and life, and everything else, even death…

But the relationships turn quite different corners.

How they vary is what really fascinated me. First, in DeLillo’s piece, the characters are staring at pieces of photography illustrating the terrors of the Holocaust and the rope burns and anguished faces of death, while in Degrees of Freedom, Pietri and Marguerite stare at the Spanish masters. Beautiful works. Works in Mannerism. Works where the artists mask every blemish. Works where creamy, buttery skin is sacrosanct. Where the subjects you’d swear have had Botox. Jewels drip. Puppies sit on laps.

The two works are also written from different points of view. Degrees of Freedom is written from the perspective of Pietri, a Maltese professor who is visiting his daughter in Seville, Spain, who meets Marguerite, a former art professor who is partially blind.  And in Delillo’s work, the two aimless protagonists have neither a job nor, it seems, much of a direction in life.

While I kept my characters largely within the art museum, in discussions that alternated between children and the merits of a Seville orange versus a Maltese fig, Delillo takes his characters out of the museum. But they take the photography with them, it seems, as they are forever changed by these horrific pieces. They seem less secure, less bounded by their relationship. In fact, once they leave the museum, their hours-old relationship falls apart. Undoubtedly, the photography in the museum changed Delillo’s characters,  shook them into walking zombies as they left the museum, rendered them unaccountable for their actions, unsure, not tethered to anything other than shock at how vile humanity can be. Pietri and Marguerite took the paintings to heart too, but they used the Spanish painters — Zurbaran, Murillo — as a connection, as a charged force that brought them together. Their relationship proved to be boundless.

You never know who you will meet in an art gallery. Regardless, it could be a while ride.


Got Inspiration in the Gallery?

Patricia Piccinini - The Stags (2008)

Patricia Piccinini - The Stags (2008)

Inspiring! Some of these should not be reserved just for writers. My favorite technique is to sit in the gallery on a bench and watch people’s reaction to a painting as they stare up at it. You can capture many more viewpoints than you’d ever dream up yourself.

From 15 Ways Modern Art Galleries Can Inspire Writers by Joanna Penn on September 2, 2009
Tate Modern, London

I love modern art galleries and go to them whenever I am in a large city. I find they spark creative ideas and I leave feeling refreshed and ready to write more! Here are 15 ways Modern Art Galleries can inspire writers and authors.

  • Writing Exercise: Sit before a piece of art and describe the piece and what it says to you. Modern art is fantastic because you can’t just say “It’s a portrait of a young woman with a dog”. Often the pieces are entirely based on your interpretation.
  • Use as a setting in your novel. Describe the physical details of the place, the various rooms, how you could use them. Would your characters meet here in the vast white open space of the main hall? or in one of the obscure video dark rooms?
  • Write notes from the display description. Copy down phrases that touch you in some way. What images are conjured up?
  • Free associate from one of the pieces. Just write down all the words that come to mind. Do it in a mind map format.
  • Listen for dialogue. Sit in the lobby or a public area and listen for snatches of conversation. Write notes on what you hear.
  • Browse the giftshop for marketing ideas. Can you use some of these ideas in your own marketing?
  • Use it as your Artists Date. An Artist’s Date is time out to refill our creative wells and allow new ideas to surface and spark.
  • Change your writing scene. Buy a coffee in the Gallery cafe and sit and write for an hour.
  • Use it as a venue for a meeting with another author.
  • Understand the Body of Work. This book we are working on is one piece of a whole lifetime, a whole body of work embracing all we are and all we want to express in the written word.
  • Research one of the Artists for a character sketch. Google them and use this for a character sketch.
  • Research one of the Artists and evaluate their online presence. Do they use multi-media? Do they blog?
  • Use your visit to inspire a blog post.
  • Be silly. I did tracings on coloured paper with crayons on one exhibit.