The White Walls
Charlotte Wetton on the inspiration for Accessioning
When I was a kid, I had collections: miniature china animals, bright-haired trolls, gem stones. Now, I feel that we’re ruining the planet with our consumerism and ruining our peace of mind with our over-crowded houses, houses like ‘The Archivist’s House’, where ‘box files split like fruit-skins / spongy and bulging’. And yet… part of me misses collecting.
The little world it creates. The arranging and re-arranging, the categorising, the order, the control, the not-letting-go. ‘In the galleries I enjoy the white walls’. Isn’t part of the enjoyment of going to museums and galleries being in a clean, orderly space where things are properly valued? Getting away from the chaos of your cupboards, attics, crammed under-bed storage spaces. It’s like having a mental bath. The calmness. The sense that someone, somewhere is in charge.
But that’s also the problem with museums and galleries. The person in charge (the order, the control…). There’s someone in charge of the story, directing your gaze. What to appreciate, how to appreciate. What’s valuable, what’s remembered. Museum’s look neutral but they’re not. This subtle kind of organising and displaying is a bit like poetry. Look at this thing I’ve put surrounded by white space. Let’s consider this thing. Part of the layout of a poem on the page is simply telling the reader: this is an important thing – you can tell by the amount of space I’m using. That may sound simplistic but that’s the claim that the poet is making on the reader: this language is special, so special I’ve only allowed myself a very few words, just a few stanzas, because I’ve chosen these words so carefully. And I’m going to place them in all this calm white space so that your brain can focus without clutter. We reach to poetry to memorialise, hoping that a heightened, considered language will place that thing or that moment in a glass display case. Things you don’t want to forget like ‘graffitti on a cactus’ or things that you want properly valued like the sloth and its habitat.
This is how we process the world, choosing, categorising, rearranging – what’s important, who’s important…. Curating is epistemology. This is why I called my chap-book ‘Accessioning’, because really that’s what all of us are doing all the time: ‘I could frame a spider scrabbling in the skull…’ And what’s the difference between a curator and an artist anyway? Do us so-called creators really create anything original or do we just judiciously choose and rearrange those objects that are important to us, even fetishized: wedding-cakes, Emily Bronte’s sofa. ‘Posting Index Cards Home’ is an attempt to curate one’s own feelings. Although the pantoum form offers a clue about the possibility of doing this! ‘Commissioning a Map’ also attempts to curate but crumbles under the pressure of the power-dynamics involved.
having reviewed an exhibition of souls trapped in blackbirds’ eggs / how come you can’t do away with those little cream squares next to your paintings / all down the street the black mouths of the post boxes critiquing / the sketch-book is a sucky-blanket / that character in Bleak House in his clutter accumulation of a junk shop failing to teaching himself to read he was the artist at the centre of the novel / think longingly of cloisters / can I submit a cult as my final project / in the galleries I enjoy the white walls /From ‘Sketchbook #3: Self-portrait of the curator as an artist’
Who, what and how we memorialise are deeply embedded in power. In my poems I choose to memorialise killer whales on equal terms with their handlers because they are both sentient victims of the same system. In ‘Rag’ I consider how we memorialise, or don’t memorialise, women who have been murdered when the normalisation of male violence has rendered their deaths commonplace. And memorialising some people has been deliberately made difficult. Standing in the Slave Lodge, Cape Town, I was overcome with sadness at the paucity of what the enslaved people on the Cape left to history, that sometimes not even their names were recorded. The challenge of tracing such histories is huge, yet historians, archaeologists and linguists are recovering lost histories. This slow process of what we can and can’t recover is what inspired the poem ‘The Cave Precipice of Andritsa’ where ‘the presence of keys showed they intended to go home’.
Museums are one of the few places we are allowed to stand and stare (in the words of W H Davies). Standing and staring is anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist. Stare at a beautiful window display in a department store and you can possess without purchasing. It can also be socially awkward. Who doesn’t want to stop and watch a dry-stone waller or a fishmonger at work? I did once stand in a busy street in Sheffield to watch some workers digging up the road with a JCB – the high yellow arm, like some carnivorous, prehistoric giraffe growling and masticating in a dark hole – I got some odd looks. Whereas in a museum, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. Standing and staring. Taking your time to think about what you’re looking at. About the strangeness of ‘a little jointed figure/ either a God or a toy’, about why people have preserved slices of wedding caked from 1888, about what the presence of keys shows. Most of our consumerist culture encourages speed, quantity and consumption. We’re encouraged to work faster, learn faster, cook faster, burn calories faster. Museums encourage slowness, contemplation. Your own feet (or wheels) control the speed; if you want to spend half an hour in front of one object, you can. Perhaps the reason this little collection of poems came about is because museums and galleries are one of the few places where I’m ‘allowed’ to think deeper instead of faster. Where I’m allowed to stand and stare and to think like a poet instead of a capitalist.