Terrible beauty

August 25, 2008

I was at the Powerhouse on Saturday, at a post-last-Rooball-game-of-the-season drinks thing. A mess of exuberant (they won) under-9s scattering and gathering and scattering like a flock of sugared-up swifts, and a huddle of tired-but-contented parents nursing various styles of alcohol. The Powerhouse is a fantastic building, in all senses – a disused, ahem, powerhouse cleverly redesigned and refitted and Gormenghasted, and now used as an eclectic premier arts venue. On display throughout the building was a collection of Paolo Pellegrin’s photography titled As I Was Dying. Chasing my 3-year old down pristine stairwells and through gothically lit old brick corridors, I managed to look at every single shot on display.

Every picture was traumatised and traumatising: bleak, racked with despair, and also somehow – I want to say hopeful but I know that’s not right. Somehow not entirely hopeless. The visceral effect on the body of the viewer is (or was for me) akin to the effect of some of M John Harrison’s work. I can’t be any more specific than that: it was a glancingly felt affinity in my one meagre body, and may be, will be, different for others.

I stood in front of this one for several minutes with my hand over my mouth.

Then someone came past and asked me if I was feeling ok, and I mumbled and moved on. But the picture kept dragging my gaze back to it as I moved away.

This one just plain scared me. They’re the same age as my eldest son. The guns are real, and have killed people.


And then there was this one:

Up close, it’s like a hole has been cut in the board, but there’s nothing, absolute nothing, beyond. Then you realise that, yes, of course, it’s a woman’s back – the shot was taken in Iraq – and reason reasserts itself. And then you look again and reason, again, wobbles. It’s a close-up back view of a veiled Iraqi woman watching a man’s body being dragged away. And it’s an impossible picture of a hole in the world, a massive gaping absence rent by the man’s killing, and spreading through, reaching from the picture to touch the excuses of reason.

I caught up with my oblivious 3-year old and went back with him to the drinks and the shimmering world. He chatted on marvellously to any grown-up who would listen. I didn’t say anything much to anyone. All those people, affluent, comfortable citizens with their beers and their cocktails and their lattes, all complaining one way or another about something or other in their full, dull lives.

Me too, of course.

On the way out, I asked at the foyer if there was a book of the pictures available. A trendily flat-capped demi-Goth girl looked up from her designer Turkish bread sandwich and said: “No, afraid not. It’s a shame, they’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

Well, that depends, I said. If you mean beautiful like Rilke meant it, beauty as the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear, then yes, and let’s sit here and weep together for the lives of people lost. If you mean beautiful like peach blossom or a Freedom leather sofa, then no, fuck off.

“Yes,” I actually said, out loud. “Yes, they’re beautiful.”


2 Responses to “Terrible beauty”

  1. robgcook said

    Thanks for the link, Matt. I knew there was a book available, and it was remiss of them not to have it there with the exhibit.

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