Kate Chisholm

Seeing things

Plus: the genius of Peter Curran and Patrick Marber’s Bunk Bed

Seeing things
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At its best audio can be a much more visual medium than the screen. Making Art with Frances Morris (produced by Kate Bland), which I caught by chance on Radio 4 last week, gave us insights into the work of the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle that were so vivid it was almost as if we had been to an exhibition of her work. Calle, now 65, is known for her unconventional approach to what art can be. In 1980 she was invited to show one of her first works, The Sleepers, a collection of photographs, in New York. ‘I asked people to give me a few hours of their sleep. To come and sleep in my bed. To let themselves be looked at and photographed,’ is her explanation of the project. But on arriving at the gallery in the south Bronx to set up the exhibition she was embarrassed by its essential frivolity. ‘It was not appropriate,’ given that she was walking past people who were sleeping on the street.

She abandoned that show and in ten days came up with another set of photographs after standing outside the gallery between two and five in the afternoon and asking complete strangers, ‘Would you take me to your favourite place?’ One stranger took her to see the only tree he knew in the area; another stood outside a bank and said that his dream was to one day have his own bank account. She took pictures of her guides at their chosen destination, and herself alongside them. By chance, evil or not, an intruder got into the gallery on the night before the opening and attacked all the photographs, covering them with graffiti. Calle went on with the show, deciding that the graffiti was ‘an unexpected contributor’.

Another project, ‘Voir la Mer’, from 2011 was a response by Calle to her discovery that lots of people living in Istanbul (often immigrants from the countryside) had never seen the sea in spite of that city’s extraordinary maritime location. She took them to the beach, walking them with their eyes shut until they reached a point where the sea came into view. She then stood behind them as they caught their first sight of the waves, taking pictures from behind rather than in front so that she would not be a distraction. When they were ready, she asked them to turn round slowly so that she could catch with her camera that first impression, the reaction in their eyes. Such a simple idea but so effective, even on radio.

Short Cuts last week on Radio 4, an often mesmerising collection of true stories and ‘found sound’ (clips from the everyday sound world), presented by Josie Long (and produced by Eleanor McDowall), gave us Rilke’s poem ‘Early Spring’ (‘Harshness vanished./ A sudden softness has replaced the meadows’ wintry grey’) and a feast of cherry blossom. Naoko Abe (whose book about ‘Cherry’ Ingram, the Englishman who reputedly saved Japan’s cherry trees, was read on Radio 4 recently) celebrated the Japanese symbol of hope but also revealed a darker side to the annual flowering. For many Japanese, the sight each year of those dazzling puffs of pink blossom ‘falling bravely… without regret, after short but glorious life, blossoming’ reminds them of the kamikaze pilots. There’s a photo famous in Japan of teenage girls waving branches laden with blossom at a pilot as he takes off from the airport on a bombing sortie.

Her father recalled how the pilots had been brainwashed to think of themselves as blossom, falling, writing letters home on the night before a mission: ‘I will fall bravely as cherry blossom.’ No one realised what was happening, said Abe; that the traditional view of cherry blossom as a sign of spring, of new life, had shifted so quickly to symbolise death. Her father told her: ‘We were living to fall — no one questioned it.’ We should not forget this, says Abe, ‘how the flower of peace suddenly became the flower of mass destruction’.

I don’t know how Peter Curran and Patrick Marber do it but they somehow manage to convince us in Bunk Bed (back for a sixth series on Radio 4) that we are eavesdropping on them as they snuggle down in two beds one above the other, as if in a dormitory for middle-aged men, while they ruminate about life, death, sex, parenthood, and myriad inconsequential matters that somehow coalesce into meaning. In the episode I chanced upon Marber began by moaning that Curran was ‘being quite ostentatious with going-to-sleep noises’, or ‘kip gloating’. Within seconds we were on to how much longer they thought they’d got. Curran says wonderingly, ‘Dad died just before he was 60.’ Marber realises, ‘I’m never going to knit.’

‘What’s the most pain you’ve ever been in?’ asks Marber, to which Curran goes into a long spiel about his six-year-old daughter poking him in the eye when he was saying goodnight to her and scratching his cornea. The pain was so severe he had to go to eye casualty. No detail was spared. ‘I wish I hadn’t asked,’ says Marber, turning over noisily.