Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Museum of Forgotten Dreams

The City had changed a great deal in the twenty or more years since I had last been there. The skyline was cluttered with new tower blocks, many providing accommodation for the new tribes of inner city dwellers. Even the great stations had been tarted up, largely obscuring their Victorian heritage; John Betjeman would be turning in his grave, I thought. The people had changed too, but perhaps no more so than modern city dwellers the world over.

The Northern sky was the same, so much cooler in tone than Sydney or Melbourne. Photographs of London buildings, whether masonry, stucco, or concrete, seemed to be soaked in that soothing ultraviolet light that the tourist’s eye could never see. To my eye, at least, the cool summer haze told me that I was in the country of my birth. Perhaps the change I detected was superficial and the old familiar landmarks would soon remove my feelings of alienation and the unease cast by the shadows of the New.

My cut-price accommodation turned out to be on the South Bank, where the crumbling Victorian three story semis had been refurbished to a standard acceptable to the modern tourist. The River was as muddy as ever but the City heart gleamed pleasantly on the opposite shore, promising all the delights of a settlement that had endured for nigh on two millennia.

I knew that the Tate Gallery extension had been recently housed in the old Battersea Power Station. Since I was stuck in Lambeth, it was just over a mile from my lodgings. The weather was fine, so I decided to walk to the new gallery. The morning traffic was noisy and unpleasant and I was tiring a bit by the time I reached Nine Elms Lane, with half a mile or more to go. I could see the four giant chimneystacks in the distance but got lost as Battersea Park Road turned south.

After backtracking and taking a side-road towards the River, I came across a sign fastened to the grimy brick of a faceless wall that towered over me. It read ‘Metropolitan Museum’. The building seemed to be a huge warehouse of some kind but was definitely not the Power Station itself. A little way down the alley, I found a mean looking entrance, with a sign over the door that read ‘Museum’. I wondered if this was some kind of annex to the New Tate, which I thought must be close by.

I went up the steps and pushed on the faded paint of the double doors, which led into a dark passageway, lit only by dim lights hanging on wires from the high ceiling. I thought that such a miserable hallway could have nothing to do with the upmarket chic of the New Tate building, unless it was some kind of annexe or repository; a tradesman’s entrance maybe.

At the end of the dim passage was an old lift with a button for up and a button for down. I decided to go up. The lift rattled down and the door opened to display the old style metal grille but no attendant. Inside there were the same two buttons, so I closed the grille and pressed ‘up’. It seemed very slow for a single destination but it finally got there, stopping with a jerk. I got out to find a similar poorly lit corridor but with several openings onto what were, hopefully, galleries.

The first room contained some very interesting paintings and I was glad that I had taken a detour into what seemed to be a vast and partly derelict warehouse. I was amazed to find the room full of art lovers, polluting the dusty air with chatter and cigarette smoke. When I entered, they seemed to fall silent, as if I were an intruder of some kind, but I put this down to my imagination. Their dress and mannerisms seemed strange too, as if they belonged to an unknown society, rooted in some past or future time. The whole atmosphere was a bit like a Victorian workingman’s club, or what I imagined such a club to be.

There were many paintings on display; too many. The way they had been hung was atrocious, being crammed together, side by side and above and below each other. Each painting was done in a new and exciting style, mostly abstract in all kinds of murky shades of reddish brown, delineated in virtuoso streaks of paler tones and black or brown. Despite this, the atmosphere of the crowd and the peculiar freshness of the paintings filled me with excitement.

I found myself racing madly from one painting to another, pushing people out of the way to get a better look. It was the best stuff I had seen for years, outside retrospectives of the greats like Picasso or Matisse. I got so excited, almost flying round the room, that several of the spectators got angry, admonishing me for my unseemly behaviour. I was so elated; I just didn’t care. I seemed to be skating freely about on the rough floorboards like a professional performer, zipping about in exaggerated arcs from one painting to another.

I became very curious about who could have done such fine paintings, but the usual nameplates were absent. All I could see were some dark strips of wood below the paintings on which had been scrawled the details I was seeking, but I could not read any of it. It became so crowded now that I decided to explore further. There was a narrow doorway leading to what seemed to be another gallery at one end of the room. I zipped towards it, skilfully dodging the milling patrons.

The room turned out to be much the same with no windows or natural light; just some peculiar pendant lights that provided the necessary illumination. I could not understand how this could be so and indeed the paintings did seem to glow with an inner light of their own. This second gallery contained much larger works than the first, like huge murals but inset rather than hung from the walls.

I couldn’t decide if they were abstract or representational, so harmoniously was the subject integrated with the design. The most disconcerting thing was that the depictions seemed to move. What looked like a battle scene, with clouds of smoke and mysterious figures in conflict, seemed to progress from moment to moments; first one side prevailing and then the other. Another mural showed a ship, upright at first, then heeling over when I looked at it again. All the pictures possessed this weird changeability, like frames of a film that advance each time you blink. I guessed it must be some new kind of installation technique that I had not seen before.

My earlier elation dimmed into foreboding and I decided to leave. I made my way from room to room but there were no exit signs. The other visitors seemed quite hostile now, and I felt unable to ask for their help. The atmosphere grew very dim and stifling although the works in each gallery held me spellbound. I could hardly drag my eyes away from their aesthetic delights. Nevertheless, I longed to get out into the fresh air and sunlight of the City I had left behind.

The doors between the rooms were closed now, and I had to force them open to escape into a new gallery, but after many doors and rooms, I finally seemed to break out into a gallery with a balcony, overlooking the city. I beheld a vast landscape of rolling, scrub covered hills, covered with low cloud and strange vapours rising up from the ground. It looked like the site of a ruined city, overgrown by grass and trees. There was a sense of vastness and claustrophobia at the same time, as if the vision were just another elaborate illusion.

Despite its vast size and horrific aspect, I thought it was the most beautiful vision I had ever seen. It was like some creation from the beginning of time, a veritable Garden of Eden in the making, pregnant with the infinite possibilities of a new world, seething with the numinous menace of good and evil to come. I was at once both terrified and joyful, as if I had seen into the mind of some cosmic creator. I kept repeating to myself, “Privileged, I am so privileged to have seen this.”

No sooner had I made this incantation, than the whole landscape seemed to collapse, as if the paint had become less viscous, it began to break up like a great wave into a seething torrent below me. Terrified, I fled from the room into a derelict corridor. There were a couple of scruffy uniformed attendants fleeing along the dimly lit passage.

“What’s happening,” I shouted.

“It’s a bad storm,” one replied, “the rain is coming through the roof.”

This seemed a totally inadequate explanation for the upheaval I had just witnessed, but I looked down and saw that the floor was indeed running with water. I had to get out quick. Luckily, I found a staircase that ran down several floors. At the bottom, I blundered into what seemed to be a vast, derelict warehouse filled with cast offs from the museum above.
Massive scenic flats draped in tarpaulins were strewn about the walls, like theatre sets, and huge statues covered with dust cloths. Some of the statues seemed to move, as the paintings in the galleries had changed. They changed position with jerky movements as if trying to escape. One giant figure approached me, its head and shoulders draped in grey silk sheets. I pulled wildly at the coverings as it loomed over me to reveal the slack features of some human automaton. I was trapped in this museum of madness with works of art that had sprung to life.

At this point, I felt myself slipping away into utter confusion. It dawned on me that I had become insane and would never return to the old world. My only compensation was that this terrifying place seemed to offer incredible possibilities, a new freedom of imagination totally lacking in the world I had left behind. It was everything that the real world was not and therefore infinite in possibilities and extent. I was lost in a world of pure imagination.

I must have passed out at some stage. When I awoke, sweating with nausea, I was lying in a dirty London Street. Some passers by helped me to sit up. My brain was still full of the frightful images I had witnessed, but despite the awful feelings, I knew I would gradually recover. Someone called a Taxi and I got in, declining an invitation to go to St Thomas’s Hospital on the way back to my lodgings.

After some lunch at the Guest House and an afternoon sleep, I felt much better, but could not entirely rid my mind of the bizarre experiences of the morning. The next day, I took a taxi to the real Tate Extension, which I now learned was in the decommissioned Bankside power station , not in the old Battersea power station, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits there. On the way back, I asked the taxi driver to track down the mysterious building I had named The Museum of Forgotten Dreams, but without success. So far, my mental condition has remained stable, but I entertain some fears that I may encounter that strange world again.

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