COLUMN: March 9, 2017

The eyes follow you around the room

I DECIDED to go to a gallery, because culture is important. Also it was raining, and one of the good things about galleries is that they have ceilings.

I suppose I could have continued to depend upon my umbrella, but the trouble with umbrellas is that they are unfit for purpose if there is any wind, and rain rarely comes without a wind chaser. I was essentially poking some bent wire at the heavens in an attempt to ward off the rain gods.

And so I went indoors, through the clouds of steam emanating from people in kagouls and clear plastic ponchos, emerging from the other side like a contestant on Stars In Their Eyes.

I picked up a guide and leafed through it, confused that it was in French until I realised I was looking at the wrong bit. In any case, the guide was quite clear on one subject. There was a symbol of a camera inside a red circle with a diagonal line going through it.

Either photography was prohibited or this was a branch of Camerabusters. So photography was not allowed. Perhaps they were worried that people might try to copy the paintings and set up their own gallery down the road.

As I am scrupulously law-abiding, I kept my phone firmly in my pocket. There was no way I was going to be thrown out of a gallery by an elderly bouncer, not with my knee. Also, it was still raining heavily and I was not going out in that again.

I had forgotten how much I like galleries. My father used to talk about “egg and chips” experiences, those activities which you disdain because you find them a bit dull in theory, like walking in the park or watching an episode of Still Open All Hours, but which you actually really enjoy when you’re doing them.

Do not be under the impression that my life is a tornado at the eye of which is me. I am excited when I am handed a plate of biscuits and spot a fig roll.

But there is something calming about a gallery, something soul-soothing. Perhaps it’s the quiet, or the subdued lighting. Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that you are among works which have taken months, even years, to complete – a sense of trapped time slowly leaking out into the room, and giving you back a bit of life.

Anyway, who needed to take photographs of the paintings? The whole point of going to see a piece of art is to take it in properly, to appreciate the brushwork, to see the cracks in the paint, to experience the colours as they are, instead of how printer’s ink or the electronic eye of a camera interprets those colours. To see the…

“Click!” went the phone of the idiot who pushed in front of me. “Ho ho,” I thought. “He’s in lumber now. That gallery attendant will have his scalp for a balaclava.” But she did nothing.

And, as I looked around the room, I saw that most people had phones and were clicking away, untroubled by the attendant.

“Oh,” I realised. “That symbol did not mean ‘No Photography’, it literally meant ‘No Cameras’.” Liberated, I whipped out my phone, ignoring all that flowery guff I wrote three paragraphs ago.

Then there was a flash, and the attendant showed her fangs. “No flash photography!” she informed the punter, leaving him in no doubt that she would happily murder him if it were not for the interfering nanny state. “It destroys the paintings.”

I shuffled off after snapping a couple more pictures into the next room. There was a sculpture of a beautiful woman, and I wanted to take it with the window as a backdrop.

This meant I needed to use my flash, or the woman would be in silhouette. There were no paintings in the room for me to destroy, nor, crucially, any attendants. I switched on my flash and risked it, before moving on.

In the next room was a stunning painting taking up much of the wall. I took out my phone and lined up a shot. I pressed the button. And the wall lit up.

“Argh!” I said. I had forgotten to switch off my flash. I clamped my hand over the phone, but could not muffle the whole stardust.

“Sir!” said the same attendant. “No flash!”

And so I made a run for it, out into the rain.

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