Two days ago, Sunday, I joined the Tate as a member to get access to their Members Room to have somewhere to sit to read my book and have a coffee. The cheesecake there is pretty good. I was looking out onto the river. I rarely see London from the side, and it was strange being six storeys up to not see the buildings looming up or from above, as from a plane, and not closing in on me but, as I say, from the side and set back from me somewhat, across the water.
I think it's good for the soul of a city to be able to take itself in, and that's something that Brighton can do, looking back on itself from the beach and the pier, and that San Francisco does very well, from above and across, but London cannot and in consequence often feels like an ant hill, with all of us the ants. When I am in London, I am inside it, in its belly. I cannot take it in. From the side I am not high up enough to look down on the city as a map, so I see London as a collection of buildings and cars and people, at a human scale, and with a little distance I am able to appreciate it, to study it. To apprehend London. It's a rare view, the one from the side.
The water and the sky and the buildings had, because of the lowness of the sun and the overcastness of the clouds, the same flatness of illumination and the same quality of colour, blue brown green. The Thames itself was highly reflective and it was possible to see the dark blue tint of the sky, but look through that and beyond it had no translucency, not even a little, so it looked like oil and moved like oil too: not just choppy (which it was) but rippling too so between every wave was another wave, and so on. The Thames was over-full, brimming, and the waves moving slowly as if the water was heavier today, or the air was thick, or gravity different in some way.
I understand that young people have translucent skin and so, in the light, they appear to glow, light reflecting from multiple depths of the skin simultaneously so their outer shell appears to fluoresce. The skin of adults is opaque, like old plastic.
Piercing through these three, the water, sky and city, was the reflection of the setting sun on a building, a blinding orange light smeared out and organised into a grid by the window. And on the river was an upright mirror the size of a billboard, on a raft and tethered, bobbing, glinting white then black, the waves speaking in Morse.
It reminds me of the last time I sat watching the Thames, waiting for a friend near the Oxo Tower, and again seeing London from the side. This time the river was flowing fast, and the clouds were moving fast, and the distances involved in both were such that I could see continuous parallax: those parts nearest to me moving quickest, and those furthest moving slow. And birds flew past me, and people walking and cycled past me in both directions, and boats went along the river, and overall there was a sense that everything in my visual field was horizontal; that everything was moving sideways today; that I might be on a conveyor belt.
Red on Maroon Mural, Section 2
After the Members Room I went to the Rothko exhibition, which runs until 1 February 2009.
There's something about Rothko's painting, especially a few of those in room 3, which means they operate somewhere different from other art. The interventions Rothko makes on the fields of colour are of the same order as the interventions my perception system makes, the way my subjectivity changes my perception, and the way the light and quality of the canvas changes as I move my eyes, my head and my body around the room. It becomes impossible to disentangle these influences, to know whether it is me or Rothko responsible for what I am perceiving and thinking. My reactions to the pieces in room 9 were of looking over a landscape: the heavy blacks at the top drew my head up, and the level of the horizon made me feel as though I was looking from a hill over a large plain abundant with life, or lying flat on the ground, or up at heaven. I was elated or deeply depressed. From where did this come? It humbles me. When David Markson writes, he's not writing the words, but writing instructions to author the thing that appears between the paper and my brain, which is brought into being and constructed by the act of reading. I cannot author on this level. Rothko was not painting canvases, but a structure held halfway between us: a delicate structure constructed by him and me both, where the art insists on me a certain context or emotion, causing me to feel the room around me he wants me to feel and to think thoughts felt as my own; simultaneously mirroring and leading me, like dancing, like speaking with a highly charismatic person, or really good sex when you can't tell whether it's you or your partner anticipating or actually something that is mutual and happening between you and outside you. Rothko's art is transcendent. I was enraptured. There were fireworks in my soul.