On 'How to Get Attention When You're Drowning'
“Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein, remember his name…”
Oh dear darling, I return to you! Reluctantly, love… I have reached a crossroads. Dusk tenderly descends upon me, as a bounty of clouds looming large overhead, hang heavy and sodden with rainfall. I’m moving on, and through, I promise - but sorrow will still bubble, softly, at the stove. I long to band forth, beneath feet, green grass, marred with morning dew, leaving you.
Shirley MacLaine as Louisa May Foster in What a Way to Go! (1964) dir. J. Lee Thompson.
My debut solo show, How to Get Attention When You’re Drowning, curated by Dinosaur Kilby and Yasmyn Nettle, continues to blossom and bloom deliciously at Cheap Cheap, and, oh, how full my heart is. Feelings rest against powder-white brick, amid soft breeze, wailing, true and tall. Stained and spoiled in slicks of black, red, pink, until 25th September do we part.
A press release has been crafted, painstakingly, lovingly, by Dinosaur. The introduction reads as follows:
Loss, grief, tears, eulogy, love, lust, sex, dysphoria, pin ups, arousal, heroines, weight, you, heavy, crying, me, webcam, living, body, fluid, cinema, history, humour, wanking, religion, falling, dad, christ, breakdown, death, life.
Ladies, ladies, ladies, I must be honest, in hurriedly trawling through emails one late evening, I neglected to open this letter! The horror, the fright, the lack of delight in reading, for the first time, how my work is seen. What do you feel when you look? Am I telling you the truth? Do you believe it? Opening up those pertinent words, I felt enamoured to know, dear reader, that my work is finally visible! Understood, even!
“Good things come in threes,” a friend tells me, stood in the entryway.
Worry I felt, falling, faltering to the floor, for there is nowhere for the work to hide. Four, five-foot-tall works crumpled and creased with frayed edges, yellowed and bleeding. The humiliation is palpable, my love! A single red heart, Valentine, hangs heavy beneath the beams, slumped and sagging and weighted and weeping. It’s the first work you will see when you enter the room. Through double-locked steel doors, twisting around cold cobbled corners, climbing steep steps, breathless by the doorway, there is much anticipation to be felt.
Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968) dir. William Wyler.
Valentine, unfortunately, abruptly addresses the first erotic act I may have engaged in, whereby I spat it out into the ether. Drifting through the attic, we meet Assailant dressed in mauve, against white faux suede. Decorative script is swashed and kerned, reciting a poem I’d scrawled in my phone, in the small hours, years prior.
Shedding without telling
slinking from his skin
and his dancers
writhe and wriggle in
(TW: SA) In truth, reader, stood describing this work to Others, Assailant is about stealthing. Defined by Cambridge Dictionaries, ‘stealthing’ is ‘the act of a man intentionally and secretly taking off a condom during sex’. Read the poem back to me. I find it much easier to discuss Michaela Coel, actress, screenwriter and producer, who illustrated the act painfully, perfectly, in her 2020 tragicomedy I May Destroy You. I had to leave the room during the episode.
Only now, reader, after all this time, do I realise that there is a vulnerability within this work that I’m not quite sure I am ready to confront. A grim exposure, poking at the wound, embarrassingly so. Dickinson, Didion, Emin? One could only dream.
Lit by sunset, Yas and Ishmail fuss and fluff fabric with absolute care. Dinosaur squints, pencil in mouth, readying a ruler against the gallery wall. I am sat, cross-legged on creaking floorboards, thinking. There is a pizza box next to me. This is the first time I have seen these works hung together, ever. It feels rewarding.
I CAN FEEL A BIG CRY COMING ON sits at the centre. Oily, sweat-sodden, baby-pink, baby. Black paint, built up, creates relief, texturally and emotionally so. This is the first work I produced post-Death. Devoid of floral poetry and frilly prose, the work is colloquial in nature, brash, even. Truthful. To my right, What Girls Are Made Of. A stained and soiled gossamer glossary which, I hope, transforms bodily repulsion into erotic desire.
Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing (1963) dir. Ronald Neame.
Dawn approaches. Bare hands bloody and slipping from the cold cliff face, I have amounted a new milestone. Gaining my gallery role on Valentine’s and still exhibiting until September’s end in my hometown, I have commenced my first paid work. In collaboration with Arts Council Collection, Birmingham Museums and Jack Arts, My heart is on display for you to pull apart until the 3rd, across two sites at 122 Great Barr Street and the Old Crown Pub, in Digbeth.
A visceral, heartfelt love letter to Found Cities, Lost Objects: Women in the City, curated by Lubaina Himid CBE at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMaG), My heart succumbs to the panic and pain of being perceived as Girl-Child, delicately gesturing to the cinematic landscape of Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), calling out to feelings of dysphoria in public space. Amidst a backdrop of white-hot flames, scrawled in magenta Snell and Olde English Blackletter, the work greedily confesses:
Wet and Pulsating
rises in my throat
In truth, love, I don’t like thinking about my gender, let alone voicing it to otherworlds outside of myself. I’m still working it out, and deep down do worry I won’t like what I find. If I handed you a tin of worms, would you eagerly open it? Oh no, no, not now! I have spoken far too much. Hands trembling, hesitation lingering, I must allow the work to think, to live, to breathe, for itself. To gestate.
See you in September.