How To Be You

Philippa Found

1. Becoming

Begin aged 16 in your bedroom. Get the idea from your gran. She is a life drawing model. Tape a sign to your door that says, ‘No Entry! Artwork in Progress.’ Take it in turns with your best friend, Carla, to strip naked. Draw each other. Your mother will assume you’re a lesbian but she’ll leave you alone. Carla will have a body like Kate Moss, long and lean and perfect for studying line. Use watercolour. Use charcoal. Use your old Polaroid camera. Make a sculpture of her from metal rods. Don’t worry about the phallic implications. Fuse the pieces together in place of her joints.

Display the Polaroids in your art A-Level exhibition in the school gym. A female art teacher will object. Watch her rip the photos from the wall. Listen to her shout that they are indecent. Having learnt during your art A-Level that women artists’ decision to depict the female nude was the start of feminism in art, think: this is ironic. Also, secretly, feel proud: you’re a controversial artist. Controversial artists get nominated for the Turner Prize.

Demand that they are reinstated in the exhibition. Shout. Use the phrases, ‘censorship’, ‘female empowerment’, ‘the history of the nude.’ Rummage on the floor. Piece the tattered shreds together. The male head of department will help. He will argue for you. He will win. Do not yet take this as a negative sign of the hierarchy of patriarchy in all matters to do with female representation. Reinstate Carla on the wall. She is proud to be bare-cheeked, flat-chested and seventeen for the whole school to see. Spread the word about the showdown. Arouse the male populous of the school’s interest in art. Witness the visiting numbers rise. Overhear the boys sniggering, telling the teachers that Carla’s body didn’t need to be censored because she has the body of a boy. From now on the boys will call her Carl. Have this stay with you. Have this be something that you wish to fix.

 

2. Burn

Apply to art school. Have the toughest interview ever. Feel certain you didn’t get in. Wait four to six weeks for a letter with the art schools emblem stamped on the envelope. Wait some more weeks. Get home from school and have your mother hand you the letter. Open the envelope. Feel yourself shaking as you read, ‘We are delighted to offer....’ You got in. You got in! You’re going to art school.

Do not go to art school: a week later, find your mother sitting on her bed surrounded by final demands and a repossession order sobbing that you’re lucky because you don’t have to be like her, you have a chance to escape but not if you go to art school. Learn that there are no jobs after art school. Watch your mother cry. Apply to a proper university to study Art History. Feel a part of your soul curl up on itself like a love letter that’s burning.

 

3. Continued Development

Keep making art although this gets you no extra marks. Continue life drawing. Take every module available on feminist art and the representation of the female form. Get a First. Win a prize. Graduate.

 

4. Know Your Options

When asked, in the student union bar, by well-spoken, sniggering, business studies graduands, ‘What are you going to do with a History of Art degree? Work in a gallery?’, shrug. Say, ‘Yeah’.

Know that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Know no one. Know you are not from the ‘right’ background. Walk into a gallery six days later and get a job. Prove them all wrong.

 

5. Being a Gallerist: Year 1

Be energetic. Be impressive. Be a gallery assistant on £50 a day, three days a week. When the 2008 financial crash hits and the owner of the gallery asks you to type up his agenda for his meeting with his business advisor, read the words that say he’s planning to close the gallery and keep you on as his PA, then walk back into his office and tell him you will not be a PA, you will have a PA. Tell him not to close the gallery. Say you’ll run the gallery by yourself. Say you’ll only pay yourself if you can make enough money. Tell him he’s got nothing to lose. Tell him to sleep on it.

A day later, watch as he makes everyone redundant and you a gallery director aged 23. Feel guilty. Feel impressive. Feel also the truth: you cost 50% less to employ than anyone else did. Don’t care. Accept the job.

Work 13 hours a day, six days a week. Go to private views every evening. Forget the life and friends you had before, you don’t have time for them anymore; you have a gallery now. Notice the gap between what you studied and what is represented. Decide to fill that gap.

 

6. Year 2

Work 13 hours a day, six days a week. Wear the wrong clothes because you can’t afford any better. Work by yourself because you can’t afford to pay anyone else. Don’t always pay yourself. Start to fill the gap between what you studied and what is represented.

Win over artists. They will tell you it is because you have energy, enthusiasm, integrity. Now you have a stable of women artists. With success comes responsibility. Feel the pressure. Be efficient because the only other option is to drown. Try not to drown. At 6pm get up and walk away from your desk to stretch your legs. Stare out of the window. Watch people fill the streets like fresh air. Return to your desk. Keep sending emails. There’s an exhibition you’re organising that opens at a prestigious public space in four weeks time. Know that the marketing materials need to be designed. Know that you are only allowed to use their designer. At 6:05 email the director requesting the contact details of their designer. Five minutes later receive his reply: ‘Fuck off, shouldn’t you be in bed by now, darling?’ Know that you are not respected. Know that you are too young, too female, too capable. Feel sad. Feel angry. Feel defiant.

 

7. Year 3

Put on exhibitions with titles like: ‘The (un)ideal’, ‘Beauty Realities!’,  ‘STRIP: Body art today’. Continue to represent only women artists even though this is hard to sell. Make a name for the gallery. Be asked to speak on radio and TV. Be invited to exhibit in art fairs all over the world. Know you can’t say no. Worry about how you will pay for this. Just about pay for this. Increase working hours to 18 hours a day. Go home to your flat at the end of the day too tired to cook. Eat two slices of buttered toast for dinner six days in a row. When you wake in the night needing the loo, do not fall back asleep again because you are too busy writing to do lists in your head. Hear your alarm go off. You haven’t slept yet. Start having difficulties breathing.

 

8. Year 4

Curate critically acclaimed exhibitions. The artworks will be harder to sell but the column inches in the glossies will be longer. Learn the language. Talk the talk. Rebuke nouns. Anticipate = Anticipatory. Visual = Visuality. Potential = Potentiality. Learn that ‘charming’, ‘honest’ and ‘decorative’ are bad, but they sell. Realise that – unfortunately – your artists are ‘cutting edge’, ‘emerging’ and ‘difficult.’

Contextualise. Install – don’t hang – your artist’s corpus in your space. Next place the work in a collection.  Or try to. ‘Send me the images again’ means she doesn’t want to buy it.

Stare at the sculpture of your artist’s vagina that you are currently using as a paperweight at the top of your filing. She cast it out of her own blood. She had to wear a moon-cup for two years just to make one piece. You’re selling it as a limited edition of one. That way you think you can legitimately demand fifteen thousand pounds for it. The art magazines are calling it her seminal piece. Seminal, menstrual, realise the words sound the same.

Install it in the space. Open the private view. The two questions you will be most frequently asked about this piece by members of the public will be, ‘Is it really made only out of her own blood?’ and, ‘Is it edible?’

Smile, don’t cry.

Try to sell to anyone who might buy. Court art dealers, court arms dealers, court a man who only collects pictures of naked women’s bottoms. Try not to think about it too much, just sell.

 

9. Year 4.5

Devise a marketing plan. Join patrons groups. This will be expensive but you will have to think of this as an investment because you need to meet people who buy art. Go for breakfasts. Go for lunches. Go for dinners. You will have to pay for these. Repeat stage 7, amplified by 100. Last year you didn’t think the pressure could be amplified by 100; you were wrong.

Realise that most men do not want to buy art about ‘women’s issues’. Seek out wealthy women. Notice that all these women have doll-skin. Define doll-skin as the skin that your Barbie would have if you set fire to it. Take these women to lunch. These lunches will go like this:

 ‘I really think the Suskin/Linberg/Barton is a highly unique piece. Her work contextualises and deconstructs the canon of feminist art in a cutting edge way, which is evidenced in this latest landmark piece. It marks a watershed in her image-making and the dichotomous tension that the work embodies creates a unique and unmediated viewing experience that would look wonderful placed within your collection.’

Hear how you sound.

Notice that these women’s faces look both stretched and fallen at the same time. Marvel at the visual contradiction, at the ‘dichotomous tension’ – if you will. Try not to stare.

Divert your eyes to the menu. Each dish on the menu costs more than your outfit. Discuss how delicious the menu looks.

When she asks you where you’ll be holidaying over Christmas, lie. She’s going to her place in the Bahamas and then off to St Moritz for February to ski. Have you ever been?

Notice the only part of her face that can still move are her lips. Think that the skin looks like bubble-gum that’s ready to burst. Imagine them bursting right now and the collagen dripping all over her salad like dressing. Stop staring!

Realise the only way you can age these women is by their surgery; pinched nose: done in the eighties; ski-slope nose: nineties; arse fat in their face: noughties. Realise your exhibitions about the futility of modifying the body to fulfil an unattainable ideal is like throwing salt in their chemically peeled wounds. Struggle to make conversation.

Witness that these women don’t eat. Be hungry but know that it would be impolite of you to steal food from their plates. Watch the waiter clear away the food. Remember hiding under the kitchen table with your mother because bailiffs were bashing at the front door. Remember the times as a teenager that you and your mother had dinner together but only you ate, not because your mother had an eating disorder but because sometimes she couldn’t afford to buy meals for you both. Continue watching the waiter carry the expensive dishes away. Wonder how it has come to this. Feel uncomfortable.

 

10. Year 4.6

Have this conversation with your artists:

‘How did it go with the collector at breakfast/lunch/dinner?’

Reply: ‘She wants me to send her the images again, so that’s positive, and I’ll chase her up next week.’

Hear your artist exhale down the phone. ‘I’m soooo poor. Could you just sell some of my work, please?’

Remember that you specialised in this work because you believed in it and saw there was a gap in the market. Realise there’s a gap because no one wants to buy it.

Stay calm. Say: ‘I’m trying. This new body of work is quite challenging.’

‘That’s what makes it important. This is, like, my seminal work.’

 Suggest: ‘What about doing some mono-prints, they always sold well.’

Be told: ‘I’m not doing mono-prints anymore. I can’t go backwards. You’re trying to stifle me. You’re my gallery, you’re meant to support me.’

Repeat this conversation every day. Experiment with modifying the words but know that the end result will always be the same. Feel like a disappointment. Feel like a failure. Feel you must try harder.

Stay in the gallery later. Sleep less. Start having dizzy spells as a result of your problems breathing. While you wait for your vision to clear plan your next email in your head.

See the doctor about your breathing. Be advised to start yoga. Go to one yoga class. Do not go back because you do not have time for yoga.

Wonder if it really would have been harder to be an artist than a gallerist. Wonder if by not being an artist you really have escaped. Cry.

 

11. Year 4.7

Be mugged one evening when you’re working late in the gallery. You’ll be fine but when the intruder realise there’s no till, they’ll grab an artwork and run. After sitting on the floor for half an hour, crawl back to your desk and type an email to the artist explaining what has happened. Before you hit send decide it reads like a cry for help that no one wants to hear. Decide you can’t afford the increase in the gallery’s insurance if the artist wants you to make a claim. Decide you can’t afford to disappoint your artist again. Delete the email. Draw out £500 from your personal account, transfer it to the artist’s account and pretend you made a sale.

On the way home from the gallery consider calling your mother. Don’t. You don’t want to scare her. Lie in bed staring at the ceiling. Don’t sleep. Write a confessional letter to your artist that you never send.

Return to the gallery in the morning feeling optimistic: you made a ‘sale;’ you don’t need to feel like a failure.

The ‘sale’ will satiate your artist for one day.

The day after, repeat conversation from point 10.

 

12. Year 4.8

Have a lucky break. A curator replies to your letter, they agree with your proposal; your most critically acclaimed artist will have a show at the Tate. Interest and sales of their work increase. Feel elated. Feel that the last 4.8 years are finally starting to pay off. Feel it’s all been worth it. Receive a letter from said artist that says they no longer want you to represent them, a bigger gallery heard about the show, thanks for all you’ve done, they have more wall space, consider your contract terminated. Be stunned. Watch the room darken. It’s as if it’s a coffin that someone just closed the lid on. Wake up on the floor. Wish you could sue. Know you can’t afford to sue. Know your options: move to a bigger space and increase expenses and pressure by a thousand or stay where you can just afford and lose your artists as you make them more successful. Know that your achievements are shiny bullets fired that will hit you in the head.

 

13. Year 4.9

Lose weight. Lose hair. This is not intentional, this is a side effect from not having slept or eaten properly for 4.9 years. Try to remember when you last laughed: you can’t. Try to remember to call your mother back: you have to. When she says she’s worried about you, try not to snap. When she says she just wants you to be happy, try not to cry.

One Wednesday evening, leave the gallery before 8pm for the first time in years to go to a life drawing class. Do this for two weeks in a row. Love it. Then worry about the time you are not working. Do not go back because you can’t afford to spend this time not working. Be angry. Be angry. Be angry.

Receive a phone call at 5am when you have just dropped off to sleep. Sit up in bed to answer the call. It’s one of your artists. She lied to you. She did not get permission to film the models that she used in her last piece of video art. The models think they have been put in a porno. The models are called Kayla and Katalia. Kayla and Katalia are threatening to sue you and the artist. But your artist knew you’d be so good at explaining the difference between pornography and video art that she told them you’d sort it all out. They’re going to be calling you now. You’ll be brilliant at explaining and she’ll love you forever. Thaaaaaanks.

Realise you haven’t had a relationship for 4.9 years. Catch a glimpse of your face in the mirror and realise you look like a Nathalie Djurberg horror-show claymation. Realise you have spent 4.9 years enabling everyone else’s creativity but not your own. Realise it was never meant to be like this. Realise your life looks like a star. Realise that from far away stars look glittery like diamonds, but up close they are balls of fire. Realise you are burnt. As the phone rings make a bet on your life. If you answer and it’s Kayla you will apologise, if you answer and it’s Katalia, you will quit.

Watch your hand claw the air in slow motion as you reach to answer the phone. It’s like watching a child before they fall over, or a glass of milk wobble before it topples off a table edge. ‘N.O.W. Art, how can I help you…’

It’s Kayla.

Hear glass smash anyway.

 

14. Year 5

Go to art school.