After New York City and Mount Horeb, Wisc. (the troll capital of America), London is my favorite city in the world. Because they have a tower, a dungeon and a Queen, it’s like every day there is the Renaissance Faire. Plus, Londoners are passionate about beer, soccer and rock‘n’roll: three things I consider as essential as breathing. Having recently found myself jobless and without a care in the world (except for the crippling anxiety I feel daily), I decided to visit. I hoped being surrounded by pretty accents would make up for the past month of having doors slammed in my face as a Census Enumerator.
Maybe I could even justify my vacay by writing about the London art scene!
I emailed my English boyfriend, Murray, to let him know I was planning a visit. We met in 2005 at a London club after he smiled at me and said, "You’re an elf. Come sit next to me." Most people, when they first see my elf ears, want to sit as far away from me as possible. I was intrigued. We’ve been having a transatlantic fling ever since.
Arriving at Heathrow, I endured the terrifying ordeal of passport inspection. Even though I have never done anything truly immoral in my life, I always worry I will be denied entry into a country simply because I'm a freak. Miraculously, I made it through and hopped the tube where I perused the papers kindly commuters had left for other commuters. I’ve noticed that in New York, commuters are terrified of touching anything left on a seat by another commuter even when the abandoned object is as harmless as a newspaper. But London commuters are less afraid of cooties.
In less than an hour, I was at Murray’s front door, feeling very much like I'd been at war and was coming home to see my wife. After a joyous reunion and a nap, we walked to a local pub where we sat outside and drank beer. Eccentric locals soon joined us, including a homeless man in a 3-piece suit who tried to sell us Chinese newspapers and who told me that he’d just gotten out of jail for stealing a cop car. Murray explained that the man was really Secret Agent One Trillion, Four Hundred Twenty-Seven. Already my adventure was like a Bond movie!
The days that followed were spent cavorting with crazy locals, watching the World Cup and lazing around like John and Yoko having a Bed-In.
Things seemed to be going perfectly until one morning I realized my elf ears (which I’d washed and left by the sink) had been accidentally thrown out by one of Murray’s housemates. I was now sans the most important element of my wardrobe, 3,000 miles from home. I’m not convinced their disappearance wasn’t a conspiracy since almost as soon as the ears vanished, Murray suggested I meet his parents in Eastbourne on the south coast. The AEGON Tennis Championships were happening there that week and though I’m hardly a tennis fan, I was stunned that anyone was willing to introduce me to family. Plus, I have always wondered what the appeal of watching two people hit a ball back and forth in person is, as opposed to watching it televised.
After meeting the parents and doing my best not to seem insane, I attended the tournament. There I discovered that though English soccer fans get a bad rap, English tennis fans are actually much worse in that they only cheer for the favorite. When Kim Clijsters played underdog Victoria Azarenka, the entire crowd went nuts anytime Clijsters touched the ball while absolutely no one cheered for Victoria. Murray counteracted this by cheering as loudly as possible for Azarenka who, with the support of her one fan, took the match.
Feeling pleased, as if we’d just won the match ourselves, we took a walk into town. There I was stunned to find a costume shop.
"Do you sell elf ears?" I asked the proprietor.
"Yes. Are they for permanent use?"
"Permanent?" I asked, thinking maybe I’d stumbled upon my dream of a low-cost outpatient elf-ear-plastic-surgery clinic.
"Do you plan on wearing them often?"
"Oh yes, every day."
He showed me a pair of ears. Though not my regular brand (Woochy) they were almost identical to the ones I wear. The packaging said, Simply fit over your ears and amaze everyone!
"That's why I wear elf ears," I said, "to amaze everyone."
I acquired the English ear tips for only 4 pounds and returned to the tournament where I sipped Pimm’s and basked in the sun -- a far cry indeed from my Bud-swilling nocturnal existence on the Lower East Side.
Upon leaving, we walked by a Cricket field where a team was practicing. One of the players let me hold his bat for a photo op.
"It’s very heavy," I noted.
"Mine is bigger than most," he assured me.
Luckily, one of Murray’s housemates, a Russian artist named Sam Kaprielov, whose work I greatly admire, offered to show me around. He explained that most established galleries are in the fancy hood of Mayfair. This, I noted, was where Dorian Gray sunk into a life of sin and corruption, much as I had done during my time in London, though unlike Dorian Gray, my face now bore the ill effects of hard-living. Maybe I could ask Sam to do a portrait of me that will age while I stay eternally 37.
Our first stop was the Antony Gormley show at White Cube’s Mason’s Yard space, which unlike the other ornate, Victorian buildings in Mayfair, is white and shaped like a cube. After checking out the upstairs, which featured a series of wooden sculptures reminding me of Lego Men, we wandered downstairs into what seemed like total darkness.
"I’m really scared I’m gonna fall and twist an ankle," I told Sam. "Oh wait, there’s healthcare over here. Maybe I should fall."
A gallery worker with a flashlight interrupted my plan, leading us to an installation I can only describe in unacademic terms like trippy. "Breathing Room III" consists of 15 interconnecting photo-luminescent tubes that appear to float in space like a holograph one might see on Battlestar Galactica. I know it was probably against "the rules," but I had to touch the tubes in order to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
We emerged from the darkness of White Cube and ventured over to Sadie Coles where Andrea Zittel was showing. I climbed under a long piece of crochet that was stretched from wall to wall in order to better see a crocheted poncho, some enamel paintings of hands manipulating unseen forces and a video of hands touching hands. I felt a bit disappointed: Had I come all the way to London to see a Brooklyn artist (even if she does live in California these days!)?
I was relieved to reach Gagosian’s Davies Street address, where "Crossing the Channel: Friendships and Connections in Paris and London 1946-1965" presents work by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Giacometti. Two large, immaculate men guarded the tiny, immaculate space while I tried to soak up the Englishness of the situation.
A number of galleries later, we found ourselves at Simon Lee where an artist named Matias Faldbakken was showing. Framed, oversized plastic bags with appropriate titles like Untitled (Garbage Bag Grey #1) and Untitled (Garbage Bag Grey #2) lined the walls. In the corner, a group of liquor bottles sat on the floor.
"Is that part of the show?" I asked Sam.
"They were at the opening, so I think so."
I looked at the list of the works of art. Sure enough, Liquor Sculpture was on there. The press release noted it "literally begs to be stolen." Accurate, because moments later, Sam and I determined it was time to get a drink.
REVEREND JEN is the author of Live Nude Elf: The Sexperiments of Reverend Jen (Soft Skull Press, 2009), available on Amazon for $10.17 ($14.95 list price).