The girl’s jaw aches from gurning. She is sitting on the sofa opposite the exhibition’s introductory text. Her head is crooked and throbbing and rested, bulging, in her hand that sweats. Don’t worry, said her friend, I’ll be there by 11. For invigilation I mean. I’m real proud of you babe, it’s like cool as hell to have your work shown in a proper sort of gallery like this. Lol thanks gal aha! Maybe I could give you a guided tour of all the work, yknow, if you wanted. Tell you what it all means. The girl promised her friend she’d see it before it closed. It’s the final day today, and it’s hot like the sweaty clutch of morning regret. She went out last night and hasn’t been home to change. In her left arm she cradles a Lucozade. She dropped and smashed her phone in the club toilets when she was trying to take a mirror selfie with some strangers she met in the smoking area. It’s happened before. Little flakes of glass would break off and embed in her fingers as she scrolled. The time is 11:29 and her battery is below 10%. Her face is fragmented in the reflection.
The studio is getting hotter and hotter. Everything is slowly stewing in the muggy scent of spectral patrons. The ceiling-spanning skylights are too high to be opened, and the corrugated metal loading door is locked. It’s Saturday. Every visible surface is white. Maybe she could find the energy to prop open the door and allow in some breeze. She has to squint it’s so bright. There are barely any catalogues remaining, besides the ones with footprints and dog ears that drift along the polished concrete floor. The covers on the cushions and the letters on the wall are both made from polyvinyl chloride. Both are also wavering and reflective like spilt oil.
The bottle of Lucozade was cool and damp with condensation when the girl bought it. She held it like a buoy. Now it’s all warm and gross and armpitty and her mesh top is all sticky wet where it’s been resting. She knows she looks bloated and ugly. Her veins are trying to escape. It’s 11:37. If she waits any longer on this sweaty sofa she may fall asleep. There’s almost a mist in the room. It is likely that moving too quickly after sitting this long may result in her throwing up or collapsing. Her skin feels like hot ice and it prickles. The saturation of the space is proportional to the position of her head, swinging left and right all seasick and monochrome like a clock. An old white man wearing a straw boater, followed by his younger and fairer Southeast Asian partner, makes a passing remark about the show as he holds open the door. Her friend had said she would be here at 11. She would message her friend to ask What’s the deal? if her phone wasn’t below 10% battery. With the checking of the time, and Instagram, it’s closer to 5% now. In hindsight these cargo trousers weren’t worth the trouble. She imagines she’s a fish in a river downstream of a factory outlet pipe. Her gaze goes through the polished concrete floor. Every breath requires focused attention and energy to hold back the lingering bitter taste of the residue mandy in her nasal cavity, and that sunken, sour, cider smell that hangs and penetrates. Her fingers drum the sofa’s sticky arm. What was that girl’s name? It’s 11:52 when she manages to rise. She swallows five successive times to stop the acid reflux.
Clockwise, the first work is a series of long texts. Typed and traced onto vertical strips. Cut from A2 cartridge paper. Nailed loosely vertical to the white walls. The texts sway like net curtains and the paper’s distance from the wall manifests in unstable shadow. The girl’s gaze is out of focus. It’s 11:53. She sniffs and takes a big swig and the bottle wheezes. The wall explains that the work is concerned with ideas of relational aesthetics. To turn the act of consuming text into a communal one. Her friend said it was a load of bullshit this sort of thing. It’s just for rich old men. Which is why she makes the work she does, right. Like there’s far too much text here to actually read. The white walls are squealing and glimmering: blind and bright and piercing. Her headache worsens. The exhibition space has been distorted to fit the map. Turning left: the projectors for this installation have been disconnected from their source inputs. This alcove looks bigger from above. Turning right: this installation has ashy footprints splattered across its polished white floor. The whole exhibition has an air of resignation. Someone’s statement has fallen off the wall. It’s 11:54. And where is she? Should the girl be waiting still? Her phone is at 5% and she has heard nothing. The room is at sea and the toilets in the corner are producing an overflow smell like sewage pipes and kelp baking on rocks beyond the tide’s reach.
Her stomach rises to meet her memory. What was it? Her name. Last night. The girl with the neck tattoo who held her tongue and chest and said Remember, with eyes that brimmed and glimmered like What did she say? Whose voice smelled like something soft as it steamed on her ear… her smiles and I Know You and We Were Once In Love, our hair lost in mouths, our bodies pressed from fear, but yes, it could be anyone, the way her teeth said Catch Me stained with solution to all that was wrong and painful and stiff but what did she do to feel like this? Her heart hungover, her head like pulp, an absence that aches… She’s never felt before. She’s newborn in the arctic and can’t remember more. Her softness. Her smell. The only thing that matters is falling, remember.
Each step towards the toilets across the polished white concrete rattles her skull. She measures her stability and progress by the speed of the blinding walls. A large painting of an industrial landscape done from memory. Psychedelic video montage. Sweat actually makes an audible sound when it drips off her nose. A large tapestry on the left, bulging and veiny, leaks felt blood and threaded sinew. The text explains the work’s concerns. What does home mean to you? Where does the soul belong? Her mouth lets loose. A fallen metal box is lit by a single spotlight. Three cushions of varying integrity observe at a safe distance. Operatic recontextualisation of the anxieties of social media and the boundaries of performativity. The girl can see herself going to walk between the cushions before she changes her mind and slows to a stop. What the hell is all this shit, really? The girl’s friend said that she never went in for the crits. Because it was all just this detached and wanky art speak and she couldn’t deal. Projected and amplified personal fiction. The box rumbles and cries like a plane afraid to rise. Imagine a ceiling fan. She decides that she is not going to throw up. She’s done worse. Despite the saliva and the pulses of muscle.
Oof, and how long now? There she is. She’s still waiting. Standing peristaltic in the centre of the gallery where the heat rises up to meet the rafters. Her cargo trousers are a visible shade darker because of the sweat. The stainless steel beams running in triangular grids above have recently been mounted with sprinklers. Due to new health and safety legislation. What if she set off the fire alarm? She sees herself drain the rest of the Lucozade and use some condensation to wipe away smudged eyeliner. Arms moving slow and choreographed. It’s hot like an overcrowded hospital. The time is now 12:04 and she wants to be back in bed with a pizza. If she thinks about it hard enough she can taste it. They sat on a low brick wall and wove with their legs. She must have been an angel with a hold like that. Touch-lit cigarettes. I’m so nervous I’m sorry. Her face but a memory. Don’t be so serious! Dance with me. I want to drop it all.
Her view rises. She’s almost overhead. Where the steam is thick and the greenhouse is at its cruelest. Hard to tell what qualifies as enlightenment when you’re as sleep deprived as her. The girl. Dips back down again not soon after. Her tiredness aching queasy in the creases of her mouth and elbows. It’s as if her awareness is a balloon her body holds on string. Vaguely offensive painting of a nude woman. One of three. Why are her posts not doing as well as her standard weekly pre drink selfies? Does she not look good? What’s wrong with her face in this one? It’s 12:05 when her phone finally dies and the white walls swirl. Autonomy of the body. Large, glossy A1 photograph depicting local youth culture. The girl and the strangers are flaked along the mirror – smiling in one, pouting in the other, tongues out, mid slutdrop – all printed and nailed loosely to the wall, swinging tick tock in the still, dewy heat. She sees herself cracked like a cobweb. It must be trendy this year. Validating the punk aesthetic and an anti-authority sentiment through appropriation of archival techniques. Her face has been identified and tracked. She feels like a part of her body is still with that girl last night but what was her name? Inkjet printed. Like trying to reenter the night’s same dream. It belongs to her now. She sees herself sweating and swaying by the screaming box. It’s really, like, every part of her body is longing for death. She’s never drinking again. Behind her the remnants of a performance piece do not successfully translate the work’s intent. Her view is revealing twisted angles and perspectives. Is her hair really that thin on top? People must be able to see her scalp. Is that fucking dandruff? That acne… Does her nose really look that way? In mounds and crevices and pools of pores? And what the hell is going on with her collar bones?
I promise, if you wait for me, I’ll find you. I’ll be right here.
Her friend’s work has been relegated to the back corner of the gallery. She has painted the whole wall pink. Two acrylic paintings hang either side of an antique mirror. They both depict gorgeous women, nude, splayed, painted messily, urgently, accented with magenta and indigo. Wet patches still glisten where the paint got smeared too thick. The girl sees herself looking. The feverish quality of Adderall paintings splashed and wept the night before. Her eyes forced into a leaky squint. The pinkness of the wall tints everything in her periphery a pallid nautical green. Dust has collected in the mirror’s ornate frame, oval around the unwiped glass face. Her friend, the artist, has written on the mirror in lipstick:
Below the text, at the level of reflection, curdled outlines of a lipsticked mouth, blushed cheeks and shadowed eyes are drawn in shades that clash inherently with the girl’s skin colour, and from what she can see, she looks like a clown. A clown excluded from whoever’s decision of what foundation can be. She’s packed in tight like meat, all swollen and puffy, her proportions in flux: thighs, hips, eyes, skeleton – nothing is stable. Features like vague stains she was once told about and actively tried to forget. But she can’t look away. The longer she looks the harder it becomes. You are perfectly fucking beautiful just the way you are. Just like her ex. As if there was anything helpful that could be said. As if her face wasn’t constantly billowing between identical states of hideous and bearable. Every second of every day she is aware of the billowing and she’s a hero for not throwing up. It feels like her flesh is rejecting her skin. Something’s clogged up back in the roof of her mouth. Her organs are not her own. Her body is a concept. I remember you. She snorts. In the confusion of sense and the pain of moments, please wait. You’re the one. It’ll all work out in the end. But she’s not sure who said that and she didn’t even see the girl leave. Or the way her hair swung carefree through the crowd, under the ultraviolet smoking lights where she slowly cooked and waited until she can’t remember the rest. Or the way she looked back and yearned and smiled for reassurance, split in two from drunken vision and floating further apart. Or the way she blushed and rubbed her brows and pinched her arm for Getting Too Involved Again.
The air is breathing past her hot and slick. Her body is reflective. Around her feet, flecks of paint and dust and paper gather and swim. They get smaller and smaller. She’s further overhead and her gaze breaks away. Ascent controlled by the Sun. Brutal and at zenith. Crushing light down, laser heat, onto her scalp and empty bottle. A handheld terrarium. From the rafters, it’s a box, and she can see now that the sprinklers are fake. Budgetary cuts. Rolls her eyes. Head tilted back. The temporary walls slicing the space into spread vice example. That was real love, because it was fleeting. Abstract timber mounds and splinters. This work reflects human nature. Primal urges from our infant reptile brains. Stuffed tights in pink light. Destroyed ceramics. Everything has been here before. Her hair brushes the skylights. Her breath clasps the mirror. Memory and an autoethnographic approach fuel my practice. Yet who remains in power? You are perfectly fucking beautiful just the way you are. She reads it again. She sees herself reading. She sees her eyes reading. Her eyes on her head. Her head too big for her shoulders. Her shoulders too pointy. Her thighs gigantic. All of her getting smaller and smaller and larger like her swollen eyes from puffs of skin smudged makeup crust; her dilated pupils, her cones and rods, her warm blood pools, and pus, and piss, and protons, and thin, weird, gross, scalpy head. This is her: to her and others. Remember my face, she said, flat on the glass. Just like this. The lobby door opens and throws in new blind light. Pouts. The dust and fresh paint absorb the footsteps. Her face sort of swung. Remember the skylight, its vision, its focus. Not long now, she sighs. Where is the light? This is real love. She won’t throw up. Promise me, please, but her name escapes with the time and weeds and summer, unafraid of desperation. Remember, I beg, the sun that burns her skin until it peels, and flakes, and sheds, and falls, like how many likes now? Before the sprinklers set off? Is it raining or what? Pulping and peeling the work from the walls. That voice. She sheds. Sticky and oily, falling and settling and covering her footsteps, her snowy trail, glowing white, slushed and smeared, bandaging the concrete shell.
And what was beneath?