Watch out what you send to the Postcard Terrorist! Anything you say can and will end up being sent out to the entire Art World, or at least those that are still on his list!
For anyone who has missed these, we have posted a selection of Ranko's emails right here.
The latest brouhaha about Charles Saatchi and pedophilia is a lot of fun for the press. The Independent puts the story on the first page this Sunday. The so-called big guns—the likes of Baroness Warnock, dubbed "the moral philosopher" twice in the same short article, and Lord Putnam—are now defending the supercollector and his flagging show, "I Am a Camera," from the scrutiny of Scotland Yard and the threat of closure. Tierney Gearon, a forgettable American artist who shoots her own children naked, is in the eye of the latest media storm. The artist and the gallerist are now defending themselves by saying that we all take snapshots of our naked children. The big guns happily concur, although it is clear that we do not all exhibit such snapshots. And we do not all play with the taboo of pedophilia, the latest fire among fires. Instead of questioning the taboo, as art critics are wont to put it, the hapless artist and gallerist stupidly claim innocence. Apparently, the whole issue never even crossed their immaculate minds. Forget about questioning taboos when the police is knocking at the door. This is how low art has fallen at the hands of artists like Tierney Gearon and gallerists like Charles Saatchi.
Addendum (March 13, 2001)
As he does with nearly all of my electronic postcards, of which there are many and ever more, Billy Childish responded practically instantaneously:
"Of course, you are on the right track again. With a show that is as dull as 'I Am a Camera,' and a marketing man running it, the question must be asked: 'who tipped off Scotland Yard if not Saatchi himself?' No, of course not!"
Billy added a post scriptum, which he nearly never does: "I think this one should be passed on." Well, Billy's wish is my command, as they would graciously say in The Book of Thousand Nights and One Night.
The story about Gearon and Saatchi has attracted a good deal of attention from the Stuckists. Brett Hamil, a founding member of the Seattle Stuckists, sent me a few words about one of Gearon's previous shows in the States:
"A few years ago I attended a show of Tierney Gearon's at a gallery in Jacksonville, Florida, a truly podunk cultural backwater. Of course, the highlight of the exhibit was the snapshots of her naked children, and viewers were treated to a video apologia in which Ms. Gearon emphatically insisted for the better part of a half hour that the pics were not kiddie porn and that her children didn't object to being photographed in the buff. I found it amusing that the few people who were in the gallery at the same time as me were sitting there watching the video while the pictures on the wall stood unlooked-at."
Charles Thomson, the co-founder of the Stuckists together with Billy Childish, sent me a lengthy message concerning the current Saatchi show. Here is a somewhat shorter version of it:
"The first thing that entered my head on seeing this story on the front page of The Guardian was that it was another deliberately-engineered publicity ploy. The more one looks into it, the more convincing such a hypothesis becomes.
"The show has run for eight weeks and the catalogue has been openly on sale with one of the two "offensive" pictures on the cover. Until a few days ago, there has been none of the scandal and media furore that have characterised previous shows. This has suddenly changed. Coincidence? Or the results of an addiction to attention and outrage?
"Who exactly are these three people who have reportedly complained and why have they complained only now? Why has no-one else complained until now? Presumably because the pictures were so inoffensive. So inoffensive in fact that The Guardian reproduces both of them, one on the front page.
"However, they do depict children naked, so this is something that can easily be emphasized to cause outrage, which is then contested by balanced and sensible people. It's brilliant—all the publicity of indecency, all the safety of innocence. The fact that the photos were taken by the children's mother makes it an even safer bet. Saatchi becomes the hero standing up for artistic freedom while being fairly sure he is not in any real danger.
"Did none of this ever enter Charles Saatchi's head at any point? He is an advertising genius. Once his agency was the biggest in the world. Can we believe he was totally unaware of any possible repercussions of his choice of these images? It beggars belief. It seems more likely that such a consequence was one of the first things that occurred to him when he saw the photographs of this unknown photographer.
"If it did not, we can only marvel at his naivete. It is a naivete that he has not displayed previously, when exhibitions have consistently shown 'art works' that were guaranteed to give vast media coverage. It is not a naivete displayed by Jay Jopling who commented on the storm around the New York 'Sensation' show: 'That was great! You’d pay a million dollars to get publicity on that scale!' Now the first police raid on an art gallery in this country in over thirty years has succeeded in generating an equal amount of 'great publicity.'
"So what was Saatchi’s reaction to all this? According to curator Jenny Blyth, 'he laughed and thought it was a joke.' If indeed it is not another media hijacking on purpose, Charles Saatchi, like the boy who cried 'wolf' once too often, only has himself to blame for a cynical interpretation of events."
Well put. I have nothing to add to Charles' careful analysis. Perhaps we will learn from the newspapers one day soon how the brouhaha was created and why. God thank the free press.
STORM IN A TEACUP (March 3, 2001)
"Nick," I hugged Serota when I spotted him in the crowd at the Turner Prize opening at Tate Britain this evening, "it's wonderful to see you!" I was in one of my expansive moods, but I was genuinely glad to see him. He appeared pleased to see me, too. "Ah," I grabbed him by his bony shoulders, "when I look at you like this, I cannot but see Charles Thomson's portrait of you, which I saw last night at the Real Turner Prize Show in Shoreditch." I emphasized the word "real" with all my might. "Yes," Nick beamed back at me without even blinking, "I must see it!" Christ, I am so angry with Charles. I wanted to introduce him to Nick, but the scoundrel failed to show up at Millbank at six-fifteen this evening, as we agreed last night. I had even sent a message to the Tate to tell them that Lauren was in the States, and that I would come instead with a friend of mine, a co-founder of Stuckism.
Addendum I (October 26, 2000)
After I sent this piece by electronic mail to my "Let's Make Art!" list, I found Charles' apology, which was sent the previous evening. As he explains, in the wake of the Stuckist opening in Pure Gallery he was simply too busy:
"Grovel, grovel, grovel. I am sorry I left you standing outside the Tate. I only had three hours sleep last night. On the go all day. Looking forward to meeting you. Late in the afternoon I had a very good press contact to feature the whole group, but I had to get them all together in two days. Then another enquiry from BBC. Then I look at my watch. Oh my god, I am never going to get there anywhere near on time. And I have to finish arranging above stuffŃwhich I have to get done. Erk. Just have to hope Ranko will understand, as I was so looking forward to being Mrs. Bon for a night, so to speak. It looks like another three-hour sleep tonight."
He closes his message by mentioning that Billy Childish had invited him as his guest to another opening night at the Tate, which took place yesterday. "How many of these things are there?" he pleads. This morning I found another message from Charles. He responds to my piece:
"Let's look on the positive side of all this. I did get to the Tate last night with Billy for the Channel 4 party to which he was invited, and we both succeeded in getting thrown out for dispensing our manifesto on the Turner PrizeŃdespite actually being in conversation with someone at the time from Channel 4 who wanted to include us in a documentary. Actually I got thrown out a bit later for putting leaflets in the Takahashi installation. But don't worry, the guys from The Standard are already on the case. Check today's edition, but not News Extra, the first edition of the day. Most of the people there said they agreed with usŃincluding, for example, Virginia Bottomley. Richard Whitely seemed simply confused. Then we got let back in anyway."
He adds a few words about other events of the day:
"At the National Portrait Gallery private view earlier in the evening we were welcomed by the director, who praised our stance on figurative painting, and we again handed out leaflets which were extremely well received on the whole. Some people there had been to our private view. Others had heard Joe Crompton of Superhumanism talking about Stuckism on Radio 4 Today Program that morningŃor had seen the various Evening Standard mentions."
It is indeed wonderful how the Stuckists have managed to use the Turner Prize to catapult themselvesŃthat is, their ideasŃinto the limelight. The media coverage of the event, at first carefully choreographed by the Tate, has now spun out of control. At long last one feels that something is really happening. At any rate, Charles ends his message with a few words referring back to my piece: "Next time, do something brave and mention us to Tracey." TouchŽ!
Addendum II (January 30, 2001)
In Charles Thomson's portrait of Nick Serota unveiled at the Real Turner Prize Show, the director of the Tate is depicted in the act of pondering whether a pair of red knickers hanging on a clothes-line were indeed Tracey Emin's or a mere fake. Judging from tonight's television news, in the end he must have decided they were original, indeed, for the Tate has just acquired an entire collection of Tracey's knickers. Presumably, they are all properly soiled. However, I am very uncomfortable with the use of public money for the acquisition of art objects of questionable authenticity. When it comes to soiled knickers, it is difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate between an original and a fake. I would therefore insist on full documentary evidence for each and every pair, including video and audio tapes, sworn testimony of all those involved in their production, that is to say soiling, and the like. The evidence could be shown alongside the objects of art, in which case it would probably attract considerable interest on the part of the art-loving public. It would also appeal to new audiences, especially those previously not exposed to art. In my estimation, such evidence would only enhance the appreciation of Tracey's talent, as well as increase the value of the art objects themselves.
A RELIEF (November 7, 2000)
Eugene Doyen, whose photographs of Billy Childish and Tracey Emin are now on show at Pure Gallery in London, was their close friend in the 1980s, when the pictures were taken. He is their friend still, albeit separately. The scenes he captures are thus open and free even when they are carefully staged, often by Billy as studies for his paintings. The forty odd photographs, taken from 1982 to 1986, show one Billy and very many Traceys. Here she is glamorous, there she is pitifully plain. In one picture she cackles toothlessly like a bargain whore, in the other she reclines innocently and lovingly in Billy's arms. Wearing now this and now that garish outfit, she is trying on a whole range of personas, most of them on the indelicate side. But on a few occasions she truly shines. Her raw power, her audacity, and her lust for life, as well as for limelight, come through in a couple of photographs in the nude. Her fine eyebrows, high cheekbones, feline eyes, full lips, and strong chin work in concert, exposing a mighty woman, not only a comely one. For some reason, it is a relief to see that Tracey also. It is a relief to catch a glimpse of the star yet to be born.
I was not surprised by your request to be removed from my electronic-mail list, "Let's Make Art!" It goes without saying that I will honor your wish. In fact, I have already done so, which is why I am using the trusted Royal Mail to write to you one more time. However, you surprised me with your accusation of hectoring. Upsetting and annoying, hopefully. Ranting and raving, perhaps. Haranguing, conceivably. But hectoring? Hectoring is about swaggering. It is about intimidating and bullying by personal pressure. It is about power over others, real or imaginary. Now, do you feel intimidated or bullied by me? Does anyone else at the Tate? Hardly, you must admit. I am not a threat. At best, I am a nuisance to those in power. It is you and others at the institution behind you who can intimidate. You can do it even by suggesting intimidation and bullying on someone else's part. Come to think of it, is this perchance what you are trying to do to me?
Addendum I (September 16, 2000)
Today I received a reply from Nick, dated September 14. As Monty Python would put it, the tone of his letter is rather conciliatory, which I must say I appreciate. Here goes:
"Thank you for your letter of September 6. If I had wished to intimidate or bully, I would have copied my response to all your recipients. I chose rather to copy it only to those who have responded directly to you on the Tracey Emin issue. I hope you will appreciate that I have no wish to threaten, merely to withdraw for a period."
I responded immediately, in the same spirit:
"Thank you very much for your letter, and especially its tone. However, if you look again through my carefully-worded letter, you will notice that the "you" I use in the key sentence does not necessarily refer to you in person, or you as the personification of the Tate, but also to some people in your institution who have previously written to me. Of course, I am referring to Andrew Brighton, who actually copied everyone on my list and then failed to respond to my carefully-worded response to his cavalier accusation. Given the power of the Tate, he has acted precipitously, to say the least. To my amusement, many people on my list followed Andrew with requests to be dropped from further communications. Among these are a number of important figures from the art worldŃlike Marian Goodman and Sadie Coles, for exampleŃsome of whom may not have wished to run afoul of the mighty Tate. A certain Charlotte Schepke from the Agency Gallery even threatened me with the law if I did not take them off my list. By the way, let me cite this law for possible future use: Electronic Communications Privacy, Amendment to the Data Protection Act 1998. For greater impact, Frau Schepke used the upper case, too. The way things are turning, this law may come handy to the Tate in the turbulent years to come."
To the point? Funny? Visionary? Well, I dare say so on all three counts. Once again, I am far from a modest fellow, as everyone already knows all too well.
Addendum II (September 28, 2000)
Another letter from Nick arrived in this morning's mail. I did not expect it, and I was thus quite delighted to receive it. He begins by thanking me for my letter of September 16. He continues:
"I appreciate your concern about Andrew's response, but I think that most of the recipients [of your postcards, R.B.] will be well aware that Andrew is his own man and certainly does not represent Tate [sic] as an institution. I am not sure, for instance, whether he even knows Marian Goodman and probably Sadie Coles only slightly."
By the way, it is wonderful to see the Tate spelled without the definite article, an innovation only recently introduced on advice of an advertising firm. Perhaps it is time to drop the definite article when referring to Hayward, Whitechapel, Serpentine, and a few other leading galleries, as well.
Back to my correspondence with Nick, though. Once again, I responded immediately. After thanking him for his letter of September 25, as well as telling him that it is always a pleasure to correspond with him, which it definitely is, I return to my argument:
"I do not wish to exhaust you with fine points, but I must say that I find it implausible that the recipients of my postcards are aware that Andrew is his own man rather than someone who works for Tate Modern and thus perforce represents it in some sense of the word. One way or another, his actions do carry the weight of the institution behind him even when he is acting on his own. Mind you, I had no complaint about any of this, but I only wished to point out that the charge of bullying made more sense in Andrew's case than in my own. As to the effect of his action, it is impossible to tell who among my recipients was swayed by Andrew's careless words. The art world is full of hypocrites and sycophants, and I would not be surprised that some of them found their way onto my electronic-mail list, as well."
I closed my letter with an offer to close our correspondence on this particular point: "As far as I am concerned, my spat with Andrew is behind us." Nick is a busy man, and it makes little sense to occupy him with matters like this one any longer. Besides, there will be more important things to discuss in the future.
Addendum III (October 10, 2000)
I circulated this piece, including the last addendum, only yesterday. Billy Childish responded within minutes: "I'm surprised you are pandering to Sir Nick, who seems to be quite arrogant and is responsible for promoting complete rubbish as art." I responded within minutes, as well:
"In my defence, I can only repeat the last sentence of my second addendum: I am saving Nick for bigger and better things. And I mean it. If you wish, he is good at what he does. Very good. To use Dostoevsky's term, he is the Grand Inquisitor of the art world here and elsewhere. Nick will play that r™le well, I am sure. In some sense, we need him. We need someone of his size in the other corner of the ring, as it were. I am doing my best to keep him engaged in the meanwhile. And that is why I may sometimes appear to be pandering to him."
Today I found Billy's reply, which was sent yesterday:
"Your analogy to the Grand Inquisitor is perfect. I agree, but we must speak from our hearts. I am always saying to Charles [Thomson, R.B.] that the ends don't justify the means. We must offer better and we must proclaim it. There will be a new spirituality in life and art, and we should be careful about dancing with the Devil, no matter how much fun it may be."
Then he added a post scriptum: "Your standing up for yourself with old Nick was excellent. Please do it for me when the time comes." My response follows:
"I am glad we are in agreement on Nick and on what is to be done. As for standing up for you with the Grand Inquisitor when the time comes, you have my word. By the way, I am casting for Jesus. Interested?"
The last bit may sound ironical, but it is not. Billy does speak from the heart. He does believe that art ought to serve a higher or better purpose. This is where we agree. Indeed, the last bit of our correspondence on this score reflects is about this very point. "I like your humor," he wrote, "but you know that I am quite serious on the matter of soul searching." I reassured him immediately: "I know, I know. Don' worry." With some luck, we may indeed do something together. I can only hope that that something would usher a new spirituality in life and art.
Addendum IV (October 31, 2000)
There is nothing of substance to add here, but there are a couple of humorous things that complete the story quite nicely. After all, the story needs a fitting end. To begin with, Nick's secretary, Lynn Murfitt, sent me on October 10 a very polite letter addressing me as Professor Bon, acknowledging safe receipt of my letter of September 28, and informing me that she should ensure that Nick sees it at the earliest opportunity when he returns to the office on October 17. I was delighted by the whole thing. Anyway, Nick apparently agrees with me that my spat with Andrew does not deserve any additional correspondence. Otherwise, his letter would have been with me by now.
The second humorous thing is even funnier. I bumped into Andrew Brighton at the opening of the Turner Prize show on October 24. Actually, I spotted him from some distance and took a bee-line toward him wearing the biggest grin I could muster. He was talking quietly with another fellow. "How are you doing?" I slapped Andrew's shoulder. "Oh," he looked at me blankly, "hi." Then he turned back to the other fellow. "See you later!" I exclaimed happily and departed. In terms of the polite society, he had snubbed me. Alternatively, he was simply baffled by my incongruous behavior. Later on, every time I would spot him in the crowd, I would wave at him or stick my thumb up victoriously. And I would keep grinning.
When the webmistress of the Stuckist site (www.stuckism.com) and a Stuckist in her own right, Ella Guru, bumped yesterday into Nick Serota at Waitrose in Holloway, she was struck by two things. First, she found him to be incredibly skinny, almost emaciated. She remembered my mentioning his bony shoulders in my recent piece about hugging him at the opening of the Turner Prize Show in Tate Britain. Second, when she approached him and introduced herself as a Stuckist, she found him incredibly friendly. Like I had done at the Tate, she mentioned to him how much he looked like his portrait by Charles Thomson. Just as before, he said earnestly that he had to see it. In fact, Nick told Ella that he was planning to visit the Real Turner Prize Show in Pure Gallery that very day. He even asked her how he should recognize her paintings at the show. When she sent me her account of the meeting this morning, which she took from her diary, I immediately replied that Nick was truly a nice guy and no mistake. The funny thing about my reaction is that I take a personal satisfaction from any praise of the Tate's director as though I am his, well, maker.
Addendum (October 31, 2000)
Ella wrote to me today in response to the last addendum to "On Hectoring," which I circulated to the "Let's Make Art!" list this morning. She wanted to know who Andrew Brighton was and whether or not I knew him personally. But then she added that she wondered how Billy Childish would see my piece about her "laughing with Satan" in a supermarket. I responded that Andrew was responsible for education at Tate Modern and that I knew him rather well from several art events, but then I turned to her other, more important, concern:
"Do not worry about Billy's reaction to your encounter with Nick. Billy is playing his part well. And he is playing it from the heart, which is why I love the guy. Most of us cannot pull it off, no matter how much we try. It is difficult for most of us to be sure about boundaries between principles and play, between play and complicity, between complicity and travesty. The Billy versus Tracey thing, including the upcoming show at Pure Gallery, is important because it deals with departure from principles, from the heart. This is where Billy has managed to survive the temptations which are destroying Tracey. And the temptations are many."
The upcoming show at Pure Gallery, where the Real Turner Prize is currently on show, will open on November 7. It will feature photographs of Billy and Tracey from the 1980s, when they used to live together. I have seen only one of them, which I received together with the invitation to the event. It shows Tracey kneeling on a bed in the foreground and Billy standing behind the bed. She is heavily made up and dressed like a tramp, but she is still fresh, open, plump, full of life. Billy looks pretty much like he does today, plus a few wrinkles and minus his now obligatory hat. Yes, one can easily imagine them very much in love.
Addendum II (November 2, 2000)
Billy Childish responded almost immediately to my addendum, as he nearly always does. His words really touched me. I first thought of sharing them with everyone on the "Let's Make Art!" list, but then I decided against it. I can think of two reasons for my hesitation. On the one hand, I was afraid the quick succession of too many of my electronic postcards would annoy some people on the list. As it is, many of those who have asked me to remove their names from it have complained about not being able to digest everything I was sending around. "Too much traffic," was a common complaint. On the other hand, I was worried that Billy's words would sound a bit too close to the script, as it were. It took me a couple of days to make up my mind. In the end, I realized I was being silly.
Billy begins by saying that he does not think of Nick as Satan, but that the name fits. By the way, Charles Thomson wrote about this connection, as well. As for myself, this was the first time I heard that the devil was called Nick. This is something peculiar to the British isles, I suppose. At any rate, Billy quickly proceeds to his relationship with Tracey: "I pray for Tracey with love, and I pray for us all with love." And then he concludes: "All will be well, for we are, after all, one." For some reason, I was truly touched by these words. Few people would have the guts to use such language today. Besides, he wrote these words without hesitation, without thinking, without wasting any time. As he would put it, he wrote them from the heart.
As I already said, or perhaps confessed, at first I did not have the guts to share these words with others, let alone utter them myself. That was perhaps the greatest surprise in all this. To me, at least, but perhaps not to Billy. There is a genuine prophet in him, and I find myself listening to him ever more attentively. His words to me a couple of weeks back, "your sarcasm will get you," still ring in my ears.