Will Self – Great Apes, 1997


When the two chimps emerged from George’s office, some twenty minutes, two drinks, and three lines later, the gallery was already beginning to fill up. It was the usual sort of opening crowd – or at any rate the usual sort of crowd attracted to one of Simon Dykes’s openings. The group of younger conceptual artists who were currently dominating the scene in London were among the first to arrive.

Tony knew them all – of course. He’d met them at the Sealink, or out with the Braithwaites, who were closer to them in both age and aesthetic. Tony found them – at least collectively – more than a little affected, if not absurd. They were now hanging about the place, all either dressed to the nines, or looking like dossers, ostentatiously not grooming one another. There were a couple of females among them – both attractive, both with magnificent pink bulging swellings – and yet none of the males made any attempt to display to them – let alone mate.

The ‘Like, chimp, we don’t groom’ act was constantly being undercut by the nervous and repetitive presenting they all indulged in. They’d try to restrain themselves, but when – as now – someone like Jay Jopling, the dealer and prestigious owner of the White Cube, swung into the room, they would all begin to grunt and shuffle backwards towards him, arses frantically wagging.

They tried – Tony Figes reflected – to prevent themselves, but they couldn’t. For all their vaunted membership of the avant-garde, whatever that was, they were just like everybody else, addicted to the pecking order and the superior’s arse-lick – however cursory.

But neither Tony, nor more importantly George, was worried aboout the Conceptualists. They had a certain – albeit grudging respect for Simon and his work. As for the mental breakdown, Tony supposed they would in their normal, perverse way regard it as being cool. No, the worrying chimps were those like Vanessa Agridge, the pushy hack from Contemporanea who had just knuckle-walked into the gallery. The glossy manipulators of the press were going to to have free range when they got an eyeful of this stuff. Tony pulled himself together. The liquor had calmed his body, and the coke had honed his mind. He would try to poke some sense into the critics he knew, and when Sarah swung, he’d look after her, keep her under his wing.

George Levinson was gesticulating with the art critic of the The Times, a bigoted New Zealander denoted Gareth ‘Grunt’ Feltham. They are of course “gru-nn” explorations of the chimp body, the essence of chimpness. Freud, after all, said that the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego “huuu”?

‘”Wraaf”! I’m not so sure about that, Levinson. It would sem to me “euch-euch” that the soul comes into all of this, and here we see paintings that exploit the bodies of chimps – and furthermore make a mockery of their souls, “HooooGraaa,” he pant-hooted forcefully, while aiming a ock blow at George’s head, then resumed his imperious signing.

‘”Euch-Euch” you know, I’ve always had my reservations about your chimp Dykes’s work and I have to sign, Levinson that this sort of thing confirms them.’ He gestured with one of his large hairy hands at the work in front of them, Flat Pack Stops at Ebola. ‘”Waaa” what does he mean by this – this cheap, essentially degrading vision “huu”? Feltham was furiously agitated and he now proceeded to lift back his head and unleash from behind canines winnowed by decay and yellowed by tobacco, a series of spine-tingling hoots and barks: “HoooooGra! Wraaaf! HoooooGra! Wraaaaf”!

Whereupon other critics, throughout the gallery, also put their rented galsses on the floor, braced themselves and began to vocalise. “HoooooGra!” The air was thick with their vineuos exhalations, and George felt quite queasy, regretting the drinks and lines he’d had with Tony. Some of the critics even began drumming on the walls and flooors until solicitiously requested not to by the gallery females, But amidst all the vocalising, George couldn’t really tell if any kind of fusion was emerging.

There were now well over fifty chimps in the gallery. Critics, collectors, dealers, artists and their hangers-on. Thankfully, George noted, the ratio of females on oestrus was fairly high, and quite a lot of attention was taken up with displays of one kind and another, but unrelated to the show itself. Indeed, after the vocalising had died down Feltham stopped applying pressure to George and shamelessly thrust his index finger into the ischial scrag of a passing female. She slapped his hand away, and Feltham brought it to his nostrils. “Gru-nn Gru-nn,” he sniffle-grunted, then signed, ‘She can’t be more than a week off, excuse me, will you, Levinson – not exactly your bag “huuu”?

George shucked off the insult, he couldn’t be bothered to fight with the burly critic over such crassness. Later though, he was thrilled to see the burly critic mating the female at the far end of the gallery, his corduroy jacket riding down over his scut as he panted and tooth-clacked, and judging by the weary expression of the female – whose muzzle was pressed hard into the carpeting –not managing to effect climax in either of them.

George looked once more at Flat Pack Stops at Ebola. As with Simon’s othe rpaintings there was an infant at the centre. In this case, the poor mite was haemorrhaging horribly from mouth and anus, the blood pouring down its coat and on to the flat pack in question, which was – according to the atencilled lettering on its side – for assembly into an attractive, freestanding wine rack. Simon had caught the feel of an aisle at the Swedish furniture supermarlet, Ikea, perfectly. The bland irradiation of overhead lighting, the bays full of of flat packs for assembly into tables, chairs, shelving units and stereo cabinets. In this environment, constructed, as it was, to determine a pre-fabricated choice, the imposition of violent, contingent death was obscene.

Particularly the form of death Simon had chosen to portray. Drawing on accounts of the outbreak of Ebola in Central Africa, he had envisioned the effects of the flesh-dissolving virus, massively speeded up on a group of furniture shoppers. The figures of the adult chimps were distressing enough, the blood, excrement and bile had worked into their coats and they slumped here and there against the flat packs, cradling one another’s heads. But the sight of the infant on the wine rack was revolting.

‘”Hooo,” George cried quietly and turned to confront the gallery. He swa Sarah Peasenhulme swagger in through the door, flanked by by the Braithwaites. Immediately all three were surronded by yammering chimps, some of whom presented to Sarah, while others tried to display to her. She was still in the full flower of oestrus, her swelling massive and pinkly gleaming, as if a party balloon were rammed between her thighs.

Some of the crowd mobbing her toting camcorders clearly intending to get some signs from her on tape. George decided he’d better intervene. He bounded quickly up, hugging the walls so as to avoid the mêlée. When he was within a few hands of Sarah he drummed the reception desk and vocalised, “Wraaaaaf!” It was the most ferocious vocalisation anybody could ever remember him mmaking, and his fierce expression and bared canines belied – for once – his ridiculous oval Oliver Peeples fashion eyewear, his shot-silk jacket by Alexander McQueen, and the faux swelling-protector Tony Figes had signlessly derided.

The group fissioned slightly and George was able to get inside the hackled huddle, grab Sarah’s arm and bodily haul her out. ‘”Hoooo” come on Sarah,’ he inparted, ‘you don’t want to be doing with these chimps.’

‘H’huuuu?” George, what is it? Why are they so aggressive?’

Have you seen Simon’s canveses, Sarah? Did he show them to you ”huu”?’ George led her the length of the gallery, aiming for the back office.

‘Some, Gorge. He let me in the studio a couple of time. I recognise that one of the King Kong figure in Oxford Circus… and that one of the crashing plane. Is it the subject matter “huu?” Is that what they’re worked up about “huu?”’

‘Yes, that and of course Simon’s breakdown … And I imagine – given the utter prurience of the press and the rest of this bloody carnival –your being in oestus doesn’t help.’

It wasn’t helping. Even in the short time it took them to knuckle-walk to the far end of the gallery, George and Sarah acquired more attention. A chimp denoted Pelham, a feature writer for the Sundays, was displaying to Sarah, waving a copy of the Evening Standard about. More impressively, Flixou, the sculptor, a massive, tough chimp of legendary strength and sexual prowess was blatantly importuning as awell; panting, squealing and grabbing sheets of newspaper away from Pelham. It looked very much as if there was going to be a serious scrap between the two males.

‘”Err-herr-herr” George, I don’t want this. I don’t want to be here…It’s, it’s…’ Her fingers went up above her head to grasp and describe the scene; the agitated chimps grooming, drinking, gesticulating and mating. ‘Like a bloody zoo!’

Will Self, b. 1961.  Great Apes, 1997.  (Chapter 11)

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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