Still About Life
Pubishes in: Wetterling Gallery, Nathalia Edenmont, Still About Life, 2005, exhibition catalogue
I said to Josefina at Wetterling Gallery that perhaps the best way for me to approach Nathalia Edenmont’s work was via reproductions of the photographs that will be in the forthcoming show. So here are all 33 of them in my inbox, e-mailed all the way from Stockholm to Scotland in the blink of an eye. As I open up the exquisite images, which intrigue me right from the start, a secondary response is that I’m missing the rabbits. What did I write to the gallery the other day? I’m curious to see the full set of current images, but first I really need a quick injection of rabbit. So I switch across to my sent items:
From email@example.com to firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Bad Bunnies
I’ve been away.
Pleased to hear that you like the text in the Per Hüttner book. Good to know also that you might like a text for the Nathalia Edenmont publication. Is her show soon?
About a year ago I received two private view cards illustrating Nathalia's work. Both feature the heads of rabbits with ruffs around their necks, the heads taking the place of flowers in vases. I looked them out tonight and the double bunny aspect reminds me of a current interest of mine - Enid Blyton. One of Super Enid's 600 published books (she wrote 10,000 words per day in order to achieve such awesome output) is 'The Adventures of Binkle and Flip' featuring two ‘bad bunnies’ who live in Heather Cottage.
Now there is a passage at the beginning of a chapter where one bunny is lying in a double-bed, and the other is sitting on a pillow on the floor. It’s a scene of decadence, whatever else is involved. The second bunny is grappling with a long black boot, and it is not clear whether he is getting dressed after having been in bed, or getting undressed ready for bed. Underneath the illustration, a caption quotes the bunny with the boot. He says something solemn, along the lines of: "What about being good for the rest of our lives?" And his companion replies dismissively, "Don't try to be funny."
OK, that's enough Enid Blyton. (Is it? I wonder if you - or Nathalia - know her work?)
I'm looking forward to hearing more about what you have in mind for the new book.
In fact it was Josefina that replied to this e-mail, looking forward to receiving a text. And it was she, not Ebba, who called me to see how we might proceed. I have met neither of these individuals, and don’t know them except in so far as I know them through the images called Ebba and Josefina that have so recently been put at my disposal. Both photographs show bright flowers with the succulent yellow yolk of an egg laid over their centres. Ebba is the more seductive image to my eye. Is that because Ebba has said that she admires a piece of my writing, whereas all Josefina has been able to tell me is that Stockholm is at present labouring under a layer of snow? Or is it because the luscious red petals surrounding the large yolk of Ebba makes the yolk look delicious. Good enough to lick, certainly. But I don’t lick the screen. This is a purely visual thing, I remind myself. I stare at the ravishing yellow, the echoing circle of vermilion, the decorative fringe of foliage… One minute later I realise that the intense yellow yolk of Josefina, delicately poised atop a purple petal fringe is equally capable of getting me to lick my lips. I pull myself together - or at least I put my tongue back into my mouth – and I start to print out all the images. First, Ebba and Josefina, though. And as the printer whirrs away in its efforts to keep up with my demands, the following dialogue emerges irresistibly:
Josefina (with her would-be-noble soul pointing up towards heaven): “What about being good for the rest of our lives?”
Ebba (her essential self surrounded by an unbroken ring of passion): “Don’t try to be funny.”
With all the images laid out on the floor of a spare bedroom, I get a better idea of what the show and the accompanying book will look like. The main motif is the flower: the flower with the inscrutable eye in its centre.
It’s ten years since Matt Collishaw produced a series of lilies that made use of the skins of animals. Leopard-Skin Lily and Tiger-Skin Lily, for example. I think he digitally manipulated photographs to produce the fur-petal effect. But I don’t think Nathalia Edenmont has digitally manipulated her photographs. She’s added some sort of eye (real or man-made? - I don’t know yet) to a real bloom and taken a photograph. In a couple of the pictures, namely Lucifer and Hope, it looks like she’s sprayed the plants with paint, so she’s not above manipulating the natural materials, but I don’t think that’s her main concern by any means. What other personal-cultural references should I get out of the way before concentrating exclusively on what I see in front of me (if that’s possible)? Beginning, shows an egg, part of which has been chipped away to reveal an eye. The hatching eye of a bird, a flower, or what? The eye situated in an unusual place - the eye placed in an oval - reminds me of Mark Fairnington’s ‘Peepshow’ at Mobile Home in London in 1999. That show consisted of just one image, the artist’s eye, rotated 90 degrees, the bottom half of the eye socket removed and replaced with a mirror image of the top half using computer software. Then, in the crucial painting stage (because Fairnington has made his reputation as a photo-realistic painter), he reintroduced asymmetries so that the final painted image struck the viewer as a single entity, a whole eye. Actually, the final image came across as an eye peeping out of a woman’s vagina. To make sure this effect predominated, the show’s handout included a quote from George Battaille’s The Story of the Eye. In the book, the narrator sees the dead eyeball of a mutual ex-lover between his current lover’s legs. Although there is nothing so explicitly sexual in the series of Nathalia Edenmont’s photographs spread out before me (though in both Day and Night the butterfly-flower images are saturated with sexuality as far as I’m concerned), there is no question that sex is part of the equation. Sex, birth, short-lived blossom and unsentimental death.
Perhaps Mark Fairnington’s name came to mind because a series of his pictures ‘Without Shame’ shows tropical flowers and birds locked in a life and death embrace. The images are dominated by deep-red, sexually charged chalices of a plant-type called nepenthes. In one there is a humming-bird both about to disappear into a Venus Fly-Trap though seemingly just having emerged from another. That’s how I interpret Edenmont’s Humming-birds at this stage of my scrutiny. An endless cycle of life: from petal and stamen, to beak and wing, and back again. Though I’m not entirely happy with the parallel, or my analysis. The fact is, I could really do with the catalogue for her first show at Wetterling arriving in the post. The essays in there will probably tell me about her upbringing in the Soviet Union, where life was no doubt hard and death perhaps a lot closer to everyday life than someone brought up in the West can appreciate. So let’s move swiftly on.
There is a beautiful book in my library. Actually, there are lot of beautiful books in my library and I try not to take any of them for granted. But the one I have open in front of me is a Thames and Hudson publication called The Last Flower Paintings of Manet. The book tells the story of how Edouard Manet in his 50th year, ill with a body-wasting disease (the theory is that he was suffering from the last stages of syphilis, contracted in his youth), had to abandon the large-scale figure compositions that had brought him fame, and concentrate his resources on something smaller and – seemingly - simpler.
There is indeed something small and simple about the sixteen paintings of flowers he managed in the last three years of his life. But there is a painterly verve about them too, and a sense of philosophical reconciliation with the limitations of life in general. Roses dans un Verre a Champagne is the painting that strikes me in the present context. It looks as if the red (Russian?) rose from Edenmont’s Dragon and the yellow rose from her Sweden (Sweden being her adopted country) have been put together in a glass of champagne. There are no eyes in the middle of Manet’s blooms, of course. I have to flick back through the book to lay my own eyes on the painter’s eyes, and even then they are in shadow. So in Manet’s picture, the roses take their nourishment from the water in a champagne glass. In Edenmont’s pictures, the healthy blooms gaze out, sharing the viewer’s world, lapping that up even, whether that world is a Soviet one or a Western one. Again, I’m pushing the parallel. I’m pushing all sorts of things. But – hey! – that’s all right, isn’t it? As long as I get to just the right place in the end.
That’s enough flowers for now. The evening is wearing on and I need to turn my attention to the image that most fascinates me. It’s Family Portrait, the triptych with a girl in a white dress with a white ruff around her neck in the middle panel; two arms (presumably the girl’s) each disappearing up into a complete rabbit -skin in the panels to her left and right. It’s glove puppetry; it’s a wicked sense of humour; it’s a reason for me to dip into The Adventures of Binkle and Flip.
There is a chapter in Enid Blyton’s timeless book called ‘Binkle’s Wonderful Picture’ and I’m going to paraphrase that now. Binkle wakes up one morning and tries to remember a nice dream he’s just had. “I know,” he shouts, “I painted a wonderful picture!” In his excitement he wakes Flip who asks what the picture was like. That’s the funny part, Binkle admits. In the dream he couldn’t seem to see any picture at all. But everybody else did, and congratulated him on his genius.
Flip goes back to sleep. But Binkle has an idea, and when he’s worked it through he wakes Flip and tells him his plan. He’s going to buy canvas and paints and make a big fuss about the fact that he’s going to paint a masterpiece. The canvas will be blank, but Binkle will claim the picture is great, and Flip will back him up. They’ll even invite Rombo the famous painter-rabbit to Oak Tree Town in order to get his authoritative opinion. In fact, they invite a cousin of Flip’s who dresses up like the famous painter-rabbit. This local Rombo does indeed love the picture too, and it is communicated to everyone in the village that only intelligent people can see the wonderful picture that Binkle has painted. Stupid people don’t see anything at all! That puts pressure on the citizens of Oak Tree Town – notably Herbert Hedgehog, Dilly Duck, Derry Dormouse, and Riggles Rat, to say that they love the picture. In the event, everybody in town does love Binkle’s blank canvas! He even gets Herbert Hedgehog to buy it. Then he turns the table on poor Herbert by calling at his little yellow house, going into the dining room where the painting is proudly hung, and accusing him of having washed off all the paint. But let me do this scene justice, with the help of Family Portrait. That is, the narrator is a girl or a woman, throwing her own voice towards the rabbits that she wears on her hands:
Right hand glove-rabbit: “Herbert! I can’t believe my eyes! You’ve wiped my picture off the canvas! It’s absolutely empty now! Isn’t it, Flip?”
Left hand glove-rabbit: “There’s nothing there. Oh, what a shame! Such a lovely picture too! Everybody said how blue the sky was! Oh, Herbert how could you?”
Right hand glove-rabbit: “I’m surprised at you, Herbert! Why on earth did you do it? Oh! I believe I know. You wanted to make people say there was still a picture there, when there wasn’t, so that you could look down on them for pretending, in case anyone thought them stupid! Oh, Herbert, I would never have thought it of you! My wonderful and realistic picture! All gone! Not a trace left!”
Actually, when I look hard at the face of the girl in the middle of Family Portrait - that is when I look at her in close up in the image Sky - I see a drop of blood coming from her right nostril. What’s all that about? I need more background information before I can proceed. In fact I’ve probably already gone too far with this image under my own steam (though I blame the provocative and compelling composition for any excesses of my own imagination). Indeed, I’ve got to abandon my rabbit story-telling for the moment. After all Toy-boy would seem to be the only other rabbit-based image in the new Edenmont show. So I mustn’t overplay my rabbit hand.
It’s late. I’ve been drinking wine for an hour now, and increasingly the image Nathalia has come to the fore. It’s the face of a woman whose hairstyle convincingly incorporates a bunch of snakes. I can see several heads of snakes, slightly raised. But there is only one tail in view, its curving point just above the woman’s ear echoes the subtle curving line at the side of the model’s mouth - put there by smiles, or sneers, or both. The face is a classically beautiful one, certainly it’s pleasing to my eye. But what does such beauty amount to? Not very much according to the book I’ve now got open before me. ‘Oh God, what book now?’ the reader will be asking him or herself Well, here is a clue. One of its many verses reads:
All the plants that grow beside the stream
Have surely grown from angels’ lips;
Tread roughly on no plant,
For it has sprung out of the dust of the tulip-cheeked.
Would the verse be just as good if the second-last line read: ‘Tread roughly on no snake’? Oh, yes, I think so. I turn over pages until my eye falls on something else apposite:
Flowers and grass are delightfully fresh, boy. Enjoy them, in a week they’ll be dried up; Drink wine and pluck a flower since while you look The rose withers and the greenness fades.
I’m looking at the A4 print-outs spread all over the floor in the spare room. All Nathalia Edenmont’s flowers are at full bloom, and seem aware of that fact. But not for long will they remain at full bloom. And the blue eyes that stare at me from the self-portrait know that they themselves will fade almost as soon as the rose, the orchid, the lily, from which these same - or closely related - grey-blue eyes seem to stare out at me in their cold wisdom. So what can we do? I enjoy a glass of wine. I bet the artist does too. Just as the centuries-dead poet did:
Before the world forgets your name. Drink wine – it drives sorrow from the heart; And before your limbs fall away joint by joint, Unwind the beauty’s tresses, ringlet by ringlet.
Before you and I did, night and day existed, The revolving heavens were busy; Where you set your foot on the face of the ground Was the pupil of the eye of a sweetheart.
Oh eye, you are not blind, see the grave And see this world full of distraction and bitterness; Kings’ heads and princes are under the clay, See moon-bright faces in the jaws of ants.
I said to Josefina at Wetterling that perhaps the best way for me to approach Nathalia Edenmont’s work was via reproductions of the photographs that will be in the forthcoming show. And here is me fucking about with The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam at one o’clock in the morning. Christ, I am going to have to call it a night.
In the new day, bright and early, Nathalia Edenmont phones from Stockholm. Luckily I spent enough of yesterday looking at - and thinking about – all the images for her show, so I feel I’ll be able to respond to the points she wants to make.
She begins by confirming that she doesn’t manipulate photographs on the computer. She supplies the flowers and obtains the animal parts from creatures that she herself has killed. I realise I’m relieved to hear this. Her work is not just a matter of making decorative pictures at arms length from the real world. There is a life and death commitment involved in her practice. She introduces the issue that her previous show at the Wetterling Gallery concentrated on rabbits in vases (there were chickens, mice and a cat as well) while the new show would appear to focus on the flowers that were all but absent from the first show. But, in fact, the rabbits are still there because the eyes that peer out from the middle of blossoming flowers are actually rabbits’ eyes. “Oh, I see,” I say to the artist. While to myself I add more excitedly: “Flip, Binkle: you’re back in the frame!” Of course this rabbit eye revelation might short-circuit a few things I’d been asking myself about the work. Is it the flowers looking at me? Is it the artist looking at me through the flowers? Or - remembering that my eye too has got to be in the equation - is it me looking at the artist looking at me from the head of a flower? It’s a shame that some of this complexity and ambiguity must now be lost. But then does it have to be lost? It’s only lost if I make the mistake of losing it.
I ask for more information about the rabbits. Nathalia tells me that she humanely kills the creatures by slitting their throats while they’re unconscious. The meat is eaten by herself and her friends (just as the majority of us eat the flesh of animals), while other parts of the body – for the time being principally the eyes - are used to create the models which are then photographed, often by her friend and fellow artist, Per Hüttner. The images she creates emerge from her subconscious. It can be months before she realises where in her actual experience an image has come from. Some of the images are very private, others more public - though there is still usually a personal element involved. I ask for an example of a more public image. I’m told that Dragon, the red rose, is based on the face of the mythical fire-breathing creature. Only it’s a ‘kind’ dragon, as its tongue covers up its fangs. Similarly Russia is an image that reminds Nathalia of a distinctive kind of scarf from her homeland, though the significance of the multi-rose-headed image didn’t occur to her until some time after the photograph was made. As well as rabbits, chickens are also used in the work. For example, Moose features the eye of a chicken. Fair enough, but I’ll stick to rabbits for now, if I reasonably can. I take the opportunity of asking about Family Portrait. It’s a family portrait in the sense that the girl in the photograph is fourteen, the same age as Nathalia was when she lost her mother, her father having died two years earlier. The parents – the parents’ values, perhaps - become something that Nathalia can then manipulate? Certainly she has learned that life is a fragile thing. And that the dead don’t talk, don’t do things, unless she does the talking, and the acting, for them. I can’t resist recalling that Enid Blyton’s beloved father (Enid didn’t get on with her conventional and domestic mother) left the family home when she was thirteen, surely the main formative event in producing the emotionally self-sufficient, creative powerhouse who went on to NEVER STOP WRITING books, so many of which feature young teenagers operating together, pretty well unrestricted by adult authority. I ask Nathalia if she is a particularly creative person. Yes, she thinks she is. Whether it’s coming up with recipes for cooking rabbit in red wine or for composing stunning new photographs. Surprised by her answer - candid yet tongue-in-cheek - I laugh down the phone.
She wonders if I’ve noticed that there is a new theme emerging in her work. It begins with the Madame Butterfly piece, which is a flower (with eye) that looks like a butterfly. This piece was followed by the pair of photographs, Day and Night, where a butterfly and a flower are placed in conjunction (erotic conjunction). In the very latest pieces the move from flower to butterfly is taken one stage further, and the head of the flower is replaced by butterfly alone. Per and Fredrik are two examples of the new and ongoing series – ‘portraits’ of male friends. The vivid colours of the male butterflies used in the work seems appropriate. But the end results seem curiously insubstantial when compared to her female portraits: to my eye Per and Fredrik have less gravitas than Josefina and Ebba.
Yesterday, I paired Ebba and Josefina together in an arbitrary way. But Per and Fredrik are a pair of works in that Per consists of views of the topside of several red admirals’ wings, while Fredrik features the underside of the same butterflies’ wings. What does that say about Fredrik’s and Per’s relationship with the artist? I don’t know, and don’t like to ask. I know Per, though. He dresses up in white running gear and has himself photographed jogging through the commercial centres of cities in the developing world. His work is as distinctive and powerful in its own way as Nathalia Edenmont’s.
Apparently, Nathalia buys her butterflies already dead and dried in the Far East. She will be buying more soon, and I am tempted to suggest that she buys a few cabbage whites and has ago at Per 2. But I’m not in a position to make such a frivolous suggestion over the phone. In my text, maybe I can get away with it. Right now, with me talking in a Scottish accent that Nathalia doesn’t always catch, and she talking in either her third or fourth language (Russian and Swedish being numbers one and two) with an emphasis and intonation that occasionally escapes my understanding, it would just risk causing confusion and offence.
Not only does Per take many of the photographs, he is a trusted confidant of Nathalia’s. Often he has doubts as to the suitability of his fellow artist’s ideas. He has even been known to ridicule them - laughing too much to do what he has been asked to do - take a halfways decent photograph! But in these situations, Nathalia sticks to her guns. Or rather she sticks to her commitment to a vision that is personal, internally consistent, idiosyncratic, darkly humorous, coldly ruthless, and more. Some of this comes out in the titles of her shows. Last time at Wetterling it was ‘Still Life’; this time it’s ‘Still About Life’. Or, if you prefer, this time it’s ‘Still About Rabbits’. But of course, it’s not about rabbits at all. Just as it’s not about flowers. It’s about us.
I ask about Nathalia. “It’s Medusa,” says the artist. I tell her that in a rabbit context, the beautiful face becomes as ugly as Medusa was reputed to be, because the face is the visage of the death-bringer. And the only true ugliness is pain and death. Nathalia distances herself from the implications of my observation by pointing out that she just happens to be the model for the photograph. She tells me it wasn’t possible to get anyone else to agree to pose with 21 snakes on their head. Well, perhaps not. But if she shows the work in the context of her other pieces, then her image will be associated with Medusa who turns to stone the living beings who look upon her face.
In fact, Nathalia has been wondering whether she will include this image in the show. (In ‘Still Life’ all the works were photographs of animal models). Apparently she is famous in Sweden. There are crazy stories about her in the media every week, and she doesn’t want to give them more ammunition to fire at her. So she asked Fredrik if she should include the image in the show. Fredrik’s response was to register surprise that she who had been so single-minded since embarking on her art career, was now thinking of backing down in her work so as to give herself an easier life. Nathalia confesses to me that she is not so sure she has been so single-minded. A few years ago when studying graphic design at the same college as Fredrik, she felt insulted when she was singled out as having rare potential as a fine artist. She didn’t want to be a penniless artist, she wanted to graduate from art school into a well-paid job! But now she is a fine artist, despite herself, and she’s making a good living from her art! That’s not single-mindedness, that’s the fickle nature of fate, and she accepts she’s not fully in control of her destiny. None of us are.
She also asked Per’s opinion about including Nathalia. Actually, Nathalia admits it took Per to point out that the snake-haired image was begging for a Medusa interpretation in the first place. Nathalia had produced the symbolic image for reasons of her own and didn’t know about the Greek myth until Per outlined it. Anyway, when asked if the image Nathalia should be included in the present show, Per thought that Nathalia might as well ask me, the writer! Well, I don’t know! True, I’d like to write about that particular image: it’s been there all the time – though I’m only talking about a few days – that the text has been in its formative stages, and it intrigues me. But the actual photograph could still be left out of the book and/or the show, in case it does turn the viewer to think unduly negative thoughts of the artist! On the other hand, I feel the image is important for allowing the viewer to understand that the work is not just about flowers or rabbits, but about life in general and human life in particular. Nathalia won’t turn the viewer to stone, it will put them in touch with their own flesh and blood, live and warm. Nathalia has already been thinking about her next show, a year or so down the line. She has a photograph of herself at her wedding, the hair stylist being the same person who was employed to style the rabbit’s hair in a couple of the works in the first show at Wetterling. That’s the same hair stylist who did the snake hairdo for Nathalia. So if she does end up holding back the image from ‘Still About life’, I dare say it will be for these artistic considerations.
As the conversation goes on, I’m reminded just a little of Tracey Emin. Nathalia has star quality. By which I mean, she has a disarming sense of self-importance and an unusual emotional directness. There is no layer of sophistry to soften the impact of what she says. If she slits the rabbits’ throats, then that’s what she tells you she does. It wouldn’t enter her head to assert that she kills the rabbits humanely, and then to leave it at that. She takes responsibility for her actions, and states her views on life and death with conviction. As Damien Hirst expressed himself in the mid-nineties, and as Tracey Emin has been doing more recently, much to the British media’s glee. Perfect fodder for journalists who are hungry for a new take on the fundamentals of life. The last thing I want is to make it easier for Nathalia Edenmont to be fed on by unscrupulous and unfair journalists (I dare say she has no problem with the more fair-minded members of that profession). But then I really don’t know how I can help with that. Once someone is on the collective radar of the press then that body doesn’t tend to let go. The celebrity can even try and say boring and predictable things. But once they know you’re ‘different’, once they know you’re walking copy, then they won’t go away. So you have to work on your emotional stability. You have to get good advice, and surround yourself with people you can rely on. Which is more difficult to do than it sounds. Though it seems to me, from my admittedly limited knowledge, that Nathalia Edenmont has excellent people around her.
The phone call goes on. If I share something with Nathalia, it’s that I have a sense of self-importance that at times dismays both self and others. As I continue to hold the receiver with my left hand, half-listening to Nathalia’s plans for her next show, I’m also half-heartedly working through my own plans for my current novel. Ha! I flick through the pages of The Ruba’iyat with my right hand until I come across the verse that I feel applies equally to both of us:
Every now and then someone comes along saying, ‘It is I.’ He arrives with favours, silver and gold, saying, ‘It is I.’ When his little affair is sorted out for a day, Death suddenly jumps out of ambush saying, ‘It is I.’
Nathalia says she feels she can trust me. She can’t! She can trust me not to deliberately upset anyone through my text (we’ll have to check that Ebba and Josefina are OK with what I intend to say near the start of all this). And she can trust me to genuinely and vigorously engage with her work with my own talent and personality. That’s all! But then that’s quite a lot. So maybe she can trust me. Well, we’ll soon see.
FLIP WANTS TO LIVE FOREVER
Flip and Binkle Bunny were sitting at the dining table in Heather Cottage, their lunchtime plates scraped clean. They’d each eaten a whole freshwater trout and both had very much enjoyed the succulent taste of the flesh. “You can’t beat fish – fresh fish - pulled out of the water with your own rod and line,” Flip had said. “Nope, you can’t beat fish – fresh fish - taken off the end of your own iron hook,” Flip had kept saying. Though it was Binkle that had done all the fishing that morning while Flip had lain on the bank, snoozing.
Binkle was indeed the less happy bunny, but for another reason. Flip had forgotten to cut the heads off the fish before putting them in the oven, and so the eyes had been baked along with the rest. Now Binkle had particularly wanted those fish eyes for his own purposes. But they were absolutely no good to him in the state they were in now, all white and occluded. “Damn, Flip’s eyes,” muttered Binkle under his breath. “The Devil blind Flip,” he mumbled, repeatedly. Though he didn’t really mean any such harm to come to his friend.
However, under the influence of a full stomach, Binkle found he really had no great complaint against life. Or against Flip. And the longer he sat back in his chair, smoking his post-meal roll-up, the more relaxed he felt in his own skin. And the more comfortable he felt to be sharing his space with dear Flip.
“Flip?” “Yes, Binkle,” said Flip, who had been licking his fur. “Are you – you know - all right?” Flip thought for a minute. He thought about his ears: he could hear Brer Fox coming from a mile off. He thought about his nose: he could smell Brer Wolf from the other side of the forest. He thought about his eyes: he could read the number plate of the gamekeeper’s off-road vehicle without recourse to Binkle’s binoculars . He thought about his stomach: it gurgled contentedly - it really was a well-oiled machine. He realised he didn’t need to think any longer. He could answer Binkle without further ado:
“Yes, I’m very well, thank you.”
“I mean, are you happy?”
“Anything more you’d like from life?”
Flip thought hard about this challenging question. Finally he answered:
“Only one thing.”
“Oh, yes! What?”
“That it would last forever.”
Binkle coughed on his roll-up. Trust Flip to come up with the only thing that he couldn’t have. The only gift that it wasn’t in Binkle’s power to give him. Immortality! In his frustration, Binkle lost his temper:
“Live forever. Pah! You’ll be lucky if you see out another summer.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Flip, alarmed by the thought that he might only have one summer left. How many bunnies could he romp with in one lone summer? Well, quite a lot, actually, if last summer was anything to go by. But nothing to the fun he would have if he had summer after spring-summer after spring-summer-autumn after spring-summer-autumn-winter at his disposal. “I hear Big Bunny is after you,” said Binkle, his eyes gleaming malevolently.
Flip shivered. He knew that if he so much as looked into the face of Big Bunny for a second then he would be turned to stone. Of course, the turning to stone business took place in stages. First, Big Bunny caught you. Then she stunned you. Then she slit your throat. Then she bled you dry. End result? One stone-cold Flip. He shivered again:
“Haven’t you got anything better to do than scare the living daylights out of me?”
In fact, Binkle didn’t have anything better to do. Not until he received the parcel he was expecting from Sweden. “Hasn’t the bloody postman been yet?”
Flip didn’t answer. Because he knew that at that very moment Binkle could see the postman coming up Heather Cottage drive just as clearly as Flip could.
“Good,” said Binkle, getting down from the table and opening the door to the postman’s knock. A few seconds later and his Swedish parcel was ripped open and a spanking new book was in his hands. Binkle noticed that the pages hadn’t been cut. Then he saw that with the book had come a piece of transparent plastic with his name on it. It looked like a fancy fish knife. But it would do for slitting these pages so that he could read what Rombo the famous critic-bunny had said about his wonderful work. Binkle didn’t understand a word, and then he realised he was reading the essay in the wrong language. He read it in the right language, and sighed: everything was OK. The text said that Binkle came from Yalta in the Crimea and now lived in Heather Cottage. The text made it clear that Binkle had lived with Soviet rabbits dying all around him until he was twenty. Then he’d moved to Oak Tree Town and since that date not a single bunny that he knew had died except by his own hand, out of boredom. (Come to think of it, if Flip played his cards right, he would live forever. Or as good as.) The facts were there, printed in black on white. And as long as people knew these facts, all the stuff about bunnies Barthes, Foucault and Borges was neither here nor there.
“Good,” said Binkle again. Now he could relax about that and concentrate on his new show, which was going to be a sensation. There would be 33 paintings in the show, because that was Binkle’s favourite number apart from 13, and there was no way that he could limit the number of paintings to a piddling 13. There had been some talk of Binkle not including his self-portrait in the show. But such talk – mostly from Herbert Hedgehog and Derry Dormouse – had been rubbish talk, based on jealousy. Binkle was a handsome fellow. Was he scared of letting the citizens of Oak Tree Town know what a handsome bunny he was? No, he was not. That was settled, then – Binkle was in.
While Binkle sat back thinking about the hang of his new show, Flip was able to slip the catalogue from the old show from his grasp. Beautiful shiny white pages full of Binkle’s wonderful pictures! Flip recalled when Binkle’s career had begun. Flip had got his friend in touch with a painting magazine, and the editor had simply loved Binkle’s first picture. The editor had asked if there were any more, and Binkle had said: “My word, yes! - Heather Cottage is full of my pictures.” But it wasn’t. And so as not to lose face (there was nothing worse for a Yalta bunny than for him or her to lose face) Binkle had to run to the pet shop, then run to the vase shop, so as to put together the material for a few more pictures. The next day, Flip had painted Binkle with a dead white mouse stuck on the end of his paw, because obviously it wasn’t possible for Binkle to stand there with a mouse on his paw and to paint the scene at the same time. After that, Flip did all the painting. Binkle came up with the ideas, and all Flip had to do was paint them as well as he could. Flip had tried to persuade Binkle to do the painting bit himself, but Binkle had just shrugged and said that as Flip was so good at it, why should Binkle bother his head about that side of things. Flip didn’t mind. Though sometimes - just now and again – he felt it would be good to hear people talking about Binkle and Flip’s wonderful pictures, and not just Binkle’s.
Flip went out for a walk in the afternoon. Through the fields where the tractor ploughed a lonely furrow, the seated ploughman wearing a crown of crocuses. Through a wood where Brer Rook, with a daffodil in his beak, flew up to the rookery which was full of yellow-studded nests. Up a hill where the sight of Brer Squirrel with a daisy chain round his neck didn’t even come as a surprise. It seemed to Flip that since Binkle had started using flowers in his pictures, creatures all around had had their eyes opened to new possibilities of being at one with nature.
Miles up into the hills Flip went, where he listened to a flock of heather cheapers: ‘A-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’, the little birds seemed to be singing. Flip walked on, but the heather cheapers followed him about, singing: ‘Cuppa tea, cuppa tea, do-you-wanna-cuppa-tea,’ Flip listened to the birds for as long as he could stand it, and then hunger and thirst drove him back to Heather Cottage.
In the kitchen, Binkle was sitting at the table with a wet towel wrapped around his head. “Binkle,” cried Flip, “what’s the matter? What have you got that towel round your head for? Have you hurt yourself? Has a snake bitten you?”
Binkle blinked. “Be quiet, Flip,” he said, “I’m writing poetry.”
Flip stood by the sink and poured himself a glass of water. But before he could lift it to his thirsty mouth, he had to express his surprise: “Writing poetry!” he squeaked. “I didn’t know you could. What’s the point in doing that? And why have you bandaged your head?”
“Poets always do,” answered Binkle crossly. “And I’m writing it because I’ve got an idea that people would rather read my poems than the serious stuff that the professors tend to come up with. So it’s my own poetry I want to read out at the opening. And it’s my own poetry I want to see printed in the next book, alongside my pictures.” “Let me hear some,” said a dubious Flip.
“All right. But you must bear in mind that a lot of important people will be coming to the gallery in Oak Tree Town, from all over the country. Even the King will be there.” Binkle cleared his throat significantly, and read his poem. Flip listened hard.
The poem welcomed His Majesty to Oak Tree Town, announced that he - Binkle Bunny - was chief poet and painter, and introduced the King to the town’s other residents. There was a vain Hedgehog, a very ordinary Badger and an extremely dim Duck. Plus one Wily Weasel who was to be avoided at all costs…
Flip put down his glass of water. His knees had begun to shake and he had to sit down to stop himself fainting in a heap. “Stop, Binkle!” he groaned. “I can’t bear that horrible poem. It’s unkind. If you print that in your book, or if you read it out at the opening, we’ll be chased out of Oak Tree Town, as sure as eggs is eggs.”
“The ending’s all right,” chuckled Binkle, twitching his ears in delight. “Listen!”
“The only persons in this town Who’re really worth your trip, Are Binkle, with his whiskers fine, And naughty little Flip.”
Flip would have torn up the whole poem if he could have got his paws on it, but Binkle wouldn’t let him. He loved it! So Flip went early to bed very miserable, while Binkle stayed up and copied out his good poem in his best handwriting. He thought about having a go at translating it into the other language. But, in the end, he couldn’t be bothered, and got stuck into his daily bottle of wine instead.
Flip tossed and turned in the bed that night. At four o’clock, in the deepest darkness, he was lying on his back, wide awake, listening to the wind and rain outside.
Beside him, Binkle was snoring gently. He had had a restless night himself earlier in the week, or so he’d told Flip. But now it was just Flip that couldn’t sleep for worrying about the new show. He wanted it to be perfect in every way, for Binkle’s sake.
Flip got up and walked quietly out of the room, trying not to stand on any of the loose floorboards. He passed from the master bedroom into the spare room, which was where all the paintings were stacked ready to be picked up and carried off to the gallery. Flip switched on the light on and stood there, blinking, until his eyes had adjusted to the blaze of white. Still peering through half-shut eyes, he made out the top painting, Spider. Flip loved it. Thank goodness for that! He went through the pile of paintings, loving each and every one of the flowers, his fellow flowers. Octopus, Madame Butterfly, Panda Bear… Best of all was Marriage. Four eyes in a pea-pod. Whose eyes? Why Binkle’s and Flip’s eyes, of course! To begin with, Flip had assumed the eyes in the middle of the cramped pod were Binkle’s and that it was Flip’s eyes that were peering out from the left edge of the pod. But he’d come to see that the pairs of eyes were overlapping! From left to right, the first eye and the third eye were Flip’s, the second and the fourth were Binkle’s! Which still meant Binkle had more than his fair share of the pod. But that was all right. That was the part of the marriage contract written in invisible ink.
As Flip sifted through the pile of pictures, taking out first one then another to look at, for the first time he saw Pink Family and Russia and Party as groups made up of individuals, huddled together for company, or custom, or – in the last case - in the hope of having a good time. Octopus was a group also. From certain angles, Flip saw Octopus as a multi-faceted individual, and from others as a tight-knit group. Same with Party. In the end, Flip concluded, every eye throughout the pile of canvases represented a fellow citizen.
Just like him. A fellow creature. Just like him. He stood still… He was moved. After awhile, Flip realised what he could do for Binkle’s show. He could write Binkle out a better poem than Binkle’s own! Now Flip could not even begin to write poetry. But he knew a poet-bunny who certainly could. His name was Robert Burns, and Binkle kept a book of his poems on his bookshelf. So Flip went and got the old volume and returned to the spare room with it. He found the page he wanted and he read, to himself, because he still didn’t want to wake the sleeping Binkle:
To a Mountain Daisy
On turning one down with the Plough, April 1786
Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r, Thou’s met me in an evil hour; For I must crush among the stoure Thy slender stem: To spare thee now is past my pow’r, Thou bonny gem.
Flip looked up from the book. He realised he was making a mistake in his choice of poem. Hadn’t Binkle emphatically told him that the wonderful pictures weren’t of flowers, they were of animals? The eyes were the key to that. So Flip turned back a few pages, and tried again:
To A Mouse
On turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785
Wee, sleeket, cowerin’, tim’rous beastie, O, what a panic’s in thy breestie! Thou need not start away sae hasty, Wi’ bickering brattle! I wad be loath to run an’ chase thee, Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
The verses went on. All good stuff. But Flip wanted to get to the climax of the poem so he could get back to Binkle’s pictures, which is where he really needed to be:
But Mousie, thou art no alane In proving foresight may be vain: The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ leave us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blessed, compar’d wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But Och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! An forward, tho’ I cannot see, I guess and fear!
Flip put down the book. He would stick to the plan of replacing Binkle’s own poem with this one. Though he accepted from the bottom of his rabbity heart that the best laid schemes of Mice and Men - do what? They go wrong.
But not always. And surely not for the coming show.
Flip looked into the eye of Moose. Binkle had just such a brown eye. But then so did Flip. Flip remembered how as a young bunny he’d found himself in a field in summer, and when he’d stood on his hind legs he’d been hit with a real eyeful of yellow. Buttercups for as far as he could see, and in all directions! Yes, whether Flip looked to where the sun had risen in the morning. Or whether he looked due south, to where - according to Binkle – the sun would be at its highest in the sky, every single day of his life. Or whether he looked to where the sun would set, much, much later that day of his now distant boy-bunnyhood. Or whether he looked to the north from where the sun had never been known to shine by any rabbit in the country. All was yellow buttercup. He’d been so excited there by himself in the field of flowers that he’d got the hiccups. B’cups and h’cups Binkle had gone on about when Flip had told him the story that evening. B’cups and h’cups in a field long, long ago. Flip kept looking at the yellow trumpet from which gazed the conscious eye. And as Flip blinked, he saw that the bloom was himself. And as he blinked again, he saw that the wonderful flower was Binkle. And he felt sorrow – and soaring joy - for them both. And for each and every soul in Oak Tree Town and beyond.
Now would Flip get some sleep? Now would he live forever?
Duncan McLaren is the author of Personal Delivery, a blend of autobiography, fiction and contemporary art published by Quartet (London) in 1998. He has since written widely about contemporary art, mainly for The Independent on Sunday, Art Review, Contemporary and Map, Scotland’s new art magazine. Approaches from visual artists provide the starting points for The Casebook of Non-Sherlock Holmes, an ongoing project of which Per Hüttner is a published case. The Strangled Cry of the Writer-in-Residence, an investigation into the sexuality and creativity of several famous late-Victorian writers, is currently with his agent.