Of Chairs and Pomeranians

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Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 “Chair With Pipe,” on view at Britain’s National Gallery in London. (via Wikimedia Commons) The National Gallery Photographi

How to grapple with London these days, when the best and the worst of those who govern over us seem to lack both competence and conviction, and the mood is one which could only be described as post-imperial and post-hope, in the setting of a hell-bound world on the uncontrollable downward spin?

A distraction might help. Let us begin with a scattering of chairs and Pomeranians in a smattering of late winter sunshine. 

On the first Sunday of every month, a meeting of Pomeranians and their owners takes place in Kensington Gardens, just behind the Albert Memorial, on the long, sweeping tract of grass that takes you up to the doors of an elegant 1920s tea room which became, some years ago, the Serpentine Gallery. 

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A gathering of Pomeranians and their owners takes place in London’s Kensington Gardens (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

It is here that the owners all bring them, to the very edge of the gallery’s railings, to see and be seen, ridiculous fluff-balls of varying sizes, in the colors of candy floss, meringues, and other fetching tints. The dogs snap, interweave, ruff and gruff, and, as a special treat, lingeringly adore the rich aroma of the nearest, dearest and most companionable anus. 

It is all such a romp of an hour or two, for dogs and humans.

As I queue patiently to see the Barbara Kruger retrospective at the Serpentine, I notice that a couple of these scampish dogs have roared past the young man who is standing with his clipboard outside the double doors of the gallery, guiding a few of the unticketed in as others leave. 

Seconds later they are out again, fondly shooed away. Would they have made much of the Barbara Kruger retrospective, had they been allocated their moment?

Kruger’s work is very excitable, too, forever on the twist and the turn, amusing, intelligent, and highly provocative. Those two dogs would have enjoyed most of all the central gallery, beneath the dome, which has been transformed into an impromptu cinema. They would have seen a speaking cat giving Donald Trump a fine tongue-rasping, and many other text works too. The walls seem to be forever on the mix and change, dissolving, and then re-inventing themselves. There is a deft and constant insertion of words that replace other words, and, in the blink of an eye, cause us to see and think differently about the world, and the meaning of all those words out in the world.

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Installation view of Barbara Kruger’s retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

As we walk back toward the bus stop outside the Albert Hall, gently nudging aside those waves of yappy, though seldom snappy, Pomeranians, we cannot help but notice a chair raised up to strike awe.

The Albert Memorial faces the road, and it is a spectacle of mighty proportions. At its center, beneath a canopy sits Prince Albert himself, the consort to Queen Victoria, who died so young and left her to grieve life-long. Everything about this huge monument is smothered in gilding. Speak of excess! If it were a great piece of work — which it is not — critics would complain that the gilding had been overdone. And why all this Midas stuff anyway? Nothing good ever came of it.

The most important point to note for the purpose of this piece is that he is sitting on a throne, which is a kind of chair, of course.6

Why is it that there are so many new chairs for public use out on the streets of London these days? Clapham, where I live, has several groupings, and wherever you see them, they seem to follow a pattern. Little clusterings of them sit in close proximity to each other. They are fixed to the ground; no one could ever steal one. They sit at odd angles to each other, as if by accident. This means that you can never quite sit next to anyone, at the angle of your choice. It always has to be side-on. To meet a lover’s gaze, you have to crane your neck.

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Chairs for public use on a London street (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

I came across another such grouping just the other day. I had taken the 87 bus from Clapham to its terminus at the Aldwych. When I got off, I walked a few steps until I met the entrance to Drury Lane. And there, on that bottom corner, there was a cluster of these chairs, at odd angles to each other as usual.

None of them was occupied. Who wants to sit on a chair amidst the traffic roar of that junction?

Perhaps London needs these chairs as a form of consolation for the tribulations of the present. We are capable of nothing better than sinking into a chair with a doom-struck sigh.

I wrote a poem about a chair the other day. This was Van Gogh’s chair, the one that he painted in 1888, and which the National Gallery acquired in 1924, with the proceeds of the Samuel Courtauld Bequest. That painting is on display now, alongside “The Sunflowers,” and it will play its part in an exhibition to be staged at the gallery in September of this year called: Van Gogh: Poets and Lovers. I have written a catalogue essay for the show about Van Gogh’s passion for poetry. I have also written a forthcoming book of poems in response to some of the paintings that will be in the show, which include several about his own chair. Van Gogh’s chair is about the humility, modesty, and dependability of a humble chair.

The clusters of new chairs that have sprung up in London feel a little desperate and ill-sorted by comparison, especially the ones at the Aldwych end of Drury Lane.

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