Ruth Barker

The Placing of Things in the World

2005

 

 

Sculpture is matter of matter – of the placing and re-placing of things in the world. To talk about sculpture is sometimes to talk about the things that surround it, even if we do not ever explicitly connect them.

 

On July 7th 2005, we were drunken and happy, camping inexpertly on an island in Italy with a borrowed tent and no saucepan. The heat of the day rose in eddies from the earth into the dusk as we ate horsemeat and drank cheap wine. In a strange moment of innocent patriotism we spoke to a passing Irishman who was as drunk as we were. A martial arts expert, his girlfriend was a boxer, while he was the best storyteller I ever met. He challenged us, saying grandly that he could tell a story about anything there ever was and some things there never would be, and sitting in the dying glow of the sun with the heat rising from the grey stones, I felt homesick for Scotland and I asked him to tell me about the rain.

 

“Now its funny you should say that” he said, “because last night I camped with a Welshman who asked me to tell him about the sun, so I won’t repeat myself but I’ll just carry on where I left off.

‘After the sun was created, God sat back and thought what a fine job he’d made of the whole fucking thing. He had a look down at the Earth and it all seemed to be going fine. He had the land sorted out just fine, and the people were all down there getting on with things, and he had all the fucking animals and all the birds just about worked out. The water all seemed pretty fucking good too. He’d put down about as much as he thought people could use for washing and beer and he didn’t know what the fuck was wrong with that so he switched his TV and settled down on the sofa for the omnibus edition of the soaps.

‘Down on the Earth, things weren’t all as great as God was hoping. He’d sort of miscalculated the whole water situation. At first it all seemed a great laugh with everyone fucking splashing about and learning to surf and whatnot. But at that time of course, He had only put down just about what he figured was right for people to use and so the seas were much smaller than we’re used to now.

‘Come to think of it, the seas were so shallow that if you were a tall man you could probably wade across the fucking Atlantic if you were fairly surefooted and didn’t mind having to sleep standing up – ‘cause it would probably still take about a week to walk from Ireland to America. There was one fucking tall chap called Conal McNamara who set off to make the walk and he himself set off from fucking Slyne Head in Connemara on Tuesday and he didn’t sleep lying down until he climbed ashore in Boston on the following fucking Sunday. After that he was so tired that he slept for nine fucking days solid without even waking up to go to the fucking toilet and became the first person in the world to have jet-lag, so called ‘cause he blamed his exhaustion on the fucking jets of water near Newfoundland.

‘So there were tiny fucking seas and o’ course no rivers to speak of either because none of the water was going anywhere. It all just stayed where the fuck God had put it which made surfing pretty fucking dull, but all that fucking watersports nonsense was soon put a stop to anyway because people realised that the water was actually running out. Because of the great big shiny fuck-off sun which had just been installed up in the sky, the Earth was very bloody hot all the fucking time. Every day the sun would come out and just blast it, and this made all of the people pretty fucking hot and bothered and soon everyone had fucking sunburn and was trying to cool off in the water. Now a funny thing; every time they went into the water they came out soaking wet and then when they came out, they’d dry in the sunshine – but where did the fucking water go? First they were wet, then they were dry, but where had all the water actually gone? It hadn’t gone back in the sea that’s for fucking sure, because the sea was getting smaller and smaller. The same thing happened when they washed their clothes – all the shirts and that came out of the water pretty fucking soaking wet, and then after a while under the hot sun – bingo, bone fucking dry again.

‘Now, after a while of this, the Earth got to be a pretty fucking nasty place. The seas had all run out, and no-one could wash their clothes or do for a dip to cool off. People started to sweat. And they started to fucking stink. Now eventually God, smelt this fucking stink, and during the adverts he had a quick look to see what was making it. And he saw everyone sweating away and grumbling about how they’d used up all the seas. Now God was pretty pissed off that people had ruined things so quickly and made such a stink out of the Earth and he set about thinking how to fix it, because he realised that if he gave people more water they would just fuck it up again just as fast.

‘So God went into the kitchen and put the kettle on for a cup of tea to help him think. Now the kettle was boiling away but the spout was under one of the kitchen cupboards and as God reached for his mug, he noticed a funny thing. The steam from the kettle was hitting the underside of the kitchen unit and tuning back into fucking water. Suddenly God had a brainwave: if he could build a fucking giant kitchen unit above the Earth, everything would be okay. So he started off trying to make one but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out how to make it stay in the fucking sky, and so he compromised. Instead of a cupboard, God invented a fucking Cloud. This cloud was made of the last leftover bits of the seas, but because most of the fucking water had already been used God had to put in all the manky sweat from the people down below. Wouldn’t you know it but as soon as that sweat had been put into the new cloud that was floating about in the sky, it began to fall back down to Earth as rain. Now all the people of the world were fucking happy again and so they started to fuck all the water up again with watersports and washing and swimming and so on, just as they had before. But this time it didn’t fucking matter. The more they used the water up, the more clouds there were and the more fucking rain fell and made the rivers and all that, and also moved all the water about a bit more to improve the surfing. And now, wherever you go in the world you can tell which countries wasted their water the most by seeing how much rain they get now, and you fucking Scots have been mightily fucking punished for turning all yours into fucking whisky.

‘Now while we’re on the fucking subject here, you may be asking why, if the oceans used to be much smaller than they are now, there was still water all the way from Slyne Head to fucking Boston, and the reason is this: The seas were much smaller than today, and so the countries were way fucking bigger, which is why Conal’s journey was only six day’s walk from Ireland to the US of A. Once God had invented the rain, all the seas filled up again but they got bigger than they were in the first place because they were topped up with that fucking sweat. So all the countries had to get proportionately smaller but they decided to keep all the towns and cities and so on in relatively the same position, so places like Slyne Head stayed on the coast even though the coast was in a different place. People thought it would make things less confusing.”

 

Later, back home in Glasgow, we sat in a pub with the rain driving rails against the streets outside. The first sleet of September rattled at the windows of the State Bar. We talked about the Great American Hurricane and the people we had seen on the news who were drowning and starving for the want of responsibility. I drank American whiskey and someone I knew well asked

 

“How do you feel when someone tells you a ghost story?”

I told him that I felt it in my shoulders and he said it made him cry, that even when it wasn’t too scary he could feel his eyes prick and water. I remembered being a kid and sitting on the grass with my friends at night telling stories.

“Do you remember any?” someone asks, and I say

“Yeah, but no good ones. Did you ever hear the one about a babysitter?”

 

“It’s a dark and stormy night and a young girl is babysitting for her neighbour. There are three little kids upstairs in the back bedroom, all fast asleep when the parents go out and already tucked up in their beds. The girl puts on the TV and is watching a movie when the phone rings. She answers it and before she can say anything a singsong voice calls out -

‘Have You Checked The Children?’

and she slams down the phone and runs upstairs and they’re all still asleep safe and sound. She comes back down and is just about to put the TV back on when the phone rings again and she hears the same voice –

‘Have You Checked The Children?’

and she runs back up the stairs and the children are fine. Back down she comes again and this time she’s not even at the foot of the stairs before the phone rings, and she hears the same song for the third time –

‘Have You Checked The Children?’ and this time she doesn’t run back up but she calls the police instead and she tells them about the calls and she asks them to trace the next one. Sure enough, two minutes later again comes the same the same singsong question

‘Have You Checked The Children?’ and as she hangs up the phone rings again almost immediately. It’s the police on the line, and they say

‘Is this some kind of joke? The calls are coming from your upstairs bedroom.”

And she races back up the stairs and into the room as fast as she can but she’s too late andthechildrenareall DEAD!”

 

And the guy who had said that ghost stories made him cry said he could feel his eyes watering, but then someone told an awful story that I’d heard before about a mutual friend who served in the first War in Iraq.

 

When we go home we catch the night bus South, over the black river. We see the black water of the Clyde gobbled up underneath the black pit of Glasgow Bridge. The Gorbals is dark. We grind past the towerblocks and the IRA pub, which is still lit up but silent now, and pass the printworks building standing like a blind monument to something never made explicit. At the behemoth of the grand and silent bus depot, I imagine what our bus must look like from the outside – the host of lighted windows with tiny pale faces waiting to be brought closer to our homes. When we get out, a pigeon is eating fresh vomit from the pavement by the bus-stop. In the yellow light I see its one crippled leg and I’m surprised because I thought pigeons were diurnal.

 

 

The space in my head I use to look at sculpture with is sometimes taken up with other things that are not art.