I’m a smoker, an outcast from society destined to spend the rest of my life – some might say that won’t be long if I continue smoking – standing outside in the cold, huddled up against a wall in the vain hope of finding a little protection from the howling wind, driving rain, sleet, snow and anything else God in his anger and frustration with the world might throw at me. I don’t know about the ciggies killing me, I’m more than likely going die from hyperthermia or pneumonia before then. (It’s amazing how we smokers come up with every reason under the sun not to quit. I’m half expecting some eminent doctor to publish a paper insisting that filling your lungs with acrid smoke, nicotine, tar and general gooey stuff is actually good for you… only to find out he’s a smoker.
But what has this to do with art, you might ask?
An ex-colleague of mine, Irene, was a smoker too and every day, a ban on smoking indoors in the workplace (unless nobody was looking) having already been passed, we would slip onto a small balcony outside the boss’s office to get our nicotine fix. Many are the times a crucial meeting was conducted with the boss sitting pompously at her desk jangling her jewellery in frustration as she discussed matters of grave importance with me and Irene perched outside on the windowsill hammering our coffin nails. Then, one day she, the boss that is, not Irene, lowered her gaze unable to look me in the eye.
“You might as well spit it out” I insisted after a protracted silence “there’s no point beating about the bush.”
“I’d rather you didn’t come to the opening of the exhibition tonight”
I tried to look hurt.
“Besides, modern art doesn’t really float your boat, does it?”
I breathed a sigh of relief, I wasn’t going anyway and didn’t know how to tell her. Not after the fracas the previous year when the hippies rebelled and threatened to resign en masse unless I was given a disciplinary and warned about my future conduct – I still don’t see how describing their mishmash of garbage somebody else had thrown out as a pile of shite is an offence punishable by instant dismissal. Art is about stimulating a reaction, eliciting a response, or so my esteemed colleagues keep telling me. And that was my reaction. It was shite!
“You just don’t understand it.”
She was right, of course, but I was determined to prove her wrong and demonstrate I was just as good as the next man at turning out shite.
In a subtle nod to Andy Warhol and his can of Campbell’s soup, tucked in the corner of the balcony was an empty tin – baked beans I think it was, one of the 57 varieties – doubling as an ashtray where me and Irene would diligently deposit our nub ends when not flicking them into the gardens of an old folks home next door, a packet of twenty being the prize for the first to score a direct hit through a small, round hole in the bird box nailed to a tree on the other side of the hedge (hold on, before anybody starts getting all righteous and reporting me to the RSPB, none of our feathered friends was hurt in this process, we threw bricks at the box first to make sure they all flew away.)
Slowly, the tin began to fill with discarded filters and soggy ash. Then it started to rain, the rainwater combining with the contents of the tin to turn them into a disgusting, congealed, stomach-churning mass of grey and brown gunk. My master plan was starting to take shape.
Irene, however, was nothing if not fastidiously clean and one day during a brief respite from the pouring rain, she bent down to pick up the tin. “What the hell are you doing?” I screamed at her panic gushing over me like a tsunami.
“Emptying the tin” she replied in her innocence.
“You… you can’t do that” I stammered disbelievingly “that’s art”
Irene looked at me like I was from another planet, one that had a totally different perspective on reality to her own – and everyone else’s for that matter.
“I’m saving that to show the guys in the art department I really am a visionary artist and not the boorish philistine they think I am”.
Irene smiled sympathetically, clearing thinking I had finally lost it and should be locked up next door. “By filling a tin with shit?”
“You’ll see” I beamed smugly. “This could win the Turner prize.”
Irene hadn’t mentioned it before, but she clearly had an acute bladder problem. Even before I had finished speaking she was bending her knees and plaiting her legs in an attempt to stop pissing herself. It didn’t work.
Once she got back from drying herself off, I outlined my plan – and Irene got it completely. Two weeks later my masterpiece was done; where once was a humble baked bean tin, now there was an eruption of volcanic proportion, ash and nub ends rising to a smouldering summit towering above the rim of the tin, rain flowing in rivulets down its sides like gunky, vomit inducing lava that spilled onto the concrete of the balcony, the stain from which remains there to this day. It truly was a magnificent piece of artwork. Just like I imagined.
On Friday night after everyone had left, we took a photograph and over the weekend Irene blew it up and neatly mounted it with an aptly titled caption.
Monday morning we were in early, and after a quick fag we crept into the art staff room and hung the fruits of my labours on the wall before grabbing a coffee and sitting back waiting for the “hippies” to arrive. It was better than I dared imagine and by a quarter to nine the place was buzzing, rarely has there been such excitement, art staff gathered around, mouths gaping in wonder at the soon to be acclaimed masterpiece hanging on the wall.
“A wonderful piece of social commentary” cooed one barely able to contain her admiration.
“Even though I am not a smoker myself, I totally get it,” said another.
And in that one brief moment in time, my chest bursting with pride, I knew how Banksy must have felt the first time someone stumbled over his graffiti. Then I noticed a spelling mistake and I was devastated. Where Irene had typed “Outcast” on the caption – which, under any other circumstance, would have been a perfectly good title – it should have read “Taking the Piss”