Art – it’s a wild, scary thing. And very difficult to define, these days. From Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks to Tracey Emin’s crusty bed, what we now consider art stretches further than a mere painted canvas. In fact, in the Artes Mundi 6 exhibition, I don’t think one artist has painted a thing – or at least not at the National Museum’s collection. No, the artists on show here have gone from plywood panels to chocolate heads, from rotating goats to cardboard monuments. Film, music, sculpture, drawings – the mediums and materials are as broad and as varied as they could possibly be. Such a diverse range in style gives the viewer many different ways to respond.
As part of Artes Mundi’s series of response performances, I took part in a lunchtime response session in which I and the dynamic and abstract creative team Response Time guided an audience around the exhibition, subjecting them to live and immediate responses to the artwork on offer. The responses, much like the variety of the artwork, came in several different mediums – short fiction, poetry, dance, movement, scenes of dialogue… With some only written within 24-48 hours of seeing the exhibition, the effect art can have on the mind or the body was made clearly visible. The art provoked a crescendo of creativity and what emerged were thoughtful, astute pieces that could have stood alone.
My own response (which is available for your viewing (dis)pleasure at the end of this post) was brought on by the artwork of Theaster Gates, whose work ‘When We Believe’ pondered the notion of worship across cultures and its symbols. The particular artwork I was attracted to was a stuffed goat used in Masonic Initiation ceremonies which continuously circulated a railway track. At first, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I’d write but I knew the image of the goat was the most resonant in my head after seeing the exhibition. What I created in response would probably bemuse the artist. It’s a short story which aims to take the image of the goat and put it in the environment of a Welsh village. Performing this to a room filled with adults seated on the floor beaming up at me while a goat revolved behind has to be one of the strangest, yet most rewarding experiences of my life.
I hope you enjoy it. Or at least get to the end. Lady or Gentlemen, I bring you ‘Goat’.
by Sam Pryce
Note: This story was written between 27th and 30th Oct 2014 in response to the artwork ‘When We Believe’ by Theaster Gates.
It was the third night that George had not come home. Margaret did not feel particularly nervous about this fact. After all, George was a grown man of fifty-five years – he could do what he liked. But for three nights in a row now, Margaret had sat in front of the television with only an incontinent cat and an empty, moist armchair for company.
It wasn’t that Margaret was worried about what her husband could be doing, no. It’s not like he’d be with another woman. Good grief, no; not George. The only woman who’d ever endure his body odour, his pedantry, his weak spirit, his complete lack of charisma, his ingrowing toenails, his pot belly and his tragic face was Margaret. Not even his mother could put up with it; got out as soon as she could.
Now she thought about it, Margaret had perceived something lost in George lately. He had lost his… Well, he didn’t really have much to start with, but Margaret had certainly noticed something off about him.
She recalled a conversation that had happened earlier that day.
George was sat reading a beaten, brown book intensely, when Margaret entered to ask what it was.
‘Oh, it’s nothing really,’ he said, somewhat startled. ‘I just found it upstairs.’
‘Well,’ she said. ‘If it’s nothing, let me see it.’
‘No, really, it’s nothing, Margaret.’ He slammed the book shut and left the room, declaring, ‘I’m going for a cack.’
‘Oh, okay,’ replied Margaret. ‘Enjoy.’
It was not strange that George should want to go for a cack; he usually went up to five times a day, depending on what Margaret had cooked him. But what was strange was the fact that he was reading something other than the Western Mail or Page 3.
Whenever he would leave in the nights, George would say he was going for a drink and would not be back until ten – accurate enough. Only, when he would get back, she could not smell the slightest whiff of drink on him.
Overcome with suspicion, Margaret switched off the television, slipped on her coat and walked out into the night to find George.
The village pub was called The Goat and Compass – a name which Margaret had always found peculiar. Why would anyone want a goat and a compass? Perhaps you could ride a goat and use the compass to tell you where you were going.
Margaret pushed open the heavy wooden door to a near-empty pub. She approached the bar, where a young girl slouched tapping into her phone.
‘Er, excuse me,’ whispered Margaret. The girl looked up and said nothing. ‘Hello, I wondered if you would know where my husband might be. He said he’d be here, but I can’t see him. His name’s George, if that’s any help.’
‘There’s a load of ‘em upstairs,’ mumbled the girl. ‘It’s like a social thing or something.’
‘Oh, good,’ replied Margaret, genuinely relieved. ‘I’ll just use the toilet then and I’ll be off.’
But the girl had already turned back to her phone, her fingers striking like lightning across the screen.
Margaret carefully ascended the steps to the toilet so as not to disturb her husband’s club. Once at the top of the staircase, however, she could hear something choral, something harmonic, some vocal exaltation resonating from the room to her left. A rising, echoing chorus of surging male voices, declaring love to a Great Architect. If only he had told her. If only George had said, thought Margaret, that he had only gone and joined a choir. He wasn’t so dull after all. She moved towards the door, charmed by the smooth gush of the choir’s refrain, and opened it only slightly, but was greeted with something far stranger within.
Inside, several men were congregated, clad in brown hooded cloaks, encircling a small, plump man in the centre, also hooded. The central man was blindfolded and visibly unnerved. His reddened, sagging body was shining in sweat and he was shaking.
A bell tolled. The choir stopped. Another man – whom she could not see – boomed to the congregation.
‘Render the candidate slipshod.’
Without hesitation, the closest hooded figure knelt to roll up the shivering candidate’s right trouser leg until it was above his knee and removed his right shoe. Margaret could do nothing but hush her breath and watch.
‘Expose the candidate’s left breast.’
As controlled as clockwork, another man came and slid the cape over the candidate’s shoulder so that his firm nipple and flaccid breast was out for all to see. Margaret could recognise it anywhere – it was her husband. She bubbled with indignation. He’d lied to her. She had lost all sympathy for him – even as the men tied a golden rope around his neck, she felt no obligation to go in and stop them. All she wanted was to show George up to them for what he really was – a liar.
But before she could, a gong sounded. In a tone of finality, the master of the ritual spoke again:
‘Divested of all metallic substances, neither naked nor clothed, barefoot nor shod, right knee and breast bare, you are ready to begin Initiation. Now, hold the instrument to his breast and lead the candidate around the room.’
The chorus began their soft, ethereal chant again. Margaret watched George – pathetic, sweaty, snivelling little Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie, kissed the girl and made her remain in a sexless marriage for over 20 years – being led around the room, a dagger held to his nipple. He wept with fear. He looked ridiculous. It was like watching an animal being led to the slaughter.
He’s like a goat, thought Margaret. A pathetic little goat. But not even as tragic as a live goat. No. A stuffed goat, yes. Lifeless, loveless, just staring blankly ahead, rotating around and around, no idea, no aim, nothing but dead skin and pillow flesh. No life left.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the Master now roared, ‘Prepare the Goat!’
The Goat they were referring to was brought out on wheels and George was made to sit upon its back. The Goat was treated with such reverence from the men. They had been told what it meant to them. The Goat was filled with the sins they had committed. The horns, the beard, the cloven hoofs – the Goat marked the Devil himself. By riding the Devil’s back, the men were able to free themselves of sin. Once all the men had gone through this act, they were truly accepted. It was George’s turn.
George clung to the horns of the Goat for dear life. The Master went behind the Goat and took hold of a large lever which protruded from the Goat’s backside.
‘I shall now buck the Goat until you fall from it, denoting your sacrifice to the Lord,’ said the Master.
And with a singular wrench of the lever, the Goat’s backed bucked and George was propelled through the air, flew over the Goat’s horns and landed with an almighty thud upon the floor. A barrage of mocking guffaws ensued. Margaret felt herself open the door and rush into the room. That was when he saw her. His hood had fallen back, his stunned face on show. They all saw her. She stood, held the room still with her appalled glare. George sat up, eyes wide and cheeks burning with shame. The others gawked.
A pause. This was broken by the Master pulling off his hood revealing the beaming face of Mr. Barry Blacksmith, a great friend of the couple and proprietor of the pub.
‘Oh, alright, Margaret?’ he said. ‘We’re just having a bit of fun by ‘yer, we are. Initiation for the, er…’
George plucked up the courage to mutter, ‘For the, er, Drinking Society, it is.’
The other men tore off their hoods quickly – as though Margaret were a symbol of the law – and all simultaneously confessed that it was all a bit of fun really, yeah, just a bit of fun, it is.
Margaret, however, was unconvinced. Instead of allowing relief to replace her resentment, she walked out of the room, out of the pub, out of the town, in silence and in disbelief.
For she was no weakling. For she would not surrender to her lying husband’s newfound religion. For she had seen the full, gruesome extent of what we become when we believe.
Artes Mundi can be seen at National Museum Wales,Turner House Gallery and Chapter Arts Centre.