One August morning in 1986, on a suburban road outside Oxford, UK, a giant shark appeared in the roof of a small terraced house. Plunged head-first inside the slate-tiled attic, tail thrashing at the sky, this fibreglass monster was made by local artist John Buckley. He erected it in secrecy as an untitled, oblique symbol of anger at the existential threat of nuclear war. (This was pre-Glasnost, the era of Chernobyl and the Greenham Common protests.) Like all sharks, it snuck in without asking first. Local residents were divided about this new addition to Oxford’s dreaming spires, and the city council tried to have it removed, first on safety grounds, then for planning violations. A battle ensued, and the council backed-down. (You try fighting an angry predator trapped in the attic.) ‘The Headington Shark’, as it’s referred to locally, has remained there ever since.
I grew up nearby, and have passed this small-town Jaws so many times that it has become unremarkable, practically invisible. Yet what an odd sight it must have been for people seeing it in 1986 – years before Damien Hirst turned a taxidermied shark into an icon, decades before pop-comical sculpture like this became more common, the kind of spectacle you might find on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, or commissioned by the Public Art Fund for a New York plaza. Noticing the shark on a recent trip home reminded me of a question a student once posed: ‘When does a work of art happen?’ Firstly, in the moment of its production, I think. Secondly, when it meets its audience. After that, a work of art might continue to resonate, or it can stop ‘happening’, instead drifting into intellectual obsolescence for years, left to gather dust on the shelf until either the times change and it slips back into conversation again, or until a younger generation comes along, blows off the dust and finds something altogether new to appreciate in it.
As a child, I simply thought ‘The Headington Shark’ was funny, and couldn’t believe more people didn’t have giant fish in their roofs. In my 20s, as a new-born mewling art critic, I snottily dismissed it as a one-liner, a tiresome pun. Today, my feelings have changed again. Now that a demented, orange-skinned man-baby is only one tantrum away from firing the US nuclear arsenal at the offices of the New York Times, I have more empathy for Buckley’s gesture of frustration. These changing opinions signal little more than evolutions in my knowledge and maturity, conditioned by social and political circumstance. Or, you could say, I have a deeper appreciation for the laws of perspective.
If you commit to working in a particular field – say, the art world, whatever that designation means these days – you are committing your values to a process of perspectival distortion. The more deeply involved you become in a scene, the more that scene’s objects – and ideas, people, ways of speaking and doing – appear larger in size than they really are. Their importance increases because they come to play an integral part in your life and work. This can be a good thing: it’s why people care about what they do, why they spend time and energy making things or helping others to realize projects. It’s why, in part, the arts survive: because a bunch of people with an out-of-whack sense of what’s important believe art is worth devoting their lives to. Yet, this distorted perspective can be problematic, too. As Meat Loaf reminds us: ‘Objects in the rear-view mirror may appear closer than they really are.’ Hieratic scaling makes certain people or ideas assume an importance they should not have. Professional interactions and obligations make you draw figures out of proportion, make the landscape of the art world look like an early Renaissance altarpiece. Powerful protagonists and institutions get rendered outsized in the foreground of the picture – their scale throwing their appalling behaviour or lacklustre ideas into the shadows – while a committed teacher or quietly influential but professionally luckless artist may appear as tiny as a peasant toiling the fields in the background. We can end up venerating the wrong people and according credence to flimsy ideas. We can expend energy fighting battles not worth fighting until an appalling event or scandal makes us step back and realize our perspective was wrong all along. ‘Fame, fame, fatal fame / It can play hideous tricks on the brain,’ sang The Smiths.
Some months ago, I stood down as the co-editor of frieze magazine and took up the position of AV director, helping to lead on the company’s film and video output. The reason was that I’ve been an editor and writer for this publication for 18 years, and simply needed a change in my life. When you are working deep in the weeds of, say, a magazine, details grow large in importance as your field of vision simultaneously narrows. Pulling away from the coal face of commissioning and editing allows me to see the shape of the magazine differently – a good thing. If I had my way, in an ideal world I would require every person in contemporary art to take six months paid leave from their job. They could do anything they liked in those months – meditate, learn to bake, fix motorbikes, become a shepherd, practice magic tricks – so long as it wasn’t in the art world. Artworks and artists might assume bigger or smaller proportions than you had previously perceived. The change in perspective would, I hope, be helpful. Because even if you’re the meanest beast in the ocean, a little time spent floundering upside down in the roof of a house on a small terraced street can give you renewed appreciation for what you do
First published in Issue 193