Stuck in Limbo

John Buckley, Untitled 1986. Photo: Henry Flower at the English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)).

One August morning in 1986, a twenty-five-foot shark became stuck in the attic of a terraced house in Headington, a suburb of Oxford. The fish appeared to have plunged headfirst from the clouds, although there had been no reports of a freak deluge of cats, dogs, and chondrichthyes the previous night. Like all sharks, it snuck up without asking first. Jammed inside the slate-tiled roof, tail cursing the sky, this new addition to Oxford’s dreaming spires divided local residents. “Ooh it makes me mad, I think it’s a damn monstrosity,” said one neighbor. “I mean, sharks don’t fly, do they?” She was right. No sharknado witnesses stepped forward.

Oxford City Council tried to have the predator removed. First they cited public safety concerns, then changed tack and accused the shark of violating planning regulations. The shark refused to budge. A lengthy battle ensued. The fate of the fish was eventually placed in the hands of central government, and in 1992 the Department of the Environment, encouraged surprisingly by Conservative minister Michael Heseltine, ruled that it could stay. “The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here,” wrote government inspector Peter Macdonald. “The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred. Only very recently has there been a proposal for twin baby sharks in the Iffley Road. But any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington Shark be allowed to remain.”

The monster—genus Untitled 1986—had been built from fiberglass by the local artist John Buckley. He installed his sculpture under cover of night to mark forty-one years since the detonation of the Fat Man atomic bomb over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. For Buckley it was an oblique gesture of outrage at the existential threat of nuclear annihilation. Untitled 1986 arrived the year Gorbachev first mentioned Glasnost. This was the era of Chernobyl, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. That spring, USAF Ravens dispatched from nearby Upper Heyford airbase had been seen in the skies over Oxfordshire on their way to bomb Tripoli. “One question only comes to the lips: Why?” asked a puzzled BBC reporter at the scene. Bill Heine, a local radio personality and the owner of the house, explained: “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation.” Heine, a U.S. expatriate, had a reputation for rubbing Oxford residents the wrong way. As proprietor of two local independent cinemas he had previous form, commissioning large sculptures for his theater facades: a pair of high-kicking cancan dancer legs at Not the Moulin Rouge, a few hundred meters from the shark, and, unfortunately, Al Jolson’s minstrel hands over the entrance to the Penultimate Picture Palace in nearby Cowley. For one middle-age man interviewed by the BBC about Untitled 1986, Heine could go sling his hook: “I grew up in this town, and in my view the majority of people in this town are sick and tired of the publicity stunts of this crazy Canadian [sic] nutcase and if any of the Great British Public wants him on a free transfer they can have him today.”

I grew up in the nearby village of Wheatley, a few miles east of Oxford. The number 280 bus drove through Headington on its route to and from town, passing the shark in both directions. The shark marked distance. It signaled when to think about getting up to press the request-stop bell on the way into the city center, and on Friday night’s last bus home measured how much longer you’d have to spend hoping the drunks wouldn’t notice you before escaping at Wheatley. I turned ten when Buckley’s artwork appeared. I found it funny, and believed that more people should have giant fish installed in their roofs. Into my teens, I would pass this small-town Jaws so many times that it became unremarkable, practically invisible. By my early twenties I was working professionally as an art critic. Snotty and of firmly held opinions, on the rare occasions I registered the shark I dismissed it as a one-liner, sculptural slapstick. I thought no more of it for years.

Visiting Mum and Dad early in 2018, I took the 280 from Wheatley into Oxford. As I entered Headington, a sudden impulse told me to get off and take a closer look at the shark, then walk the remaining two miles into the city. It was as though I were responding to a mysterious signal generated by the sculpture. Like the superintelligent monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—if they had resolved that the most persuasive technique for shepherding humanity to the next evolutionary level was to take to the suburbs in the form of surrealist fish. Trying my best to act casual and avoid looking like a creep, I stood outside the house staring at Buckley’s work for some time. This Headington skyscraper was about to mark its thirty-second year wedged between the chimney pots, and I was fast approaching forty-two. A decade spent living in New York had defamiliarized the sight of it. Buckley’s symbol of frustration became visible again. I thought of another untitled sculpture I had seen, by an artist who was curious why images and objects lose our attention the longer we spend with them. In 2007, Simon Martin made a bronze figurine that he considered “activated” only if a fresh organic lemon was placed next to it. If there was no lemon, or if the citrus had rotted, Martin ruled the artwork incomplete. The act of replacing the fruit every week or two was analogous to watering the plants, a reminder not to let the familiar turn invisible, neglected. In 2018, the specter of nuclear conflict, tensions with Russia, a resurgent right, and women leading protests in the streets were back in the news. Fresh lemons for Buckley’s sculpture.

What an odd sight it must have been for people seeing it in 1986—five years before Damien Hirst turned a taxidermied shark into an artwork iconic of the nineties, decades before pop-comical works like this became more common, the kind of spectacle you might find sitting on the Fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, or helping a New York plaza art-wash its private ownership. I was reminded of a question a student once asked me: “When does a work of art happen?” Firstly, in the moment of its production—in the mind, then studio, then display, when its constituent parts lock into context. Secondly, when the art meets its audience and gaps, productive or otherwise, between the creative intent and its reception emerge. After that, a work of art might continue to resonate, or it can stop happening, instead drifting into aesthetic and intellectual obsolescence for years, left to gather dust on the shelf until the times change and it slips back into fashion or serious conversation again (stopped clocks twice a day, and all that). If the artwork is lucky, something catches the eye of a younger generation, who blow off the cobwebs and in doing so find something altogether new to appreciate in it.

I wanted to understand why my focus on Buckley’s monster had crispened. No claims for it as Great Art came to mind. It didn’t need my advocacy. The power of Untitled 1986 was in its obduracy. A cosmic joke about political agency and death that had survived enough news cycles to start being perversely funny again as history repeated itself.

The signals I was responding to were more personal.

*

The Headington Shark marked another milestone in addition to the distance to and from Wheatley. It got stuck on dry land almost a year to the day after my eldest brother, Karl, went to sea. Sixteen years older than me—my other brother, Mark, is thirteen years ahead—Karl began working on boats in the early eighties, following a four-year stint in the Royal Navy. He saved money from jobs in the village, enough to get him down to the south of France, where he found work crewing yachts in the Mediterranean, then couriering sailboats across the Atlantic. In 1985, when I was nine, he joined the team of Norsk Data GB, one of the British entries in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race). There is a photograph of me taken the day Karl sailed from Portsmouth on the first leg of the competition. After goodbyes hugged on the quayside, my family had jumped in the car to speed over to a nearby beach to watch the start of race. In the photo I’m dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, waving at the horizon. The photograph is taken from behind my back. The coast is sun-bleached in hazy white. Mainsails and spinnakers can be seen out on the water. That view of myself at one remove became my primary memory of the last time Karl was in British waters.

Our family was already accustomed to my brother being away for long stretches. In the early eighties we would not always know where he was from month to month, save for the occasional postcard sent. A colorful map of Antigua and Barbuda. A whale in the Atlantic, postmarked “Azores.” He’d telephone from somewhere in the Med, but run out of change for the pay phone. “Hey it’s Karl, I’m in Spai–BEEP-BEEP-CLUNK.” We lived by the old maxim that no news is good news, and our parents led from experience. Tireless and supportive, they encouraged Karl to see the world because they did not want him, nor any of us, to be subject to the control of institutions and social expectations as they had been. For Dad it was the Catholic priesthood he’d left to marry Mum in the mid-70’s. For Mum, the rural farming communities of Methodist North Wales. Life in small-town Oxfordshire was not for Karl.

In the Chiltern Hills, on the Buckinghamshire side of the border with Oxfordshire, is a three-hundred-forty-meter tall telecommunications mast. Built in the early sixties, the Stokenchurch BT Tower is a brown concrete column crowned with antennae, satellite dishes, and transmission drums. It stands eleven miles east of Wheatley, commanding an escarpment a few hundred yards off the M40 motorway that links Oxford to London. Our family nicknamed the tower “Karl’s Rocket.” Space flight, rocketry, and aerodynamics were among my brother’s enthusiasms as a teenager who was otherwise alienated by school. I listened repeatedly to Karl’s souvenir seven-inch record of the first lunar landing, and as a preteen science-fiction fan, I found enjoyment in imagining the spaceways. Karl’s Rocket worked to explain his absence. It stood for elsewhere, a relay-station transponding messages to and from the Headington Shark. The Earth orbits the sun at a distance that astronomers nickname the “Goldilocks Zone”—neither too hot nor too cold. I have wondered if this is Karl’s preferred range of orbit from home: far enough to know what deep space held, yet still warmed by family care and concern. I pictured Karl inside the nest of antennae, piloting it to distant planets and sending us reports from the Goldilocks Zone. I considered the sea to be his domain but for a child in landlocked Oxfordshire it might as well have been outer space.

*

The month the Headington Shark flagged me off the bus I was meant to be writing this book. And this book was meant to be another book. (Don’t all writing projects careen off course and digress themselves toward new destinations? Possible exceptions: car user manuals, medical texts, protocol for deploying nuclear missiles. Best to stay on topic in those genres.) Originally, this was intended to be a collection of travel essays designed to shed collective light on Important Topics to be divined later. Touring China with my band, six weeks on a container ship sailing from the Thames Estuary to Shanghai, visiting a commune in northern California, and a clutch of other postcards. The book even had a working title, but I had made the mistake of naming the baby before looking into its eyes. A Lisa better suited to Luisa. A Benny who should’ve been a Lenny. Writing began, and it soon became clear that I was unable to add new territory to the literature of travel other than gravel for landfill. Then came a lurch of personal crises. Significant derailments, but too commonplace to warrant slinging ink at. The urgency of recounting my travels shrank to a tiny amplitude.

Writing limped. Writing crawled. Writing stopped. Words became gummed-up and gear-seized. For a period, text messaging a close friend in Los Angeles and an exchange of postcards with a writer who lived half a mile away amounted to the only writing I produced. If only I could write myself out of my funk, like Anthony Trollope, who claimed to start each day at five thirty in the morning and write two hundred fifty words every fifteen minutes, for three hours. I was too old for the live-fast methodology of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote sixty thousand words of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a six-day cocaine binge. Eventually I decided to cannibalize the travel book for small parts and abandon the rest to rust at the side of the road.

Gene Fowler—journalist and screenwriter, and prolific at both—said: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Between days spent hoping the head wounds might open, but too squeamish to accelerate the process through self-trepanation, I started playing the piano. I practiced scales, and revisited pieces of music I’d learned as a teenager. A simple Claude Debussy composition, two or three old Bowie hits. I tried massacring a couple of numbers from a Kurt Weill songbook, but stopped before the ghost of Lotte Lenya could take revenge, and took up painting instead. I’d done little of it since leaving art school in ’98. My chops were rusty, and I kept the daubs behind doors, a strictly private activity. Painting offered oxygen when the 1:1-scale reproduction of words from mind to page was suffocating. It encouraged chance operations between the hand and eye. Sweet relief. I made images of plant foliage and rough portraits from iPhone photographs. The disconsolate mind finds comfort in odd-shaped corners.

I felt adrift. But wasn’t blocked the term for this paralysis? “The term itself is grandiose,” Joan Acocella tells us, “with its implication that writers contain within them great wells of creativity to which their access is merely impeded.” Geoff Dyer calls writer’s block a lazy cliché, lavatorial even. He prefers the term “writer’s dread”: “Now there’s a subject for an essay—if one could face writing it.” I thought of Everett, the protagonist in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Amnesia Moon, who travels across a postapocalypse America in which nobody can agree on how the eschatological catastrophe has played out. Lawless towns terrorized by petrolhead warlords. A landscape covered in dense green fog. A community governed by luck. Take your pick. I felt I was in no-man’s land, the twilight zone, the Upside Down, the wasteland, the badlands, and the boonies. On the sidelines, on the bench, on hold, on standby, out-of-sync, in the wings, up the creek, in a ditch, in a fix, in a funk, in stasis, in suspended animation. Muddled and moribund, mudbound in muddy waters. Clogged, congested, confounded, choked-off, jammed, stumped, stonewalled and stymied. Flummoxed, bamboozled, and blocked. Frog in the throat. Bone in the gullet. Crashed into a wall. Also: dithering, floating, unanchored, unmoored, untethered, blown on the breeze. Caught between a rocky trope and a hard cliché. Stuck in limbo.

*

I imagine limbo as an extraterritoriality without walls, without corners, windows, entrances, or exits. I can also cast it as ocean and desert wilderness. Or a blind-black void that has swallowed all light and matter and threatens a sublime death. ” ’Tis a strange place, this Limbo!” Samuel Taylor Coleridge imagines. “Time and weary Space / Fettered from flight, with nightmare sense of fleeing / Strive for their last crepuscular half-being.” (As Ridley Scott’s Alien warned audiences: “In space no one can hear you scream.”) Limbo might bring to mind a zone of white nothingness. A space of minimalist perfection that looks like a giant in infinity curve or the interior of a contemporary art museum. In his essay “Inside the White Cube,” the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty describes the effects of the “unshadowed, white, clean, artificial” spaces of the art gallery, in which art “exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbo-like status: one has to have died already to be there.” Limbo is at the apex of visual sophistication: an extradimensional loft done out in luxury-plain Jil Sander gray. Empty and placid, with not even a reproduction Eames chair to interrupt the anodyne tastefulness. No mess, no color, no life. No hint of recidivist ornament—Adolf Loos would have loved limbo. In Harold Pinter’s words, a “No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.” (And full of dread: “Nomaneslond” was the fourteenth-century name for execution sites to the north of London’s city walls.) No day, no night, no seasons. “Lank space,” Coleridge called it. Or is it? By definition it stands for an in-between space. Limbo appears at the edge of daybreak and at dusk. It’s a cusp word used for conversations held in the golden hour.

*

The Headington Shark made the most of its circumstances. Its head was positioned beneath the level of the roof tiles, giving only Heine the privilege of one-on-ones with the beast. The shark had to rely on body language to communicate with the public. Unable to see 280 buses and unaware of older brothers out at sea, indifferent to Oxford’s ivy-clad gothic architecture, it ate planning violation notices for breakfast. Stuck inland, the shark started conversations about art and meaning. It provoked arguments about whether one person had the right to make personal political statements by changing the shared landscape, and threw into relief the aesthetic anxieties of heritage-minded Oxford. The shark was not going anywhere and so it tried to make its intransigence productive.

Buckley and Heine had glued together two things that rarely shared company: a house and a shark. (An old creative trick bringing to mind the Comte de Lautréamont’s line about “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table,” which always struck me as less of a surrealist dream image than a Post-It note reminder to stay open-minded.) This collision of meaning—aside from the grating flamboyance of it—upset the public. A house should be fixed in one place and ideally represent the stability of home. Sharks keep moving and they eat people. Buckley’s sculpture disturbed an idea of domestic stability, but also represented a living thing stripped of its agency to roam and live where it wants.

The shark contradicted a cliché we are told about life, that it is a “journey.” That your project is progress. What was once a religious metaphor has turned managerial, better suited to a capitalist model of life that demands perpetual motion. Go forward. Hit the ground running with actionables and deliverables. Grow through teachable moments. But why? The fallow field is as necessary to the farmer as the the one filled with crops. For an artist, an unforeseen accident that stops them working, such as a studio fire, might clear the psychological brush and leave ashes that provide nutrients for the soil. Patience brings the unexpected: “I wait not for time to finish my work,” wrote the artist Ray Johnson, “but for time to indicate something one would not have expected to occur.”

 

Dan Fox is a writer and musician based in New York.

Limbo, Dan Fox, Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2018. Copyright © Dan Fox, 2018. Reproduced by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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