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Last week at an exhibition at the Royal British Society of Sculptors I found myself walking in a pair of shoes made out of butter. It was butter that had been in the freezer all night, great blocks of it, tied on with green ribbons, salted. The sensation underfoot was unpleasant, both oily and oddly dry, the walking almost impossible until you tried to skate clutching on to someone, which did feel merry – especially as you thanked God it wasn’t you who’d have to clean the floor. I could almost hear my poor legs remonstrating with me, “You make us walk on stilts all the days of our lives and now this? Are you having a laugh?”
The show was Season for Falling by the artist Amy Sharrocks, whom I have known since we were babies. Falling, she feels strongly, is something we should all practise, a great life skill we ought to grow. To fall, without fear and unabashedly, can be a good thing. Children fall and what of it? But as adolescents, as adults, there is so much emphasis on being vertical, such high demand for uprightness, which can cramp our style like a stiff broom handle in the lining of our coats, that there is nowhere to go to flop and flounder.
In the back gallery three tall stepladders were balanced on top of each other, without fixings, like a giant Meccano giraffe daring you to find them dangerous. (One of them had its feet wrapped in gaffer tape, which gave them the appearance of being bandaged.) There were video installations of the artist falling out of a pink blossom tree on to grass, and falling into the Serpentine in all her clothes and shoes in front of startled onlookers. There were photographs of people who had taken part in organised falls, who agreed to drop suddenly during a walk and be caught by the 20 other co-walkers, or to descend from a modest height on to a padded crash mat and see how it felt.
“It is important that people don’t regroup too quickly after a fall,” Sharrocks said. “To feel it and own it, not to hurry to make it all better. During the group fall everyone has to make a huge effort not to rush to upright people but to let people flop and be down. And we all enjoy the fellow feeling and the humility and the trust. Even after a five-inch fall people can experience profound thoughts, think of all the sad things they have been dealing with; bereavement, disappointments, regrets and so on. Yet there’s also a kind of hope that emerges. I think where there’s risk there’s always hope.”
I always think where there’s risk there’s danger. I know it isn’t fashionable, but having spent four decades locating a bit of comfort for myself (I wouldn’t quite call it a zone) it would be insane to turn my back on it, surely. Surely? Besides, although I like jokes very much, my physical sense of humour is rather non-existent. Feeling flat for much of my early life, I now pride myself on things like not falling, so it’s a big leap to try to celebrate mishaps. Truth is, I could easily flop unabashedly all day long, but I am rather pleased with myself that I don’t. It’s pride, I expect. I’d hate to be thought of as having butterfingers, let alone buttertoes.
Next to the chilled butter shoes was a pair of flip-flops made out of ice, some pink satin pointe shoes and a pair of traditional aluminium plasterers’ stilts that looked a bit like old-fashioned callipers or some kind of kinky bondage apparatus. “The difference between us is that I am not falling’s biggest fan,” I told my oldest friend.
“You say that but you are very interested in collapse, in unravelling and in loss and so on, and these are sorts of falling.” It could not be denied. Did our mothers talk together like this in 1955 after a day at art school, two escapees from the countryside who adored London for its gorgeous grey? I put on an enormous pair of wooden clogs, the sort designed as a souvenir for the mantelpiece rather than footwear, and Amy held me as I clipped and clopped, whistling, “A mouse lived in a windmill in old Amsterdam.” I noticed a packet of codeine tablets behind the receptionist’s desk, and by the door there were dressing strips in neat rows printed with the word “OUCH” to take home as a memento.
On one wall in the middle gallery there was a Lexicon of Falling with words in small black capitals transferred straight on to the wall. There was “misstep”, “degenerate”, and “decline” – but there was also “flow”, “venture”, “progress” and “un-restrain”. I wonder?
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