Anyway, you’re walking confidently in past the potential ticket-askers, looking like you know where you’re going even though you don’t and you stride into an atrium of some sort, or an oversized stairwell, all gray stone and glass, and there is a beat. Thump. Thump. Thump. Like you should be dancing. But no one is dancing, they are just drinking glasses of red and white wine and talking and laughing and you make your way through the little groups of people, and up the stairs.
On the landing, halfway to the top of the steps is a person in a top hat and some species of bird-feathery mask and a poncho that looks like it’s maybe from South America. Wool, you know? With geometric patterns or something. And you don’t know whether she’s art or just, you know, dressed like that, because she’s trying too hard. So you avoid eye contact even though she kind of steps in front of you and does modern-dancy things with her arms.
Inside, there’s a golden retriever-sized blue turtle – not a real animal, this is art – with a pipe going up its butt and coming out its mouth. On its back, melty mushrooms are growing. Around it are day-glo red shag bathmats. To sit on, maybe. The room is lit, it seems, only with black lights. Around back, there is another room, this built from black plastic. Inside, more inexplicable, psychedelic day-glo-ness. Is it a zebra-tiger basking in black lights?
And then you walk back outside into the main room and the beat is still going thump, thump, thump, thump and people are standing around in groups, drinking wine and chatting. Sometimes they stop to laugh or to look at some of the art and then they go back to chatting and they look like they’re really having a good time, but you’re starting to feel a little disoriented, a little out of your league, a little like everyone else gets what’s going on except you.
Next to the psychedelic-melty-mushroom pavilion is a projector playing what appears to be a documentary about the intricacies of making neon signs. A person is sitting in front of it listening to something on headphones, but he does not look eager to share. You watch the images for a while, reading subtitles when they’re available. Nearby, there are some screens showing something that looks related, but you can’t figure out what you’re looking at. There’s a little placard on the wall that says it’s all by Shane McCarthy but doesn’t give you any clue as to what’s going on.
Around the corner there is a set of eight black boulders. Or eight giant, black ten-sided dice. Each one has a speaker surrounded by a white-blue neon ring, glowing brightly. There are unintelligible voices babbling from one of them. Its speaker pulses. The voices loop again and again, chattering. Then the voices move through the black hoover tubes connecting all the speaker-boulders to the next speaker-boulder. The sign on the wall says the installation is by Adam Gibney but that’s about all it says.
And then, behind you, safety. There are paintings. On canvases. You move toward them. They’re by Helen G. Blake and they have names like ‘Roly Poly’, ‘Rounded vert’ and ‘Goddess’. They are patterns. Colored patterns. Like, a set of parallel red lines over a pastel-y checkerboard pattern. There’s something attractive about them from far away, but they start to look a bit smudgy up close. Still, you enjoy them. There’s something satisfying about the repetition of the patterns and about the color combinations. And it’s nice not to feel so lost. Paintings are familiar.
You begin to think you are only lost because you didn’t ask directions, so search the room for explanations and, finding none, troop down the stairs to the front desk where you see a sign advertising previous years’ Futures 14 catalogues.
“Do you have a catalogue for this year’s show?” you ask one of the women behind the counter.
“Do you have any, like, guide to what’s going on here?”
“No, but there’s wine in the room under the stairs.”
So you go off to get a glass of wine and re-view the melty-mushroom house, the neon-making video, the aural-dice-boulders and the pastel-pattern paintings.
Your mind seems only capable of producing variations of the same old boring question. Is a giant blue turtle with a pipe full of day-glo paint up its butt art? Is a documentary about making neon signs art? Are a bunch of funny-shaped giant speakers art? You try to put this out of your mind and just look and listen and enjoy and you intermittently succeed. Hours later, you can vividly remember what you’ve seen, though you have no idea what any of it might have meant.
When you sit down to write about your visit to the RHA, you mentally compare it to a recent visit to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. There, it was quiet. Paintings hung docilely in gilt frames, on walls. There were long explanations of the historical context and the artist’s likely intention. Vermeers. Rembrandts. Realism. Swans. You cannot clearly remember anything you saw there.