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How my future caught up with the past

Financial Times, 7 June 2007

Art has the power to disrupt our relationship with the everyday. So does having your first child – I now live in a permanent state of immanence

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future recently. Four weeks ago, my partner Jenny and I had our first child – a boy called Milo. I am elated, of course, but also conscious that the horizon of my world has contracted to match his – Jenny and I now live in a permanent state of immanence dominated by the prospect of the next feed or nappy change.

At the same time, the ICA is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and I am thinking how best to mark the past of an institution founded in 1947 on the premise that contemporary art, culture and ideas could build a better future for war-scarred Britain. One of our answers was to ask 60 of today’s brightest creative minds to take a photo that, to them, represents “tomorrow”. These have been compiled into a book and exhibition with contributions from Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers, Amy Winehouse, Beth Ditto, Monica Ali and others. Responses range from the abstract and occasionally apocalyptic to the deeply personal. My photo falls into the latter category – a close-cropped image of Jenny’s pregnant stomach shot a few days before Milo’s arrival. Corny, maybe. But a presentiment, as it turns out, of days to come with my future wedded to his.

Font of madness

At dinner with the author Dave Eggers and Valentino Deng, one of the lost boys of Sudan. At six, caught in the country’s civil war, he walked 800 miles to safety in Ethiopia before making it to America as a refugee. Eggers has written Deng’s story, and although it’s a true-to-life account of his travails, he’s keen to make clear that What Is the What is a novel, not a memoir. I am reminded of the first time I met Eggers, shortly after the publication of his first book, the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I asked him if he’d ever write another such biographical work. A look of pure horror crossed his face. It was some time before I understood what was behind his expression. By then, I’d written a memoir of my own, Black Gold of the Sun. Prior to publication I sent a proof copy to my parents, who featured at length through the book based on interviews I’d carried out with them. Their response was less enthusiastic than I’d anticipated. They arrived on my doorstep the following morning, their copy of the manuscript copiously annotated with underscorings and crossings out, each mark denoting what they took as another betrayal of our family’s most intimate secrets. With hindsight, I suppose it’s blindingly obvious they were never going to be happy. Families being the font of all madness, you cannot hope to write about those you love without summoning forth chaos and misery. Next time I’m tempted to take a story from real life, I’ll follow Eggers’s line and call it a novel.

Haunting images

Spent a fantastic and strange day at the Royal Academy last week as one of the judges of the Wollaston Award for the most distinguished work in the academy’s summer exhibition. Wandered from room to room trying to weigh up the merits of the 1,100 works on show in the morning and then spent the afternoon arguing with my fellow judges about a shortlist and eventual winner. It made a pleasant change. In general I try to avoid talking about art. That’s not because I don’t enjoy doing so, but I’ve come to dread the back-of-the-cab-style conversation along the lines that contemporary art is essentially fraudulent because anyone can stick an unmade bed in a gallery. I’ve always believed that, far from making it invalid, it’s precisely the fact that, yes, with sufficient wit and ingenuity, anyone can redefine the parameters of art, which makes it so exciting. Because of the mixed, pro-am nature of the show, though, I found myself oscillating between delight at work which did just that and dismay at drably realist nudes or dancers or dogs.

The invention of the camera threw down a challenge to painting more than a century ago to do more than simply reproduce the known world. Interestingly, this is the first year that the exhibition has included a room dedicated exclusively to photography, and it contains some of the best works in the show – haunting, mesmeric images that suggest art’s continued power to disrupt our relationship with the everyday.

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