James Griffin

James Griffin writes The Final Word column in canvas magazine

Final word: The dodgy art of appearances

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'Looking at a painting and desiring it because it would look awesome in your house is not actually the same as trying to hide it under your jacket and sneak it out the front door ... ' - James Griffin. Photo / Dean Purcell
'Looking at a painting and desiring it because it would look awesome in your house is not actually the same as trying to hide it under your jacket and sneak it out the front door ... ' - James Griffin. Photo / Dean Purcell

I hope I'm not alone in saying that sometimes I wonder how the rest of the world sees me. I have an opinion of myself based on (a) what I see in the mirror; and (b) what I know is going on inside my head. But I really do wonder, sometimes - not all the time, thankfully, because that would be rather depressing I think - what other people see when they look at me.

The provocation for this wee bout of self-obsession is that I was in Wellington a while ago and this weird thing happened. Or maybe it wasn't that weird. Or maybe it didn't happen and I'm the weird one for thinking it did. Anyway, this thing that may or may not have happened has been playing on my mind. It was a lovely Wellington day - crisp, blue skies, no wind; the sort of day Wellingtonians swear happen all the time, but no-one believes them. On this particular day I had time to kill in Wellington on my own, so I went to Te Papa. And as I always do when I go to Te Papa, I wandered up to the top of the building, where they house the contemporary New Zealand art.

So there I am, at Te Papa Tongarewa up on Level 5, checking out the artworks. And I'm happily checking out the Julian Dashpers and the Bill Culberts and so forth, and I am the only person in the gallery. The only person, that is, except for the Te Papa employee charged with standing around, making sure nothing untoward is going down. And as I wander amiably, to and fro, among the wonderful artworks, I become aware that everywhere I go, the Te Papa person is not far behind me. Okay, I think, she's got nothing else to do, and that's her job.

But when I left Level 5, to head back down the stairs to check out the rest of our cultural treasures, a lift door opened and a Te Papa employee who looked suspiciously like some kind of security guard stepped out of the lift. And when he saw me, and our eyes met, he stopped where he was. And as I walked past, he watched me all the way. Then, just out of the corner of my eye, as I descended the stairs, heading away from the pretty paintings, I saw him turn back to the lift to push the button to open the lift doors again.

Okay, maybe I imagined all this. Maybe he wasn't there as reinforcement, just in case I tried to rip a McCahon from the walls and leg it. Maybe he turned back to the lift because he'd realised he'd forgotten his lunchbox.

Or maybe, to the staff of Te Papa, I look like a dodgy mofo, intent upon villainy in their sacred halls. This, it would be fair to say, is not how I see myself.

Okay, true, I had lingered for a long time in front of Philip Clairmont's The scarred couch, the Auckland experience. But looking at a painting and desiring it because it would look awesome in your house is not actually the same as trying to hide it under your jacket and sneak it out the front door (which would be no mean feat with The scarred couch about the size of, well, a couch.) But I still don't think longing for something qualifies me as an international art thief.

Or maybe the Te Papa people took a look at me and suspected I was some kind of pasty, slightly pudgy Tuhoe undercover art-terrorist, planning to make an art-political statement by repatriating a Shane Cotton or a Ralph Hotere to its rightful place - which, again, would be my living-room rather than the Ureweras. It was probably just as well that I left when I did before the AOS busted through the Te Papa skylights even though I was armed with nothing worse than a slight hangover.

But, as you can tell, I left Te Papa confused. Do other people see me as some kind of criminal? Do I have an inherent shiftiness about me that I was hitherto unaware of? Okay, yes, sometimes I get nervous going through customs even though I know I've done nothing wrong, but is that how I present to the world all the time? Will I ever be able to show my Most Wanted face at Te Papa ever again?

Because if I do, I'm going to run with what I've apparently been seen as and that Clairmont will be mine. Oh yes it will. c

- NZ Herald

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