‘Religion is the art of belief’

In the future the Archibald Prize has become such a big thing that it needs a special building to house all the paintings to be displayed. And the paintings themselves are very strange. I walk around the huge gallery thinking how horrible all the paintings are. One of them has huge sacks of paint hanging off it, a skin forming over the still liquid oil paint underneath. It has not had time to dry before the exhibit. The globs of paint are so large that viewers are encouraged to press the sacks of paint hanging off the painting with their hands, which I do, and it feels a little like sagging flesh. This would be fine if the painting were even a little bit realistic, but it’s not—in fact it’s a mess of abstraction, not really a portrait at all. And I also notice that the paintings are all huge. Doesn’t anyone make small paintings any more? I talk to someone at the exhibition who asks me if I’ve seen the good ones yet, and he points to some inner rooms where all the good paintings are on exhibit. When I go into the rooms all the paintings are still depressing, and even bigger than the ones in the surrounding part of the exhibition. I move quickly through all the rooms, just to be sure there isn’t anything good, and finally come to the biggest room of all—it’s the size of an aircraft hangar! There is only one ‘painting’ in it, a large triptych that occupies every inch of a gigantic wall. As I enter—through the wall on which it is hanging—I am dwarfed by it, and as I look up I see that there are threads or ropes hanging off it, as though it has been stitched together and somehow tied to the wall. This gigantic room isn’t empty. There are enormous ottomans, which seem to be at least thirty feet square and made of red leather, placed around the room so that whole families can jump on them, lie back and look at the big painting. I lie down on one of the ottomans, alone. Everyone one else is just wandering about the exhibition, confused, staring up at the big painting. This is really horrible. I have to get out of here. I leave through a corridor that leads me into a place that feels like a great stone bunker, but I recognise it instantly as the Vatican. I look through a door into a red room that has a small chapel set up in the corner opposite the door I have stuck my head through. A priest is performing mass and some little altar boys are singing their hearts out. I can’t see where the music is coming from but it’s very good. I notice that there aren’t many people in the red room, just a half a dozen or so, dotted here and there, and the mass appears to be for the benefit of the one person who is kneeling, with his back to me, as I enter and take a seat. He is getting up, and as he stands I notice that he is wearing a white cassock, and when he straightens up I see he has a white mitre on his head. Oh, it’s the pope—Benedict!—but he’s already looking very old. It is really the singing that is most beautiful and, as it stops, I’m overwhelmed by the beauty and strangeness of it. My head in my hands, I think about how awful modern art is, what a useless lot of rubbish. A piece of paper scrunched up and left lying on a windowsill. A pattern of bricks. Lead pipes trying to be portrait of someone. The pope is walking by and making his way to a nearby elevator, until he sees that I’m upset and comes over to me. He puts his hand under my chin. I am expected to say something, to explain. “I didn’t understand,” I say. “Religion is the art of belief.” He goes off and, with nothing left for me to do here, I have to go, too. It is easy to get out. In fact, I’m surprised that the exit leads directly outdoors, and that there’s a wire fence, with razor wire on top, very near by. Pasolini would be impressed… There must be poor suburbs just on the other side. I know exactly where I am, and can even picture in my mind where this strange, quick exit from the Vatican was located: St Peter’s hung like a horseshoe on the wall, its arms hanging downwards, the exit I emerged from was just on the right shoulder. It’s so desolate out here. Maybe I should just duck back in?


Published as ‘Four events while sleeping’, incorporating ‘Poetry is a small house’, ‘Religion is the art of belief’, ‘Martial art, sans art’ and ‘The program’, FIVE:2:ONE print edition, August 2017.
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