Monday 17 June 2019

David Robbins: Please form an orderly, British queue... or else!

David Robbins

Queues are the crucible of human behaviour. If you can remain civilised in a queue, then you have reached a certain level of calm and wisdom. Queues have a way of testing our belief in our fellow man.

In Soviet Russia, queueing was highly developed. It was almost a point of pride that, in their communist utopia, everyone had to queue. They might not have had any bread, but the bread queue was a model of orderly public assembly.

The queue I was in was a typical British queue. That is to say, it appeared orderly, but it was full of repressed British people who feared someone would jump the queue and they would be forced to intervene.

It was a nervous queue, I suppose. People did some meercat-style peering when someone joined family members already in the queue, and there was a strong undercurrent that were someone to gain an unfair advantage, things might turn ugly.

Thank goodness MP3 players, smart phones and mild recreational drugs have taken the edge off modern queues, I was thinking. And then the commotion started.

"Oh God!" said a female voice. "That's not the queue if you've already reserved tickets, is it?"

Ahh, the familiar panic of the London middle classes that they will have to queue like everyone else; that rank, privilege or some sort of membership card won't work in any given situation.

The well-to-do denizens of Richmond or Chiswick, say, do not want to get down and dirty with the other eight million inhabitants of London. So they pay that little bit extra, join things like the National Trust, the Royal Academy or the Marylebone Cricket Club.

This means they can park nearer the entrance than everyone else, or get closer to the action, or, as on this occasion, skip the queue. They may be able to flash the badge only once or twice a year, but they think it's worth it.

"No, no madam," said a deep-voiced functionary, "please step this way." The woman, dressed in knee-high boots, skinny jeans and a fitted tweed jacket, sailed past us. The reaction from my very British queue was divided: some wished they'd thought of that too, while others seethed with resentment.

The queue was to gain entry to the new Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern in London's Bankside. Not quite Mrs Tweed Jacket's cup of tea, I would have thought.

Opinion on Hirst is divided: some people think he's a glorified embalmer, pickling dead animals, while others see him as a wonderfully subversive artist.

One thing, however, is sure: he fails the would-you-have-it-on-your-wall-at-home test. This is especially true of his carpet of dead flies.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the butterfly room -- an enclosed space kept at tropical temperature and humidity. Here, Hirst has studded linen sheets with the pupae of exotic butterflies.

When they hatch, they leave Turin Shroud-like patterns of blood and gunk on the sheets. The butterflies flit about the room, feeding on bowls of fruit and sugar. They in turn lay eggs and die, completing a very Tate Modern circle of life.

Is it art? I'm not sure, but it's fascinating and, in its own way, very beautiful. People are let into the room in batches, and hurried out again to let in the next lot.

Further back is an exhibit consisting of a maggot hatchery, a bloody cow's head and a fly zapper. The maggots hatch into flies, the flies feed on the carcass and then die with a satisfying zzzzt as they hit the fly-killer.

There were many display cases of medical pills arranged as if they were precious jewels, and the infamous cases of dead animals (a shark, a bisected cow and calf) suspended in formaldehyde.

There was much to see and think about, but my favourite sight of the entire exhibition was at the entrance to the butterfly room.

There was Mrs Tweed Jacket, quietly fuming at the back of a long queue which no amount of pre-planning, membership subscriptions or other forms of urban one-upmanship could allow her to jump.

drobbins@independent.ie

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