The good thing about traveling solo is that I can pack more in. I don’t have to wait for yet another toilet stop or line up to see the Crown Jewels as part of my visit to the Tower of London. (A big diamond does nothing for me. I could Google Image it if I feel the need. But I won’t. Ever.)
There are times when I can slow down, too. I don’t have to listen to a companion’s strategic sighs as I seemingly take too long gazing at an Assyrian colossal guardian lion’s face or standing and absorbing a sense of historic awe while studying the artifacts from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos at the British Museum. (Another great part about traveling alone is there is no one to berate my lack of direction as I spend ninety minutes circling the same area in search of the elusive British Museum! It’s uncanny how consistently wrong my lefts and rights are. Okay, this might be an argument for traveling with someone. I’d shut up and follow.)
It is at art museums where I most appreciate being on my own. I tend to dawdle in rooms that most people pass through en route to “the real art”. Sometimes I feel the stares as patrons wonder what in the world I am photographing. Really?! What does he see that I don’t? I can appreciate a Rembrandt or a Gainsborough for the fine brushwork and the meticulous details, but I tend to do so whilst suppressing a yawn. Lovely. Such a marvel. Like the Crown Jewels.
My memories of the Tate Modern, the National Gallery and the Tate are of the quirkier pieces. A Dubuffet collage (“Vicissitudes”). Rebecca Horn’s “Pencil Mask”. Nam June Paik’s “Bakelite Robot”. Sometimes my fascination shifts from the art to the people. I found great joy in parking myself on a bench in a room at the Tate Modern devoted to the photographs of Simryn Gill, everyday portraits of people in her Malaysian hometown, made remarkable by the exotic fruits fitted on their heads. Many viewers smiled, even laughed, as I did, but others frowned, scrunched up their noses or scoffed and quickened their pace to move beyond such drivel. These are the people who will find greater merit in Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” simply because, wow, it’s a Picasso.
Two particular pieces at the Tate engrossed me even though, or perhaps because, they failed to dazzle. Each served as the genesis of stories in my mind as I contemplated the artist’s initial inspiration, the reactions of friends and the process for constructing the final piece. When is a work finished? Both pieces were beds of one form or another. The first one I came across was the encased “Bed” by Antony Gormley, comprised of 8,640 slices of Mother’s Pride bread and featuring double resting places fitted for the artist. I wonder if his mother was indeed proud of little Antony’s bread bed. It was a refreshing installation after touring so many elaborate and reverent memorials and sarcophagi throughout London. The second piece was “My Bed”, a 1998 creation by Tracey Emin consisting of an unmade bed with personal belongings strewn on the floor beside it. I could not help but admire its simplicity and the audacity of the artist. I have been creating a version of “My Bed” all my life. How did I overlook my own artistic flair?! Sure, Ms. Emin’s work is edgier for she has cigarette packages and empty liquor bottles on the floor whereas I would have open copies of “Entertainment Weekly”, a backpack and the packaging from a one-sitting caramel popcorn feast. If only I’d seized the moment in, say, 1997. I could have been in the Tate! Alas, now my unmade bed is simply derivative, a harkening back to a mother’s scorn rather than pride.
I am thankful that not everyone sees the merit and the amusement in the same things I do. It means I can enjoy what I like with little chance of having my view obstructed. It also means I can go to all the same tourist stops as thousands of others visiting London on the same day and still have entirely unique memories.