Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Problem With the Surreal

The other day I went to the Magritte Museum. It was better than I expected, especially the earlier rooms, where there were lots of written works by Magritte on display.

Unfortunately though, I am not a native French speaker and there wasn't much in the way of translated labelling. I therefore got out my telephone, which has a French-English dictionary on it, in order to look up some words.

No sooner had I done so than I felt a tap - more of a sharp prod actually; quite painful, in fact - on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw an angry woman's face glowering at me.

'Pas de téléphone,' she barked. I tried to explain that I was merely consulting a dictionary, not taking a photograph or telephoning anyone. She raised her right arm and pointed to the exit, repeating her prohibition. I closed my telephone and put it away. Suddenly, the displays became much less interesting.

A room further on, another unsuspecting museum patron's telephone began - oh heavens, have mercy upon her - very quietly to ring. The poor innocent pulled it out and answered it. As if from nowhere, the same museum employee materialised. As she had done with me, once again she raised her arm and pointed. Presumably because she had heard the offending individual, (scumbag, shudderingly uncivilised gutter trash, in her eyes?), uttering words in English, this time she snarled just one word: 'Out!'

It was almost a pantomime, I realise, looking back on it, an elaborate Magrittian piece of surrealism, a parody of strictness - or possibly, (less interesting, but more likely, sadly), it was the real thing.

Whichever it was, my plan now is to indulge in my own slightly Barry Humphries-esque prank* and return to the museum, carrying the most enormous French-English dictionary I can find, preferably one that is so large it can only fit in a wheelbarrow. I will stagger about with it and consult it elaborately, explaining, if asked, that I have to, since I can't consult my tiny, discreet electronic one.

Will I get the same steely stare and raised arm treatment, I wonder, or will the woman laugh and admit the whole thing is a game?

* "The Dadaist pranks and performances Humphries mounted in Melbourne were experiments in anarchy and visual satire which have become part of Australian folklore. One famous exhibit entitled "Pus In Boots" consisted of a pair of Wellington boots filled with custard. He was also legendary for his notorious "sick bag" prank. This involved carrying a tin of condensed soup onto an aircraft, which he would then surreptitiously empty into an air-sickness bag. At an appropriate juncture, he would pretend to vomit loudly and violently into the bag and then, to the horror of the passengers and crew, he would proceed to eat the contents. Such stunts were the early manifestations of a lifelong interest in the bizarre, discomfiting and subversive."

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