I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a bird’s eye view of things. Of a school classroom, for instance, so we could see how much more enjoyable the whole learning experience is compared with when we were young, cowed into brain-numbed submission, or a crowded station platform to observe the lengths some people will go in their desperation to shove to the front.
The idea of squinting down from on high occurred to me last week when I was at the fabulous Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern. My sister had spirited me there, and treated me to lunch, for a super-grade birthday outing. I was thrilled by the whole day, and especially thrilled to be able to see such a large and impressively broad body of work by one of my hero modernist painters.
The exhibition was shown in several rooms, about a dozen in all, spanning the years of O’Keeffe’s long and productive life, which ended at the age of 98 in 1986.
We had tickets for a timed entry, enabling us to side-step the long queues for this very popular exhibition. By about Room 3 I was aware that to get a proper view of any of the paintings I was finding I had to show immense tact and sidestep, duck, hover and sidle around others with the same intent.
It was an elaborate, rather tiresome ritual, a curious choreography performed by bending bodies and tilted heads, nimble feet and indrawn elbows.
If I could look down on this, I thought, I’d be able to learn a lot about human behaviour, about the politeness of so many, the boorishness of the few.
Anyone clever enough to annotate the ceaseless flow of fancy footwork into proper choreography would, I feel sure, be able to create a most interesting piece of modern ballet, perhaps set to a souped-up version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. You read it here first.
While in Room 7 I witnessed a bit of a verbal tussle going on between a uniformed attendant and a taut, fraught mother whose daughter, I was able to gather, had apparently been admonished for lunging towards a painting with a pen in her hand.
The mother was raising her voice in defence of her daughter, assuring the attendant that the child had had no evil intent. The attendant calmly responded that he wasn’t to know that and he was only doing his job.
Instead of smiling an apology for causing him concern, the mother became even more stroppy, her anger causing her daughter, aged about nine to stare at the ground, willing it to open up and remove her swiftly from the scene. The woman’s son, probably aged about 11, disowned the whole messy ensemble and disappeared to the other side of the room.
I moved on, hoping the attendant would win the day. In Room 9 I suddenly encountered them again, the woman’s penetrating voice again unmissable. Things had obviously taken a new turn as I heard the luckless attendant reporting through his intercom: “A complaint is being made against me.”
People turned from the paintings and stared, their concentration shattered, their choreography now all out of step.
Oh, how sad, I thought. How utterly unnecessary, and what a dismal, horrible experience for those children, who were probably there under sufferance anyway.
Their mother should have not just a lesson in how to be reasonable but a bird’s eye view to appreciate how a minor incident can affect crowd behaviour.