ONE evening, a decade ago,
when visiting Washington, in the United States, I saw a red carpet being
laid at the entrance to Union Station which was to be visited by the
Queen that night.
As a reporter who had covered many royal visits and knew about such
things, I helpfully suggested to a brace of black female police officers
that while the carpetís appearance and dimensions seemed of monarchic
proportions, I had doubts about whether it was sufficiently sumptuous
for the regal tread.
My arresting statement. made the coppers sag in simulated shock. One
laughingly asked: "Brother, would you like to try it?" I nodded
authoritatively and together, arms linked and to bystandersí cheers, we
walked the royal route which I duly pronounced fit for the queenly
spoor. It is thus that international fraternity is maintained.
Among the watchers were hard-hatted, iron-muscled, building workers,
lumpen office staff along with an amorphous coagulation of adiposal and
varicosal-veined citizens, broken down, as in government statistics, by
age and sex.
I mention this episode because I saw, in an uncannily-realistic
celebration of the less flattering aspects of the national physiognomy,
what seemed a collection of old friends, including ones like the station
specta-tors and other representatives of citizenry that I had sat beside
in subways, dined with in delis, talked to in New Yorkís Central Park,
watched working on scaffolding and seen sagging with the baggage of old
age and decrepitude at bus and railway stations.
There they were - at the Duane Hanson Sculptures of Life exhibition
which opened last week at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art,
in Edinburgh*. The instant effect of the works by the American sculptor
(1925-96) is to make one believe that each exhibit will stir, will seem
to feel, the thrill of life along its keel. Already one visitor is
reported to have asked a statue in lounging posture against a corridor
wall when the exhibition would open.
The warts and all, cellulite, vaccination marks, wrinkles,
acutely-observed sartorial realism and accompanying detritus of life
recall a film I saw entitled The Mystery of the Wax Museum in which its
owner had the ingenious money-and-labour-saving brainwave of pouring
melted wax onto victims - especially women he fancied and other people
who talked to him out of turn - so that later they would show up, tidily
sculpted, on museum plinths.
Hanson moulded subjects safely from life, using materials including
bronze, polyester, oil and resin, to create sometimes socio-political
displays but also works in a lighter vein, showing, mainly, the American
working-class at work, rest, recreation and in richly-chromatic plu-mage,
undergoing vacations with facial expressions probably indicating: "Not
another basilica, not another shard of Etruscan pottery."
Like the song-and-dance number in the film, West Side Story , "I like to
be in America. OK by me in America", Hansonís subjects sometimes offer a
sardonic commentary on the land of the free and the uneasy. Workmen, pol-ice,
a woman derelict, housewives shoving shopping trolleys like leaf-bearing
ants, the flea market lady and the delivery man appear introspective as
if knowing that in a country un-swervingly obeying national, spiritual
and philosophical imperatives in winning wars, lucrative business deals,
the girl next door, the best possible alimony and dominating the planet
economically and militarily, they are either lifeís losers or, at most,
stoic battlers against fate.
They curiously resemble subjects of the American illustrator, the late
Norman Rockwell, emerged into seeming reality but without his corny as
Kansas in August sentimentality.
They are of the class that formed the bulk of troops who fought in
Vietnam, and will do so for Uncle Samís forces if bellicose but
non-combatant-courageous Bush and Blair launch another Gulf war.
My favourite exhibit is Rita the Waitress, who despite probable fallen
arches and recurring lower back ache, is ready to answer the great call
for prompt service and sustenance - essentially what the demanding,
developing world wants from America.
I would take her plastic tray and dishcloth and raise them as high as a
flag on the Fourth of July as a tribute to the great, generous heart of
small-time America and as a tribute to a visually-impactive and
thought-provoking exhibition for which I would unhesitatingly roll out a
rich, red carpet.
*Sponsored by the Edinburgh commercial law firm of Brodies, the
exhibition ends on 23 February.