The writer and artist shares an exclusive short story about feeling alone but together in London
As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.
Rounding off State of Literature week, we welcome Gabby Bess and her all-girl takeover. The writer and poet behind Illuminati Girl Gang is dedicated to challenging preconceptions about female expression in art: she told us about her heroines, as well as curated a selection of female-penned lit that refuses to bow down.
What sets the writers selected by Gabby Bess for her Dazed guest-edit apart from the other kids knocking about the alt-lit scene? (and please don't say "they're chicks"). For Gabby Bess, Ana Carrete and LK Shaw, crafting insightful, heart-wrenching prose and poetry about the daily disasters and barely-there triumphs of living today is not enough. Instead, their roles as editors are what links them – thematically, but also in the connections formed when they publish and promote eachother's work. LK Shaw's unabashed, natural prose can be found at Bess's Illuminati Girl Gang, as well as Thought Catalog and The Quietus; she edits her own website, Shabby Doll House, to publish various forms of art and literature. In November, 421 Atlanta will release a short fiction chapbook by Shaw to celebrate their first anniversary. For now, discover the about-to-blow-up writer with this exclusive short story set in that loneliest of places: a packed-out museum in London.
THE BRITISH MUSEUM
In one of the rooms, there was a reconstruction of an entire temple. We didn’t read the plaque properly, but it said something about the Assyrian Empire and something about a certain period of history, BC. We walked around the outside of it, although we were already inside of another building, (the museum), and I wondered which event I felt most interested in. The time when the temple had originally been built and used for worship, the time when the temple had been deconstructed and transported to England in the 19th century to become a museum piece, or the time now, when the two of us were standing beside it, dwarfed by the magnitude of the stone pillars, seeing each other for the first time, since admitting to no longer being in love.
In our past, I had imagined various reconstructions of us, somewhere else, with artificial lighting, and accompanied by a summary of our story. But more recently, I had come to accept that we were much more likely to remain an unfinished ruin, in exactly the place where we had started. There would be no museum. There would be no commemoration. There was nothing that needed to be preserved, particularly, or remembered. There was nothing to show off to the public. We were never going to be a tourist attraction.
I looked at Eric. He was googling, ‘Assyria’ on his iPhone.
I pictured myself in the form of a text message, appearing on his screen.
The disassociation between the letters of my name and the shape of my body was something we had either suffered from or enjoyed, depending.
I drifted into the next room, turning back briefly to look at him standing in front of the temple with a group of Japanese tourists. And I loved him sadly. And I stepped lightly on the marble floors, a little bit more aware than usual, of our unmalleable insignificance.
It felt fun to be alone in the ugliest possible way, which meant actually, to not be alone at all for once.
“It felt fun to be alone in the ugliest possible way, which meant actually, to not be alone at all for once.” – LK Shaw
In a dimly-lit corridor with ancient statues and busts on either side of me, conversations hummed in the distance, happening elsewhere, but no other living body was in the same room. I imagined a bored security guard, looking at the close-circuit camera version of myself. I looked up and winked to them, though I didn’t know which direction to face in.
There were so many layers of art upon art, everywhere. I was trying my best to ignore every one of them for a little while. But it never worked. I was always analysing from too many points of view. Always identifying intention.
I had started to do something recently. Every time I was in a gallery or a museum or wherever I was looking at something very purposefully on display, even a pair of men’s skinny-fit tapered jeans on a mannequin at Uniqlo. I had started trying to imagine myself as both the subject and the artist in the moment of the work’s creation.
I stared at an ancient Greek statue of a man who had died 3000 years earlier. I imagined him wearing skinny-fit tapered jeans from Uniqlo.
Eric followed me into the corridor and I saw myself as he was seeing me. Then I saw us both as we had been earlier that day, before we had left the house, lying side by side on the sofa. I clenched my fingers together, recalling the instinct to touch my hand to his head, which I had resisted, knowing that the time in our relationship for that had now past.
We now had to learn how to make the best of what we knew about each other, to help ourselves individually. That’s what I kept telling myself. I had travelled hundreds of miles to stand next to somebody who really knew me, so that I wouldn’t have to speak to be understood.
I looked into the empty, stone filled eyes of the statues and I related to a version of the future which was really every possible version of the future. I smiled to Eric and walked on into another room.
“I stared at an ancient Greek statue of a man who had died 3000 years earlier. I imagined him wearing skinny-fit tapered jeans from Uniqlo.” – LK Shaw
We slowly made our way through long corridors of books and relics and artefacts.
In the Egyptian room, everything was huge, bold shapes of sandstone. Sphinx’s and pharaohs and strange cats. In the Japanese room, everything was, by comparison, tiny and exquisite with intricately painted details on porcelain vases. Dragons and sundials and elegant birds. In a hall of post-war German paintings, it was all hard shapes and block colors and I read the words, ‘collective guilt’ on a wall somewhere. In a room filled with Grecian urns, I thought about Disney’s animated version of Hercules. We never stopped to look at the same displays. We would just meet in the middle of each room and then move on to the next one, nodding to one another. We were at our best.
Until eventually, in the North American room, we stood side by side at the bottom of a giant totem pole and looked up.
‘It’s so interesting that this stuff came from all over the world, and from all of these different periods of history, and they’re all basically just the same. Depictions of animals and people, all these faces, just made from whatever materials were accessible. It feels like a relief,’ I said, speaking at the same pace that I was thinking. Something I felt comfortable doing, finally, in his presence.
I looked at Eric from the side and noted the particular shape of his nose again, as though updating the memory, as though reminding myself not to forget it, just in case it was going to be my last look.
‘It just makes me feel kind of stupid, to be honest,’ he said, turning and walking on into another room.
“We never stopped to look at the same displays. We would just meet in the middle of each room and then move on to the next one, nodding to one another. We were at our best.” – LK Shaw
We were hungover because the previous evening we had drunk enough alcohol to be able to face one another. We had sat on the floor and consumed beer after beer until we were drunk enough to dance around his living room, until I was tired enough to pass out gently on the futon. I had seen thousands of other people in the last few weeks but I hadn’t wanted to talk to a single one of them.
Now that we were together again, there wasn’t very much to say.
I got lost in my head for a while, thinking about the train ride to his house the previous evening. I had been jammed into the corner of the train at rush hour, surrounded by strangers, listening to the most obnoxious hip hop I could think of. And I had thought about how the reason I had realised we could never work was because we had all of the same type of sadness, and we had none of the same type of joy. I had looked at the raindrops on the outside of the windows, as they were sliding down the glass towards the Earth and I had wondered when I was going to take on the challenge of really loving somebody. And if that was how it worked. If that was something you even got to make a decision in. I was always trying to be so smart. I was always thinking about ‘intention’. But then there we were standing at the bottom of a giant totem pole and he said he felt stupid and I didn’t even understand why.
I found him again, looking at a large golden clock which was inside of a large glass case.
He pointed to the plaque beside it which said the clock had been made in the year 1589 and I clumsily did the math in my head.
He reached across and put his hand on my shoulder and leaned towards me, placing his index finger over his lips. I opened my eyes wide.
‘Listen,’ he said.
And so I listened.
The clock was still ticking.