Monday, September 5, 2011

Upcoming, unedited GQ feature: A Porsche to Die For, or Dying Made Fun

A Porsche to Die For, or Dying Made Fun

This is about death, cars, craft, and the power of contemporary art to suck it all in and spit it all out, or shit it out in this case. I took my wife and four boys aged 14, 13, 11 and 8 on a world-wind trip to Ghana to visit the Joseph Ashong aka Paa Joe Workshop outside of Accra, a folk artist specializing in what he calls Proverbial Caskets, one of which I had commissioned. In the west we buy Warhols to display wealth and status, in Ghana, they get buried in a Mercedes. They are crafted according to the station in life of the deceased (or soon to be departed): the Mercedes would be for a businessman; corn, tomato or onion for a farmer; cell phones; coke and beer bottles; and crabs and so on. One is more colorful, cartoonish and kitschier than the next in the best possible way. Paa Joe calls them “intriguing imaginations of helping to convert the departed in flamboyant manner to the world of the unknown while providing him/her a royal ride into the next world.” Sounds like the next best thing to a royal wedding. My coffin will be in the form of a 1973 Porsche 911 2.7 RS in baby blue. I have always loved Porsche design since childhood, the simplicity and cleanness of the lines, not to mention the reliability. Some are Ferrari people, others not; in fact, I relate to the car so much, I feel that I resemble the shape, like a snake that swallowed a mouse. I suppose as an art dealer, I should have gone for a giant Duchampian urinal; instead, after my trip to poverty stricken Ghana, I am practically too embarrassed of the materialist nature of my choice to even post about it.

I first encountered the artist and his designer coffins at Jack Bell Gallery in Vauxhall. The dealer tried to get me to buy two Paa Joe’s stating how much shipping and customs duties could be reduced with the addition of another coffin – to which I replied that I would only die once. Must admit I was as nervous about the trip as the macabre nature of what I was getting myself into – literally and figuratively. At first it was more just another artwork among artworks that I thought would look rather cool plunked in the middle of my house. But then it occurred to me that I might be tempting fate by putting my sculpture, which happens to be a coffin, smack in the middle of my bedroom. In retrospect perhaps it wasn’t the brightest or cheeriest of ideas, as it seems too much like inviting the scythe wielder into bed. I guess I was enthralled by the notion of a bespoke demise, a last lap around the track.

Before we even started, the adventure had begun. This would be life outside the comfort zone: the things that one has to do to avoid Starbucks. For my children (and me) who are generally more accustomed to the Saints, as in St. Moritz, St. Tropez or St. Barthes (a slight exaggeration but sounds good) we were ready for something new. From the get go, my wife was none too amused with my holiday planning. The night prior to our departure, CNN posted a quiz before a commercial break: “What is to the east of the Ivory Coast, mired in civil war?” Er, that would be Ghana. Next off came visits to the vaccination clinic, there was malaria, cholera, and many other ailments to worry about. There were pills to be ingested before, during and after the trip and a plethora of shots to be had. The nurse implored us to stay calm and not to overreact; easy for her to say as she called off the list of possible diseases we’d be exposed to like the specials in an exotic restaurant. The sensation of my three-course meal of shots was a burning pain that lasted for days. Out of all malaria drugs, funny how the pill with the least side and after effects cost fifty percent more than the rest. And don’t forget the sun screen, insect repellant and spare needles should you need a blood transfusion during your holiday festivities. Did you know tsetse flies prefer blue? There went my wardrobe hue of choice. Shortly after the series of vaccines, the kids all became stricken with a mild form of yellow fever, an apparent common side effect, which only increased the consternation of my already hesitant wife.

Though we made dash to attain traveling documents, my family hasn’t planned more than a few days in advance for anything—needless to say we didn’t come close to meeting the deadline for securing visas. Once off the plane, armed with no traveling documents, already not speaking to my wife, the dark clouds of divorce loomed. After about an hour of phone calls and haggling it was agreed we could pay our way through, good thing after two planes and eight hours of flying. When I handed over the cash, the officer returned two $20 notes, stating they were too dirty and the bank wouldn’t accept them. I didn’t know quite what to make of that other than the fact I would accept currency dripping in malaria. The moment we exited the airport the money grab began, literally, as it was snatched out of my hands by an unruly group of taxi facilitators, i.e. guys who follow you to a cab and try and take your money for a tip as you get in. An auspicious way to start, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Once we arrived at the hotel, I was determined to eat anything and everything that came my way in the face of my wife’s utter resolve not to. The presidential suite I decided to treat my reluctant family to was closer in feeling to the local council. And low and behold, the first person I encountered in the hotel restaurant was a Jew from Boston. My first impression was how strange it was to be in a place with no art market, in fact I don’t think that had ever happened to me before. Imagine how out of place and utterly wrong a £20m Hirst vitrine or Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture would be? How did it feel? As if I was naked. Many people in Ghana live in what is nothing more than modified shipping containers and they travel by foot balancing all manner of stuff on their heads, for transport purposes and goods for commerce; in the case of one guy, he had 4 steel street signs atop his. Baby’s heads pop out of rucksacks front and back like little figures with bobbing heads you see in the back of some American cars. All over the markets and curbsides, they sell swollen sandwich bags ready to pop filled with water to fight the heat. My kind of diet—you lose weight while standing in place.

To start our sightseeing, we visited Jamestown, the poorest harbor town amongst the poor. We were touring in two cars and rolled up to a lighthouse at the seaside and picked up an impromptu guide along the way to take us through. We bounded up the decrepit structure where the wooden stairs became more irregular, like missing teeth. Once on top afforded panoramic views of the shantytowns, yet the protective railings could best be described as barely present. Maybe there is something to health and safety. The fishing shantytown at the harbor was like a pulsating, 3D Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life, exposing raw unspeakable poverty with bodies thickly and chaotically strewn about. We were told it’s impossible to drive down the streets in the area at night confronted with a carpet of sleeping people.

After the lighthouse, our off the cuff tour guide asked us if we’d like to venture through the actual fishing village. In doing so, we encountered a sometimes-hostile group of inhabitants screaming and hissing their displeasure at our intrusion. There were bands of youths, many with weeping eyes from drink and drugs, variously threatening and cajoling us. My kids were nearly relieved of their sunglasses by pickpocketers, one who swiped the camera out of the hands of my 14 year-old, only to hand it back moments later. Though an everyday occurrence on Kings Road, to say he was rather surprised would be the understatement of the century. I can understand their consternation, as we seemed rather gratuitous and pretentious in our foray into their modest village, but our intent was only to see and learn. We felt like bait, boldly protected by our fearless guide. Sadly, the history of the port included a fort where slaves were unceremoniously led from underground tunnels to awaiting ships, surely an atrocity worse than death. Fitting this about a coffin. The poverty would shock a fish in a tank of formaldehyde. The only bar in the desolate harbor town was called the London Bar, an apt reference to the hard drinking UK - that's what I call a reputation!

After a brief stint in a traditional crafts market, otherwise known as a tourist trap—unannounced, my crazy wife ambushed the kids and I and arranged for a visit to an orphanage. I guess the little figurines at market weren't enough. We were sat in the office and it was explained to us that the process would necessitate a series of meetings with social workers both in Africa and the UK to see if we were fit for such onerous parenting duties. They should have asked me, I would have readily admitted we weren’t. Within an hour, they brought out a brother and sister (one is never enough for my wife), so much for the assessment process. I was surprised there were any kids left in the region after Madonna, Angelina, Mia, and Sandra. Though thankfully she didn’t pursue it further, on Easter morning my wife did visit a local supermarket that was closely watched by armed guards, and then flooded the orphanage with food and gifts while I and a few of the kids hid in the hotel.

The only gallery in Accra is a spiraling, seaside disused hotel with all manor of wares from purely folk and decorative art to Paa Joe and other contemporary, more conceptual practitioners. The Artists Alliance Gallery, free of art world conceit and snobbery, was refreshing, accessible and priced a third less than the London counterpart, and priced about 20% less than the art purchased directly from the artist studios who could see us suckers coming for miles. Later that afternoon, the trip by car to Paa Joe’s studio witnessed a long snaking line of purveyors of everything from food, to clothing to household goods, all held aloft on the heads of the traveling merchants. The motorway, for the duration of the hour-long journey, veered seamlessly from asphalt to dirt and back.

When we finally made it to the studio of Paa Joe, whose nickname originates from the fact that his studio is apprenticed by a handful of the 8 children he has sired, they seemed to be laughing at us, but in a nice and disarming sort of way. Rather than for money, the traditional craftsman gain work experience in exchange for food, some booze, a goat, a pair of sandals, a roll of fabric, and a few quid; but, that relationship can go on for years until one breaks out on their own.

The workshop had no lights or electricity, and being in the midst of the rainy season made it darker than a winter day in the UK at 3pm. There was mold on the studio walls that would make any Londoner proud and though his marketing pamphlet alludes to sophisticated tools and machinery, these seem to be comprised of nothing more than hammers, nails and hand-operated wood carving tools. Rather than a negative, this constitutes the charm of the enterprise. And somehow, by hand-eye coordination and an intuitive response to the subject matter, they seem to get it just right.

My Porsche was taking shape nicely and was an amazing process to witness. Seemingly unrelated pieces of wood were nailed and glued to the frame, which initially looked nothing like the car I commissioned, until, using no more than a hand trowel, the surfaces were smoothed into the familiar form of the 911 2.7 RS. Granted, the shut lines of the lid appeared slightly off, as they do with most Ghanaian coffins, but its all part of the attraction and unwittingly, probably contribute to a virtual feast for bugs when these things are put into actual use. Come to think of it, Paa Joe never asked, nor did I, for a fitting. For the hedge funder, there's a smart lace-up brogue and I have seen a bible shaped coffin, the interior of which was fully illustrated; perhaps I should have chosen a life sized issue of The Daily Mail, admittedly my bible. My 8 year old couldn't resist jumping in one of the finished items and taking it for a test drive…

“For a Ga (the dominant ethnic community in the region surrounding Accra, the capital of Ghana) it is better to incur lifelong debts than to cut back on funeral expenses.” Going into Darkness, Fantastic Coffins from Africa, Thierry Secretan. Thames and Hudson, 1995, page 7. With my wife, incurring lifelong debt would be the cause of the funeral. Pointing out how these works of art are beyond any economic cycle, one of the leading lights of the trade of coffin making, Kane Kwei, said “all a dead person owns is his coffin.” Going into Darkness, page 20. The funerary art form of custom coffins, by nature intended to be appreciated only for the brief period of a funeral ritual prior to being buried six feet under, is that these objects of art have a shelf life before they are obscured forever, never to be seen again. Imagine doing that with your Damien or Tracey?

After our visit and purchase of some more small pieces, albeit over the mark, Paa Joe even pitied the taxi driver and shared some of the spoils with him prior to our departure, leaving him with a fiver. Not to be outdone, our enterprising, intrepid taxi driver pulled to the side of the hotel after our trip and tried to extort $1,200 Ghanaian dollars (40p for one Ghanian Cedi) for the ride. Thronged at the airport, thronged at the market, thronged at the harbor and thronged at the beach, we had reached our threshold after only two full days, but full they were. I called the travel agent from our roped off lounge chair on the roped off beach and planned our retreat. The squalor was otherworldly, heartrending and had taken its toll. On the beach alone, we struggled to ignore the onslaught of aggressive sellers; sellers of shells, paintings, sculptures, clothes, horseback rides. With some of the nutters gallivanting on the sand, it became clear the UK doesn't have a monopoly on eccentricity.

So, we a bailed a day early, and the UK never looked so good upon our return. When I got home I cried. My kids and wife, it feels like we all experienced the same simultaneous wound. When I mentioned the trip briefly on Facebook, within one short second after the post I had a reply from Paa Joe himself, which led me to believe that there was a secret, well-equipped underground nerve center to the operation. The experience in total made much of my life seem rather absurd and futile; the realization that half my obsessions revealed themselves as obscene was less than flattering. And I never saw my kids so sober-minded, which is a good thing, but my wife is still threatening to adopt. Though the bright pink Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture I mentioned might seem about the most irrelevant and frivolous thing in the world going forward, I could understand how it might brighten things up a bit. Maybe contemporary art is not quite nutritious, but thirst quenching nonetheless. Sadly with my insensitive, degenerate kids the effects didn’t last long: the lessons learnt about the ill effects of rampant materialism were short lived at best.

Inevitably, with all the prophylactics and vaccinations, we all got diarrhea before and after our return; I was struck down at a society luncheon in London shortly after touchdown. One by one we all began to spend more and more time either on the toilet or lording over it. There wasn’t a bathroom in the house without some residue of a Jackson Pollock splatter. My wife bundled up the kids and herded them to a series of doctors for tests, convinced a biological Noah's Ark of micro-organisms had lodged in the collective organs of my family

I focused on the words characterizing our trip and let my kids fight over whose images would pass muster with GQ’s photo editor. It became a competition with the end result that my 13 year old shot 4,773 images. What with the kids turned into a roving photo agency, I unwittingly created a group of mini Mario Testino monsters. As adamant as the kids were about photo credits, they were also persistent in pleading, “please don’t make us go back to a developing country for half-term.” In truth, in the past I never thought much about visiting Ghana or Africa for that matter. After my trip, it colors all that I think about and I can't wait to get back – I only hope I don't end up in my 1973 Porsche 2.7 RS coffin before I get the chance to. Is Africa going to be the next China in terms of development? Let’s hope so. Another upside to this episode in our lives, I received an indication my wife has moved on from the idea of taking another child on board-in one form anyway. Here is a recently received text: "I want to adopt an elderly person and we can take care of them so they don't have to be in a home." That could be my next article.


An email message from Paa Joe popped up that his fall gallery exhibit had been cancelled—a New York collector had purchased the latest body of work in its entirety and decided they didn't want it shown. Then Paa implored me to "find him more collectors." Though it honestly never occurred to me (a rarity, that), my coffin seemed to be appreciating in line with the car it was inspired by. And Paa was beginning to sound less like a hokey outsider and more like a middle-aged, aspirant YBA.

The eagle finally landed, after nearly a year in progress, it arrived; albeit a bit banged up after the long trip from Ghana, but it's a car, what can you expect. Not many people can say they welcomed, looked forward even, to such an unveiling. It’s a car that drives you to the next world, yet with my sense of direction, I will probably manage to get lost. I posted a casual phone picture on facebook and I was asked about the head peering behind the steering wheel, but strangely, in the real article, there is nothing (or no one) inside the passenger compartment. It’s an eerie apparition, the ghost in the machine or the ghost in the coffin. It’s that cool, who could blame him.

The exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum is titled “Power of Making” and is open from 6 September 2011 – 2 January 2012. It will focus on design and cut across a wide scope of areas. The Lion coffin is due to be a major feature.

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