in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wild With Style

One of the interesting things about living in a big apartment block like mine is getting to watch people come and go; on the days new tenants move in and out, you get boxfuls of inkling about how a whole room is taking shape couch by table, poster by painting. Taste is a funny thing – I know that mine’s better than yours and I believe it sincerely, but don’t we all? And, of course, I only think so because of all of the prejudices I’ve been brought up with about what’s cool, what’s funny, what’s thoroughly un- (mentionable, wearable, thinkable) among the company I keep.

A couple of years ago, I got to know this guy called Adam. Adam had fled the kibbutz he’d grown up on in order to move to Berlin, become a cabaret drag performer, and be fabulous. And he was: imagine Bjork in a ball gown with a neatly trimmed beard and you’re some way there. He had long nails, a dangly earring, and a high titter. Adam was working in the hostel we were staying in, doing a half-arsed job of cleaning up the joint, eyeing off the cutest of the guests, and doing just enough work to not get fired. Then one day, he was gone. But before he left, he told me some stories. One thing stands out above all. We were talking about dance music, and, inevitably, the subject of Israelis and psytrance came up. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but all that fluoro, all those pictures of aliens and mushrooms, all those kids with dreadlocks and bell bottoms off their face on acid on occupied land or stomping down some rainforest? Excuse me, but it’s just so, it’s just so bad taste.”

My lady’s good friend once had a flatmate called Kiara, and boy, did Kiara have bad taste. Kiara was into dolphins, patchouli and the colour purple (no, not the Whoopi Goldberg film). She was also into some pretty dodgy stuff, and one day, like Adam, Kiara was gone, leaving my lady’s friend with the rent, the room and her car. But what a room! Kiara’s room was a temple festooned with glittering trinkets of the kind you get at St Andrews market or in Byron Bay, or in the Fountain Gate approximation of same: dream catcher for the window, purple tie-dyed bedspread with woven plastic gold thread, and the pi├Ęce de resistance, an enormous picture of two airbrushed dolphins jumping a loopedy-loop over a silver moon above a black and silver sea.

Seeing Kiara’s room made me doubt everything – there was absolutely no levels of po-mo ironising at work: she wasn’t living in irony, she really meant it. Kiara really thought that a three-by-two-metre canvas of airbrushed cetaceans was what tied the whole room together – the beautiful, crowning jewel in a space filled with smaller, bottle-nosed sea mammals. There they were: in soapstone on the mantelpiece; in stained glass by the window; in laquered plastic jewellery boxes by the dresser. I never checked, but I know from what I saw her wear that the jewellery boxes were likewise full of dolphin earrings, dolphin bangles, dolphin necklaces.

I hadn’t thought about Kiara for years, when just the other day I stepped outside my apartment to check the mail, and there it was by the bottom of the stairs: a removalist box with the unmistakeable snout of a plastic dolphin protruding from the flap. ‘Kiara?’ I wondered. But no, it wasn’t – it was my new neighbour. From day one (being the bottle-nosed snoop that I am), I noted all the things that were going into the house: first the hints from the mess of boxes, and then the window sill, which was quickly and liberally adorned with trinkety bits until it was chock full of plastic tack. My neighbour’s style (let’s call her Kirrily, written with love hearts over the each ‘i’) is different to Kiara’s: gone is the aggressive emphasis on all things purple and porpoise; muted are the most strident New Age overtones. In its place is something altogether cheaper, nastier and more suburban – it’s like Kirrily went past the New Age shop at Fountain Gate and made for the $2 shop two doors down. You know, the shops that sell finely painted statuettes of grinning pugs as well as shampoos that make your scalp burn. It looked like Kirrily had gone there and cleaned them out of everything she could possibly hang in the window: green plastic bead curtains; black, glossy flower pots and lairy plastic flowers… and, of course, the aforementioned dolphin.

Then, a day later the music started. First there was the Spice Girls. Then there was something that sounded like the Vengaboys covering funk metal; then there was the unwholesomely whippety Celine Dion… then there was something else… I don’t know quite how to describe it. Imagine Evanescence singing a duet with Wendy Matthews, then remixed by Tiesto – kind of Hi-NRG EmoMoR… it was truly monstrous, but, you know, it fitted perfectly with the trinkets… in fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realised –there was a highly developed aesthetic at work, and it was being applied judiciously, consistently and selectively. Just like Adam’s psytrancers and Kiara’s purple patchouli dolphin universe, Kirrily has bad taste. Terrible, appalling taste. Adam was right about the Israeli hippies and he was right about bad taste. But, you know what? In their own way, they’ve all found their universe. All of them have built themselves a world to live in, and however misguided it might seem to others, that also means they have style – in fact, I’d say they’re wild with style. And that’s more than I can say for most of us.

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