Writing in Galleries

In September 2011 I went along to the Royal Academy of Arts as part of a ‘Stories at an Exhibition’ writing group led by Shaun Levin. I spent a couple of hours wandering around an exhibition of street photography by André Kertész, and writing to images that inspired me. The first exercise invited me to stop at ten random photographs and write the story that I saw in the image—one minute of writing per photograph. Looking back over my notebook, I’m surprised at the immediacy and energy in the few scribbled lines per image—each one could blossom into so much more.

Since then I have explored writing in Tate Modern (Gerhard Richter; Yayoi Kusama), Whitechapel Gallery (Wilhelm Sasnal; Giuseppe Penone), Tate Britain (James Martin). Some were as part of an organised writing group, others as personal forays.

Recently I have particularly enjoyed writing in the presence of Giuseppe Penone’s twelve metre bronze cast of a tree. It lies horizontally across the columned gallery, branch stumps acting as crooked legs and stretching arms. The inner surface of its hollowed trunk is covered in gold leaf; the outer surface bears the fingerprints of its maker. It’s fascinating. You can look inside, down its entire length. It leads a writer down interesting paths.

As a writer of primarily science fiction and fantasy, the James Martin ‘Apocalypse’ exhibition was an absolute ‘must see’. I went along with my daughter—another writer—and we spent time soaking up all the images and landscapes. Together we came up with three themes to write to:

  • Searching for something lost
  • The moment when everything changes
  • Near and far/light out of darkness

We split up, notebooks in eager, sweaty palms, and spent the next hour or so writing around the themes we’d identified. It was fairly easy to find spots to sit—galleries have folding stools you can borrow—in front of our favourite paintings. As a writer it’s easy to lose yourself in the work, and other art lovers are tolerant and understanding of the creative process.

Later we met up in the café, eager to share our experience and our writing. It is a wonderful way to spend a day. Revisiting my notebooks, one lesson for me is not to lose sight of what I’ve written. The writing is raw, but exciting. I need to find a way to capture it before the ideas are lost (in the dust with the rest of my notebooks!).

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