One

I suppose I should start by saying that I am in love with a form.

It started with a line.

It happened to me slowly and subtly.

Every morning I would travel to college through Canary Wharf, watching crowds of expertly suited men from the top floor of a double decker bus.

There was something about it. Watching them casting their lives into air-conditioned offices; chasing the convection of currencies as they rose and fell; gliding, imperious, from one glass palace to the next. Striding their ways in their navy suits and pink shirts, their ties flying over their shoulders in the soft October wind.

I loved seeing the playful, coloured socks that peeped out from beneath their trousers when they would sit beside me. Their hems would rise above their ankles revealing lurid designs, garish patterns and so many bright adornments.

There I saw colour, opinion, status and desire… There was a need, perhaps even desperation to express.

They stood up again. Personalities shut away. At once we were back on the crowded streets. Their many trajectories mingling and tangling with one another before my eyes, like so many forking paths.

These endless imagined and chaotic lines that take tangible form and obediently align on their suits.

Not unlike neurons transmitting signals in the brain ordering them to get up, shut the world of flowery-socked imaginings away, and follow through with the tireless pursuit.

Imagine a crowd as kinetic art.

I think about the transformation from the abstract to the tangible.

I think about opt-art. About Bridget Riley. How her lines create an illusion, or disillusion if you’d prefer. Lines that are perfectly, almost algebraically allied but at first glance or from afar seem to interweave. They create small islands of chaos in the sea of precise geometry. Just like Canary Wharf during rush hour.

I think about the street.

Beginning to stir at about six am; the chaos rising to its zenith by nine and returning to perfect tranquility by eleven.

I think about distorting the perfect form of a pinstripe suit. I want to reduce it to its core, expose its guts, give it life…

I wanted to see underneath and inside, invade its privacy, take it by the throat and make it scream.

I wanted it to express what it truly was.

So I meet the men.

Fiona Banner in collaboration with Paolo Pellegrin. Mistah Kurtz – He Not Dead, PEER, 2014

Two

In 2014 as a part of my research of lines and lives, I went to Fiona Banner’s exhibition in London’s Peer gallery. It was a collaboration with photographer Paolo Pellegrin, who was briefed to explore and reflect upon the life, behaviours, costumes and activities of the City of London. 

Banner took Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a point of departure and created a rich and complex installation that combined gigantic close-up drawings of pinstripe suits, photography, projection, artefacts and sounds “…continue [ing] her long-held fascination with Conrad’s disturbing narrative into the moral and psychological depths of man’s inhumanity to man.”

She sought to contemplate the juxtaposition of monolithic skyscrapers casting long shadows on low-rise council housing estates. She questioned the segregation of these two worlds.

Further, she discussed the dualities present in the peoples that inhabit these imagined spaces; The contradictory decadence of City life in itself; A life of opulence & overindulgence, seemingly rich but beneath the surface, expressionless.

Where did the pinstripe come from? Is it some façade of perfection that camouflages what may lie below the surface. Does it represent some repressed yet deeply desired aspiration?

To me it also spoke of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922).

Reading The Wasteland for the first time was a deeply affecting experience. The poem is composed of an intricate network of poetic, historical & mythical references linked by interweaving stories.

It was one of those poems that you feel before you truly come to understand. And, in truth, a reader may never fully come to know its meaning… but, in essence, it is an exploration of the human condition.

Eliot breaks down the post-war world, its language, relationships and forms.
He composes a particularly lasting image of London Bridge, describing a crowd of people sleepwalking through their daily lives. “So many I had not thought death had undone so many.”

He sees this crowd as a herd of afflicted souls.

Eliot worked in a bank in 1917 – 1925.

I didn’t think much of it when I first met Andrew. It was about a year after I moved to London. I was working in a bar where he chatted me up while ordering drinks. Tall, well spoken, handsome and charismatic. After my shift ended I joined him and his new-found friends at some hedonistic after-party at their Soho Square apartment, where Bowie used to reside. How fitting, I thought.

Andrew was a lawyer at Linklaters. Him in his three-piece Saville Row suit and me in my worn leather jacket and skinny jeans, we hit it off. I was intrigued by the richness of his manner and sickness of his mind.

The pinstripe suit is supposed to have originated in England and was traditionally worn by bankers. The width and distance between the stripes were identifying factors of different banks. Another theory suggests that it evolved out of the striped uniforms worn whilst boating.

I am reading The Wasteland in Andrew’s eyes.

In his eyes, and in the distance between his pinstripes.

Three

I often think about life as a process of connecting dots. There’s only so much you can control. If you happen to fall from your intended path, or that path falls away before you, you will be redirected.

Upon returning to Prague, after my first trip to New York, a different kind of wasteland filled my eyes.

I hadn’t wanted to go in the beginning. I was in my final year of high school enduring wave after wave of impossible feelings, as so many young people do. Anyway, my friend insisted. Her father paid for the flights and the hotel and after all, I kind of felt like I had no choice. Next thing I know I’m walking down Bleecker street in a freezing rain. It was, perhaps the best thing that could’ve happened.

It was morning outside and she was still asleep as she was leaving.

I was in a strange mood. 

“You know, right now I’m feeling somewhat like this” and I draw an infinite imaginary horizontal line in front of me coincidentally following the riverbank on my left side.

It was just the three of us, orange, blue and black. 

That was all. 

Nothing else.

The beginnings of my search were rough, as I guess that all beginnings are.

It was about 2am somewhere in Brooklyn and I couldn’t find my way back to the hotel, which was in Midtown. Quite drunk still, I got into an unlicensed cab. It was the only option. The driver kept circling back to some unknown location, he kept talking about going back to his place and making up excuse after excuse as to why he couldn’t drop me home. The conversation sobered me, and half panicked, half angry, I started talking. I came up with this elaborate story about how my father was some big-shot investor on Wall Street. How “he might as well have owned half of New York”. I conjured the image of his tall, strident figure, the rich effusive blues of his shirting and the wide, commanding descent of his pinstripes. I held it in my mind as I spoke. 

After that it took 10 minutes for the driver to get me home. 

Who could guess that one could hide behind a suit, as though it were chainmail, without ever even needing to wear one.

The ride of course was free of charge.

A suit, seemingly effortless and elegant, is simultaneously a highly complex social construction. 

Bespoke versions are crafted using esoteric methods that barely change over centuries; all its components, from its style to its fabrication have to work together in perfect harmony, creating an imperious and most-enduring myth.

A breathing simulacrum of power and status.

And, at times, for those who need it, it can serve as the perfect camouflage.

In MoMa, 2010

Four

When Allen Ginsberg said he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, without thinking about it, I set out to look for mine.

My father was a tall man of majestic built, naturally evoking respect in people.
I remember his broad shoulders, his suits, the comic ties I used to choose for his birthdays. I remember how he would proudly wear them to the office. I remember his shoes that I so loved to polish. His Mont Blancs. His Bvlgari scent. His sense of humour.

I remember the fear I felt when he was angry.

And, still more keenly than this, I remember the void I felt when I saw him fall.

On the doorstep, incomprehensible. Disquietingly intoxicated. Around a bottle and a half of vodka, I thought. It was sharp on his breath.

My mother and I dragged him inside.

His skin was damp.

I was fifteen years old.

He’s so heavy.

The Beat Generation, a subcultural movement that emerged in 1950s America, didn’t give a damn about status, in fact they stood in opposition to it.

“Their studied indifference to fashion expressed disdain for conventional society.”
Ginsberg’s most notable work – Howl – compares the forces conformity and collective consciousness with those of originality, agency and personal expression.

The poem howls against the cultural homogeneity into which so many people slipped in the years following the second world war, lamenting how blindly and how willingly they went. Asking for it, even paying for it. Each sold a branded fiction of individuality and self-overcoming. A false promise of upward social mobility.

It paints red obscenities on white picket fences.
It smashes the apple pie cooling by the window.
It tears the throat out of The American Dream.

How much has actually changed since then?

For many it is uncomfortable to acknowledge, let alone to break free from the chains that fall upon them.
It’s about wringing yourself out, emptying yourself of every last drop of falsity until you reach your own freedom.
Imagine being wrung. It’s a painful process.
Even more so when you have to do it to yourself and there are no guarantees that when you’ve finished you’ll be dry.

It was always push and pull with Andrew. Some indescribable magnetism that pulled me ever towards him only to spit me out of the gyre of madness a day later.

We would meet at his flat, or on some lamplit street corner, usually in the early hours of Saturday morning after his work drinks and my shift at the pub were over.
We filled our nights with highballs over-brimmed with spirits, we talked about this and this and this.

The next morning I would leave with his perfume in my hair, feeling drained and used but strangely fulfilled.
It was somewhat familiar.
I guess he had my father’s eyes.
It was like this, on and off, for about seven years.

At times he’d be calling me every week pouring his heart out and saying how much I meant to him and how we are meant to be together.
Then we wouldn’t speak for months.
Still, always the intrigue remained.
Like a force set unchangeably in motion. Something would stir one of us to pick up the phone and before long we would be intertwined again.

He said I had a mythical beauty.

Five

The Zoots were a subculture formed, first in America, and later in France during the Second World War, where they were called the Zazous.

The zoot suit originated in an African American comedy show in the 1930s and was popularised by jazz singers on the dance floors of Harlem, Chicago and Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s.

Zazous dressed in loosely fitting suits with large lapels and baggy trousers tapered at the ankles to accentuate their motions when they danced.

The movement was likely a reaction to the pressure of the Great Depression; a conscious existential outpouring of expression during a time of great austerity and oppression.

The zoot suit became popular among minorities, while the affluent middle class viewed its wearers as rebellious and delinquent. This cultural rift widened over the early forties, culminating in the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943.

Soldiers, sailors and civilians stripped the clothes from zoot-suiters, threw them to the ground and beat them, in a wave of violence that lasted almost a week. And, in a sight that has become all too familiar in recent years, the police simply stood aside, allowing the aggressors to walk free, only arresting the victims… 

The majority of the rioting happened in June 1943 in Los Angeles, with similar occurrences taking place across the country.

In France, the anti-fascist Zazous were also swinging to jazz and bebop and engaging in countless forbidden and illicit behaviours in an effort to express their opposition to the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. They wore their hair long when told to cut it and defied clothes rationing regulations. Some even wore the yellow star as an emblem of protest and in support of the Jewish people. 

American historian Kathy Peiss described this subculture as perhaps the first time in history that “…fashion was believed to be the cause of widespread civil unrest.”

In 1956 Elvis Presley dressed in a zoot-style suit to distinguish himself firmly as a counter-cultural figure. 

It was one of these nights, about six years into our turbulent friendship. Some years have passed since I saw Andrew last.

He opened the door of his very-English Marylebone flat and, with a huge grin on his face and announced that he had terribly insulted his senior partners on a work trip to Italy.

I walked down the hall, sat on his lightly coloured, tuxedo sofa in the soft-lit living room and listened to the sound of ice cracking as he poured us drinks. 

He brought over a pint of wine for me (I had matured a little, or perhaps grown weary), the usual pint of vodka for him, and continued with the story.

In essence, he had gotten unrecognisably drunk at a dinner party after a day of skiing and told his bosses, in so many words, that they were idiots.

It struck me that this was kind of a bad thing, but he seemed completely thrilled.

It was like he felt this immense accomplishment that filled his eyes with twinkles and his chest with pride.

Perhaps he had begun to shed his chains, I thought.

Later I noticed the eczema patch on his left hand had grown bigger.

In the morning after I left, I heard he wrenched the door three times.

A month later, he told me he had left his job and was moving to New York.