Walking down the steps, I thought, well, this is pretty. We were filing down the curved rock steps into a hole in the ground. Below us, tables, foliage, a bar, some sculptures – so far just a very pleasantly located cafe.
As we stepped I could see the hole we were in extended into a cave to the right. The cafe area gave way to a stretch of water there, an underground lake with a rock ceiling. I approved. I’m very much a fan of caves, they fill me with a kind of dark primordial glee which I find hard to explain.
But now there was light across the water. The cave was a tunnel that opened out into what must be another large hole in the ground across the way. All I could make out was what appeared to be some kind of paradisiacal terraced garden snaking up on the other side, with people milling about on all its levels, walking, sitting, chatting, doing who-knows what. It looked like a scene from some utopian seventies sci-fi, and I was having trouble processing the reality of it.
We had a coffee.
Then, venturing to the water’s edge, I took a good, long look and – yes – the floor of the crystal clear water was peppered with white dots. Some of them were crawling about in the water by my feet. These were the rare blind albino crabs (obviously). I spent a long time looking at them.
I walked along a path at the side of the water, towards the terraced other side. Lots of people, but everyone in a kind of hushed reverence. I could hear some high-brow ambient music playing. As I emerged out of the darkness I could see the other side had tables and chairs strewn around the levels, and Brian Eno’s An Ending (Ascent) started playing which made me grin (one of my favourite all time womb-like floaty bits of music, that).
The sun hit my face. I looked around. I was beaming, and Zen as I’ve ever been. Everything was beautiful. I wanted to kiss someone (luckily didn’t act on that impulse).
It was at that point I decided I MUST DEVOTE MY LIFE TO BEAUTY and that feeling lasted almost a whole damn week. Yes, a whole damn week. It’s hard to explain why.
I was at Jameos del Agua, a subterranean tunnel created by a lava flow that had collapsed at either end and then been transformed by the artist Cesar Manrique. “Jameos”, we were told, means a cavern with a collapsed roof. If you carry on up the terraced bit you come to another garden with a large blue pool that looks like something out of a James Bond film. In fact it was used in the weird German kids TV series The Legend of Tim Tyler as the bad guy’s Bond-villain-style lair. There is another cave that Manrique turned into a concert venue, sadly now cordoned off because of the unstable roof. Looking down on you, at ground level, there is also a museum of volcanology. But the touch that impressed me most is the fact that there is a slot at eye level at the urinals, back in the cafe at the start, which looks out into a little lit grotto with running water. Even splashing the boots is a beautiful experience. Unbelievable.
Manrique is a colossus to the people of the small volcanic Canary Island. The guy was born on the largely barren lava outcrop in 1919, but trained in fine art in Madrid. He became a well known modern artist, was a friend of Picasso and lived in Paris and New York for a while before returning to Lanzarote in 1966.
When he returned he was greeted as a hero and essentially given free rein to do things around the island. He had a hand in setting up the rules for preserving the look of the villages there – no buildings over two storeys, all traditional white or beige with blue, green or brown shutters. His sculptures, many of which move in the wind, are dotted around the island at intersections. He built a sleek-looking restaurant in the middle of the volcanic national park, where meat is cooked from the subterranean heat. His own home was built over hollow volcanic bubbles, which he turned into rooms furnished in sixties modernist style and decorated with his own work.
Jameos del Agua was being used as a landfill rubbish site before he got his hands on it. In doing what he did he certainly helped preserve the habitat of the blind albino crab.
He called his vision “total art”, which was about bringing different mediums together into a whole – painting, sculpture, design, music, architecture, urban planning, pubic art – and integrating them with the natural surroundings. In the process he almost single handedly created the Lanzarote tourist industry, which is the main source of income for the island to this day.
His fingerprints are so widespread over the island that it’s hard to imagine what it must be like for the islanders to go out into the wider world and realise people don’t know who he is, or have an equivalent patron-artist-saint figure.
What he did there puts our token nods towards totemistic public art to shame, not to mention the self-obsessed and pretentious attitudes of many of our artists.
So my reaction to the Jameos was in part due to a radical reassessment of what art and artists can do. Despite being a life-long “creative sort” I had, in my old age, become increasingly uncertain about this business of art and artists.
A lot of this stems from bad conceptual art, it’s got to be said. If I have to read a short essay explaining to me why that split piece of wood with cow dung on it is actually about Western imperialism, then the art is not doing its job properly. I have a deep-rooted suspicion that with a lot of conceptual art the idea it’s supposed to represent is more profound than the actual object. Yes, an experience can say more than a thousand words and all that jazz – but sometimes the art is a mere illustration of a concept that has already been explored much more thoroughly in words. Just because you’re inspired by profound ideas does not make your art profound. It’s almost become a joke – let’s go see some art. Oh hey, I wonder if they’ll have anything breaking taboos about sex, death and religion? Do you think?
Part of the problem is art galleries - I also have the suspicion that if you take ANYTHING AT ALL, put it out of context in a white room and asked people to focus on it, it could become profound. Because the world and its contents are fascinatingly profound if you just point your lens and really think about it.
Admittedly some of my reservations about the art world are down to resentment – being someone both steeped in the study of big ideas, and driven to playing around with creative projects, I would love someone to pay me to have the time to do that all the time, on a large scale. But it still wouldn’t convince me that what I was doing was anything more than amusing myself.
I have spent a massive amount of my time pursuing creative activities and immersing myself in the creative fruits of others, but often wondered if it was all just self-indulgence. I can’t really say any of it has got me anywhere, in fact quite the opposite – it’s served as a massive distraction from the things I maybe should have been paying more attention to. In the grand scheme of things I may as well have spent all that time watching Coronation Street omnibi on repeat and pinging paper balls off the bin rims, for all the wider world cares. An awful lot of people get through life completely untroubled by the need for aesthetic enrapture. Music is just for background, paintings just pretty pictures, sculptures just ornaments and literature is just what some ok films are based on.
Art can be very pleasing, surprising, joyful, scary, funny, tragic, fascinating, thought provoking, comforting, challenging, transporting, enrapturing even – ‘but is it essential?’ I wondered. A lot of high-minded gush is spewed out on how essential art is. But is it though? Huh? Or is that just what we want to believe?
I found it hard to dismiss the notion that, when looking at the big picture, a massive amount of artistic output can look like so much self-absorbed onanism: At best either an escapist distraction from, or impotent howl into the wind against, the grim realities of existence; at worst a pretentious, irrelevant, self-indulgent luxury.
But there was a deeper malaise. I also found myself unable to enjoy beauty without questioning it, picking at it and then sadly concluding it was not all it was cracked up to be. So much that appears beautiful on first glance falls apart under scrutiny. You think a place is beautiful, then you go and live or work there... and realise it just looks nice. You think a person is beautiful, then you get to know them... and realise they’re just another bloody person.
Here I am watching nature documentaries, look. Full of beauty those things. But then... well, if you’re that sea-lion, is any of this beautiful? Or is it just more mindless struggle and strife followed by a grim death? Is the sublime awe and majesty of those geological formations really “beautiful”, or is that just a programmed response I’m having to it? Isn’t it all just an arrangement of dirt and water?
Here I am looking at a Faberge egg. The workmanship is indeed exquisite – ‘cause that guy was given a fortune to tinker around with that for ages while a mass of downtrodden people lived in grinding poverty. Here I am looking at a lovely cosy cottage in the countryside. But it’s been artificially kept like that by a ruthless moneyed-up senior manager who has pretentions of living on the front of a chocolate box. Here are I am looking at a new born child. He may grow up to be Piers Morgan.
I started to think the very notion of beauty was nothing more than a naive dream, ignorant of the true complexities of the world. It was not that I was determined to find ugliness in everything, just that I was cautious of over-romanticising anything. I was very aware that nothing is perfect and nothing exists in a vacuum – everything has a context and background that can take the shine off that beauty. There is always more than meets the eye. There are always disappointing and unpalatable truths bound up with the thing giving you that experience of beauty.
MY JAMEOS MOMENT
So what happened at the Jameos? Well, to put it simply, I had an experience of beauty that I couldn’t be cynical about.
We visited Manrique’s house, now a gallery/tourist curiosity (he died in 1992), and yes it was beautiful and fascinating, but also a kind of museum piece, rather than a functioning space. You wished you could take a seat and just hang out, but knew you’d really better not.
At the larger-scale Jameos del Agua you could. The Jameos is very much alive and open for business – a multi-use place of tranquil beauty, open to anyone to hang out in. Not just pretty, but self-sustaining and functional.
Yes it’s touristy, but the hushed people milling about do not detract from the experience, and it’s not simply a cynical money spinner – Manrique had a real devotion to artistic vision, and respect for the landscape. He saved it from being a rubbish tip for chrissakes.
It is something of a fantasy dream world there, yes – but it’s a dream world that justifies its place in the real one.
It struck me that his vision had done so much – boosted the island’s economy, safeguarded a rare crab’s habitat, brought high-minded art to the masses, created a unique set of spaces – and had given countless others like me a much needed moment of blissful peace. Which is exactly what he designed it to do.
Yes, the experience of beauty was an escapist moment – but that didn’t make it any less real. There were no naïve illusions of perfection being adhered to, no fraudulent appearances that made it happen – it just descended on me simply because of the environment I was in.
I’m sure there are politics and problems surrounding the running of the place (for example the concert hall roof); some may find the arty flourishes not to their tastes; and I’m sure if you worked there it would lose its sheen – but none of that mattered to me, and nor should it have - it was irrelevant to my experience there and then.
It made me realize not everything has to be perfect to appreciate the beauty in something; and your experience of it does not have to be objectively justifiable – if you can get that feeling without any perceptible downside, then do it – do it when you can and do it a lot. God knows the world won’t go out of its way to give it to you.
Manrique’s devotion to beauty had a real, measurable, lasting positive effect on the world, which made me feel like fool for being so cynical.
It hit me that, if I want to get more out of life, I need to stop dismissing beauty and learn to revel in it, accept it, and not pick it apart all the time.
Caution about over-idealising and over-romanticising is one thing. But everyone needs to dream.
Maybe my conviction that I MUST DEVOTE MY LIFE TO BEAUTY sadly wilted in the harsh light of day.
But a lingering trace remains - and I still feel I must… well, dammit, pay it a little bit more attention.