When we are tricked, deceived, or taken by surprise, we float momentarily in a temporal space that resides between realities, dithering somewhere between truth and falsehood. Cultural tricks are spiritual and surreal experiences, transcending the boundaries of convention whilst we pause at the mercy of the trickster. But are cultural tricks nothing more than cheap gimmicks?
Sharing a bottle of Peroni in my friend’s shelled-out New Cross flat after helping move his belongings across South East London, we spent the final evening in his bare, furniture-free apartment reminiscing about the golden years of late 00s television. The locus of our nostalgic ramblings came in the form of Heston Blumenthal and his Channel 4 series Heston’s Feasts, which debuted on the channel in 2009.
In each episode, Blumenthal would pioneer elaborate historical and fantastical feasts centred around his signature culinary dissimulations; ejaculating cakes, lickable wallpaper and life-size fairytale scenes, plated up for a congregation of celebrity customers from Noddy Holder to Cilla Black. When the (now) disgraced feminist scholar Germaine Greer sampled Heston’s iconic fruit-shaped meats, we see the chef smirking into the monitor of his backdoor kitchen surveillance system, “I might be the first chef that’s put a testicle in Germaine Greer’s mouth”. The crowd goes wild.
From the perspective of a wide-eyed teen watching on a beta 4oD, the show was infused with all the energy of the Roald Dahl books I’d only recently put down. Here was a man dedicated to craft and artistry, a magician revelling in the devilish deceptions of his wide-eyed guests. Sadly, ten years after Heston’s Feasts first aired, the culinary Conjuror has aged with all the delicacy of soured milk. Speaking in an interview with The Economic Times about the limitations of female chefs, Blumenthal sighed, “Historically and ultimately, the body clock starts working […] It is one thing to have a 9-5 job and quite another to be a chef with kids [and taking on] the physical strain of lifting heavy pots and pans.” I’m reluctant to admit that Blumenthal is ‘cancelled’ because that might suggest his opinions once contained a granule of competence. How dare my Hero of Trickery crash-and-burn into a cesspit of misogyny, dragging my fond memories of culinary deception down with him?
As the journalist and former reality TV show star Jia Tolentino writes in her collected essays Trick Mirror, much has changed since 2009 – most clearly with the advancements of the internet and the faded halcyon days of dial-up. Our contemporary lives and identities are warped by our own self-delusions through the online trick-mirror, she argues, writing, “Now I’m thirty, most of my life is inextricable from the internet, and its mazes of incessant forced connection—this feverish, electric, unlivable hell,” For Tolentino, the writer is their own self-distorting, sophistic prisoner, beholden to exaggeration impulses which, conversely, obscure their true selves. She continues, “Throughout the period of writing the book I found that I could hardly trust anything I was thinking […] When I feel confused about something, I write about it until I turn into the person who shows up on paper. A person who is plausibly trustworthy, intuitive and clear. It is exactly this habit, or a compulsion, which makes me suspect I am fooling myself.” Perhaps then, by extension, any representation of the self in creative nonfiction is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Exploring the multimedia dimensions of storytelling through his deconstructed, reconstructed, multimodal and frankly filmic graphic novels, illustrator Chris Ware’s new book, Rusty Brown, is the result of the author’s twenty-year-long project following the publication of Jimmy Corrigan in 2000. As Ware explains, the book articulates the “time-space interrelationships of six complete consciousnesses on a single Midwestern American day.” This rectangular long-format hardback which declares itself ‘The property of Rusty Brown’ on page one, is a symposium of complex typography, colourful illustrative stylistic variation and bursts of nuanced narratives.
Intrigued, I recently borrowed Ware’s Building Stories from my university library, and was bemused to find the ‘book’ was rather a weighty, boardgame sized box, containing fourteen pamphlets, posters and single comic strips, telling a range of seemingly interwoven stories. Sitting on my living room floor, I spread the narrative ephemera around me in a rough semicircle, starting with the smaller strips and working my way up to the longer cloth-bound volumes, ignoring the soft pencil marks which the librarian has used to number each volume. This was non-linear, oddball reading at its most eccentric. Gimmick or not, this was experimental storytelling at its brilliant best.
Culture without deception is culture which lacks stimulation, surprise and a fundamental element of magic. You can’t help but be bewitched by the sensory overload of walking into a room insulated with thick piles of bay leaves (Giuseppe Penone’s Respirae L’Ombra at Paris’ Centre Pompidou) or floating through the sensory bombardment of Olafur Eliasson’s well-documented ‘In Real Life’. If cultural deception is morally questionable, then lock me up.
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