For the Hell/Joy of It

Especial: Diario de la pandemia / dossier / Junio de 2020

Jen Calleja


Though I’ve spent years in a frenzy of writing and translating and performing and volunteering, the lockdown not only forced me to slow down, but caused me to inexplicably stop completely. I haven’t written a scrap of writing in months, apart from a few lines of an idea for a story about a woman in lockdown who pretends that there’s a snowstorm outside as opposed to a sunburned health crisis. I had a flurry of writing-adjacent activity when my first book of short fiction came out a few weeks into lockdown – written and recorded interviews, little promotional writing commissions – and I did these self-consciously for the sake of my wonderful publisher, but its release made me feel embarrassed somehow, and I tried to forget about it all together. The vital novels I need to translate – one about buried cultural memory in Austria, the other around dystopian climate disaster – are both postponed, along with the whole or partial fee for them, and they have sat, untransformed, looking at me from the corner of the room reproachfully. I managed two weeks of work on my PhD as I had a probationary review coming up that I had to pass in order to continue receiving my studentship payments, my only regular source of income – it felt like mechanically attaching Lego bricks. Apart from these little bursts of work, I have been in a state of suspension, and, to be frank, it has made me feel ashamed. Once the cancellations started coming in, my body and mind began to run down. The little energy I work from, driven by juggling multiple jobs and the constant hum of admin, of booking things in and enquiring about possible future projects, vanished completely. I don’t recognise it to be a depressive state, I don’t feel heavy-limbed and lethargic and indifferent. My everyday level of depression is what keeps me powered up in a strange way, like someone thrashing about in the sea to prevent ultimately drowning. This felt – and feels – more like a great nothing. I get up early and get dressed, then stare at objects in the flat, or I sit on the bench in our little back garden and stare into the bushes. Not a single thought enters my mind. Perhaps I was burnt out all along, perhaps I’m overwhelmed, who’s to say. About two weeks ago, I was scrolling through the Internet while being cradled in the distracting, comforting void of my phone, when I saw a group of four photos displaying the work of the American sculptor Claes Oldenburg, whose work I wasn’t previously familiar with. There was a glass counter like one you might find in a supermarket or a canteen with what looked like large slices of bread slathered with various spreads, though you could tell that they were fake by their uniformity, and from the fact that though some of the toppings could have been chocolate or mayonnaise, others were bright orange or yellow – it was actually thickly applied paint. Then there were pieces that, though more abstract, could easily be interpreted as two hamburgers – gooey and melting, with thick layers of paint designating a hamburger’s distinctive rainbow. Finally, there were two dessert display cases like you get in American diners or Italian restaurants with brightly coloured blobs in silver dishes (ice-cream) and chunky triangles on ceramic dishes (slices of pie). I was mesmerised by them, their subdued and pastel colours, their misshapen, childish quality, how fun they were, how happy they made me feel, and though I hadn’t made anything in my whole life, I became fixated with wanting to try and replicate them in my own small way. I showed my husband, an artist, the photos and he said they reminded him of a young artist who makes replica beer cans and other everyday items out of a cheap material called salt dough. All I would need is salt and flour, and we had a little of both of these. That night I sat up in bed doodling (when was the last time I doodled?) a page, then another page, of things I would like to make. A doughnut, a baguette, a croissant, a slice of pizza, a slice of watermelon, a diamond ring. A tube of toothpaste, rolled up and squeezed. A banana, a bulb of garlic, a set of salt and pepper shakers, a cup of coffee, a fried egg, and, of course, a piece of toast spread with jam. My mind filled with whimsical, mainly edible objects. The next day, a Saturday, I mixed together the basic ingredients – one cup of plain flour, half a cup of salt, half a cup of lukewarm water, briefly kneaded – and began forming my models. A doughnut. A hot cross bun and a Belgian bun. A pretzel and a slice of toast. A toothpaste tube and an independent, wiggling streak of toothpaste. Half a sandwich. I floured my hands and the rolling pin, I had a little dish of water to use to glue together pieces and to smooth out the drying, cracking surfaces. I only looked at my phone for reference images. I baked them in the oven on the lowest setting for two and a half hours, and I felt guilty and foolish when I smelled that baked-goods smell in the knowledge that I was making something inedible and unnourishing with precious flour. This dough, famously for children’s crafts, had become a luxury material – much like pasta, another staple used by children to stick to paper to make 3D pictures and now scarce – and my art project now felt decadent and even selfish. But when they came out, slightly puffed up and a little browned, I felt proud and at ease for the first time in months. On the Sunday I put on an apron and laid out some acrylic paints borrowed from my husband. I began carefully painting these objects. Mint green for the toothpaste tube, white-blue-red stripes for the paste. Yellow cheese, green lettuce, red tomato, a browned crust for the sandwich. Tiny currants and a red cherry for the buns. Layers of red, pink, purple and black for the blackcurrant jam on the bread slice (made from actual sabotaged dough) I’d artfully made to look lightly toasted. I almost went cross eyed painting miniscule sprinkles on the pink ring doughnut and specks of salt on the pretzel. Write ‘Minty’ on the toothpaste tube my husband gushed gleefully, and I practised it a few times on the baking parchment I’d cooked the dough pieces on before painting it with a flourish. Both days, the time had flown. I may not have completed a single draft of anything or held a workshop from beginning to end, but I done what I had set out to do, and I gazed at them in a shoebox with a relief. Why did I want to make these silly, twee, kitschy things? I tried to rationalise and intellectualise it. They were translations of my appreciation of Oldenburg! They were a comment on the impulse for consumerism as a form of comfort during crisis! They’re proof that cultural icons are a form of iconic language! But they were ultimately useless models. I had a lot of work I could be doing or getting involved with. I’ve followed a collective of translators, some of whom I know and greatly admire, going into overdrive to translate a collectively written novel about lockdown by Portuguese-language authors. The anti-sexual harassment organisation I used to act as a voluntary press spokesperson for and for which I would give regular anti-harassments trainings have been commissioning various practitioners to give online workshops in self-defence and drug safety and meditation. Bands have been making and performing music online, and apart from coming up with a couple of riffs on a bass one afternoon in the kitchen, that’s all the music making I’ve done. I’ve witnessed and heard first-hand, while in my pathetic slump, how my husband has spent day in and day out in the living room with the curtains closed on Zoom organising online activities and events for the learning disability arts charity he works for based near us in South London. As part of his work he’s been facilitating band rehearsals and recording songs with the band Electric Fire. Because a couple of the members are in the most vulnerable group, they won’t be able to meet as a band most likely for the rest of the year, maybe longer. While my brief wobble and pause from the computer will probably pass within weeks or months, Zoom practice is their new norm, and they’re thriving in it. At one point the question was raised as to whether the band would like to write songs about lockdown, and this idea was unequivocally turned down. They write joyful songs that make you want to dance, and every week they’ve been writing and recording songs for a new record, each catchier and more positive than the last. In such a serious and life-threatening time, they are producing joy. My husband remarked during dinner last night that it has always amazed people that the pop-punk band The Undertones could have lived during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and yet made such amazingly joyful music. Sometimes, he said, creating joy is a most powerful thing. My fling as a salt dough sculptor may continue or it may pass, but I’m happy that when I posted a picture of them online and sent it to friends it made some people happy and reminiscent of their childhoods, and it has brought me joy in a few ways. Making them gave me a sense of calm and achievement, and proved to me that I still have that intrinsic wish to communicate via creative expression. They’ve even become tools of communication themselves. After a lifetime of disconnect between my dad and I due to our clash of interests and professions, we’ve finally found a meeting ground: we’re going to have a salt dough making session over Skype soon. I’ll be making an English breakfast; he’s going to make replica mechanic tools. Maybe these childish props have been useful after all.

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Imagen de portada: Claes Oldenburg y Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry, 1985-1988, en el Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Fotografía cortesía de Meet Minneapolis. © Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen