The studio is ready. Standing in the middle of the pristine, empty floor, I am surrounded by the memories of everything we have done. Behind all the ‘Ali’ paintings are neat stacks of previous work I have made over the past ten years, around thirty large canvases, including the ones Ali and I spent so many days looking through when he got to know my work. The history of the project and our friendship surrounds me. Whole worlds and lives, each painting and object a little entrance. A space of fractals and layers.
I’ve spent a career being told my approach is too much. Too many images, too much movement between form, media, process, collaboration, stories and meaning. I’ve been told to reduce, simplify, explain and box up my work for commerce. But I wanted to embrace the polyphonic and to trust in my instinct, and here I have held nothing back. Everything is here. I feel like I have been working in a huge cauldron, mixing potions. Bleach, inks, expanding flammable foam, wood glue, varnishes, paint stripper, clays, concrete, acetone, oils. Conjuring ghosts, like my dad used to do.
The final addition to the exhibition is a little figure, about the size of a two-pence piece. It is sculpted around a tiny plastic figurine, shaped by clay and paint, then reshaped with a needle after being made malleable with a blowtorch. It is a minuscule version of Ali. I place it in the centre of the middle box in the triptych. It is smoke-covered and black and almost vanishes into the darkness. It nods towards Friedrichs’s Wanderer, but also to the flag-waving figure on the raft. This figure is Ali looking out to his world. I want it to simulate the place he will be standing when he comes to the studio. It won’t be seen straight away, but once noticed it will shift the room on its axis. The gravity and spatial order will be upended. Everything will spin out from that figure. He is my pivot, my lost hope. The explorer between worlds.
I’m finished, but I have a nervous desire to fiddle. My various trips to the hospital have resulted in a diagnosis of OCD, and it manifests itself in offering me endless possibilities I cannot ignore. I am destructively compelled to experiment, and I can’t switch off. A swarm of wasps gathers in my head. A patch of the work catches my eye. Could it be dropped back, a bit more darkened and burnt? I will rough it up and singe it a little more. The boxes are bolted to the wall. I probably shouldn’t burn the surface inside. But what’s the harm? I feel an itch behind my eyelid, an obsessive, twitching fidget. I am caught in a manic pattern. Eyes blinking, heat gathering in my head. Rational thought is now buried. I should wait till I can move the boxes. I can’t wait. It will only take a moment. A moment is all it takes.
I switch on the blowtorch and pass it over the surface. I see the satisfying bubbling of the foam and feel the calmness of making. The swarm of wasps drift out of my head. I let the foam bubble more, from white to toffee. I watch the edges crisp and shift to black. I up the contrast to heighten the drama. Just a second more. Then it catches and a small flame flickers into life. I’m calm. I blow, pat, blow again harder. The flame spreads further, the shift is sudden. It gathers to the size of a clenched fist. Suddenly it hungrily gulps at air through the holes to the space behind. Panic sets in. I reach for a tin of water, chuck it on. The flames dampen and shrink, but only briefly. They regather, climb upwards, let out a heavy breath and then crackle. They spread fast, spitting. In pure relief, I remember the fire extinguisher. I clumsily pull the tag out and point, squeeze. Nothing comes out. I shake it and squeeze again. Still nothing. Flames are sprawling now. I race up the garden, grab the hose and turn it on. I sprint back down, knowing it won’t reach. I feel utter desperation, hoping for a miracle. I’m spiralling. I pull at the hose, desperate, and feel it break off. I dive back into the studio.
The central panel is now in on fire. I try to get it off the wall and feel the flames against me. It doesn’t move an inch. The fire is now spreading outwards across the back wall, an expanse of flames gathering around the triptych. Smoke fills my lungs and I am engulfed by panic, my eyes full of fire. As I turn, the studio is opaque with thick, black smoke. I can only just make it out of the door.
I run to the other end of the garden, back into the house and call the fire brigade. Kiran is abroad, and I try but fail to stay calm. In pure panic I race upstairs to search for Luna, our cat. She’s safely in the bedroom and I slam the door shut. I can hear the fire from here, crackling. I run downstairs. The double doors to the studio are a bright-orange rectangle, the studio is a ball of fire. Waves of billowing smoke roll out and upwards. The roar of the fire is punctuated by the occasional explosion of canisters of paint and medium.
I start screaming to the neighbours. One smashes down the side gate and others are gathering. I am breathless, crying. The evening sky is filled with the black smoke, shifting in the wind, spiralling upwards. I am consumed by pure and utter terror, and the heat can be felt ten metres away. My entire body is dripping with sweat, shaking. My eyes are full of the fire.
I hear the sound of sirens. There is a noisy rush of feet and a cluster of firefighters burst through the garden fence, dragging four hoses behind them. The inside of the studio is an incubator, flames pouring out of the doorway. It is a tinderbox of flammable materials.
Everything inside has gone.
In the days of waiting, I spend a lot of time in the studio. The extent of the loss has started to hit me. Paintings record histories and contain lives; everything leaves its mark and then exists – or half exists. Paintings never forget, they contain memories of the marks made and the damage done to them. The act of painting is an exploration of grief, an expression of sorrow, an articulation of death. It is as much about what’s not there as what is. The hollowed-out frames in the studio painfully speak of this truth. Does the studio remember all the things that have been lost? Are their histories still alive in the remnants of these paintings?