New York I love you, but you’re making me cringe

Luke Hortle | Posted on January 18, 2013

A while ago, I met a photographer from The New Yorker at the museum. I can’t remember his name because I was too busy swooning (he was European and painfully handsome in that rugged and forlorn manner that Europeans often are) and feeling inadequate, because we didn’t have a book with kangaroos in it. But this sensation of inadequacy (and it was a sensation, a bodily one; I could feel it drenching my limbs) leached beyond this one apparently minute interaction. Horror of horrors, I felt grateful to have met this man. Not because of his aquiline features, but because of all that other cultural currency that he’d brought with him, from Europe, from New York, and now he was talking to me, in Hobart, on this island, and I felt inferior, somehow ashamed, immodestly thrilled. Enter the cultural cringe.

At MONA FOMA last year, I went to see PJ Harvey. In a break between songs, clouded in the beer-breath and radiant bodily steam of PW1, Eleanor whispered to me that seeing PJ perform was ‘like a religious experience.’ I thought she was being overly dramatic and told her to finish her beer. This moment has been nagging me ever since, the implication being that we were somehow not quite worthy to be in the presence of this woman wreathed in feathered black. That we ought to have been grateful. This really pissed me off, because I wanted to be in thrall to PJ Harvey (did you know that ‘thrall’ comes from an Old English word for ‘slave’?) and not think about the experience in terms where I came off with an inferiority complex. Later that night at Faux Mo, I kept hearing people say things like ‘Are we still in Hobart?’ And I was guilty of thinking similar things. I couldn’t comfortably integrate where I was with what I was thinking. (What I can remember from Faux Mo: You’re in. Bass thumps skywards, leaching out of the winding alleyway; who even knew it was there? Bulging lights bloom in the brickwork. You manage to jump the line. Paris Wells is there. The really hot guy from BalletLab is there, sans feathers and twigs. You think that BalletLab was great, but so fucking weird. You should definitely be drinking gin. Bordello-red flickers against crumpled aluminium curtains. People are dancing like it’s windy.) The city, the island, kept intruding in my fantasies, fantasies which constantly gestured away from where I was, geographically, culturally, far-flung connections sketched with alcohol-induced similes.

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012
PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MOFO/Rémi Chauvin

I can’t seem to escape the fact that geography matters. It’s dished up to me on a daily basis. Customer after customer will find a way to tell me, as they purchase their catalogue, postcards, cunt soap, whatever, that ‘this [museum, art, estate, the whole deal] is agreat thing for Tasmania.’

A brief interlude from that guy in the bookshop

‘Do the postcards come with envelopes?’
No. Of course they don’t; they’re fucking postcards. From Wiki: ‘A postcard or post card is a rectangular piece of thick paper or thin cardboard intended for writing and mailing without an envelope.’
‘Do you have a book on the architecture?’
No. We really don’t. I promise. And (shockingly, eye-poppingly shockingly, I know) you are not the first person to ask for one. And even if you do tell me for the next half an hour how great such a book would be, and how you can’t believe that there isn’t one for you to take home in your eager paws, I still won’t be able to provide one for you. So fuck off already.
‘Do you still sell the angina soaps?’
No words.

Invariably, their assessment of the museum becomes inextricable from its geographical locale. And inherent within these assessments of the museum is a commensurate assessment of Hobart and Tasmania more broadly; that we’re lucky to have the museum where it is, because of the entrenched view that the state is culturally inferior, a backwater, next stop Antarctica. And now I’ve just gone and written that and perpetuated the stereotype in print. Oh great. Maybe this doesn’t matter though, and maybe I’m just projecting my own (recently discovered) cultural cringe onto these social interactions. It (projecting potentially/completely incorrect assumptions onto a situation/conversation/relationship) does sound like something I would do.

I can’t seem to write about this cringe response without falling into the trap that the very construct tries to describe: ie. I end up cringing, through my attempts to elucidate what was happening when I met that photographer. (Clarification, obfuscation; potato, po-TAR-to.) My point: I live on an island, and sometimes this fact, and its corresponding sense of islandness, of being so bounded by a place, by a body, is suffocating.1 Maybe this is my postcolonial penance. It’s undoubtedly constitutive too, which makes me uncomfortable (which is weird, because I’m an identity politics enthusiast). I’ve been told I can be quite neurotic (‘amazingly’ might’ve been the word used, actually) and maybe this is why I like reading The New Yorker. But I suspect it’s also a reaction to where I am, geographically and culturally; as I hand over my cash, I know I’m buying into a particular type of identity, a particular type of self-image. It’s a performance, one in which I’m friends with Lena Dunham and live in a loft with Paul Auster and/or Oliver Jeffers and/or Michael Cunningham. Even as it’s a performance, it’s one performed from my particular moment in time and space, my ‘here’ and my ‘now.’ But I’m not completely shallow; I do enjoy reading the magazine. I just want people to see me reading it as well.

Luke once ran over a Blue-tongued Lizard with a lawn mower. It was awful, like a scene out of a Tarantino film. He still feels queasy/guilty about it. Luke works in the Mona Bookshop.

1 I recently read a couple of pieces from an edition of Island magazine, an essay by Adam Ouston and a short story by Ben Walter. They’re great, they really are. You should go read them, right now. What I do know is that they made me feel better about being a man living on an island.


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Tanya | January 18, 2013 at 05:37 pm

thanks for making me smile...." angina soap " love it ! I work in a gift shop and could start my own blog using the " questions and comments" made by the delightful customers.

Virginia (Ginni) Allen | January 18, 2013 at 06:14 pm

pfft to the man from New York, Mona is like an 8th Wonder of .............. he was probably cringing also ................ The Cringe Effect, now that would be a great exhibition!! Oh and definitely a book on Mona Architecture, hehehehehe not!!!

Joanne King | January 18, 2013 at 04:55 pm

so when will there be a book on the architecture ?? lol

Lucy | January 18, 2013 at 05:10 pm

Love this post. I agree that the unspoken message we get from all articles on MONA as the new Guggenheim Bilbao, as the new cultural capital, as the new... ergh... is that before MONA Hobart was a cultural desert. That said, on the 21st January, 2010, I remember looking down into the void from B1, and saying to my friends "I can't believe this is in Hobart".

Greg Hooper (@greghpr) | January 18, 2013 at 07:19 pm

I guess one of the points in having an empire, is to set up centre and periphery, so that everyone in the colonies thinks the site of meaning is 'elsewhere'. The colonials become grateful recipients of values that can only approximate their local needs, longing to become part of the centre through adoption, mannerism or emigration. Focusing on an external locus of meaning colonials can never truly belong and, lacking identification with their specific lived experience, are unlikely to break away from the centre and develop a grounded autonomy of their own

Leica Wagner | January 18, 2013 at 07:44 pm

Who's cringing now. Havn a smoke in the FOMA forecourt. Feeling terribly Tasmanian and after 3yrs of FOMA totally WORTHY!

David | January 18, 2013 at 11:43 pm

Don't know about Bilbao, but MONA definitely outshines Guggenheim New York, so maybe your man was jealous. And anyway, it doesn't have to be a competition. MONA just IS

J Kaitinis | January 19, 2013 at 08:11 am

I haven't cringed in a long time. Thanks MONA!

asruthieseesit | January 22, 2013 at 10:23 am

I am a native New Yorker who has been living in Tasmania since June. I'll say it again in case you misread me: I am a native New Yorker (real New York- not Queens) and I have been living in Tasmania since June. Luke Hortle's piece was hilarious, but his inclination to "cringe", and his Tassie shame is uncalled for. New York is like that group of kids who smoked behind the school at lunch time. New York is illusively cool, but once you get into the in-crowd, your perspective will change. I'll let you in on a little secret: "New Yorkers" are masters of disguise. The ones who make you feel inadequate are generally not the real New Yorkers. I won't name drop, because its tacky, but the famous people in my inner circle dress, talk and act like Average Joes. One in particular walks around in overalls and tan-colored jelly sandals. Real New Yorkers are not glamorous or intimidating, they are simply tired and long for simplicity. Hence, why I am living in Tasmania right now. Being hip is exhausting. I've actually noticed that Tasmanians (namely Hobartians) put a lot more effort into their clothing, hair and makeup than my New York counterparts. Shit, I look like a slob next to y'all. I will name drop just once, but only to make a point. I have been to Paul Auster's house but I had to take the subway there and step over tramp barf to get to a clean seat. Does that sound so glamorous? It is in a way. But the "real" New York is gritty, and difficult. You often have to tune out the crowds and noise to focus on where you're going. You think we all walk around like tourists smelling the goddamn roses? No. I am romantic about New York for two weeks when I return from Tassie and then I'm back to the starbucks slurping, adderol popping bitch I was before. Don't cringe. Be proud of who you are, Tasmania. If New York is the cool kid who smokes behind the school at lunch time, Tasmania is that bizarre, beautiful girl who is beautiful without trying. Just trust me on this one, cool people never look cool. Being an interesting person takes time and effort. No one who took 45 minutes to cuff their jeans perfectly ever had anything much to say.