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this exhibition doesn't exist

It is nearly evening by the time we reach the end of the trail. The sun is setting, hanging low in the sky, a fat ripe fruit, bulbous and sizzling on the horizon. I can see down across the paddy fields and the shallow lakes, they shimmer purple under this orange light. We came through the mountains, trekking on donkeys until the path got too steep for their hooves. We continued on foot for the last 15 miles.

It feels factually weird, that Shangri-La was summoned into being by a white guy called James in the 1930s. I remember reading Lost Horizon and thinking: this feels like a wrinkle in time and fact, Mandela effect, a shared delusion. It just couldn’t be real. So maybe it actually isn’t? Maybe this is all taking place in another timeline, parallel to our own. Here, Shangri-La is an actual place, tucked away from the rest of the world, deep in the Himalayas. It doesn’t belong to any one writer, and it has never appeared in fiction. No one knows where or what it is, some suspect it is a feeling. But you take my hand. We have spent the past week sleeping under the stars; we are going there together, with a little backpack and a penknife.

Before, I wrote:

 ‘i dream in Bengali.
slow cloudy scenes
my limbs are sticky from the mist
and when i wake up i almost forget, always **\***’

This place came to me in one of those dreams. As I slept, a mountain halfway across the world sang to me. There was a dirt road, a delta, a burning sun. The air was thick with dust and humidity, the heat never rose up above the clouds, it only settled in at night. I woke up still sticky from the mist and dew, moving slow and heavy, feeling like I was still in that dream. I think it was a kind of psychic vision, maybe the residue of images seen in a film, on a laptop screen late at night. One or the other, not quite reality but ever so close. Pressing in to a feeling that’s like when you close your eyes and think about how microscopically small you are in comparison to the sun, or Jupiter, and reality just feels like it is water, sloughing off the skin on your back, shoulder blades protruding as you tense into the discomfort of smallness.

The mountains border the top of the country. They are a backbone, not a crown. So first we travelled north by train. The land was flat and wide, stretching on for hours at a time as far as the eye could see. Through mustard fields, yellow flowers swayed around us on either side. I thought it would never end. Then the train moved through mountain passes, dark tunnels burrowing through the land mass, smaller but building up. With the open topped carriages, the steam engine screaming out clouds of heavy smoke and ash, it felt like a rollercoaster or a nightmare. I remember; I stood up on top of a hay bale, I raised both hands in the air. My stomach was bare and golden tan, catching the wind as it whipped past me. You held me up from behind, and together we cut through the tunnel, mouths open in a scream.

Then I think I saw a vast lake, lined with trees - wet, dark water, Alpine (what a beautiful word, the shape of it is like a rolling teardrop, picking up speed as it tumbles). We made our way across the lake on a boat with a small engine and a tin roof. We sat up top with our bags, but when the trees peeled away, I went below deck. I looked down at the water we were cutting through, dipped my hand into the foam as we sped past. It was early morning then, and there was a low mist from the fog and spray. The sky was purple and the sun was still beneath the trees. My hand was in the water up to my wrist, fingers splayed open and catching debris. A snake rolled past my hand, grey and fat. It came to feel my open palm, lagging behind us on the waves as they rolled by. I tried to reach out and grasp it; my hand ran down the length of its smooth back, and then it dissolved into smoke before my eyes. I looked up and saw the mountains, hazy and blue in the morning light. I still don’t know if this was a dream or a past life, but I remember lights and fire and almighty noise. My fingers now run through silty sand, and our boat runs up aground on the banks.

When we arrived at the base of the mountains, the cable cars were still burnt out from the war. After 50 years, no one had thought to replace them. The sun was now white hot, tilting up against the mountains, casting harsh shadows on paths cut by monks. It must have been centuries ago when they were chiselled out, and we run our hands along the sharp chunks as we ride up. It took us an entire day to make our way across, from end to end. But when we reached the end of the trail, the mouth of the cave looked like a bad and dark idea. We came this far, but now we feel a hesitance, or a kind of heavy regret. I take your hand, yet again, and we march towards the mouth of the cave together.

Here is where it splits, because I am indecisive about what should come next. Gab suggested I write a review of a fictional exhibition, one that doesn’t actually exist. And the idea grabbed me, because in writing about something that doesn’t exist, I thought I could burrow through and write about something that should. I thought I could write about wishes, desire, longing. Something hoped for and perfect in its completeness, something that would make me sigh when it materialised at my fingertips. As I have written this far, I realise that there is no one singular perfect. There is no exhibition I would wish into existence, no exhibition I long for desperately and madly. My desire doesn’t take any particular stable shape. What I can do, is offer you some options.

All I know is this. As we enter the cave, our eyes adjust to the darkness. There are some steps heading down, carved out of the stone. They look precarious, but we dump our backpacks and make our way down. Here, at the bottom of this cave, there’s a large and spacious room in almost perfect darkness.

1: Maybe there are little portraits. You know those tiny little miniatures, where the figures are rendered with this flatness that feels like dimensions have been compressed, folded up like an accordion, back up into the image itself. I don’t know why, but I love them. I love Mughal miniatures, I love the Sienese school, Byzantine churches, the Medieval and the delirious. I sometimes think that linear perspective is the worst thing to have ever been invented, because in that compressed dimension, images become surreal and dreamy. They open up into another space, one that I don’t quite have the words to describe because it feels implicit or metaphorical. Something is conjured up into being; a tableau, where bodies are rigid and tense, but every gesture and flourish is laid out, open to you only like a biscuit selection box. Yeah, them. Maybe they’re there. Hung up on the walls all traditional, or on a carousel like in a tacky gift shop. Maybe there are little assistants that walk past us holding them, like they’re ring girls at a boxing match. I don’t know, but I hope they walk slow so we can drink in the awkward jutting angles of each delicious image.

2: As we shuffle about in the darkness, a voice echoes from the other side of the room. We grasp at each others’ hands, and make our way over to it, stumbling. It takes us a while, as we move slow into unknown space, careful and exact. We feel for the wall, and when our outstretched hand makes contact with the stony face of it, a voice echoes out from the far side, back from where we came. Now another voice, from our left; they are singing in harmony. We move back towards the middle and four voices sound out from all four corners of the room, singing a chord. A spotlight flashes onto us. I take your hands firmly in mine this time, place one on my waist and let you lead. We are doing the tango. Our sharp movements cut through the still air in the cave room, and our feet clack clack clack against the stone floor. The spotlight follows us across this strange dance floor, and when the song has ended, we take a bow, to rapturous applause.

3: A balloon artist makes us little squeaky balloon dogs, and we take them for a walk around the scenic neighbourhood, carefully constructed out of ceramic tchotchkes. We feel safe and secure in our ceramic suburb, knowing that a Tory government has never, and will never, exist in this reality.

4: The only light comes from a flickering projector. We can hear it whirring in the corner, but we walk towards the stuttering light. It’s so bright it burns our eyes, and I feel tears forming at the edge of my vision. As we get closer, we see the image of two figures. They move through fields lakes and mountains, on trains and boats, donkeys and on foot. They look tired, but determined. Their journey plays out in a kind of slo-mo, but it’s not emotional or rousing. This isn’t a montage, we are just watching the past play out from behind a veil. As the figures approach the mouth of a cave, a feeling of dread creeps over us. We do not know what will happen when they reach the bottom of the stairs, we do not know what they will find. The thought of whatever it is, or could be, feels unstable and unknown. The figures join hands, and make their way into the cave. It is now pitch black on the screen and in the room.

Like I said, I can’t decide. I think there are more, unwritten. Maybe I want a literal drive through in a gallery. Maybe I want the Martin Creed balloon room, but all the balloons are actually fairy liquid bubbles. We run around bursting them, laughing till we’re wheezing and red in the face, sweaty sticky hair strands at the nape of our necks, like we’re little kids in a soft play centre. Maybe I want just a massive totem pole, and one of the faces is humming, so we spend all day staring at it trying to figure out what it means, ~conceptually~. Maybe it’s just a nightclub, the ones where they’ve got a foam machine, we sip blue drinks out of a fishbowl and dance to Heartbroken by T2. Maybe there are just loads of watercolours of the same landscape through the seasons, and the artist is sat at a desk ready to answer questions about each one. Maybe it’s just a garden centre tbh, or the rainforest cafe, or Homebase (i fucking LOVE Homebase).

Every time I’ve tried to hone in on one final answer, I start to panic. I would rather think about the journey there than think about the destination. The destination feels murky, but I know that the journey should be arduous and mythic, making up at least half of the experience. I want it to feel distant, detached from the high-speed gratification of global life under capitalism. Like a gateway, we pass through onto the other side of something liminal; off-grid, special, like it’s only for us because we’ve taken the time to come and seek it out. Maybe then, if it was far enough away for it to feel unhinged from our daily life, the weirdness of art would feel justified, and there wouldn’t be any friction. But a fictional exhibition that SHOULD exist at the end of that journey? - god god god almighty. I am trying to write about the shape of my desire, but it is just liquid that gushes out into any and every container that will hold it. It is a river, rushing, coursing a path through land, towards the sea.

a rocky mountainous place with a light blue river running down the centre, and over the image zarina has written the words ‘this exhibition doesn’t exist’ in red