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Overnight At The Museum


A friend of mine went to one of these Overnight At The Museum things and said it was bonkers good. They turn the stuffy galleries into dormitories. Kingsize mattresses, Egyptian cotton sheets, continental breakfast in the morning. It’s all very luxurious. But my friend, he curled up in front of a Fra Angelico and dreamed that a kaleidoscope of angels with feathery wings and pink pillowy faces were serenading him with the entire discography of Hildegard of Bingen. Imagine that! Heavenly chorus from the Sibyl of the Rhine, right up close and personal in the private box of your subconscious! In the morning, he really believed the angels in the painting had come alive and stepped across the border from painting to dream.

It’s interesting. Dreams have a long history as a potent stimulus for artists. There’s the Romantics, idealising nature with their dreamy visions of Arcadia. The Symbolists, using the magical horror of dreams as a way of destroying the Romantic. The Surrealists and their weird images, Freud’s theories about the subconscious. Hieronymous Bosch’s grotesque visions, Goya’s the Sleep of Reasons, Fuseli’s the Nightmare, anything Marc Chagall ever painted. I could go on because the examples are totally endless. Yeah, the boundary between image and dream is so much more porous than we think.

I’m an art history student. I’m used to spending my days in the library and lectures, I love it so much but I got the feeling I was only ever touching the surface. I guess studying art in theory has its limits. I wanted to experience the paintings I love in a more immediate way. That’s what led me to the National Gallery dormitory. The paintings weren’t guaranteed to come alive and walk into your dreams, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I knew a guy who knew a guy who could get me these experimental sleep stickers. You just stick them on a pulse point, five minutes and you’re out cold — first and second eyes shut tight and dreaming, third eye open, just hoovering up all the art-energetic stimulus.

Not to sound woo-woo or anything. But it’s literally future science. Art is a way of unlocking our psychic potential because images are a kind of magic, deep mystery. What do images mean, what’s their function, their purpose? Answer that and you’ve cracked it. Making images is the one thing literally all human cultures have in common, across the world and from the beginning of human time. There are ancient Paleolithic drawings from when people spat pigment across cave walls, traced the outline of their hands and carved animal lines into hillsides. The language of images was the first written language —cuneiform pictograms, images and symbols for mountain, river, sheep. Even the Roman alphabet has its origins in pictorial writing systems. An A is the upside down symbol for an ox’s head, an M is a bastardised symbol for moving water, an O is a tablet or a stone, W is a man with his hands in the air. You don’t have to take my word for it, ask the Ancient Phoenicians. Where there are humans, there are images, where there are images there is art. So why do we make it? There’s something inherently bizarre about it all, you’ve gotta admit. Is it just about depiction, representing a thing that exists in the world as a likeness? Copycat see, copycat do? Or do images hold a more substantial and unspeakable power? Are they actually a doorway to the irrational mind?

God knows. Marc Chagall probably knows. Maybe the Phoenicians know. I certainly don’t know, but I was going to find out.

I had the four poster bed, fluffy robe, hotel slippers and sleepy time pillow spray. Sleep stickers all up my arm, third eye wide open like that scene in Clockwork Orange. I even tucked a Tiger’s Eye crystal under my pillow. Nah, I wasn’t taking any chances. Dreams, images and art are pinned together by an air of unspeakable mystery. Three points on a triangle, all connected. I reckoned I could get to the heart of it if I went into it through a dream.

I’d emailed the curators ahead of time to request this room specifically — National Gallery, Level 1, Room 14. That’s where they keep the Italian primitives. The painters of the Sienese School are characterised by a wicked mystical streak. Lots of focus on miraculous events, rich colours, a disregard for proportions and distorted perspective. The paintings take on the look and feel of dreams – the architecture is rendered in a way that defies physics, the bodies appear to us as unreal. They reckon the Sienese school was an influence on De Chirico — you can trace his surreal, empty boulevards and abandoned arches all the way back to the 13th Century, to Siena and its smooth architectural planes, those flat pink Medieval walls.

My bed was right next to a panel from Duccio’s Maestà, an altarpiece made in Siena in the 1300s. This panel was from the back — it was barely the size of an A3 sheet. All Medieval with its goldleaf sky. It’s a painting of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes three of his closest followers to the top of a mountain and transfigures into his divine state. Son of God, revealing his true essential sacred self before a chosen audience. Those were the right vibes. I was manifesting a revelation. They sent the turndown service and I slipped into bed, the standard issue National Gallery eye mask over my first and second eyes, waiting for my third eye to awaken.

A wood panelled room. High ceilings. The walls were slanted away like fish eye lens distortion. It was also my flat. No wait. It was my bedroom. The contents of my actual real life bedroom were scattered across Room 14 in the National actual Gallery along with all the paintings. That was my bedside table, my clothes rail, my lamp and bookshelf and duvet cover, my ring bowl full of mini claw clips next to Giovanni de Paolo’s Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert.

I heard whispering. It was coming from the walls. No. Lower. The vents. I brushed aside my curtains and knelt on the parquet floor. No, it was coming from above. From the glass ceiling. Sacred heavenly light was streaming in from above me in bright white chunks. Something twitched at the edge of my peripheral vision.

I blinked and my eyelids squeaked like a dog toy. Squeak. I stared at the wall. The wall stared back. I blinked twice. Squeak squeak. The Archangel Saint Michael emerged. An apparition pulling himself through the red fabric wall, wearing precious pointy red slippers. He was clutching the head of a serpent – the devil, the DEVIL! Its snake-wide jaw lolling open to expose pink moist lining, pillowy and blushing bright red deeper into the cavernous expanse of its velvet mouth –


The Archangel Saint Michael was calling for backup. The serpent’s mouth was stretched open because it was yelling and we were so close we might have kissed. Jesus Christ leapt from a frame on the wall, his heart poured forth a redemptive fountain through the wound in his side. He held a microphone in his outstretched hand and staggered towards me.


Blood was pooling across the floor. From the holes in his hands. From the wound at his side – Jesus Christ. From the crown of thorns pushed into his hair, blood was pouring down his face. He looked like Franko B after a bloodletting performance. I looked down at my hands. They were wet and covered in blood too. I tried to wipe them clean, but the blood wouldn’t stick to my matching silk pyjama set.

A mob of them surrounded me — religious painting people. Jesus Christ the adult man carrying Jesus Christ the baby, the Virgin Mary Holy Mother of God, John the Baptist as a baby and as a floating head on a plate and as a man wearing the camel hair shirt of a penitent, Saint James (the Great and the Less), Saint Jerome with lion, the daughter of Gallienus, left and right hand angel. All of them carrying placards, yelling, protesting. I wanted the heavenly choir of pillow faced angels. I wanted Hildegard of Bingen. Instead, I was being picketed by a bellowing group of Medieval Saints.





Jesus Christ, the roving reporter, had moved on. He was interviewing his earthly father, Joseph of Nazareth — Saint Joseph, if we are being proper.

‘Well, far be it from me to make proclamations of any kind, I am but a lowly carpenter. But I’ve done my fair share of making. And, in my humble opinion I do think that art is… Well. I think it’s great, y’know. It’s fantastic to get your teeth into it all when you’ve got the time. And hey! The kids love it! Every weekend, me and Mary – that is Holy Mary, Mother of God –’

A gold cloaked attendant presented me with a platter. Pulling the silver cloche off with a flourish, he bowed, revealing the disembodied head of Saint John the Baptist. John cleared his throat.

‘Ahem ahem, amen. If you ask me, and not that you have, but it was a bit more cut and dry back in ye olde Middle Ages. Painters painted beautiful paintings for the glory of God. The paintings went in the local church because the church was the one commissioning the painters to paint the beautiful paintings for the glory of God – you catch my drift? None of these existential questions about Art’s actual fundamental purpose ever really came into it back when images were primarily devotional. Maybe they had it right! Maybe images are actually containers of sacred power, and artists are vessels through which that divine celestial power can find a conduit to us here on earth.’

‘Are you out of your mind?’

John the Baptist was being heckled by a group of Piero della Francesca’s lute players.

‘Art is nothing more than a SHIBBOLETH. An idol or a false god that the middle classes TOTE around to distinguish themselves as people of REFINEMENT, of GOOD TASTE. Yes, because TASTE is a tool of SOCIAL EXCLUSION —’

‘– Art is a PRODUCT. It has NO HIGHER FUNCTION beyond that of an ASSET CLASS. Much like other commodities it is bought and traded on an unregulated, specialised market as a financial asset–’


With my bloody hands on my cheeks, I pulled my face down into an elongated scream. No sound came out. The left and right hand angels saw my anguish from up in their clouds. Thank god. They descended and settled on my shoulders, chattering loudly and directly into each ear.

‘Cherubim and seraphim, pleasure to make your acquaintance.’

‘Have you ever considered–’

‘Actually art provides wildly different functions for different people–’

‘If we’re talking about purpose, it’s all really very subjective–’

‘Pleasure, recreation, escape, intellectual stimulation–’

‘Not to mention that art is vital to public political discourse–

‘We don’t want to complicate matters by descending into a relativist argument–’

‘Oh, goodness no!’

‘But it really does depend on the context.’

They were so close I could feel their miniature mouths breathing into my ear. The surround sound was doing my absolute nut in. I flapped the bickering angels away and they bristled like angry sparrows. I tried to make my way out of the crowd of painted figures but it was endless. They surrounded me from all sides, saints, martyrs, and apostles. All clamouring for my attention.

‘I think it’s nice! A signal that human society has advanced to a position where something as fundamentally useless as art feels like a valid use of resources. We don’t just have to hunt and gather anymore, so we can afford to dedicate time to frivolous or desirous pursuits that have no productive value –’


‘If life is worth living, then it is art that makes the living worthwhile. VISSI D’ARTE, VISSI D’AMORE – in the words of Puccini’s tragic heroine, the beautiful Tosca–’

Jesus Christ as roving reporter reappeared with his microphone and, this time, a camera crew. Lights, boom mic operator, the works.

‘Miss Art Historian, please. Is it true that art is a conceptual vehicle through which we humble citizens can agitate for political change?’

I shielded my eyes. JC, arts correspondent, wasn’t finished doorstepping me.

‘Can art answer the abstract questions at the heart of society’s deep seeded discontent?’

I was experiencing a kind of sweaty confusion under the bright newscamera lights. Why was he asking me, I didn’t know! I didn’t even understand the question!

‘If the art object represents a gesture towards coherence outside the boundaries of formal language, what can we infer about the nature of art as an unstable political form? If it rejects comprehension through common means, what does this tell us about disaffection and rationality, sense and non-sense, becoming and unbecoming–’

I held up my hands in surrender. Please, no photos! I’m honestly just a normal down to earth person, I’m just trying to live my life. I don’t have the answers, I actually came here with questions myself! JC roving reporter got a message from above through his earpiece. He made a hand signal to the camera guy.

‘That’s all from us, back to you in the studio.’

The room plunged into darkness as a single spotlight thunked down, searching for its object of attention. Roving through the crowd it landed on – the Archangel Saint Michael. He rose up through the crowd on his enormous feathered wings. An instrumental track started, courtesy of the lute players. Saint James the Great and Saint James the Less behind him took up backing vocals, humming softly and cooing like pigeons. Their golden halos cast a warm glow under the spotlight’s heavenly glare. An old timey electrostatic microphone lowered from above, and Saint Michael began to sing.

‘A dream or a nightmare, my darling – whatever this is, it’s undecided because actually-what’s-going-on-right-now is VERY VERY AMBIGUOUS.’

He had a voice like an angel.

‘ARTIST is an anagram of RAT SHIT, if you add a simple H which you will certainly not begrudge me.’

Archangel Saint Michael was shimmying. The syncopated beat dropped and a disco ball scattered dazzling light through the darkness.

‘And we all know that RAT SHIT is POISON!’

Poison! Poison! Poison! The crowd chanted, clapping their hands. My body wasn’t there. I couldn’t feel the air across my skin.


Archangel Saint Michael was yowling, dancing like Mick Jagger with his hands on his groovy little hips.


The crowd were singing along to this bit as well, whooping with glee. They all seemed to know the words. The apostles had their phone flashlights on, swaying to the beat with both hands in the air.

‘What if art is just a waste of time? Make some money before you die! Beauty, ahh – yeah, that’s nice! But make some money before you die.’

I must’ve stopped dreaming. I must’ve died. This must be the afterlife. Like, this was a purgatorial message before I left for the Great Beyond. This was God’s great big loading screen before Heaven booted up.

The heaving mass of painted saints, angels, and apostles all jostled around me, rocking back and forth. I was lost in the sublimity of the crowd, the thunking beat, heavenly host and army of stars. Holy Michael the Archangel, warrior saint, herald of the noble angels. He drew his flaming sword from its sheath and held it up to burn in the spotlight. Grasping the writhing snake, he pinned it under his precious pointed slipper. The devil, the DEVIL! Its snake-wide eyes blinked fast and sideways, swivelling in the socket.

‘No, no please. I know the answer! I know, I know what art is for. Spare me and I will ssssssay.’

Archangel Michael paused, lowering the flaming sword as the crowd held its collective breath.

‘Yessssssssssssssss. You see. Art is just telling sssssssssssssssstories. That’s all it isssssssssss. S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-stories———‘

‘Oh! For fuck’s sake.’

Archangel Saint Michael rolled his eyes and pressed back down on the serpent’s throat.

‘What a ridiculous simplification of a highly complex conceptual system.’

The serpent was choking, but Saint Michael was spitting with disdain.

‘Art is a symbolic product that operates across a double hermeneutical, where the forms and conventions of its very production are contested—-‘


The saints and angels and apostles were back to the state of bellowing mob. Archangel Saint Michael smirked, raised his flaming sword once more. The serpent tried to wriggle away, but Saint Michael was too quick. In a flash of silver and orange, the snake’s head popped off like a champagne cork. It bounced out over the crowd, leaving a birthday confetti trail like it was a beautiful comet soaring across the night sky. The saints cheered. Saint John the Baptist was on his silver platter next to me.

‘I sympathise.’

He turned his disembodied head to face me.

‘What if people just make art because they fucking love it? When it comes to purpose, surely that’s more than enough. The joy of it all. What if we just love it, and that’s enough.’

I woke up panting, sweating so hard that all the sleep stickers had slid right off my arm. I looked over at the painting next to my bed: the Transfiguration! Jesus and his chosen disciples atop the mountain in a circle. In between them, in tiny little gold letters, two words had appeared: RAT SHIT. My continental breakfast was on a tray at the side.