roller coaster

The toddler’s laugh echoes around the walls of the gallery. He and his mother are the first visitors to my first ever exhibition, the first in-person culture most people will have seen since the start of lockdown in March. From the sound of things, his favourite installation is the button in the bird-box which plays a blackbird’s song when pushed. That one’s been here long before my exhibition opened, and will be here long after it closes. Maybe I needn’t have bothered trying, maybe I needn’t have bothered setting up this whole thing. But then I hear his stamps of excitement, his discovery of echoes from the hard wood floor. Who am I to dictate what he should be looking at? How selfish of me to demand a monopoly on his appreciation? For him, this will be the place he discovered echoes, oblivious to the art on the walls. That’s cool too.

After they leave, there’s only the barman shifting kegs in the alley and the seagulls on the next-door pub’s roof. People pass by, look down the alleyway and do not enter. I may never get another visitor. Then they start coming: a four, a two, a three. Within the first hour, there’s thirteen through the doors. I hope that’s not an omen.

“Is this the whole thing?” a child asks.

Another, a grown-up this time, asks: “Can I take a picture? I really love that poem.”

“Of course you can,” I say, suddenly glowing. “That’s mine.”

Then there’s a sudden rush: four groups want in at once. A queue forms. A queue, for my exhibition! Will there be a riot? Will the police need to get involved? No – this is July, people have time on their hands and are happy to wait. Besides, the sun is shining and the pub is next-door. When the queue has been and gone, I’ve had fifty through the doors. My hopes are raised by those who make it halfway down the alley before turning back. One man steers a pram down the cracked cement path towards me – my heart lifts, surely he must be coming in – then disappears into the pub, child and all. Damnit! Here, I realise I’m judging my success on the wrong thing: prioritising quantity over quality. Each person who enters through the doors keeps the fear of failure at bay for another five minutes, and if you can do that enough, it starts to feels like a success. Yet those who come out saying: “I was really blown away by it” or “that’s really cheered me up!” – those are the people I should be counting.

It’s nice really, that art can do that – that something created out of nothing in my mind can elicit a response from a real-life human. Touching just one person with my work makes all the angst, all the questioning and all the hours spent riding this roller coaster feel worth it. I’ll be sitting outside the exhibition for a few more days, enjoying the thrill of the ride.

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